Rediscovering the creative heart of Japanese education: Fostering intrinsic motivation through a love of language

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Nathaniel Edwards, Kanazawa Institute of Technology

Creative Approaches to New Challenges

At the beginning of the Meiji Period, a time of rapid societal transformation and modernization, the Minister of Education Mori Arinori, exhibiting a remarkable openness to new ideas, considered making English the new national language of Japan. He even went so far as to ask American scholars for advice in designing an exclusively English language national curriculum for Japan (Amano, 1990, p. 82). English did become the language of instruction in teacher training in a wide area of important fields.

Within a few decades, the number one world power at the time, Great Britain, would become Japan's closest ally, providing Japan with generous assistance in a wide range of business, technical and cultural fields. This included British technology, state of the art ships, training, and Royal Navy know-how used by Japan to defeat the Russian navy and astonish the world in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 (Deacon, 1985, p. 97). Clearly, openness to new ideas and the skillful use of English in international communication was instrumental to survival in a dangerous new global age of competing Great Powers.

Global Literacy: A Strategic Human Resource

More recently, Hart has cited the Prime Minister's Commission on Japan's Goals in the 21st Century: ". . . mastery of global literacy by the people of a country will determine whether that country's power in the international politics of the twenty-first century will wax or wane. . . " (Prime Minister's Commission, 2000, p. 2; cited in Hart, 2001, p. 97). The paramount importance of international communication skills and English in fields as diverse as diplomacy, scientific research and international trade is undisputed.

The need is greater than ever before and the reasons for it clear, yet what is the most effective, scientifically proven way to learn English and other foreign languages, to achieve true fluency? The pendulum of language learning has swung in recent years towards learner autonomy and student- centered teaching as the most effective means to address the language learning needs of the next generation, equipping them at the same time with the critical thinking skills necessary to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex world.

As Finch (2001) states, "It is no longer what is learnt that matters, but how . . . . The autonomous learner is no longer a matter of conjecture, but of necessity." This concept is the key not only to superior language learning, accessible to the all, but also to the mastery and expansion of all other subject areas of human knowledge.

Rediscovering the Creative Heart

The fondest childhood memories that many of our esteemed Japanese colleagues and friends possess are related to school. This seems very curious indeed for newcomers to Japan, given the familiar stereotypes of Japanese high schools in the Western media: teacher centered lessons, endless testing and drills, heavy emphasis on simple rote memory, antiquated grammar-translation methods used originally to teach Latin and Greek in medieval Europe, nineteenth century Prussian-style school uniforms in the twenty-first century, and so on. This is no vision of an ideal language learning paradise. We must go deeper to find the heart.

Many foreign language lecturers in Japanese universities begin their distinguished teaching career as ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) in the JET (Japan Exchange Teaching) program or in private language schools. They either hear of in great detail, or experience first-hand on a daily basis, the stressful student realities of competitive, exam-oriented Japanese high schools. Yet how many foreign university educators in Japan are even aware that the structure of the national curriculum and teaching methodologies employed in Japanese elementary schools is diametrically opposed to that found in the high school system?

Ask any of your Japanese colleagues to share some of their fondest childhood memories with you; these will without a doubt be dominated by memories of enjoyable, exciting and empowering elementary school activities and experiences. For those who may scoff at the idea that creative projects form the foundation of Japanese education, here is a treasured school memory from my own Japanese wife: Every year in her elementary school pupils were asked to create something by themselves, an original work of art or model of a new invention, to present and explain to the class at the beginning of the following school year, six years in a row.

Just imagine the long-term impact if creative summer homework assignments were to be continued year after year with increasing sophistication on into junior and senior high school with these project reports and presentations also given in English. Students would have twelve years of English presentation experience by the time they reached university and they would be able to concentrate far more on the meaning than the basic grammatical form of their English university presentations and reports.

With that possibility in mind, let us now rediscover and explore the true creative heart, the fundamental basis of Japanese education. It is a fountain of youth surrounded by active learning communities, student-centered lessons and learner autonomy.

Defining Education

This creative heart, the solid foundation at the core of Japanese education, appears to be an extremely well kept "secret". Most foreign educators are simply unaware of it, having never set foot here in an elementary school. Our esteemed Japanese colleagues do not seem to feel that it is even worth mentioning, tending to equate "real", serious learning and education exclusively with high school and university. Our Japanese colleagues are being far too modest.

According to one Japanese university professor, "In traditional school settings, teachers often convey information and students passively receive it. Students do not . . . express their feelings and opinions. They do not set their own goals . . ." (Kohyama, 2001). The "traditional setting" referred to, as is commonly the case, includes high schools, and universities, completely ignoring for whatever reasons the student-centered learning environments of most elementary schools, the true heart of Japanese education. The educational system was also, with rare exceptions, equated exclusively with high school and university curricula and teacher-centered teaching methodology, ignoring the elementary school system in a recent nationwide survey on computer assisted language learning (Edwards, 2002).

In the 258 pages of expert research on learner autonomy in Developing Autonomy: Proceedings of the JALT College and Universities (CUE) Conference 2001 at Tokai University, not a single reference is made to Japan's unique elementary school curriculum which is based on student-centered lessons and activities. Obviously the CUE conference proceedings dealt with autonomy in tertiary language education, and not, of course, other subject areas in elementary school. Yet it still seems odd that such a powerful, successful model for student-centered teaching, used in the formative first six years of education in Japan, was not commented on at all, and that the incredibly high potential of this fertile ground for foreign language learning escaped the detection of both foreign and Japanese conference presenters alike.

In his paper, Autonomy, Motivation and Achievement, Da Silva (2001) cites a list compiled by Deci and Ryan (2000; cited in Da Silva, 2001) of the positive impacts of autonomous learning. Every single point mentioned, each ideal for language learning environments, is a perfect description of the learning that takes place in the vast majority of Japanese elementary schools, especially in math and science classes but also other classes where students are encouraged as much as possible to generate and abide by their own rules and to manage themselves without teacher intervention (Lewis, 1995, p. 5). This list includes greater interest and enjoyment, more creativity and spontaneity, more cognitive flexibility, better conceptual learning, more trust, and higher self esteem. This teaching style in elementary schools has led to consistently high overall average scores on international math and science tests (Lewis, 1995, p. 13). Just imagine the impact and results of this learner-centered teaching methodology applied to language learning for the entire twelve years before students enter university in Japan.

Indeed, the importance of time should not be underestimated as another argument for introducing English as early as possible into the national curriculum, ideally in the first grade. It takes years of practice to achieve a high degree of spoken and written fluency in any language. The world-renowned expert on language testing J. D. Brown from the University of Hawaii, a key advisor to the makers of the TOEIC exam, made the following comment at a special presentation at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology in October, 2001: "Everyone is looking for a shortcut to a higher score on the TOEIC test. There isn't one. You need to learn a lot of English and that takes time." Why not give our students twelve years of practice before they reach university and begin preparation for the TOEIC and other English proficiency exams? Such English proficiency test scores are becoming more important every year in many Japanese companies.

World Class Learner Autonomy Made in Japan

Many of the most successful foreign language instructors at universities already employ teaching methods identical to those used for the six years of Japanese elementary school in other subjects. An excellent example of this is Prof. Anderson at the Fukuoka University of Education, who has cleverly structured group activities in which members are each assigned specific roles such as discussion leader, secretary, etc., in a small, cooperative study group (hangakushu) and at the level of class meeting/discussion (gakkyukai). These are working units that all Japanese students are familiar with from elementary school and to which they readily adapt in English lessons when given proper guidance (Anderson, 1993).

Traditional Japanese cooperative study groups were also employed with great success to create self-generating discussions on a wide variety of topics in a university course entitled "Watching Science News on the Internet". The development of critical thinking skills and independent learning were stated in the syllabus as key course objectives (Edwards & Depoe, 2000). Students cooperated closely, each carrying out an important individual role while the teacher stayed in the background as a guide and facilitator.

Understanding Japanese Learning Communities

Japanese elementary school teachers work hard to promote a community of learners that support one another's thoughts and feelings. Although the school year is much longer, Japanese elementary school students actually spend less time sitting in academic lessons than American students. Most of the extra time Japanese students spend in elementary school is devoted to free play (up to four times more free play in the first grade) and enjoyable group activities ranging from sports day and class plays, to camping and school trips (Lewis, 1995, p.193). Indeed, social goals appear to be even more important than academic goals, especially in the early years of schooling in Japan.

The ideals of cooperation and equality among students are given top priority, and the bonds that students form with classmates and with their school are, it may be argued, are far more stronger than those formed in the comparatively more competitive environment of American elementary schools. A strong sense of community is cultivated through learning activities (Stephens, 1991, p.153). This sense of belonging and community leads naturally into student-centered lessons and an impressive degree of learner autonomy, a willingness to make mistakes in a supportive environment, self-generating intrinsic motivation, and creativity especially in the subjects of math and science (Lewis, 1995, p.13). If these same methods were applied to intensive language learning in the very first years of schooling in Japan, creating a lifelong love of English and other languages, the results would most likely be equally impressive. Motivation is the key.

Student-Centered Lessons: Learning from Japan

At the elementary school level (in Japan), a "child centered, whole child approach to education is dominant" (Benjamin & James, 1998, p. 28). Yet how many foreign teachers in Japan are even aware of this basic fact? Authoritarian teaching methods are not used to keep students attentive and on task. This is achieved by the "delegation of management powers and responsibilities by teachers to mixed ability groups (han) of four to six students" (Simmons 1990, p. 62). Lewis notes the low profile of the teacher as manager in elementary school lessons in all subjects (Lewis, 1995, p. 67). She also observes that Japanese students take on a surprising amount of authority to help shape class rules and activities, emphasizing collaboration and contribution by all members versus early ability grouping and competition, including external rewards and punishments typical in the United States (Lewis, 1995, p. 7).

Intrinsic Motivation and a Love of Learning

Primary school teachers in all subjects in Japan are trained to make an effort to comprehend the true feelings of children and to encourage them to experience "a sense of joy and pride in learning" (Okano & Tsuchiya, 1999, p. 158). The government's Guidelines for Preschool Education also state as a primary objective the desire "to develop an interest in and appreciation of the words used in everyday life and to cultivate an attitude of pleasure in speaking and listening and a sense of the meaning of words" (Peak, 1991, p. 65). These guidelines refer to the Japanese language but could easily be applied successfully to English language education as well starting in the very first years of schooling, with dramatic results throughout the entire school system up to the tertiary level and beyond.

The distinguished educator Gunzo Kojima, in advocating kyoikuai ("love of education") stated as early as 1959: "It is love in educational activities which generates the driving force . . . and which gives vitality to guidance . . ." (Lewis, 1995, p. 146). What could be a more eloquent affirmation of the importance of fostering intrinsic, self-generating, autonomous learning? Certainly some may argue that this is an overly idealistic portrayal of Japanese elementary schooling. Yet there is no denying the huge potential long-term benefits of intensive, enjoyable, play-oriented language learning beginning in the very first year of elementary school.


Impressive amounts of creativity, free play, spontaneity, learner autonomy, a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them, and intrinsic motivation are already at the heart of the current Japanese educational system, forming the very foundation of the national curriculum in the first, most formative years of schooling. Recent moves towards introducing English lessons at earlier stages of schooling are certain to yield promising future results. The impressive, consistently high average results of the current elementary school student-centered teaching philosophy and methodology in subject areas such as math and science in Japan are undisputed and admired by countless foreign educators.

English and other foreign languages could easily be taught in the same student-centered way emphasizing creativity and enjoyment beginning with songs, stories, rhymes, games, plays, sister- school exchanges and home-stay programs. This would help to create a strong, lifelong self-motivating love of English from the first grade onwards. Within thirteen years, scores of 800 and higher on the TOEIC examination would without doubt be commonplace in Japan, helping the citizens of tomorrow to meet the challenges of a new, highly competitive global information age in which English has become the undisputed lingua franca of international trade, research, and diplomacy.

Ask your Japanese colleagues tomorrow to share with you their fondest childhood memories and let's open our hearts and minds to what they have to say. Let us, as dedicated language teachers, find ways to adapt the most positive elements of the student-centered Japanese elementary school curriculum to our own lessons in high schools and universities. Let us rediscover the vibrantly beating creative heart at the very core of Japanese education.


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