MEXT’s New Course of Study Guidelines to Rely on Active Learning

Book Writer & Publisher: 
David McMurray, The International University of Kagoshima

In this issue’s Teaching Assistance, we update readers on proposed guidelines for high school teachers of English by The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan (MEXT). We begin by revisiting comments made by Tahira (2012), a graduate student who analyzed failed attempts to implement communicative approaches at high schools in 2009. A timely article, in the right place at the right time, it was cited widely in English language journals and newspapers. Students with an interest in Active Learning who are currently embarking on 5-year research plans are advised to keep a keen eye on developments related to the new university entrance exams and the guidelines that are respectively set to begin from 2020 and 2022.

MEXT’s New Course of Study Guidelines to Rely on Active Learning

The Courses of Study set by The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) of Japan are fixed teaching standards for all school programs, from kindergarten through upper secondary schools. Since the end of World War II, periodic updates to the Courses of Study have been issued approximately every 10 years as a series of guidelines that reset overall goals and changed curricula for subjects taught by public school teachers. In the run up to issuing new guidelines, MEXT invites the public to weigh in on exploratory ideas for its reforms. For example, in 1997 the Curriculum Council of the Education Ministry issued a report recommending that student-centered approaches to learning replace lecturing on facts. According to TLT co-editors Isbell, Sagliano, Sagliano, and Stewart (1999) those recommended changes revealed “clear links with Active Learning: to develop social skills and global awareness; to develop autonomous learning and critical thinking skills; and to promote education based on the needs of a student population” (p. 3).

MEXT likely shelved that idea because in 2004, Tanabe (2004), a former president of the Japan Association of College English Teachers (JACET), dismissed the outcome of previous guidelines for English subjects as unfortunately unable to get positive results and critiqued a plan unveiled on March 31, 2003 entitled “Developing a Strategic Plan to Cultivate ‘Japanese With English Abilities’—A Plan to Improve English and Japanese Abilities.” MEXT’s (2003) guidelines included the expectation that all English teachers would have a TOEFL score of 550 or over. Tanabe (2004) summarized opinions from JACET members by saying, “All language teachers found it quite unique that an action plan which promotes English language teaching also includes promotion of the Japanese language education” (p. 4).

In the years following the release of those guidelines that relied on teachers with improved abilities in English, Communicative Language Teaching and Task-Based Learning ideas came to the forefront (Ellis, 2004). The next round of revisions announced on March 31, 2009 was designed to shift away from traditional grammar translation techniques to more communicative methodologies in secondary English classrooms. A student of the TESOL graduate course at Temple University Japan at that time, Tahira (2012) examined “how the Ministry has attempted to implement communicative approaches” and “argued that MEXT’s commitment to new policies is in doubt, as evidenced by a lack of meaningful support for teachers” (p. 4). Teachers were expected to conduct English classes principally in English in high school classrooms. The guidelines also called for the enhancement of debating skills. Tahira (2012) concluded that “There remains a big gap between the stated policies and what is actually done in the classroom” (p. 3) with the 2009 revisions. The seminal work was widely cited in English language journals. In response to criticism expressed in a New York Times article, Shimomura (2014) put the blame on the wash-back effect of university entrance exams. The Minister of Education at the time claimed, “Although reading, listening, writing, and speaking are the four necessary competencies for English language education, the university entrance exams administered by the National Center for University Entrance Exams to over half a million students around the country each year focus almost exclusively on reading, with slight coverage of listening and almost nothing on writing and speaking” (para. 4).

The current 2018 proposal for high schools is the first full revision since 2009. MEXT solicited comments from the public until March 15, 2018 on its proposed Course of Study Guidelines for the start of the 2022 academic year at public high schools (MEXT, 2018). The final form of the measures announced on March 31 advocates implementation of Active Learning programs in all subjects in hopes of motivating high school students to independently identify problems and solutions through debate and presentations. Interactive discussion of contemporary issues by students who work in groups to pose questions and find answers is the key innovation. It is hoped that a balance of learning, utilization and exploration in all subjects will lead to subjective, interactive, and deep learning. Through such integrated linguistic activities, students can strengthen their powers of listening, reading, and writing. This strategy could spark some enthusiastic competition or even collaboration among teachers vying to implement Active Learning methodology in Science, Mathematics, Japanese, English, Oral Communication, Reading, and Writing subjects. The pedagogic term Active Learning frequently appears in university syllabi and textbooks used by instructors in Japan. The Active method was re-emphasized in a 2012–2015 national project entitled Improving Higher Education for Industrial Needs funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (Mizokami, 2014). Active Learning draws synergy from combining linguistic competence, information utilization ability, and problem finding and resolution abilities.

In conclusion, the main pillar of the 2018 revision is the introduction of Active Learning methodology and the incorporation of debate and presentation activities. This is intended to foster deeper learning in students who might have otherwise relied on rote memorization techniques to get through high school. Ahead of her time perhaps, but Isbell (1999) a TLT Co-Editor ran an interview with James Eison which detailed how “Active learning strategies can transform traditional classrooms where students passively receive knowledge to centers where students are actively seeking information and reflecting on what they have learned” (p. 3). Bonwell and Eison (1991) cautioned that students must be taught how to work in groups. Instructors using group activities for the first time are often not successful because they fail to take this into consideration. Active learning is different than group learning and to be successful must include a way to measure individual accountability. This time around, however, the reforms may have a better chance to succeed because they are strategically linked to newly designed high-stakes university admissions tests of speaking and listening skills and essay questions set to start from 2020. Exam takers will be tested on their ability in critical thinking and self-expression. The new exams will replace the system currently handled by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations. Students sitting for those exams will have had the chance to build on a foundation of English learning since elementary school grade five. If the new guidelines are followed and students are exposed to an abundance of language activities including presentation, discussion, and debate, it should enhance their communication skills to understand and convey information and ideas.


Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1). Washington, DC: George Washington University.

Ellis, R. (2004). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Isbell, K. Sagliano, J., Sagliano, M., & Stewart, T. (1999). Active Learning Special Issue. The Language Teacher 23(5), 3.

Isbell, K. (1999). An interview on active learning with Dr. James Eison. The Language Teacher 23(5), 4–6. 

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology MEXT. (2003). Action plan to cultivate “Japanese with English abilities.” Retrieved from <>

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology MEXT. (2018). Koutougakkou gakushu shidou yoryo an ni taisuru iken kōbo tetsudzuki [Study of course guideline for foreign languages in senior high schools; Public Comment on Proposal]. Retrieved from <>

Mizokami, S. (2014). Active learning to kyoju gakushu paradigm no tankan [Active learning and the transition of the teaching/learning paradigm]. Tokyo: Toshindo.

Shimomura, H. (2014). Statement by Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan on the October 12 International New York Times article “Japan’s Divided Education Strategy.” Retrieved from: <>

Tahira, M. (2012). Behind MEXT’s new course of study guidelines. The Language Teacher 36(3) 3–8.

Tanabe, Y. (2004). What the 2003 MEXT action plan proposes to teachers of English. The Language Teacher 28(3) 3–7.