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The Secret to High Academic Performance in Science: Evidence from the National Assessment of Academic Ability in Japan – (3) Qualitative Analysis

不利な環境でも子供の学力を高める秘策:全国学力・学習状況調査の分析結果から(3)

On 2 July, I couldn’t believe what I was watching when Belgium scored a goal in injury time, leading to Japan’s heartbreaking loss in the 2018 FIFA World Cup (despite a 2-0 lead early in the second half!). While many critics praised Japan’s fantastic performance on a football pitch, some of my friends kindly circulated an interesting article featuring the attitude of Japanese footballers after the game. According to a report, the Japan team thoroughly cleaned up the dressing room and left a “thank you” note in Russian for the hosts.

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Source: CNN

To be honest, as a Japanese, I wasn’t necessarily surprised to hear this news. At the same time, I could understand that such behaviour looked “extraordinary” to many non-Japanese people (although I’m not sure how many people were actually impressed). One common question here is “what makes Japanese people (footballers) behave like this?” and one of the most popular answers is “this is the outcome of school education including cleaning activities.”

I’m sure that many of you are now curious about what is really going on in classrooms in Japan. So, in this article, I will introduce some characteristic teaching/learning activities of Japanese schools based on my research into students’ performance.

 

1. Overview: Effective Schools Research

Before going into details, I have to say that the primary focus of this article is not cleaning activities nor “the secret to altruistic behaviour” but schools’ efforts to enhance students’ academic ability. As explained previously, our research team has conducted quantitative and qualitative analyses using the National Assessment data in Japan to reveal the determinants of strong performance. While the preceding article introduced some findings of the quantitative analysis, this piece sheds light on the qualitative study.

In this research, 10 “effective schools” (five primary and five lower secondary) were selected based on the mean science test scores in 2012 and 2015. As highlighted in Figure 1, “effective schools” were defined as 1) ones that showed high performance in 2015 as compared to their (low) performance in 2012 (i.e. the mean score in 2015 was much higher than predicted based on the 2012 score), or 2) ones that achieved high performance both in 2012 and in 2015 (i.e. situated at the top right in the figure).

Figure 1: Effective Schools

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Note: Schools are plotted based on the mean test score (correct answer rate) in 2012 (X axis) and 2015 (y axis). The trend line is specified by regressing the score in 2015 on that in 2012. In selecting 10 schools, the variation in school size and geographical area as well as the mean test scores were accounted for.
Source: The MEXT Expert Meeting (modified by author)

To uncover the secret of success of these 10 schools, we conducted interviews and classroom observations with close attention to the following activities: management/leadership, collaboration among teachers, teaching methods/pedagogy, infrastructure, student guidance/counselling, communication with family and community, and school culture.

Figure 2: Analytical Concept (Qualitative Analysis)

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Source: The MEXT Expert Meeting (modified by author)

 

2. Findings: Common Characteristics

What did we find in “effective schools”? In short, their activities were greatly varied. Nevertheless, there were some “common characteristics” we could observe in most effective schools. It is important to note that these qualitative findings are not necessarily applicable to other cases even within Japan, and hence shouldn’t be overgeneralised. Yet, it is meaningful (and fun) to share the efforts of schools that have made great progress. Among wide-ranging practices, I want to shed light on the following five elements: 1. management/leadership, 2. collaboration among teachers, 3. student guidance/counselling, 4. teaching, and 5. relationship with community/family/other schools. (For more detailed information of each school, see the full report and/or presentation paper.)

 

Management/Leadership

To accelerate the impact of various school activities, a well-established management system and leadership are essential. Without clear visions and specific actions, it is difficult to realise seamless quality teaching for students. In effective schools, principals/headteachers set school visions in conjunction with a road map for achieving them, which are shared among teachers/staff. Interestingly, these visions and actions are not specified only by the management team. On the contrary, every teacher/staff is strongly encouraged to take part in the process of establishing them through school meetings and workshops. By doing so, teachers/staff can recognise themselves as important members of school management and also place their own responsibilities within the wider context of school strategies/activities. In the meantime, progress and challenges are regularly assessed via school evaluation, which provides evidence to improve school systems.

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Collaboration among teachers

Information and knowledge sharing is crucial for effective teaching and students’ care. While teachers tend to focus only on their classrooms in many schools, effective schools prepare various settings, in which teachers communicate each other to share information on school resources, students’ learning attitudes and peer relationship, community activities, and so on. Once they find a problem (e.g. one student faces difficulties with his/her family and friends, and consequently suffers from poor academic performance and mental health), it is shared among teachers/staff and they consider the solution as a team. Also, if they need a support from external experts such as a social worker and the police, they are not reluctant to collaborate for the best interests of the child.

In addition to sharing information, teachers regularly observe classes of their colleagues and give/get feedback on the usage of a blackboard and supplementary teaching materials, communication with students, quality/quantity of homework, and so forth. These activities also contribute to keeping good tensions of daily classes whilst improving their quality.

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Student Guidance/Counselling

Students usually have various difficulties including mental conditions, relationship with friends, and family problems, as well as academic achievements. Given that these factors are intertwining each other and affecting students’ learning attitudes/performance, it is imperative to understand such situations from a multidimensional perspective.

Indeed, teachers in effective schools frequently have meetings with each student and provide counselling (sometimes in collaboration with other teachers and external experts). In addition, as quiet and stable learning environments are important to enable students to concentrate on their study, most effective schools put importance on learning discipline through which students are expected to enhance their perseverance. In this context, cleaning activities by students are preferably used as a mean of holistically developing their ability and attitudes (self-discipline). (In fact, some research has argued that this idea/activity is one of the general characteristics of Japanese education system. For example, see a comparative study between Japan and the US).

Meanwhile, in some effective schools, teachers make good use of student guidance and counselling for enhancing students’ self-efficacy, which has been generally underdeveloped in Japan in an international comparison.

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Teaching

Teaching is the key to improving students’ academic ability. In line with the findings of the quantitative analysis, teachers at effective schools usually encourage students to generate their own thoughts on learning subjects (not limited to science) and to put them into words. Further, students are frequently instructed to present their ideas and to discuss with their peers using what they have learned in advance.

In doing science experiments and observations, teachers provide as much time as possible for students to go through “problem-solving process.” To begin with, students formulate their hypotheses about the results of experiments based on their knowledge. After discussing with peers about their own thoughts, students design experiments (including necessary equipment and procedures) and implement them. With the experiment results, students test their hypotheses and further discuss about how and why their original ideas and actual results are (in)consistent. Moreover, in case they need more evidence to verify their hypotheses, students design and implement another experiment (and reflect the results).

Besides science-specific activities, effective schools promote “drills” to nurture students’ basic literacy and numeracy. For example, in the morning, students sit and repeatedly practice kanji (Chinese characters) and math (calculation) in addition to reading/writing poetry/novels. Also, teachers provide students with a sufficient amount of homework (sometimes they customise its quantity and quality in consideration of students’ ability). Further, in order to enhance students’ self-efficacy and motivation, teachers often prepare “successful experience” (e.g. asking very basic questions to low performers, complimenting the results of their “drills”), while teaching advanced topics for high performers.

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Collaboration with community/family/other school

In considering quality of teaching/learning at schools, the power of other stakeholders shouldn’t be ignored. Indeed, some effective schools make use of community resources, such as human resources (external experts), financial resources, natural resources, and infrastructure (including social education facility), to deliver various activities that cannot be realised within schools. Through these “unusual” learning experience, students can easily motivate themselves whilst deepening their understanding of the link between what they learn and the real world.

The frequent communication between schools and families is another common characteristic. For instance, teachers visit students’ family (including carers) to share information of students both in and outside of schools. This communication also enables teachers to better understand students’ living/learning conditions, which is essential to make effective teaching/guidance plans. Also, teachers sometimes use their family visit to provide parents/carers with practical information on how to support children’ learning at home (without relying on shadow education).

In addition to school-specific efforts, the intervention by local governments plays an important role. In Japan, public primary and secondary schools are generally supervised by local governments/boards of education, whose authority ranges from the textbooks selection to teacher hiring/training. Making the most of this structure, some effective schools have received a variety of supports from local authority, including guidelines of teaching and school management, collections of good/bad school practices, teacher training, and joint meetings with neighbour schools (to share information on students and local issues). These activities also help each school realise smooth transition of students between different school stages.

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3. For Quality Learning for All

As noted, unlike implications from elaborated statistical approaches, the said characteristics do not automatically mean tendencies that are generalisable to any circumstances (needless to say, the results of quantitative analyses are not necessarily applicable to other cases either). Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to pay close attention to common activities of “effective schools” that have demonstrated remarkable students’ achievements after experiencing unpreferable performance.

Indeed, some of the above-mentioned findings are consistent with the result of a quantitative analysis. For example, several pedagogies, such as encouraging students to design experiments based on their own hypotheses, facilitating discussion among students about the (in)consistency between their hypotheses and actual results, and providing students with a certain amount of homework, proved to be key interventions both in quantitative and qualitative research. Further, analyses also supported an idea that putting importance on learning disciplines in conjunction with detailed students’ guidance/counselling plays an important role in establishing appropriate learning environments and leading to better academic performance.

As with the previous article, this piece doesn’t fully answer to the question regarding “why/how” each characteristic of effective schools contributes to students’ ability. In addition, while the focus of this research is the impact of activities on academic ability (cognitive skills), the said practices might have affected other types of skills including students’ attitudes (which lead to the behaviour of Japanese footballers). Also, there might be negative side effects, that is, the “preferable” aspects of Japanese education system might be realised by sacrificing other elements such as well-being of teachers (because they are strongly expected to work very hard to achieve quality learning) and creative football skills (because students are strongly instructed to follow the school/social rules)… To elucidate these nuanced relationships and contribute to "Quality Learning for All," further research is necessitated.

Anyway, I’d like to conclude this article by expressing my congratulations to France on their great victory in the world cup!

荒木啓史
Araki, Satoshi

HP: Sarthak Shiksha | Quality Learning for All
FB: https://www.facebook.com/SarthakEd

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