Jukus & Hiroo Gakuen


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.


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!


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.


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.


The periodic table with a Japanese twist



Q&A with Miyamoto Sensei Part I


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Me and the headmaster Mr. Hasunuma




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.


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.


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.


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.


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










Family Visits

It was a hectic first weekend in Tokyo with Saturday school as well as some family visits that Miyamoto sensei helped setup with some of his current and former students.

Saturday night->Sunday morning I was in central Tokyo with a wonderful family with two boys. I had lunch Sunday in Yokohama with a mother and one of her two daughters (the other is at camp with friends in Michigan!), and dinner with another family back in Tokyo who have older kids.

At the beginning of the 5th grade session in on Saturday afternoon, I took my chair in the back, and I was delivered a hand-written note by one of the boys in class…


[name removed to protect privacy]

When class was over 4 hours later (again, no sign of exhaustion from any student), the student and I braved the 95 degree humidity, found his dad, and we drove back to their neighborhood. My new friend insisted on wheeling my suitcase for me, and I wasn’t going to stop him. We made a quick pitstop at a summer dance festival, where there were a ton of kids watching the live dancing and singing. There was also the usual cotton candy and popcorn as well as the more unusual noodles, goldfish catching, and cork-shooting to win prizes. Wish I had grabbed a picture of that, but I guess you can’t capture everything.

When we got to their apartment, I was prepared an amazing traditional Japanese dinner which was highlighted by ginger pork, sashimi, and miso soup, not to mention the very enjoyable conversation about Miyamoto sensei’s class, his teaching methods, Japanese public schools vs. juku, amongst other things. Their son was clearly very into Miyamoto sensei’s class and has completed many of his puzzle books. Little did I know, Miyamoto sensei has a ton of puzzle books with many different types of puzzles – not just KenKen. He really is a puzzle master. Little does he know, his student is actually a little aspiring puzzle-master. He created one puzzle for me that I challenge anyone to solve. I still have yet to solve the pattern. Someone help me out? (Just for clarification, find x in the pattern: [4, 10, 21, 37, x, 97]


When I asked him what the biggest lesson he learned from Miyamoto sensei was, without hesitation he said to never give up and struggling or concentrating for a long time on a problem is what helps make you strong.  I asked him if Miyamoto sensei ever said this explicitly to him, and he said he didn’t. It was implied. This theme would run through each of the three students I met with, and none of them have ever really spoken with their teacher.

Sunday morning I was prepared a delicious American-style breakfast, chatted some more with the parents, and they sweetly drove me to the local JR stop train so I could head to Yokohama.

I was shocked how easy it was to get to Yokohama. It’s about 30 miles from Tokyo yet trains leave every few minutes from a bunch of stations. I doubt anyone would have to even check a commuter line schedule or anything like that. Plus Google maps lays out everything perfectly for you on the Tokyo subways. Amazing. I arrived at Ishikawacho station and was met at the south gate by Hiromi and Manami Kaneko. They took me back to their apartment building where, on the first floor, they showed me their confection shop that had been in their family for four generations!

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Three generations of Kanekos at their confection shop


Tons of great sweets, almost all hand-made on the premises. Hiromi went to school for two years to study the art of confectionary. Of course I tried to buy a bunch of stuff, and she didn’t let me pay. She took me upstairs to the third floor and prepared me a delicious lunch of noodles, egg, ham, and some vegetables. We all spoke about lots of stuff, but when it came to Miyamoto, Manami said the same thing: his lesson was to never give up and that sometimes you have to struggle with hard problems. This is what makes you strong. Does he ever say that? No. It’s just the ethos of the class.

I capped off my marathon day of travel (and eating) with dinner near Togoshiginza station back in Tokyo. Apparently the longest shopping street in Japan is here, but it was just too hot and I was too tired from running around to explore it. I was met at the train station by Misa Ro, one of Miyamoto’s former students who now goes to a very prestigious high school, and one of her friends. Her friend couldn’t stop making fun of her for not doing her homework. Misa didn’t deny it. She says she just doesn’t like or do homework. All of her teachers know it, and her mom was clearly not happy when the subject came up. It was a bit of a departure in attitude from the other students, but it seemed to work for her. I’m sure Miyamoto sensei knows this, and I kind of appreciate him not setting me up with only ambitious, overly-studious, students.

We at delicious Korean BBQ on their roof and enjoyed some casual conversation.

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view from the roof with Togoshiginza station below and a bit of Mt. Fuji in the distance

When Miyamoto sensei came up in conversation, it was the same theme: never give up, struggle, concentrate. This makes you strong. It got more powerful every time I heard it. I gave both of the students a view gifts from Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store, and I went on my way. It was a long day but one full of great sights and insights.

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Saturday Juku in Miyamoto sensei’s class

It took me about 30 minutes to find Miyamoto sensei’s classroom after getting off the subway. Google maps has been great here, but I was wandering around because I think my chome was off. Then I noticed some parents with younger children coming out of exit A7 at Nihombashi station, so I accosted one of them and they showed me the way to the very non-descript building…


Miyamoto sensei’s class was exactly as I had heard: NO TALKING! Students came in, checked the board (more on this later), got right to their work, and did not stop until the session was over. In the morning, 3rd graders worked on puzzles for 1.5 hours. In the afternoon, the 5th graders worked on other clever problem sets for 2.5 hours and then reading for another 1.5 hours – ALL WITH NO BREAKS. Barely any bathroom uses. Their concentration level was so amazing that you would not have been able to tell the difference between the first five minutes of class and the last five minutes. Same mood, same tone, same energy. How was this possible? I admit, after a 4-hour session in the afternoon I was getting a little restless.


Miyamoto sensei’s class is based heavily in a point/ranking system. All puzzles/problems are timed, and students are given points based on their performance. Miyamoto sensei personally checks all work, and students are given points (and are only allowed to move on ) for correct solutions. Mistakes mean you lose points. Points are tallied after each class, and there is a new ranking every week. Kids rush to the board at the beginning of class to see who is number 1.

There are many fine details to this system that was explained to me by one of his students over dinner (more on this later). One interesting detail is that being the top ranked student in the class has its benefits but also its pressures. If students in the class make mistakes on problems, the top ranked student has the ability to add points on to his score simply because others are making mistakes. It’s good to be the king (or queen). But, if nobody in class can find a solution to a problem, the top-ranked student and only the top-ranked student loses points.

There is no lesson – only problem sets. When students complete a puzzle or problem, Miyamoto sensei says only two words: MARU, which means OK, or BOTSU, which means WRONG. This is all he says. No cajoling, no encouragement. The challenge, the incentive, the ethos are all implied. As I watched this go on for several hours, I wondered: Could I be that minimalist in my class? At least sometimes?  It didn’t matter to Miyamoto sensei whether you were on fire or struggling. He just paced the room, diligently checked work when asked, set a new timer when he needed to, and tracked points on the board as well as his sheet. It seemed, for him, the hardest of his work was in the preparation of the materials – puzzles, problem sets, reading passages. From there, he executed his system flawlessly, and the kids worked more diligently than I could have imagined.

As I sat in the back of the room, I completed my first 9×9 no operations puzzle. Miyamoto sensei definitely has something here: there is great satisfaction in solving a difficult puzzle.


Little did I know, Miyamoto has many different kinds of puzzles, so I also learned a new one. It took me a little while to figure out, but I finally got it. Again, victory! The rules, a sample solution, and a new puzzle are below. Print it out, solve it, and post your solution!

-Lights are coming from where the letters are. When a light hits a mirror, it turns 90 degrees. Which direction it turns depends on which way the mirror is angled (/ or \).
-Lights coming from a letter must arrive at the same letter.
-Lights pass through at the center of squares.
-Only one mirror per cage (dark outlined area).
-The number next to the letter tells you how many times that light turns 90 degrees.

Good luck!

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photo 1

Day 1. Good morning from the land of the rising sun.


Sun comes up early here… Today is day 1 and it starts a huge weekend. Today is the first day of class with Miyamoto sensei. No translator for class. Why? There is NO TALKING! I believe students solve puzzles for 2.5 hours with no talking at all. Just like my class (ok, maybe slightly different). Luckily, I got the puzzles in advance and I did some homework on the plane.


My airplane homework

I did my first 5×5, 6×6, and 7×7 NO OP puzzle. This means that in the puzzle, there are no operations on the target numbers. Only the target numbers.

In this 6x6 puzzle, the targets have operations

In this 6×6 puzzle, the targets have operations

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In this 6×6 puzzle, there are no target operations. You have to figure that out.

This creates many more possibilities and makes the puzzles considerably harder. I struggled with 8×8, and I’m up early to keep going. And yet these puzzles will be given to the elementary school kids today. Does every student finish them all?

Following class, I was invited to stay with one of his student’s families at their home tonight. I’ll be getting a true Japanese home experience. Tomorrow I have lunch and dinner with two other students and their families to learn more about their experience being in Miyamoto sensei’s class. I am really curious about how they got into Miyamoto’s school (it’s only word of mouth), and how it has affected their learning. Stay tuned.

Tokyo in Two Days


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It’s unbelievable how much has grown from a tiny seed of an idea. In November, I had the idea to visit Tetsuya Miyamoto in his classroom in Tokyo, Japan. Now I am also preparing to speak to the Japanese media about blended learning on Monday.  Yes, an American is going to Japan to show them how to teach math. Maybe that is twisting it a bit, but the sentiment is there. I am also preparing to stay with a Japanese family whose children studied with Miyamoto sensei, have lunch and dinner with two other students of his and their families, visit a few Japanese companies who are contributing to this new landscape of #edtech, and most importantly, I will observe master teacher Miyamoto sensei – creator of KenKen – in his own classroom. I have three different translators ready to go for different occasions (all people I’m excited to meet), and yet none of them will come with me to Miyamoto sensei’s classroom. Why? There is no talking in his classroom, so there is nothing to translate. It should be very interesting.

I will try to update the blog with as many stories, tidbits, and pictures every couple of days. Please comment and question! This should be a learning experience for everyone.