Educating today’s kids: what’s on offer?

By on December 30, 2011
There are many factors as well as diverse choices to consider where best to send children to school in Japan. Japanese schools and International schools both offer advantages. Among these two groups there are also a variety of aspects to consider, such as which and how many languages are spoken and taught, what kind of learning tools and resources are available and will the programs and courses aid the students in preparation for careers to meet the future job market.

Careers and the training necessary for future jobs have changed these needed skills will continue to develop and expand. In the span of a child’s school-life the skills needed for desired career will potentially change before graduation. This was not the case for their parents and grandparents generation. The skills they learned in school were primarily sufficient for their whole work career.

Therefore, an important aspect to consider is the dynamic quality of the school and its teachers. While Japanese schools have long been able to boost a nearly 99 percent literacy rate and has lead the world until recently in test score rankings, these statistics are not as assuring for the future that is at our doorstep. Both Japanese schools and international schools have similar systems with single age-grade levels, courses typically taught in one language and clear division of subjects.

Some schools however, seeing the present system being stagnate, are looking towards a changing future. Schools like the New International School (NewIS), have established a multi-age, a multi-lingual, interdisciplinary program. Grouping students with a wider span of ages allows for more interaction and a chance to learn from each other. The curriculum is created around themes which overlap traditionally separate subjects. A game software creator, for example, will need to not only understand computer programming and aspects of mechanics, but will likely benefit in knowing about geopolitics, environmental factors, art, movement, and human psychology, to name a few. This thematic approach to teaching could provide a diverse classroom setting more likely to hold the interest of students.
The amount and method of languages being taught is another matter. The Japanese government has known the importance of producing bilingual graduates for a global future. However, the methods chosen over the last couple of decades have not given desired results. Even the newest legislation is left wanting. According to Osamu Takahashi from Tokyo Jitsugyo High School, adding 45 minutes a week of English for 10-12 year olds is meek at best. He states that children need to talk or chat (shaberu) in a relaxed atmosphere first, and worry about reading and writing later.

Mike Powell from the Awashima Kindergarten built on the grounds of Jodoshu Temple in Shimokitazawa, was instrumental in implementing a fully bilingual program three years ago. He admits to some resistance from the parents, likely afraid of the unknown. However, a strong backing from the head priest who was motivated by his regret of never learning English himself was what spurred the idea.

Powell has seen a change in the three years since the program was started, not only in ability to “shaberu” in English but the decrease of fear from the children due to having daily contact with foreign teachers. Most International schools are taught in one language, primarily English, with courses offered in other languages.

Koji Miki, from the Global Center for Innovation in Engineering Education at Tokyo University discussed the formation of Tokyo University in the early Meiji period. Professors from Europe and North America taught most of the courses in English and German due to no qualified Japanese professors at that time. This allowed students a multi-lingual environment along side their topic studies.

At present, sadly, all the Tokyo University courses are taught in Japanese. “We hope to change that,” states Miki, explaining wishful plans to increase course instruction to 70 percent in English in the future in hopes to increase language ability of students and attract more foreign students. Some International schools like NewIS not only have multi-lingual curriculum but encourage students to speak in their native tongue. There are some Japanese schools that are trying full immersion multilingual curriculum, such as Katoh Gakuen in Shizuoka, Gunma Kokusai Academy, and two Chiba schools: Gyosei International School and Makuhari International School.

Modern tools certainly aid learning. Typically International schools and private schools have more funds available to offer laptops aplenty, smart boards in classroom and Internet connections as seen at many of the Tokyo international schools. While funds are important, sometimes even money can’t fix a system that is stagnant.

Education must be dynamic along side this ever-changing global society. To stay ahead, Schools can no longer base programs and process on the information and experience accumulated by instructors and administrators three, two, even one decade ago. Children can learn and absorb at a faster rate than ever before and the schools that are flexible and allow for input from students, constant re-evaluation of teaching methods and offer variety and connection in both languages and subjects are the direction of the future. Whether a minority of schools and individuals take advantage of this path of transformation or a paradigm shift takes place across the globe is yet to be seen.  

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About Mary Beth Horiai