Paper-based Textbooks Contain Fundamental Knowledge

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Takashi Saito, professor at Meiji University

This is the seventh installment of a series in which intellectuals share their thoughts on political issues the administration of Yoshihide Suga will tackle this year. For this installment, The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed Takashi Saito, Meiji University professor. The following is excerpted from the interview.

■ Paper-based textbooks

Textbooks play a key role in fostering the younger generations. Discussions are underway about digitizing textbooks, but I believe this would trivialize them. I am firmly opposed to digital textbooks and abolishing paper-based volumes.

Textbooks contain fundamental knowledge, carefully selected, that children should acquire. This knowledge must be mastered through repetition. It is fundamental, just like sumo wrestlers stomping their feet.

It takes more time to update information on paper, and the amount of information that paper can contain is limited. For this reason, confirming the definitive nature of textbooks in paper form sends an important message to children.

One of the advantages of paper-based textbooks is that children learn more easily with them. Paper has a long history and record of achievements as it developed in tandem with human learning and intellectual activities. Studies also show that turning pages to read a book helps activate the brain.

Children can underline words and sentences in digital textbooks, but actions such as physically touching paper and writing in textbooks greatly stimulate their senses. Paper helps people memorize things better, so if you have paper-based textbooks, workbooks, pencils and notebooks, you can maintain your academic ability.

I asked more than 100 students who hope to become teachers about this issue, and an overwhelming majority said that paper-based textbooks should be preserved. This opinion was based on their own study experience.

■ Educational superpower

If textbooks cease to exist in paper form and are connected to the internet, they will become just one part of an enormous volume of information. This could result in a lack of awareness among teachers and children that the contents of textbooks must be learned. This is the greatest danger.

Some people underestimate the importance of recitation and memorization. However, it is completely wrong to think that memory hinders creativity. For example, a person cannot talk about physics unless they know its laws and principles. So, people should memorize at least the content of textbooks.

If people do not have sufficient basic knowledge, their academic performance could decline immeasurably. In other words, there is almost no doubt that abolishing paper-based textbooks will cause academic ability to fall. It will be too late when we become aware of the decline.

The claim that costs can be reduced by abolishing paper-based textbooks is also problematic. Given that Japan has limited resources, it should aim to be an educational superpower. Even if providing tablet devices costs a lot of money, educational budgets should not be reduced. What will taxpayers’ money be used for, if not for textbooks?

However, it is also necessary to utilize information and communication technology. I think it is very good and important that the government is providing every student with a computer or a tablet device.

■ Complementing information

One of the advantages of digital technology is that it allows information to be updated quickly, and an enormous amount of information to be added. Even if a certain thing is explained in only one or two sentences in a textbook, students can search for relevant information electronically, which helps increase their desire to learn. Digital technology should be actively used in classes as a tool to gather information.

It is also important for students to acquire the ability to make videos using apps, so they can present their thoughts. Students will be encouraged to participate in classes more actively through such steps as these.

As I said, knowledge obtained from textbooks is qualitatively different from that of digital information. Paper and digital media are different, and one cannot substitute for the other. Children should learn knowledge that must be thoroughly acquired from paper-based textbooks while searching for secondary information digitally.

Even if the contents of textbooks are digitized, it is important to use these contents in combination with paper-based textbooks, which should be the main tool. Abolishing paper-based textbooks will cause significant harm. Such an extreme measure should not be taken in the area of education.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Jun Nakayama

■ Takashi Saito

Saito was born in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1960, and graduated from the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law. He specializes in pedagogy, body theory and communication theory. He has written a number of books on education, such as “Riso no Kokugo Kyokasho” (Ideal national language textbooks), “Dokushoryoku” (Reading ability) and “Atarashii Gakuryoku” (New academic ability).

■ Digital textbooks in all classrooms

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga views digital reform as a key policy, aiming for 100% use of digital textbooks by fiscal 2025.

Digital textbooks mean that the same content as paper-based textbooks approved by the education ministry is displayed on the screen of a computer or tablet device. The government is currently working to provide every student at elementary and junior high schools with a computer or tablet device. This will be almost completed by the end of fiscal 2020, paving the way for the full use of digital textbooks.

In December last year, the government decided to eliminate time restrictions on the use of digital textbooks from fiscal 2021. From April, digital textbooks will be provided to elementary and junior high schools that are interested, and an experiment is planned to use digital textbooks in some fifth- and sixth-grade elementary school classes, as well as for all junior high school students.

Currently, paper-based textbooks are provided free of charge by the central government. The cost was about ¥46 billion in fiscal 2020. Since digital textbooks do not legally fall under the category of textbooks, municipal boards of education and others bear the costs. So one issue is how to deal with the heavy financial burden.