Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

Japanese schooling: "whole child" education, not just academics

CJ Westerberg, March 29, 2012 12:08 PM


Editor's Note:   Bill Jackson is Math Helping Teacher, Scarsdale NY Public Schools, one of the highest performing school districts in the country.  If you missed his series on "Singapore Math Demystified!,"  exclusively featured and published by The Daily Riff , we highly recommend you to check it out.  We are delighted that Bill is sharing his wealth of knowledge through this series of journals from his trip to Japan - C.J. Westerberg

" . . .they want to educate the whole child. 

Japanese schooling attempts to develop students' creative talents,
not just academic skills."

A Math Teacher's Travel Journal To Japan

By Bill Jackson, Scarsdale Math Teacher

Today we visited Narimasu Elementary School in Tokyo. As a designated research school, Narimasu receives government grants to investigate new directions in curriculum and instruction. Narimasu serves local students in grades 1 to 6 and is very much a typical Japanese elementary school.

We were very well received by the principal, Mrs. Ichinose, who spoke to us about the philosophy of the school, which is based on three things -- openness, collaboration, and challenge. She said that she has very good teachers and they work very hard toward that goal. (I would like to note that both teachers and principals are referred to by the same title "sensei" or "teacher," and it seems like Mrs. Ichinose sees her position not so much as boss but as part of a collaborative effort.) She also emphasized the importance of not just parental involvement, but involvement of the entire community.

In the morning, we split into small groups and visited classes. A parent or community volunteer, who spoke English, led each small group. We visited many different classes including art, swimming, Japanese language, music, mathematics and English.

Although Narimasu is quite different from Takehaya (see Day 3 & 4  HERE), there was still that feeling of openness and the feeling that they want to educate the whole child. Japanese schooling attempts to develop students' creative talents, not just academic skills. There was student art all over the walls and I must say it was quite good. Children are genuinely happy, playful and loved. Teachers go out of their way to be kind to the children and, just like Takehaya, teachers were generally not yelling at kids, and as bad behavior was seemingly ignored, it quickly dissipated.

One of the highlights of the day was eating lunch with the students. It is really something to see how the students serve and eat lunch, usually unsupervised. All students wait until everyone is served and then together say the blessing "itadakimas" (we gratefully receive this) and eat. Nothing is wasted and afterward they all clean up. I ate lunch in a sixth grade class and the students were very happy to practice their English. Common questions I was asked are, "What is your favorite (hobby, color, food, etc.)?" I really laughed a lot with the students at my table as they taught me Japanese and I taught them English!

In the afternoon, we all observed a research lesson. The Narimasu school is conducting a different kind of lesson study where three lessons are conducted at the same time in the same grade and subject in different classes. Through this, observers can observe the previous day's lesson, the current day's lesson, and the next day's lesson all at once in three different classes. Observers switch between classes to observe. These classes have been downsized in order to have classes of a little more than 20 students per class instead of the typical 40 or more. The students are divided into the three classes heterogeneously based on a pre-test so all classes have the same mix of ability levels. We observed 4th grade mathematics lessons taught by three teachers -- Mr. Suzuki, Ms. Adachi, and Mr. Koizumi. We divided into three different groups to move about every 10 minutes between the classes. For the sake of brevity, I will comment on Ms. Adachi's class only.

The goal of Ms. Adachi's lesson was for students to see the advantages of writing a unified expression for a division problem. The problem that she posed was, "If you share 8 dozen pencils among 6 people, how many pencils will each person get?" Students wrote down their solution methods and answers on magnetic white boards and put them on the board. The teacher then classified all of the solutions into 3 basic methods.  When students explained the solutions, Ms. Adachi told them that they have to tell what the numbers mean in each expression. Students concluded that methods 1 and 2 were similar but many were confused about solution method #3. Through discussion, students understood that this method divided 8 dozens among 6 people so each person gets one dozen. The R2 means that there are 2 dozen or 24 left. Then the remainder had to be divided among the 6 people so each person also gets 4 more pencils. Then, the teacher had students analyze the methods based on 3 criteria:
1) Is it efficient?
2) Is it simple? 
3) Is it accurate?

Students concluded that the best method is method #1, the unified expression, although one student insisted that method #2 was the best. The teacher said that they would discuss that the next day, summarized the lesson, and asked students to write in math journals.

After the lesson, the entire staff met for the two-hour post-lesson discussion (two hours seems to be typical). The discussion focused on the importance of problem solving, the use of hint cards, the meaning and importance of mathematical expressions, and the purpose of writing unified expressions. There was much debate and discussion about all three lessons. Dr. Takahashi and Dr. Fujii brought final comments. This discussion was a good example of typical lesson study discussions in Japan, but it was not nearly as critical or intense as the one we saw at the Takehaya school.

Afterwards we all went out for a post-lesson "enkai" at a local restaurant. It was very exciting and fun. They made a lot of jokes (even about the principal!), the Japanese teachers all sang a Japanese song, the American teachers sang "America the Beautiful," and two Mexican teachers sang a rousing rendition of "Mexico Lindo." Again, it reinforced the idea in my mind of how important these post-lesson parties are to build friendship and community, and to support and honor the teachers who put themselves out there by teaching a public lesson so that everyone could learn.

Mata-ne (see you later),

Bill Jackson

Published The Daily Riff July 2010

For more on Jackson's Travel Journal to Japan:
Day 1 & 2:  What American Teachers Can Learn From Japan
Day 3 & 4:   A Global Perspective on Teacher Assessment & Development
Day 5:        The Whole Child - Developing Creative Talents, Not Just Academic Skills
Day 6:     Teaching For Students. Sounds Obvious. Not.   Understanding Students.
Day 8:       How Teachers Learn Through Lesson Study - What Our Global Japan and Singapore
                             Neighbors Use for Teacher Professional Development

Part 1:   Singapore Math  --   Demystified!   
Part 2:  Can Solving Problems Unravel Our Fear Of Math?
               The Singapore Math Program philosophy - Problem-based, concrete-pictorial-   abstract approach
Part 3:  Singapore Math:  Is this the most Visual Math?  The Signature Bar Modeling Method
Part 4:     How To Bring Singapore Math to Your School

Also:  Check out Bill Jackson's recent Travel Journal To Singapore:
 Day 1    Five Surprises in Singaporean Education



Editor's Note:    Bill Jackson is Math Helping Teacher, Scarsdale NY Public Schools, one of the highest performing school districts in the country. 

If you missed his series on "Singapore Math Demystified!" published by The Daily Riff , we highly recommend you to check it out HERE.  We are delighted that Bill is sharing his wealth of knowledge through this series of journals from his 2007 trip to Japan.

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