Will the International Baccalaureate Take Off in Japan?

Society Culture

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program has emerged as a centerpiece of educational reforms designed to equip Japanese citizens for leadership roles in a global economy. But can Japan’s notoriously inflexible education system accommodate a curriculum designed in the West and taught in English?

The International Baccalaureate, a rigorous pre-college curriculum leading to an internationally recognized diploma, has been embraced by secondary schools around the world. Now it has emerged as a key facet of a government plan to internationalize Japanese education.

The IB program was launched in 1968 by the International Baccalaureate Organization, a nonprofit educational foundation headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Since that time, the IBO has provided a common curriculum for use in authorized schools, administered the IB examination, and conferred the IB diploma on students who complete the program successfully. The Japanese government officially recognized the IB in 1979, making holders of the IB diploma eligible for admission to Japanese universities.

In its early years, the IB’s spread was limited largely to international schools, which cater to the children of diplomats and other foreign nationals. At the time, international schools around the world were obliged to provide distinct programs of instruction to prepare their students for university admission in different countries—a practice that went counter to the spirit of international education, in addition to imposing a heavy burden on the schools. The founders of the IBO perceived the need for a common pre-university curriculum for international schools and an internationally recognized qualification for university admission.

The first schools in Japan to adopt the IB program were likewise international schools. Eventually, a few private “article 1 schools”—schools regulated by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) under article 1 of the School Education Act—managed to incorporate the IB program even while adhering to the curriculum guidelines established by MEXT. At these schools, IB students complete a bilingual course of studies—Japanese and English—thereby earning a diploma that permits them to continue their education at either a Western university or an international-minded university in Japan.

As of March 2012, there were still only 16 schools in Japan offering the IB diploma program to students in the second and third year of high school. Of these, 11 were international schools, while 5 were privately operated article 1 schools.

Japan’s Own IB Initiative

Now, however, an initiative has emerged from within the Japanese government to make the IB a permanent fixture of Japanese secondary education, rather than an anomaly. In its report on a “global human resource development strategy” issued in June 2012, the prime minister’s Council on Promotion of Human Resource for Globalization Development recommends “increasing the number of schools where students can receive the IB diploma upon graduation, or receive a comparable education, to approximately 200 over the next five years.”

The emergence of such a strategy reflects a rising awareness within the private, public, and academic spheres that Japan must do a better job developing “global human resources ”—people capable of thinking independently and exercising leadership in a culturally diverse international environment—if it is to play a leading role in today’s globalized economy and society.

School education in Japan has long functioned as a means of transmitting the unique culture the Japanese people have developed over the centuries. But as globalization advances, we find ourselves more and more often in situations that require us to adapt our mode of thinking, acting, and communicating to Western norms and rules, which evolved through the interaction of diverse races and peoples.

Japan’s Basic Act on Education defines the aim of education as nurturing the builders of a democratic state and society. To fulfill this mission, Japanese schools must offer a curriculum better adapted to society’s changing needs.

Thinking and Living Skills for a Changing World

For years Japanese educators have been calling for a curriculum emphasizing student-directed learning, “learning how to learn,” adaptation, applied knowledge and skills, problem-solving skills—in short, a curriculum oriented to the practical and flexible application of knowledge in a changing world. Many believe that a decisive shift in this direction is needed to deliver on MEXT’s stated goal of fostering ikiru chikara, the capacity to lead a fulfilling life as an independent and productive member of society. The IB program is such a curriculum.

The IB diploma program prepares students for college by providing a study experience similar to what they will encounter at the university level. That means developing independent thinking through writing assignments (essays, lab reports, etc.) and class discussions. Before they even embark on the IB diploma program, students are expected to have a firm, systematically built foundation of knowledge and study skills. The IB diploma program gives students who have attained this level of intellectual maturity the opportunity to apply their knowledge and develop higher thinking skills. In this sense, it meets the criteria for a curriculum geared to development of leadership and global human resources. This explains why the IB is now attracting notice among public as well as private schools in Japan as a balanced educational package that can train our children to adapt to globalization and function in a rapidly changing world.

Introducing a Japanese IB Program

But can the government reasonably expect to achieve its goal of “increasing the number of schools where students can receive the IB diploma upon graduation, or receive a comparable education, to approximately 200 over the next five years”?

The biggest obstacle in the way of that target is the difficulty of securing qualified teachers capable of providing IB instruction in English. For the most part, that means foreign teachers. Currently there are precious few qualified foreign teachers in Japan, and the international schools offer generous pay and benefits to secure their services. Meanwhile, rigid laws, regulations, and entrenched systems make it difficult for Japanese schools to institute the sorts of preferential measures needed to attract and retain foreign educators.

But the government may have come up with a workaround. Through negotiations with the IBO, MEXT has managed to win approval for a plan to develop and adopt a Japanese Dual Language IB Diploma Program (“Japanese DP” for short) that teaches a portion of the curriculum in Japanese. This will allow a number of subjects to be handled by Japanese teachers, greatly facilitating the adoption of the IB program at public high schools in particular. In addition, local school systems can make use of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), administered by local authorities in cooperation with the national government, which brings foreign educators to Japan as guest teachers.

Opening Japanese Universities to IB Graduates

Another challenge is ensuring that graduates of the IB program have ample opportunities for higher education in Japan. Assuming one IB class per school and a maximum of 25 students per class, the government’s plan, if realized, would yield up to 5,000 IB diploma holders per year. Our top universities must make room for these students by agreeing to accept the IB exam as a substitute for the national standardized entrance examination.

In recent years the IB program has gained considerable recognition among Japanese universities, some of which actively welcome applicants with IB diplomas. But acceptance is far from universal. In fact, all of Japan’s public universities and a substantial number of private schools still require applicants to submit their scores on the National Center Test of University Admissions.

But this problem should not be insurmountable. IB exam scores are normalized and scaled in such a way that random fluctuation is minimal, and the Western schools that use them as admission criteria have found them to be reliable indicators of academic proficiency. That being the case, it should even be possible to develop a formula for converting IB exam scores to a National Center Test score equivalent for purposes of admission screening. However, an even more desirable option would be to establish a separate screening system for IB diploma holders, with each university setting the minimum IB exam score required for admission.

The growth of the IB program in Japan will hinge on our ability to secure teaching personnel and guarantee educational opportunities for diploma holders by introducing some de jure or de facto flexibility into the system—not exactly a strong point of Japanese society. Only time will tell whether the IB program per se can really take hold in Japan, but already a number of schools have indicated their intention of becoming IB schools, and interest is growing nationwide. Whatever the case, the recognition that the IB has gained as a potential model for Japanese education will doubtless encourage Japanese educators and curriculum designers to incorporate its key elements into education reforms going forward, albeit in a manner adapted to the Japanese context. The IB program itself may or may not gain widespread acceptance in Japan. But as globalization continues its relentless march, the spirit of the International Baccalaureate will surely take root and grow.

(Originally written in Japanese on October 7, 2013.)

youth education university curriculum JET International Baccalaureate IBO IB diploma