Let’s liven up Japan’s Schools

PHOTO: Hila Yamada

By Felicity Tillack

What are your memories of school?

Was the teacher always stood at the front of the class giving a lecture? 

Did you sit at a desk, expected to passively absorb knowledge before regurgitating it for homework?

Unfortunately, some of my time as a student was like that. But, thankfully, education is evolving. As a primary school teacher at an international school in Kyoto, I welcome the changes.

I enjoy being part of a global push towards more active learning, which is based on the principle that students develop their skills and knowledge through engagement. Rather than the teacher being the fount of all knowledge, lessons are designed so that students actively participate in discussions, team-work and problem-solving exercises.

I know it’s challenging for students and teachers who haven’t encountered it before. It can be messy and loud.  But it is also a rich and authentic style of learning. And it can be a lot of fun! 

In recent years, the Japanese Ministry of Education has encouraged schools to take a more active approach to learning. This push is strongly supported by a passionate educator called Hila Yamada, who, like me, lives in Kyoto. She runs active learning sessions for schools and companies through an organisation called the Glocal Human Resources Development Centre.

Hila was born and bred in Kyoto but speaks English fluently, with a strong British accent, despite only living briefly abroad. She told me laughingly that some of the older company workers who take part in her seminars see her as an “alien”. But I have noticed they are impressed and inspired by her energy and enthusiasm.

Hila told me she thinks some companies need to adapt parts of their systems to match the mindset of younger people. “Sometimes, they’ve been running the business in the same way for fifty years. Our seminars challenge them to consider change to the structure of their teams, or to find ways to develop better communication skills between generations,” she said. 

There has been some resistance. Hila tells me some companies don’t wish to dismantle traditional systems of hierarchy. In addition, schools worry that the new approach to teaching might undermine students’ eligibility for employment. 

“Obviously there are some traditional companies that would prefer to hire people that don’t ask questions, and just listen to their seniors and do what they’re told,” Hila told me. But she believes that many firms are coming to recognise the need to build a creative and flexible workforce.

“When your education system is just about scoring well on an exam, you don’t think about what’s going on outside of your bubble. I hope that we can help students find a voice and also gain a deeper understanding of their role in society,” she said.

Personally, I remember how difficult it was to adapt my style of teaching to active learning. I felt I was relinquishing a degree of control, which was scary. My role in the classroom has changed. I have now become more like a guide or a learning facilitator. 

I still sometimes find it difficult to appraise the skills the students are developing, such as communication and empathy. Yet these are attributes that companies in Japan value, as do firms in other countries. 

Nowadays, many employers are seeking new recruits who are thoughtful, creative, socially aware, communicative and curious. So as I plan my lessons, I try to prepare active learning sessions which will help my students develop these important qualities.