Major changes to the Japanese high school history curriculum, introduced in the spring of 2022 with a comprehensive new course, aim to move the subject away from its focus on memorization to encourage analytical thinking and independent study. However, issues such as the increased difficulty of assessment will need to be addressed.
New compulsory courses
In April 2022, new curriculum guidelines were introduced in Japanese high schools, based on three qualities and abilities to cultivate in students: knowledge and skills for active use; the ability to think, make judgments and express oneself in unfamiliar situations; and the ability and humanity to apply what one learns to life and society.
To achieve these goals, the focus is more than ever on how students learn, and lessons need to be improved to ensure they are independent, interactive and in-depth. Criterion-based assessment has also been fully introduced in secondary schools. Instead of assessing students’ abilities only through regular exams, they will be assessed in three areas: knowledge and skills; the ability to think, make judgments and express oneself; and attitude towards independent study. The aim is to foster well-rounded academic skills as secondary education undergoes great change.
In line with the changes, there are two compulsory courses in history and geography, called rekishi sōgōliterally “full story”, and chiri sōgōor “global geography”. Rekishi sōgō takes a comprehensive look at Japanese and world history from the 18th century to the present day, but it is not simply a combination of the former World History A and Japanese History A courses, which mainly focused on the modern and contemporary eras.
Historical topics since the 18th century are divided into three areas: modernization, changes in the world order and the rise of popular society, and globalization. From these perspectives, students examine the formation of contemporary problems, including those related to the environment and resources, poverty, conflict, and gender, and their proposed solutions. The course aims to help students understand the issues we face that need to be addressed by global initiatives, both in their essentials and as issues that concern them.
Changing study methods
The study method does not follow an exhaustive chronological approach to historical events. Curriculum guidelines emphasize understanding historical periods and transitions through cause and effect and other associations, using multiple perspectives and opinions as a basis for reflection and encouraging students to expand their knowledge in broader concepts.
For example, to encourage active learning on the topic of modernization, students use materials and what they have already learned to present questions based on what they want to investigate. The lessons are structured in such a way that they can then pursue these questions. They can adopt diverse perspectives through the use of the materials to examine related contemporary issues, such as environmental issues.
While the teachers expressed various concerns and doubts about the change in study style, they also offered various avant-garde proposals. Concerned about the number of students who dislike history as a subject centered on memorization or simply show no interest, many researchers and teachers have organized study groups and published books aimed at a revolution in the teaching of history in Japan. There are also websites to share impressions to use in class.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology works to disseminate information on rekishi sōgō study methods, while local authorities have trained teachers in the preparation and use of materials, as well as how to ask questions. However, schools were struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic in the two years prior to implementation, as well as the initial introduction of criterion-referenced assessment the previous year, meaning that not all schools and teachers were fully prepared for the changes this school year. .
Interpretation and discussion
Changes in the curriculum are being introduced gradually, so that this school year (from April 2022) first-year secondary school students rekishi sōgō, while those in second and third years continue the previous course. In many schools, teachers wishing to prepare for rekishi sōgō and the young instructors follow the new course, while the veterans teach the old. This seems to have helped the implementation get off to a good start.
In a process of trial and error, teachers organize lessons in which students form groups to exchange information about study material, discuss their ideas and deepen their understanding. Using the example of the industrial revolution, they can see illustrations of women working in factories and children in coal mines, and ask questions about why women and children work, if it were acceptable that the children were not in school and that was what the men did.
They can also apply other materials to pursue these questions, debate and examine topics such as what industrialization was and how it changed society. Teachers monitor the discussion, offering additional information to encourage correction of misunderstanding, so as not to discourage students’ desire to reflect.
Many textbooks suggest questions for each topic and include substantial materials, such as text, maps, illustrations, and statistics to examine them. Some no longer use bold to highlight key points and may provide reading insights rather than explanations below their materials.
I hear that these textbooks and using websites to share materials made the transition to the new study method relatively smooth. Since high school students in recent years have had experience working in groups since their elementary and middle school years, they are used to this type of study and in fact seem more comfortable with it than in classrooms consisting only of master classes.
However, if teachers explain what is correct when discussing historical documents, students will tend to note only what the teachers say and become less active themselves. It is difficult to find the right balance for the courses.
Nevertheless, apparently many students find it motivating and fun to interpret documents and participate in discussions during rekishi sōgō Classes. If more teachers tackle the required subject for the next academic year, along with optional courses on exploring Japanese and world history, forward-thinking practices will spread, along with this new version of the history teaching.
The entrance exam question
On the other hand, some educators suggest that it remains vital for students to memorize the entire textbook for college entrance exams. In March 2021, the National Center for University Entrance Examinations announced that the Common University Entrance Test to be held in January 2025 will have questions covering chiri sōgō and rekishi sōgō.
The center has published sample questions for rekishi sōgō on its website. Judging from these, it seems possible that there are questions testing students’ ability to examine materials related to the themes of modernization, changes in the world order, and the rise of popular society, and globalization.
However, preparing for these questions each year requires considerable effort. Among the reports on the first quarter of teaching rekishi sōgō, some teachers have described creating their own questions that students answer by gleaning information about modernization from documents and connecting it to what they already know. Comments on this include: “It is difficult to create multiple-choice questions that test whether students can understand the concepts they have learned and apply them, or their ability to think and make judgments” and “If we get them to write an essay, it’s hard to grade it.
As teachers struggle to write questions and assess students, there is likely to be more pessimism about changes to entrance exams, including those for private universities. This will make more teachers feel they need to focus on writing in students’ heads what is included in textbooks.
To improve the evaluation of learning, it is now also necessary to perceive the process by which students learn. It is necessary to assess, for example by checking off items on a worksheet, how students ask their questions, obtain information from documents and reflect. This assesses both their attitude towards independent study and their ability to think, make judgments and express themselves.
With the burden of assessment added to lesson preparation, there is a sense of exhaustion in the classrooms. After the introduction of options on exploring Japanese and world history in the 2023-2024 academic year, whether new study and assessment methods take hold may depend the possibility of developing an assessment that is not onerous without relying on questions testing memorization .
(Originally published in Japanese on August 23, 2022. Banner photo: A rekishi sōgō class at Kobe University High School. © Kyōdō.)