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.
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!
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.
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.