A visit to an elementary school

Last month, when attending an education conference in Japan, I heard a speaker talked about the future of education. He concluded: “Will the next generation students be innovators, entrepreneurs, problem solvers, or servants, laborers, and followers? The answer could be found in how the education system reacts to the realities and opportunities of the future.” I really like what he said, so I invited him to dinner to listen more about improving the education. I learned that his name is Koshiro Matsumoto and he is a Principal of an elementary school near Nagoya. After the conference, he invited me to visit his school. I have been teaching in Japan for many years, mostly at the university level, but never visit an elementary school, so this is a chance for me to learn about the public education in Japan.

When arrived, I saw several young students, about six or eight years old, wearing school uniform, sweeping the school yard. I asked: “Why students do that? Don’t you have janitors? To my surprise, Koshiro explained: “We do not have janitors in our school. Students have to do all the cleaning for their school, so they learn that manual works are as important as intellectual works. That is our tradition, students do many things, including cleaning the classroom, the bathrooms, the toilets, empty garbage, sweep the floor, and other things. These are the disciplines that young children must learn. They work in teams that rotate throughout the school year, so they learn teamwork as well as all the works.” I looked at the large schoolyard; it was very clean and beautiful.

Koshiro took me to a first-grade class, as we enter, the entire class stand up and bow to greet us. It took me a little surprising because in the U.S. students never stand up to greet anybody. Koshiro explained to the teacher that I was a guest who wanted to observe the class. We sat at the end of the class, the teacher continued by asking the student some questions. That day the topic was the multiple tables. As he wrote a problem on the board, one student raised the hand and volunteer solve it. The teacher looked at the solution and nodded as a confirmation that it was correct then wrote another problem. Several students raised their hand. The teacher pointed to a student, he walked up to the backboard, but this time the first student took the role of the teacher to review the answer. He nodded in agreement then went back to his table. As the teacher wrote another problem on the board, the second student remains next to the board waiting for another volunteer to come up and solve the problem.

Koshiro explained to me: “Our teaching method is focusing on the principle of “You teach what you learn, you learn by teaching others then you know it well. It is a practical approach to all STEM classes. If the teachers lecture and solve problems on the board, students will NOT learn much by listening or seeing. It is more effective for the students to practice problem-solving, to discuss problems and teaching others. In that case, the class is more active, and everyone is paying attention. We motivate our students by having them remain active in learning. That is the way we teach and learn mathematics.”

In Japanese schools, the students learn math very early as they consider it is the basis of many things. But students do not have to take math exams until the fourth grade. They just solve many simple problems to develop their critical thinking. Koshiro told me: “We start math and science early but do it a “little bit” at a time, so students gradually learn to think logically and develop their skills in solving problems. We do not emphasize in “Right or wrong” but motivate them to learn, there is no “Pass and Fail” in math in elementary school. Our principle is NOT to judge the students ‘ knowledge or learning, but motivate them to make learning as part of their lives. All students have homework every day to keep them busy and help developing good study habit at home. Children have to read many books; often with their parents, as parents are encouraged to read together with their children to help them develop a good reading habit. To make sure that they complete their reading, they have to write a book report every week. For subjects like science, history, sociology, they receive some assigned works that they must study and discuss with their friends before going to school. Therefore, students learn teamwork and collaboration as during a class discussion their team can be asked to present their understanding and debate among themselves. In elementary school, we focus more on developing moral character. Children are taught to respect their parents, elderly people and also be responsible for the natural environment.”

I asked: “How do you teach them about the natural environment? Koshiro explained: “Students learn natural science, so they know how things in nature are related to others. They learn mathematics to understand the principle and the order of nature; they learn music to appreciate melody and rhythm of changes in nature; they also learn calligraphy and haiku where they express their love for nature.” I was shocked: “You teach elementary students poetry? Koshiro seemed surprised: “Why not? It is part of our culture, and all students can compose Haiku at will. He pointed to several calligraphy hang on the wall: “These are the best Haiku from our students. Each year we select some good ones and hang on the classroom wall.”

Another surprise is during lunch, students and teachers eat in the same classroom instead of in the lunch room. Koshiro explained: “All students have the same meal from a standard nutrition menu that changes each week. Instead of having a meal in the lunch room like in the U.S., our students eat in their classroom so teachers and students can develop a better relationship as they eat together just like a family. In that case, the teachers can teach students certain eating manner and do not waste foods. Even if they do not like the food; they do not throw it out. This tradition has lasted for hundreds of years, throughout our history, Japan was never a rich country, so we have to be frugal.”

I asked about the qualification of the teacher, Koshiro explained: “Most teachers have a Bachelor’s degree in Education, they must pass the Teacher Service Examination before they could teach. All teachers are assigned to schools by the Board of Education in their city. Teacher job is highly respected by the community as they build a good relationship with students’ family. However, teachers’ work is hard as they often work long hours. On the average, they go to work before 8:00 am and end around 5:00 pm but many stays after school to grade students’ works until late. In elementary school, one teacher teaches every subject, from science, math to history, geography, etc.. The only exception is music, sports, and crafts where students go to special classrooms with special teachers. Most public school teachers receive additional training every two or three years to update their skills and learn about changes in the education program. For example, a few years ago, we added English into our training program, and now we also teach computer programming in the fourth grade. That is why it is important to retrain many teachers so they can teach these subjects and prepare our students for the future.”

Based on my brief conversation and what I saw in this small elementary school, I was impressed. There is no doubt in my mind that the way they approach teaching and learning is one of the world’s best. I can see that they are preparing for their future where they will develop more innovators, entrepreneurs, and problem solvers for their country. I wish that I would have more time to learn about this education system, but since my travel time is short and I have to leave. I told Koshiro that the next time when teaching in Japan, I would arrange more time to visit him and his school and learn more about their education system.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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