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#blendedlearning

These last few days, it’s been more like Mr. Kaz in Palm Springs, CA for the iNACOL symposium on blended and personalized learning. Yesterday morning I had the privilege of sharing the stage with Vicki Phillips, Director of Education/College Ready for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as three fellow teachers – Brian Johnson, Tanesha Dixon, and Collen Kennedy – who are doing amazing things in their classroom with blended learning.

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On stage at iNACOL (L to R) Vicki Phillips, me, Brian Johnson, Tanesha Dixon, Colleen Kennedy

If you’re not familiar with blended learning, it is the formal education that blends traditional teaching with some type of virtual learning. Usually the blending allows lessons and curricula to be personalized to an individual student’s needs. There are many different forms and models that blended learning can take. One popular tool that many teachers now integrate into their curricula is Khan Academy, an online tool which provides virtual, self-paced learning. Khan Academy has even allowed students outside traditional classes in rural places all over the globe to access a world-class education for free. Pretty amazing. The iNACOL conference is about bringing all of the stakeholders in blended learning together.

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Hero shot with Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy

The blended learning model I work in is called School of One, and it is a very comprehensive blended learning model. Possibly the most comprehensive. It starts with this premise: Every one student is a unique individual and learns at his or her own pace and in his or her own style. The School of One package (it is essentially part product part service that a school can buy) includes a user interface and dashboard for students and teachers, content, daily groupings, an assessment system, a redesigned and renovated classroom, amongst lots of other little pieces that create this new model of learning.

School of One starts by assessing each of my 300 students at the beginning of the year and then uses a grouping algorithm to place them in personalized lessons every day. If a 6th grader enters my class on a 4th grade level, that student will start with lessons at a 4th grade level; the same is true on the other end of the spectrum. Every one student has a personalized learning path and is assessed daily to manage each student’s progress on that path. If a student passes the daily assessment, the student moves on to a new lesson on the next skill. If not, the student gets a different style lesson the next day on the same topic. Thus, this blended learning model allows me to be responsive every day to the current learning needs of each of my 300 students, something I struggled with tremendously in my old traditional classroom.

Another reason I call this model comprehensive is that School of One has completely redesigned my classroom to fit the needs of the students in this program. What was once three separate classrooms is now one giant classroom. It was completely renovated and reorganized to meet the needs of a program that has seven different types of lessons that, in theory, could all be going on at once: Live Investigation, Task, Small Group Collaboration, Peer to Peer Collaboration, Virtual Instruction, Virtual Reinforcement. Thus, there are live instruction centers, collaborative centers, and virtual instruction centers.

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A Live Instruction center

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The whole room with lots of different types of lessons going on all at once

Whatever the model is, the goal of every blended learning model and technology is to allow students to learn in ways they never were able to before. It is to reach students in ways they were not reached before. As I wrote before, I am able to meet each of my 300 students individualized learning needs every day with my blended learning tools. Again, pretty amazing. We have finally acknowledged that students are not a product moving down a factory line to be packaged up by batches, usually grouped by age. They grow non-linearly, and we finally have some good tools to respond to that.

This sounds exciting, but you may be asking: are these models really working?

That’s a complicated question since there there are so many models being implemented. It’s also still relatively early in the process. But Vicki Phillips shared some encouraging interim research yesterday that just came out through the RAND study. Twenty-three schools were studied (my school is not included in this study). In a nutshell, the research suggests (albeit with further research necessary and ongoing) that those twenty-three schools who implemented blended learning practices show significantly higher gains in reading and math than those in the control group. Of course, there are caveats and concerns about bias. But read the study and form your own opinion. (Full disclosure: The Gates Foundation funded this study and is also a partial funder of School of One. It also brought me out to Palm Springs to speak about my blended teaching practices.)

In my classroom, I have seen many students – especially those on the low end of achievement, gain 1.5 and sometimes 2 grade levels in a single year. And kids are engaged and excited to be in School of One every day to boot. Rarely are they bored or overwhelmed. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it sounds like success so far to me.

The iNACOL conference gives me a lot of hope about where education is going. I have recently been thinking that it may very well be possible that my own kids (should I have them some day) may not even need to attend traditional college. With online and personalized learning tools, will it be commonplace for students 25 years from now to get a high-quality degree while traveling the world? Will college classes will be fully blended? Whatever it is, education is in a transformational phase and my classroom is meeting more student needs than ever and is more exciting because of it.

 

Q&A with Miyamoto Sensei Part III

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Miyamoto sensei reviewing a problem

It’s now Monday afternoon, and I’m back in Brooklyn after a long trip home yesterday. Saturday was my last day sitting in the back of Miyamoto sensei’s class, and instead of doing our normal debrief/interview at school, I invited him and my translator to my apartment roof that night for a summer fireworks show (It was happening coincidentally. I didn’t arrange a fireworks show for the occasion, in case you were wondering.) and a celebratory dinner. We did the debrief there. Yesterday was all about travel, so here I am trying to catch up. Neat fact about traveling back from Japan: I departed Tokyo/Narita Sunday, August 17 at 5pm. I flew for over 12 hours and landed at Newark Liberty on Sunday, August 17 at 4:55pm. Yep, it took me 12.5 hours in a plane to fly back in time 5 minutes.

After doing some reflecting about the whole experience in Miyamoto sensei’s classroom, I realized I hadn’t written anything about what the classroom actually looked like. So in case you were curious, the room is about 15 x 15 and bright with floor to ceiling windows along about 1/3 of the walls. The classroom is on the 12th floor so it gets quite a bit of light and a nice view, not that anyone student is looking. There are five tables of three seats each on either side of the room with a walking aisle on both ends as well as a center aisle in between. Miyamoto sensei loves to pace around the room while the students are working.

There is a long chalkboard (with multi-colored chalk and a long eraser) up front where he lists the student’s names and keeps score of the daily performance for all to see. There is no technology except for a magnetized timer he uses throughout the session. It’s pretty old school.

In the back corner of the room where you enter is his office area with several computers, an enormous monitor, a copy machine, and other personal items like some cookwear, a refrigerator, CDs (many Queen albums) and a few extra shirts. As you may remember from my last post, he spends quite a bit of time here working on puzzles and preparing for school – not just teaching – and he needs some personal stuff from time to time.

On the side wall, there is a bulletin board with the daily student rankings that many students check when they enter the class. These rankings are huge. There is also one poster advertising the Japanese Math Olympiad. No other decorations. No “You can do it” or “Keep Trying” or “Work Hard” posters. Just a ton of math books and magazines and my guess is he has a system for where everything goes. There have been a few occasions when I was interviewing him that he ran over to a bookshelf and pulled out a random volume just to show me something.

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It is also pretty cold in the classroom, which is a big contrast from the outside heat. It definitely keeps you awake and just slightly uncomfortable, which I think this is all part of the plan. I don’t think he minds if you feel just a little bit uncomfortable. The combination of the temperature and lack of any kind of comforting gestures or signs is something you need to cut through to maintain your focus. It’s as if you’re forced to develop the ability and the confidence to handle that type of environment for 2.5 hours at a time. This is the Zen of Miyamoto sensei.

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Twin dragons painted on the ceiling at the Zen Buddhist temple Kennin-ji in Kyoto, Japan

***

This last interview I tried focus on some of the history of his classroom as well as what lies ahead in New York. In case you did not know, he announced several months ago that after 30 years of teaching in Tokyo, he will move his class to New York next year. Once again, I did not record this interview. I took notes based on what my translator, Tom, told me.

Q: Can you tell me about the evolution of the Miyamoto Mathematics School? Was it always in the format that I see today?

A: Yes, the format has always been the same. I had a few jobs before I became a teacher, but I did not find them fulfilling at all. I was not overly interested in profits, and I realized that I wanted to create something that would last. This is when I had the idea of becoming a teacher. So I got a job as a juku teacher at one of the best companies – TAP. They are no longer around. They have been replaced by Sapix. But after a short time there, I realized that I could not teach in the way I wanted to. That’s when I had the idea for my own school, and it was born. I have always created my own materials, which is the basis for my classroom. I worked extremely hard the first few years generating my own materials, but the school format then is exactly the way you see it now.

Q: When did you start creating puzzles? Was it at the same time your school started?

A: I got my first puzzle published in 1995 by Tokyo Shuppan. In 1997, I was able to get my puzzles published in one of the top mathematics magazines here in Japan. By 1999, this publisher was able to publish 2 books of my puzzles. In 2003, a top executive from Discover contacted me because her daughter had been enjoying my puzzles, so they decided to publish some books. Unfortunately, they did not sell well because they were too expensive. But, they did publish my book “The Art of Teaching without Teaching” and that was a big success. 2006 was when I started working with Gakken, the largest education publisher in Japan. With them I created four categories of books of KenKen: easy, medium, difficult, and expert. The books with Gakken now only cost Y600, and they sold well. Later in 2006 I was contacted by a very popular program on NHK, the public station in Japan, to do a piece on me. At first I did not have the best experience working with them, and I actually turned them down. But they came back to me – which never happens – and the piece finally aired on 12/10/06. This was the point where things really took off. I started getting recognized in the grocery store and things like that.

Q: What do you envision for the future of your school in New York City? How will it be different?

A: I plan on keeping it just the same as it was in Tokyo. The difference will be that the first year I will teach only 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students in Japanese. I have a goal of improving my English enough within one year that in my second year of the school in New York, I can have an international 3rd grade class conducted in English. I will continue to build my international classes from there.

[Because I just had to ask] Q: Do you ever have disruptive students? 

A: I try to give problems that are so challenging and consuming that there is absolutely no time for distraction. But there have been a few times here and there when I have had a disruptive student. There was one student who was doing something distracting with his pencil so I told him I would subtract 10 points from his score. Same goes for a student who I knew was cheating. Deducting points from their score was enough of a deterrent to make them stop.

If you would like to read the previous interviews, click the following links: Part I  Part II

***

This being the last interview with Miyamoto sensei, I thought I would end by sharing another one of my favorite problems from the day’s classes. I always come back to the fact that there is no substitute for a great problem that completely captures you. I worked on this for a while until I finally got it. How would you solve it?

48 x A = 54 x B = C x C x C

Find A, B, and C.

 

 

Q&A With Miyamoto sensei Part II

This past Tuesday I went back to Miyamoto sensei’s class. 2.5 hours in the morning with the 6th graders, and 2.5 hours in the afternoon with the 4th graders. In between I had a great sushi lunch at Tsukiji Fish Market, but that’s another story. If you’re in the neighborhood, I highly recommend going.

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Before

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After

I am still amazed at the amount of concentration that Miyamoto sensei himself displays during class. He is straight-faced, pacing, checking, writing (on the board), and saying, for the most part, only two words – Maru or Botsu (Good or Wrong) – for 2.5 hours straight. Sometimes he says nothing at all when he checks a student’s work. This forces the student to really re-check their work. It’s not as surprising to me anymore that he gets the same level of concentration back from the students. In a way, they all seem like an orchestra playing together for 2.5 hours. Miyamoto sensei is the conductor, and the students play and play and play until he says stop. Why do students run to the bathroom? The orchestra doesn’t sound as good without them. I asked Miyamoto sensei several questions about his planning process during my interview, and his answers sounded like that of a musician or performing artist. More on that below.

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My biggest takeaway from this session is that there is no substitution for a great lesson or problem. You can be the most gifted teacher, but if you don’t have a great lesson or problem that captures the students, you are dead in the water. Miyamoto sensei believes this so strongly that he doesn’t do any direct teaching at all. He merely gives excellent problems and expects the learning to come from the hard work and perseverance that is necessary to solve them. I myself was enthralled with one of his problems for about 30 minutes, and I eventually created a great spreadsheet on excel to help me figure it out. I probably should have been able to solve it by hand, but that’s where I went. How would you do it? 

The number of boys in 1st grade is 2/3 of the amount of girls.  5/12 of all 1st graders wear glasses. 72 of the boys wear glasses, and 5/9 of the girls do not wear glasses. How many 1st graders are there?

***

Like last time, I did not record my interview. I only took notes based on what my translator, Tom, told me.

Q: How do you plan which questions to use in class?

A: I always start my class with review problems from the previous class. After that, I use a set of 10 problems that get progressively harder. I have created all of these problems myself and spent much time arranging them. I am very satisfied with how they have come out.

Q: You told me previously you wake up very early on school days. Why is that and can you tell me more about your routine?

A: It is true I wake up very early on school days. I usually wake up at about midnight, ride my bike to the school, where I then sleep for a few more hours. This starts to bring my focus to school. After some more sleep, I wake up and start preparing my materials. In this time, I am also building up my focus for class, which takes quite a while. I do a lot of visualizing of how the class will go, and my focus steadily increases right up to the beginning where I am finally ready.

Q: I have certainly learned in your classroom that there is no substitute for a great problem, and you have many of them. Where does your inspiration come from to create these problems?

A: Students need great problems to capture their attention. It is much like reading a great novel. When you are reading a great novel, it does not feel like you are even reading. Time will pass, and you won’t even realize it. The same is true with a great problem or puzzle. I have been doing this a long time – 30 years – and I have built up a large knowledge base over that time. At this point in my career, I have enough experience to create interesting problems without it taking too much time.

Q: I have noticed that sometimes you write the problems on the board and other times you give a worksheet. Which do you think is better?

A: I believe using the board is better. When students have to copy a problem, they always show a higher level of concentration because of this extra work. When the problem is already there for them, the do not show as much focus on the problem.

Q: In my own classroom, I occasionally allow the students to use an answer key to check their own work so that 1) I can use many different level worksheets at once; and 2) so I don’t have to run around the room to check everyone’s work. What do you think of this practice?

A: Truthfully I have never thought about using this practice [laughs]. I love pacing around the room and seeing student work. I also have never thought about giving different levels of problems to the students based on their ability. The ability level in my classroom does have a wide range, yet I believe that every student should try the most difficult problems. It is true that very often my students do not find the solutions [side note: for the problem above only a few students out of about 20 solved it], but that does not matter. What matters is the hard concentration and effort that all of the students show in their work. I could understand that parents might not be happy with this method, but since all of the parents know my program, they never question it.

Q: I place a lot of emphasis on divergent thinking, multiple solutions to problems, and sharing with the class. When you check student work, do you notice many different types of solutions, and do you ever share them or have them share their solutions with the rest of the class?

A: Yes I notice many different types of solutions when I check their work. But often there is a lot of work all over the place and probably not the best to share. Once in a while, if there is a very interesting solution to a problem I will share it with the class. But generally I do not like pushing one student’s thinking on another. Every student should think for himself and create his own ideas.

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***

One more class on Saturday, and then heading home on Sunday. Stay tuned for Q&A Part III.

 

 

The Little Differences

It’s now over a week into the trip, and I’m definitely starting to feel like I live here. I’m tempted to say I feel like a local, but when you can’t speak the language except for thank you very much (oregato gozaimas), I don’t think I can qualify. But the neighbors in my apartment building know me and the hipsters at the funky clothing shop downstairs of my building wave to me at this point.

This weekend I got to enjoy some touristy and non-touristy things around Tokyo. Tokyo is so much larger than I ever realized. The city of Tokyo itself has over 13 million people (4 million more than NYC), and the metropolitan area has over 32 million; it’s the biggest metro area in the world! With so many narrow streets, the population density here is staggering. There’s masses of people everywhere, and not surprisingly, more restaurants per capita than anywhere else. In Tokyo, you could never be without food. Where it comes from or where it goes, I have not totally figured out.

As I walked around this past week, I got comfortable in knowing that they mostly have the same stuff here as they do in the United States, but there are some little differences. Here’s a few in no particular order:

Electronic toilet with bidet: Not only do almost all the toilets here have bidets, but they are all electronic. There is a control panel on the wall that covers all functions. That means 1) there needs to be an outlet near every toilet; 2) there is serious wiring for a toilet that I usually only save for installing surround sound stereo; and 3) with all this effort going into the toilets, everyone must use them, right? I still have not, and I’m fine with keeping it that way. Although the button to automatically raise the seat is much appreciated.

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Sideways traffic lights, driving on the left side of the road, walk signals: I get driving on the left side of the road. I still have to look both ways when crossing, though, because I can never remember which way to look. Luckily, EVERYONE here waits for the crosswalk symbol, even if no cars are coming. The crosswalk symbols have very convenient countdown “bars” so you know when the light, which is always sideways, is changing.

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This is one example. Sometimes there are configurations of five and six lights that I still can’t figure out.

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Still got some time left before I can cross.

Stickers: So many shops have their own branded stickers to put on merchandise that’s been purchased. My guess is it lets the staff know that you paid, although crime doesn’t seem like too big of a problem here – at least not where I’ve been hanging out. Here’s a pic of the water bottle I got from Natural Lawson this morning with the sticker on it.

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Narrow windy streets: The streets here have no rhyme or reason and they are narrow! You think you’re cutting through from one main dori (street) to another and you end up somewhere else. Turns out that narrow street wound the wrong way.

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A map of my neighborhood Jingumae. The star is where I live.

 

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Katie walking down Harajuku St.

Department store basements: The department stores here have everything that we do in the US except one thing: Their basement levels are the food department. That includes a ton of desks (like cosmetic desks) selling everything from chocolates, sweets, meats, fruit, alcohol, prepared foods, unprepared foods, and a full grocery store to boot. It’s as much fun walking around down there as it is overwhelming. Ironically, with all the great food there is no place to sit down and eat it, and eating on the run or in a random place seems to be frowned upon. It seems people buy their food and take it home. No pic will even come close to doing it justice.

Smaller doors: Generally, standard door frames here are smaller. It feels like I’m living in a slightly shrunken world. Works for me because I’m kind of a small person. Here’s me walking into my apartment.

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Cheering/Umbrellas at baseball games: I was able to score some great last-minute seats to see the Yakult Swallows play the Hanshin Tigers last week at Jingu Stadium, which is only a 10-minute walk from my apartment. First off, I got the tickets at the local Lawson (a Walgreens type store), which actually made a lot of sense. Especially if you’re the Mets of Tokyo. More access to tickets hopefully means more tickets sold. Baseball is as huge here as it is in the US, and I could go on about the little differences in style of play. But I’ll limit this one to my observations of the fans. Turns out my amazing top-dollar (¥4600) seats were actually kind of lame. I was really close to home plate but all of the action was happening in the bleachers. Left side of the bleachers was all Hanshin fans; right side was Yakult. Think college football student sections. Every time Hanshin was up to bat, their bleachers went crazy with chanting and singing the whole time plus a full horn section to back them (student marching band?). They took turns as their respective teams came up to bat. And every time Yakult scored runs, which was often (they won 13-4), they rose umbrellas in unison to celebrate. I found out that this is a Yakult thing but I think every team has their special celebration.

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The dancing umbrellas

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Hanshin fans in yellow in left field bleachers. Yakult fans in green in right field bleachers.

Trays to pay: Whenever you buy anything, there is a tray to put your money in. Or credit card. Don’t hand your money directly to the cashier or the taxi driver. Put it in the tray.

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Taxi pay tray

Numbered subway stops and exits: I always thought NYC had a crazy public transportation system, and then I came here. There are so many different lines, lines that connect and turn into different lines, and almost none of them are owned by the government. They are all owned by various companies: Seibu, Tokyo Metro, Japan Railway Company, Tokyu, Toei, New Red Arrow, and more. Thankfully, you can buy a Suica card which is a refillable MetroCard of sorts that gives you access to all of them and they seem to connect and work with each other pretty well. Google Maps is still the best map app, and going anywhere on the subway is as easy as putting it in there. It will give you full instructions including which platform to stand on. But in case that isn’t enough, every subway line numbers its stops. I’m at G-11 (Nihombashi) on the Ginza line at the moment. Also, the stations can be so big that they have conveniently numbered the exits. It has been very helpful!

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Vending machines still reign supreme: Sure, we still have vending machines in the US, but they are everywhere here. Good thing too because I need a new bottle of water pretty often. The first week here it was 95 degrees, sunny, and humid every day.

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Sliding glass doors: So many shops have sliding glass doors. Some are automatic and others you have to push a button, but this is definitely the door of choice here.

No trash cans: There are very few public trash cans everywhere, so I find myself carrying my trash around until I get back to my apartment. I would think this might make people litter, but the streets are very clean.

No napkins at meals – only tissues occassionally: This one kind of surprises me. There aren’t too many restaurants that give out napkins. They always give out a towel of some sort at the beginning of the meal to clean your hands. But what happens when I inevitably drop food on my lap?

Face masks: Many people here wear face masks just like your dentist wears. They are going about their normal daily business: going to work, out to eat, walking around, all with a face mask. I have been told that it is worn mostly by people who are sick so they don’t spread their germs. And yet, I see people driving alone in their cars with them on. Why wear them in your car too? I would expect to see that person with it around their neck.

Fun stuff on the other side of the world. Next post back to more serious matters.

 

 

 

Jukus & Hiroo Gakuen

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Ad for Hiroo Gakuen International School at the local Metro stop

Aside from the school days with Miyamoto sensei, my amazing friend and quasi-publicist, Nikki Yoshimura, set up several meetings and events so I could get a better view and understanding of the Japanese school system…

There is a big divide between public and private schools in Japan. According to some people I spoke with, as much as 50% of students attend juku (cram school) in addition to regular public school. At juku, students cram to prepare for the entrance exams to many private schools. A good private school is much preferred over public school and can take a student from 7th all the way to 12th grade. There is a lot of pressure to get into a good private school, so there is a lot of pressure to attend and do well in juku. Miyamoto sensei’s school is one of these jukus, albeit a very unique one. Most jukus employ completely untrained teachers, yet some of these teachers are extremely successful. There are some very small mom and pop type jukus and others that are big business like Sapix. The boy whose family hosted me last Saturday night attends both Miyamoto sensei’s juku and Sapix. Very ambitious!

On Wednesday I was invited to take a tour of the private Hiroo Gakuen International School. This school has both a middle and high school. It was chosen for a visit because it utilizes a lot technology (in Japan it’s called ICT). Since it’s a private school, they definitely have a lot of money to play with. Each class is outfitted with a built-in projector/podium and full internet. Almost every student is given some kind of computer or tablet, and students are encouraged to submit assignments through Google Apps for Education. Hearing all of this from the leaders of the school was good, but I couldn’t help feeling those statements were a bit empty. Sure they use lots of the latest technology, and to some extent, they are doing things they couldn’t do before without it. But it still felt kind of flat. I keep coming back to the same question: How do we use technology to teach our students in ways we couldn’t before? One simple answer is School of One, but I think our challenge as an educational community is to keep innovating to do things we’ve never been able to do before.

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Technology or not, we still need to set goals. For some reason, goals in Japanese just look much cooler.

One teacher at Hiroo Gakuen who was really impressive was Yosuke Horiuchi. He is a high school science teacher, and he actually attended my blended learning symposium on Monday. He was the one in the audience who was really engaged and nodding repeatedly (it was very comforting every time I looked out and saw him). I was really excited to see him again; I hadn’t exchanged business cards with him, and I really wanted to get back in touch. Funny how things work out. He took me to his classroom, where I saw his students’ goals on the wall. I guess some things are universal. He told me he uses a flipped classroom quite a bit, and it has worked very well. He only uses a few sources for videos, so I asked him if he ever thought of making his own. It seemed like he hadn’t even thought of it. I admit I haven’t made any either, but I have intended to. Does that count? I still have Educreations on my iPad waiting to be used for the first time. I know it’s a great app, so any of you teachers out there – check it out!

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Me and Yosuke sitting in his classroom. Notice the projector mounted to the ceiling in his classroom. Nice touch.

He toured me around the rest of the school, which, from the outside, looked more like an office building than a school. But a school is a school. It had classrooms and desks and projectors and science labs and teachers rooms. Hallways were hot but classrooms were cool. There were American college banners on certain floors (being an international school, attendance at American universities is highly encouraged). I even got to see some of his students giving science presentations that were being filmed for a piece on NHK, Japan’s only public broadcasting channel. From the back of the room, Yosuke was able to annotate a little of this by showing me the presentation on his laptop. He also showed me his feedback system of giving comments on the presentations since they are submitted through Google Apps for Education. That was cool.

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student presentation

 

All in all, it was a really good visit. Yosuke and I are kindred spirits, as we both are trying to push the limits of technology in our classroom. It will be interesting to see where his teaching practice end up in 5-10 years. I hope we stay in touch.

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The periodic table with a Japanese twist

 

Q&A with Miyamoto Sensei Part I

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A “home”cooked meal. My translator Tom and Miyamoto sensei (L to R)

I have the privilege of having three Q&As with Miyamoto sensei, one after each class day. The first was Wednesday night. The second will be next Tuesday, and the last will be a week from this Saturday. I sat in the back of the class for five hours, and needless to say lots of questions about his methods, his ethos, and the students came up. Wednesday’s class was very similar to the first class day I observed (for more on that CLICK HERE), although there were a few occasions when students asked him to clarify something he wrote on the board. I was surprised they said anything at all.

It had been a long day for him, as he told me that on teaching days, he’s up at 2am preparing. He also said all he had eaten that day was a grapefruit. How anyone can survive all day on just a grapefruit is a wonder. Clearly he has focus and concentration that can outmatch most people. But even after such a long day he was so gracious – and even giddy – to answer my questions. He has an enthusiasm for what he does and sharing what he does – both in the classroom and in his puzzle making – that I’ve never seen before. Below is a summary of his responses. I did not record our conversation; I only took notes based on what my translator, Tom, told me.

Q: Tell me more about the point system you use.

A: I start out every class with review questions from the previous lesson. Each question is worth one point. Once those are finished, I introduce a new problems and I time each one individually. Each question is worth 10 points. I keep track on my tracking sheet as well as on the board so the students can see. The student with the highest points for the day will get the top ranking. Students very much want to be the highest ranked…If nobody gets the answer to a question, the points get carried over to the the top ranked student. This is like a bonus for being the top-ranked. If nobody can get an answer to a question, the top-ranked student loses points. This is the burden of being the top-ranked student. Whoever are the top scorers of the day get my handcrafted stickers. They are nothing special, but they are a fun incentive that the kids enjoy. It’s not the stickers that matter but that there is something to compete for. These are the basics of my system.

Q: I have heard you say that it is not how fast you solve a puzzle that is important, but that you never give up. Yet in your class there is a lot of timing. Why?

A: Time is not the most important thing when solving a puzzle. The most important thing is that you never give up and always continue to think. The process of solving itself makes you smarter. But, in class, there are time restrictions, so you must consider time in class.

Q: I noticed that you give the KenKen and other puzzles to the 3rd graders but not any of the older groups. Why not?

A: The puzzles are a great way to warmup your mind, but they do not teach you the mathematics. In my class, the kids are preparing for a big exam and must learn the mathematics.

Q: I understand the philosophy “The Art of Teaching without Teaching” but do you at least say something to the students on the first day of class?

A: On the first day I do tell them some rules and things about the classroom. I intentionally scare them so they know they need to behave in my class. My classroom is on the 12th floor, so I tell them not to lean on the glass because it is weak and they could fall out. I tell them not to jump in the elevator because it is weak and has gotten stuck before – sometimes for days! I tell them not to open the other door in the classroom because it is a chute straight down to the bottom of the building. I tell them not to run in the class because several other students have slipped while running before, hit their heads on the table, and they are still in the hospital. These kinds of things. I laugh now when I hear it, but I say it very seriously in class. The students do not question this.

Q: Do you create all of your own materials?

A: Absolutely! I have made over 10,000 puzzles in my life. [Here he showed me a picture of his newest puzzle from the Yomiuri newspaper – shown below.] I have also made 96 workbooks (which he showed me) that comprise my entire curriculum. About 2-3 years ago I worked day and night putting these books together. In many ways they are my life’s work. I had to create materials to go all the way up through high school. In my course that is for first-year middle schoolers, we do the entire middle school curriculum in one year. In my course that is for first-year high schoolers, we do the entire high school curriculum in one year. It is very advanced.

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Q: Some students spoke today in class. This was a big surprise to me. What were they saying and was that OK?

A: Sometimes the students can not read my characters (words) on the board so they ask me to clarify. I am fine with this.

Final thought from Miyamoto sensei: There are four types of problems that exist. Easy, Easy and Fun, Hard, Hard and Fun. Easy doesn’t help you learn anything. Easy and fun is enjoyable but again it does not help you in any way. Hard problems are what most students see in their regular studies. They are challenging but they are not fun so kids are not interested in them. I try to make every problem I give Hard and Fun. This is what motivates students to learn.

*****

I had more questions, but I wanted to quit while I was ahead so I decided to save them for next time. I had to think he was anxious to eat, and I was hungry myself. I asked him if we would get dinner at a restaurant nearby, but he said he rarely goes out (he loves to cook). He thought he might know one place (even though there’s about a thousand nearby), but then I suggested going to the local department store, Takashimaya, to get food to cook.

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All the cashiers wear these great outfits.

This is something I learned one of my first days here: All the department stores have massive food sections in the basement. Everything from desserts, chocolate, groceries, and every kind of food you could want. It’s not a food court; it’s more of the food department in a department store. Miyamoto sensei loved the idea and immediately led us downstairs, into underground subway passages that eventually led us into the Takashimaya basement.

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Miyamoto sensei leading me through the underground subway passages right into Takashimaya.

Miyamoto sensei knew exactly what he wanted to cook. He grabbed an onion, bitter melon, lotus root, eggs, a bunch of meat, and sashimi. We took it back to his office, and he whipped up an amazing 3-course meal in his tiny office kitchen. We hung out for a while and enjoyed each other’s company while we shared stories, pictures, and he even let me sit in his chair. How this happened I’m not sure. He is a generous person in so many ways. I can’t wait to do it again next Tuesday.

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By the end of the night, I wound up in the master’s chair.

 

 

 

 

Symposium on Blended and Personalized Learning

Yesterday was one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. I was invited to lead a symposium (which essentially was setup for me) on blended and personalized learning. It’s still hard to wrap my head around the fact that I was asked to teach the Japanese about new teaching techniques, but based on what I heard from students, parents, teachers, and media, there is much that both cultures could gain from this new trend. Essentially, Japanese teachers face a very similar problem that American teachers face: How do we engage all levels of learners in one classroom? School of One is certainly one answer, but it still has a long way to go to get to perfection. More on that later.

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The symposium was held at Yasuda Gakuen School. It’s a private middle and high school which students study very hard (in juku) to pass an exam to get into. I was given a very formal and ceremonious greeting. The Japanese are excellent at being ceremonious. It’s definitely something I could improve on. I met the headmaster in his conference room as well as the 8 students who would help me demonstrate the School of One program. It was a bit difficult to explain to the kids that they didn’t have to do any actual work, just kind of put on a show. As I assigned fake group partners, they awkwardly giggled when I assigned one boy and one girl to work together. I guess this is a universal thing.

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Me and the headmaster Mr. Hasunuma

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Guided by a pretty solid slideshow I put together, I spoke (in English) about the main benefits of blended and personalized learning with a focus on School of One. My aim was to convey that personalized learning using technology can allow teachers to redefine the classroom in ways that were not possible before. This is especially true for School of One since it uses an algorithm and massive data collection by the computer to regroup students on a daily basis. It would be nearly impossible for a human to do it. But as always, I stress that this type of system is not a replacement for teachers. It merely does the functions that teachers can’t do on a massive scale – most of the data collection and regrouping – and leaves the job that teachers do best – teaching – to the teachers. There is some overlap. Teachers do group within their groups, and computers do provide virtual instruction. But for the most part, each entity does what it does best.

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I went through both the macro and micro details of the program, getting right down to the nitty gritty of small features on the website. Believe it or not, they understood me very well and not much was lost in translation. The crowd was very engaged, especially one teacher who kept nodding his head in understanding and what I thought was encouragement. He was definitely there to learn something and it relaxed me.

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My view from the front of the room. Kids up front, audience members right behind them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
I then led a 45-minute question an answer session (with a bunch of help from my translator Shiomi), which was much more engaging than I ever expected. Audience members had great questions about the details of the program and its efficacy. One recurring theme is that the audience wanted to see the MATHEMATICAL CONTENT that the program employs. I didn’t have access to those materials, and I was also honest in that I didn’t always think the contents were of the highest quality. This is a big area of opportunity for School of One, and I had to explain that the company that created it set out to build a program, not math content. They quickly learned, however, that a quality program without quality content won’t go very far. It’s a work in progress.

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Shiomi, my translator, helping me during the Q&A.

Generally, the audience was very enthusiastic and appreciative to hear about this technology. There was intrigue from most people, and I have received a few emails already with more questions about the program. This idea of personalization definitely resonated.

After saying a ceremonious goodbye and doing the customary business card exchange, Mr. Morigami, an educational consultant who arranged the entire event, took me and a few audience participants out to lunch (one of which was the very nice teacher who was nodding his head). We ate at a restaurant on the 21st floor of a nearby hotel, something I’m told is very common to do. Who knew. We all mostly just shot the breeze, and it was a nice decompression from the morning.

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L to R: The great teacher who nodded in encouragement, another audience member, Shiomi my translator, Katie, me, a head teacher at the school, Mr. Morigami