Devise ways to nurture scientific inquiry in children

With the rapid changes in society, the ability to discover and solve problems by oneself has become necessary. It is vital to establish teaching methods that enable children to acquire such abilities.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has released the results of this year’s national academic achievement tests for sixth-grade elementary and third-year junior high school students. In addition to Japanese, arithmetic or mathematics, this year’s tests included science for the first time in four years.

The national average scores in Japanese, arithmetic or mathematics, and science for elementary school students, did not change significantly compared to previous tests. However, the average score in science for junior high school students dropped 17 percentage points, falling below 50%.

Since the 2021 school year, new curriculum guidelines for junior high schools have been implemented, aimed at fostering students’ abilities to think and express themselves, among other skills. Many people in the education field may be concerned about the poor results in the first science test taken by junior high school students who have been learning under the new curriculum guidelines.

The test was notable for the inclusion of questions that asked students to think, rather than simply test their knowledge. The percentage of correct answers was low for questions that required students to write down the method of an experiment to investigate the repulsive force of a magnet, among others. The education ministry noted that students “failed to respond to questions that challenged their ability to conduct scientific inquiry.”

Schools might have not been able to provide sufficient guidance in line with the learning objectives of making predictions, conducting observations and experiments, and pondering the results. Local governments need to analyze the test findings in detail and use them to improve teaching methods.

It is hard to measure the level of scientific inquiry each student has acquired with tests alone. The education ministry also should make efforts to create questions that can properly check students’ academic achievement.

The prolonged coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on schools. According to a questionnaire survey carried out in conjunction with the tests, the percentage of junior high schools that conduct observations and experiments in science classes more than once a week dropped significantly from four years ago.

To understand natural and scientific phenomena, firsthand experience is important. Some schools are implementing experiments with small groups while following strict infection control measures. It is hoped that schools will devise ways to incorporate observations and experiments into their classes as much as possible.

The coronavirus has also cast a shadow over the minds of children. The number of elementary and junior high school students who said they have dreams or goals for the future decreased from before the COVID-19 outbreak.

The number of students participating in community events has also reportedly declined significantly. The lack of opportunities to interact with other people might be leading to a sense of isolation.

On the other hand, children who have a large number of books at home and like to read tended to have higher scores in each subject area. It is hoped children will familiarize themselves with books during the summer vacation so that they can develop the ability to read, understand texts, think deeply and write their own opinions.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 29, 2022)