EDUCATION RENAISSANCE / Tokyo school kids take the role of leaders in class

Takeshi Yonekawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

The following is an article from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Education Renaissance series. The latest series is on schools’ efforts to get every student to actively participate in class as the new school curriculum guidelines for primary schools has been implemented and study content has enlarged. This installment, the second of six, focuses on a Tokyo primary school that encourages students to lead classes on their own initiatives.

In a 45-minute social studies class on March 18 for sixth-graders at Onta Primary School in Higashi-Murayama, western Tokyo, the teacher spent a total of only eight minutes speaking.

It was the 33 students who led the class for the remaining 37 minutes, taking turns discussing the day’s theme: the United Nations.

At the beginning of the class, the teacher, Mamoru Ikeda, explained to the students the purpose of the class and procedures for discussion.

The students then collected information about the international body using dictionaries and other study materials and formed groups of two or three to compile what they learned about the theme. Each group wrote down their ideas on the blackboard.

In the following step, the students appointed each other to present to other groups, and after their presentations had further discussions, while asking various questions and confirming facts.

“‘Established in 1945. Japan joined [the U.N.] in 1956.’ How did you know this?” one student asked. In response, another student said, “I found the year of establishment in a dictionary, and the year Japan joined was mentioned in a handout.”

During the class, the teacher let the students lead, listening to their presentations and occasionally writing down comments on what they noted on the blackboard.

Through these classes, the Higashi-Murayama municipal primary school aims to help students learn independently through discussions with other students. As the school hoped, the March 18 class was led smoothly by the students.

The school’s unique classes are based on its efforts to give students an opportunity to participate more actively in class.

As part of these efforts, the school edited its own textbook, titled Manabukku–combining the words manabu (to study in-depth) and “book”–that teaches students how to look up information in reference materials and textbooks. It also contains useful expressions that can be used in discussions, such as “Do you mean…?” to confirm another student’s opinion.

Onta also has its own seven-star rating system to assess the communicative language ability of students.

For example, five stars are given when the students can ask questions about the topic and confirm related information, while seven stars are given when they can lead the class by themselves.

The evaluation system enables students to recognize their level of achievement, and motivates them to reach higher levels.

Other efforts made by the school to motivate students include: a notebook in which the students report their progress and new discoveries; unique competitions for effective note-taking techniques; original arithmetic workbooks; an original examination system to certify kanji ability; and after-class tutoring sessions.

These efforts have proved effective, as clearly shown in the results of the nationwide scholastic ability exams in the 2010 school year, with the school’s score exceeding that of the average of the nation and Tokyo. Breaking down the results according to “thinking ability” and “linguistic expression and processing,” Onta’s score is about 20 points higher than the national average.

The school’s curriculum reform project was led by former principal Yasuo Nishidome. Nishidome spent seven years working on the project before his retirement in March. Commenting on the successful results, the former principal said: “Classes would be boring for students if they just listen to teachers speak. An appropriate system will encourage children to learn by themselves. Once they are motivated, their grades will improve without cram schools.”

(Yomiuri, Jun. 23, 2011)