Monday, April 09, 2012

Supplementing Junior High English Texts

The other week we learned about the six MEXT-approved textbooks for teaching English to junior high school students in Japan.

Ostensibly, MEXT leaves room for other textbooks that meet its curriculum guidelines. However, those six books are the official English text for 99.9% of junior high schools students in Japan, according to the annual 教科書レポート (kyokasho report, "textbook report") released by the Japanese Publishers Union.

I qualify the books as "official" texts because although every school in Japan must assign MEXT-approved texts to their pupils, some schools, especially private ones, may not actually use those books in class.

Private institutions still have to distribute the MEXT books, but as long as students are performing up to the standard set by MEXT at the end of each year, questions aren't asked about what books are actually being used by students in the classroom. For me, it was as dramatic as handing out two textbooks, a MEXT book and a "supplement," to students on the first day of class, then holding up the MEXT book and saying, "Leave this one at home. We'll never use it."

I'm personally unfamiliar with examples of public junior high schools that do not teach out of the MEXT textbooks. But among public schools in Japan, just like any other country, there are "good schools" and "bad schools." Public institutions are theoretically expected to teach students exactly the amount recommended by MEXT, no more, no less. The idea is that MEXT can guarantee that every child in the country is receiving an identical experience throughout their compulsory education (小1~中3).

But with myriad school atmospheres, teacher personalities, class attitudes and abilities this is an absurdity. Some teachers will not be able to meet those benchmarks with their class, and some teachers and their classes will go above and beyond. In past curriculum guidelines, MEXT tried to clamp down on these variations by specifying exactly what a teacher should and should not cover during lessons (known as the 歯止め規定, hadome kitei), but for 2011-2013 MEXT has acquiesced that such restrictions do more harm than good.

So, the public school teachers and classes that want to cover more material will use supplements, too. And perhaps in some cases, the supplements will all but replace the MEXT book in the classroom. After all, high school entrance exams are an extremely competitive affair, and learning only the ministry's recommended material leaves students ill-equipped to vie for top placement.

The bottom line here is that although a good teacher with an attentive class will get more out of the MEXT books, the MEXT books still do not push students, and unless they are supplemented or replaced, they're a limiting factor. Bright students who don't have enough room to expand while in their daytime classroom will go to juku schools at night and on the weekends to learn (or memorize, anyway) from the more rigorous teaching materials used there.

Our textbook series continues with a look inside the MEXT approved books. Be sure to check it out, and if you enjoy this series, follow us on Twitter and Facebook!

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