Considering Interdependent Learning Models to Align Japanese Higher Education Practices with Japanese Societal Values

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Despite living in a society that holds interdependence as a core value, students in the Japanese higher education system typically study in a rigid lecture-test environment that neither supports nor condones group-learning methods in the classroom. Almost everything about group-learning methodology is contrary to Japanese education practice. Group-learning practices attempt to tap the power of social dynamics and interdependence to enhance individual and group development (Michaelsen, Knight, & Fink, 2002; Bruffee, 1999; Bruffee, 1999). Although values of interdependence might encourage group learning methods for student development, Japanologists like Roger Goodman (2003) say that Japanese higher education is an “enormously elaborated, very expensive testing system that trains [individual] students how to pass tests,” while failing to teach the knowledge and skills students need to be productive members of society (p. 7). Critics blame the ineffectiveness of Japanese higher education for contributing to two-decades of economic recession (Zielenziger, 2006). Tokyo University Professor Ikuo Amano argues that Japan’s failure to make sweeping reform in its higher education system is a continuing “disservice to the societal needs of Japanese” (Poole, 2003, p. 149).

Leading with the cognitive dissonance between the needs and values of society and the practices of higher education, I gave a lecture to 40 Hachinohe University professors on how to use group-learning methods to invigorate student development. A key emphasis of the lecture was the teacher’s changing leadership role when shifting from controlling an authoritarian lecture-test model to managing a dynamic team-based learning environment. The lecture was the result of three years of field research into Japanese higher education culture, during which I have been building relationships that I hope will lead to conducting research to test the viability of a team-based learning model with students in a traditional Japanese university. This paper is an ethnographically influenced personal reflection of what I have learned in preparing for and giving the lecture. I will also analyze the results of a faculty breakout session I facilitated at the end of the lecture, during which the faculty broke into groups to prepare presentations on the challenges and opportunities of small-group learning in their classrooms. The lecture feedback will also consider private communications I had with faculty and students in the week following the lecture.