The Japanese Philosophy of Kaizen and U.S. School Reform

Education may very well be the single most important ingredient in allowing a person to achieve success in life. The ascendancy of each individual defines the prosperity of our society; school reform is the backbone of a continuously developing education system. As G. K. Chesterton once said, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” Education is a continuous process of converting information into knowledge that can help students develop and explore further information.

In order to learn, a student must take new information and process it in a way that relates it to what is already known, and in the process form a newer, deeper understanding of the material. Just as learning involves changing one’s understanding of concepts and ideas over time, social phenomena such as education must also be subjected to ongoing scrutiny, evaluation, and change. It is necessary to recheck policies and practices upon which education systems are based, and continually strive to make improvements.

Constantly improving

The Japanese have a philosophy of continuous quality improvement called “kaizen,” which they apply to many areas of their life. Kaizen is the idea that one does not need to wait for something to be broken in order to fix it. Rather, one should always look for opportunities to improve upon current processes, making things incrementally better as time passes. This drive for continuous improvement should apply to our educational system; we need to constantly be striving to make things better, reevaluating how we do things, looking at the results we are achieving, and taking steps to improve things incrementally.

In the same way that kaizen theory speaks to improving life in general, we should apply the same principles to U.S. K-12 education. We must consider ways in which our educational system can and should grow, change, and continuously improve in ways to best serve our children. In order for the United States to continue to progress toward a knowledge-based society, it is necessary to reform and streamline our education system to enable the development and assimilation of information as knowledge. Our schools are the primary institutions to facilitate transference and conversion of information into students’ knowledge base. It is our duty to keep a watchful eye on the schooling processes, and to change educational policies and practices to ensure improvement.

Reform, or consistent improvements?

Over the past century, many reforms have taken place throughout the U.S., and on a continuing basis. Despite the constant need for change, very few, if any, of these reforms really made their way to the school level. Most of the initiatives that led to reform originated from dynamic leaders who were capable of implementing these changes in an extraordinary fashion, despite the presence of various radicals in strong opposition to these changes. However, as soon as the leaders moved on to their next challenge, these radical individuals returned to their old ways. The reform was diminished, and eventually there remained no trace of it.

Study after study has shown that the American educational system is not just in need of regular, continuous quality improvement. Something very different is needed since the system is in a state of fundamental disrepair. Our children are performing poorly compared to other developed countries. Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are performing even worse.

Whether you believe that continuous improvement is good for our educational system or not, what is certain is that our educational system needs to change. Rather than always calling for radical reform when the numbers don’t work in our favor, always striving for improvement and never letting our classrooms become comfortable is a better route to K-12 success.


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