Technology and Japanese High Schools: Why Technology Integration Will Take Time

Japanese teachers are so pre-occupied with preparing students for university entrance examinations that they have little time to use innovative teaching tools. Each weekday, they spend at least ten hours teaching regular and remedial classes, counselling students and planning events. On weekends, extra classes and club duties take up all the time required for participation in technology training sessions.

I teach at two senior high schools in Hokkaido Japan let¹s call them School A and School B that are at different phases of technology integration. But both schools possess the financial support, hardware and software that teachers need to incorporate technology into their classes. I will explain the obstacles to this process with reference to the broader context of Japanese educational culture.

Education technologists and multimedia development experts agree that preparation requires a considerable amount of time and technical support certainly far more than the six hours that School A had allotted for staff training from April 2002 to November, 2003. At School B, there is no such plan because the network system is slowly evolving while an impressive array of expensive new hardware PCs, electronic white boards and smart podiums are moved from the lobby directly to the storage area.

Teachers at School A want to use technology, mainly the Internet, to enhance instruction, but they believe that the school should first approve and mandate technology use, after which they should wait to be trained by technology coordinators. Each of School B¹s classrooms is wired for Internet access but teachers are afraid of breaking the laptops and video projectors so they refuse to take them to classes.

In a conformist society like Japan, where harmony is essential to good relationships, it is understandable that quite a few teachers are afraid of using technology lest their colleagues single them out for being ³unusual.² In such an environment, technology coordinators are unusual because they are technologically competent and self reliant they have learned in a short time how to set up and maintain the network server and have become efficient technical trouble-shooters. Under appreciated by colleagues who think these skills are peripheral to teaching duties, they are burdened with the simultaneous tasks of teaching classes, supporting the system, training teachers and troubleshooting.

Teachers who are guided by constructivism know that they should carefully consider students¹ attitudes and learning preferences when preparing for classes. But in Japan parents who believe that creativity has no bearing on academic success dictate these factors. This belief is justified given that the paths to social and economic success are so inflexible that their children are forced to compete for placement in good universities. Senior high schools are ranked according to the number of graduates that enter prestigious universities and are thus pressured to maintain their standing by adequately coaching students for university entrance examinations. Japanese teachers are guided by objectivist philosophy in preparing students for university entrance examinations and encourage them to choose their career paths early because the university from which they graduate will significantly influence their social and financial success later in life. So we cannot blame teachers for suppressing creative thinking, as they are catering to the needs of their students and satisfying the demands of parents.

Comments from several teachers at Schools A and B give a better understanding of prevailing attitudes to teaching and learning. Two mathematics teachers said that it was impossible to use group work, multimedia or even ask students for their opinions during classes. Some teachers even contended that exploration and real-world applicability are only relevant to agricultural or technical schools that prepare students for trade and are ranked much lower than academic senior high schools.

Current educational practice in senior high schools is incompatible with Japan's current economic recession, which has threatened guaranteed lifetime employment in large institutions. While Japan recognises in official documents that a more student-centred approach to learning would benefit students, this has had no influence on teaching practice in senior high schools. We can blame the lack of training in constructivist philosophy and related instructional strategies on the neglect of adequate teacher training programs after Japan's rapid educational expansion in the 1960's and 1970's. Even when such programs are available, teachers cannot participate because leave of absence would mean extra work for their colleagues.

The pressures of preparing students for university entrance examinations are overwhelming, but teachers can still encourage group work and present relevant information with the numerous digital resources at their disposal. There is a global awareness that learning is a by-product of immersion in a social environment that mirrors the real life use of a specific skill or concept. Unfortunately, innovation in teaching is not highly valued in Japan, so the case for using educational multimedia must emphasise the need for students to become functional members of a global society. Teachers and parents must understand that rote learning does not acknowledge the democratic nature of the world in which students live.

A charter for technology integration exists at School B, which represents the ³IT revolution in schools², but it has not helped to move things along because teachers do not yet understand the value of self-directed learning and mentorship. The internet represents an open path to knowledge, but this path is closed when teachers refuse to take advantage of its abundant resources and insist on lecturing from wooden podiums.

The conceptual framework for technology integration must be bolstered by the intellectual commitment of parents, students and teachers to use new techniques and approaches. Japanese parents value hard work in achieving high academic standards so they should be assured that students will make a greater effort to learn if they use technology tools in an environment that respects creative expression and the construction of knowledge. They should be assured that technologically enhanced instruction requires teachers to work hard as consultants for information retrieval and as coaches of higher order thinking. Teachers should be reassured that technology will not replace their hard work, but will offer them the chance to offer quality support for creating flexible leaders in changing times.

Email: Natasha Nicole Walker


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