Thursday, 2 October 2014

Day 5: Jelly beans and bullet trains - post by Leah Taylor

Hello, I am Leah Taylor, Curriculum Coordinator at St Anthony’s Parish Primary in Wanniassa ACT. When I found out I would be coming over to Japan on the ASTA Science teacher exchange I was beyond excited. I feel privileged to be able to share my passion for Science while over here as well as to learn from my Japanese and Australian peers.

Takasago Elementary School 

The day began with what has become a daily ritual - walk to the Mango Tree Café to collect our morning coffee before meeting up for breakfast. We have been fortunate to be seated at a corner table each morning looking over the koi pond and waterfalls. The garden setting provides a wonderful and serene start to what eventually become jam-packed and always mind-blowing days.

Coi pond
Gorgeous koi fish were our breakfast companions each day.

At 8.25am we met in the hotel foyer ready to board our bus bound for Takasago Elementary School. The school is situated in Saitama City. Founded in 1871, Takasago Elementary School is the oldest school in Saitama City. The school is also one of the largest Elementary schools, with 870 students.

Takasago Elementary School is a leader in educational research and regularly publishes research on pedagogy within a variety of disciplines. They hold an annual public forum on their research each February and have been doing so for the past 43 years. Teachers from all over Japan attend these research presentations. When we asked the Principal about his secret to such ‘inquiry into practice’ by the staff, he identified that the embedded culture of pedagogical inquiry was a significant contributor to new staff continuing this tradition.

As soon as we arrived, we dropped our bags and were whisked away to the Science teaching laboratory. One thing that has surprised us during this trip is that every elementary school has a fully resourced Science teaching Laboratory. The lesson by Ms Ai Izawa had already commenced, so we crept in and moved to the back of the room. The lesson was about land subsidence and erosion. Students were asked to make predictions about where they thought the best place was to build a house on a mountainside. Students were given ¥1,000,000 to buy land, build their home and erect additional structural supports to keep the house safe. A student from each group made predictions about where the best place for their home would be and about what they needed to protect their home from the flowing river.  After students tested their hypothesis, they presented their findings to the rest of the class.
As well as seeing the Takasago Science class, we also had the pleasure of sitting in on part of a music lesson. The children sang so beautifully and when I looked around the room I noticed I was not the only one with a tear in my eye. At every school we have seen during this trip, we have been struck by how beautifully they all sing. Their music teachers create some of the most amazing arrangements and their students all sing those arrangements with both passion and perfection. Before I came to Japan I tended to only associate Japan with karaoke singing, but the amazing choral arrangements by the Japanese music teachers and their students has given me a much richer impression. However, the business of the visit was Science not music and it was time for me to prepare for my lesson.

Leah Taylor with her Takasago Elementary School students
Japanese students can be reserved at first, but they quickly come out of their shells.

My lesson was about adaptations in Australian animals. Following the standard slides on cute and cuddly Australian animals, we got into the fun part of the lesson, the jellybean game. Students had to take turns at eating jellybeans. The rules to the game were as follows:
  • No one is allowed to talk
  • Students may only take one jellybean at a time and they must eat it
  • The game ended when everyone in the group refuses to eat any more jellybeans
What the students didn’t know was that one colour jellybean was coated in ‘Stop-Bite’, making the jellybean bitter. This lesson mimicked what happens in the wild with animals that have mutated to either have a bitter taste or a poison. Like the jellybeans, those animals that are not eaten will be able to survive.

Leah Taylor teaching a class at Takasago Elementary School
Leah Taylor teaching a class at Takasago Elementary School
Stop-Bite works just as well on jelly beans as it does on fingernails - as the kids in my class found out!

The children eagerly dug their hands into the bag of jellybeans and ate them one by one. Gradually, we started to see the screwed up faces of those who had selected a red jellybean. Even Mr Asami Shigeo, the principal joined in with a group and remained very composed as he bit into one of the painted jellybeans.

Following a delicious lunch it was Garry Tilley’s turn to teach a class. He treated students to a visual montage of surf and sand and answered students’ questions about Australia. His lesson then moved to looking at the Red Centre and iron ore deposits. Students were able to look at iron ore samples alongside other rock samples as a comparison. The students were excited and curious about Australia and asked Gary many questions about dangerous animals, types of surfing, and plants in Australian deserts. Gary happily answered students’ questions and by the end of the lesson, the usually reserved Japanese students were excitedly putting their hands up.

An interesting thing we noticed was that when students were selected to speak to the class, they stood behind their chair. This occurred whether the student was asking a question or responding to a question.

Gary Tilley teaching a class at Takasago Elementary School
Gary Tilley with his class at Takasago Elementary School
Gary's class was a huge success. It's great to be able to teach Japanese students about some of the wonders of Australia.
The lessons were followed by teacher discussions from everything ranging from the submission of lesson plans to the City’s Board of Studies, to the use of textbooks, to the resourcing of Science education across Japan. Mr Asami Shigeo noted that Japan did not have any natural resources and in order to maintain its economic prosperity the nation has to invest in its human capital. The Japanese government recognizes the importance of innovation, especially innovation in technology. Science is viewed as essential for supporting that innovation. Every Japanese elementary school devotes three hours a week to the teaching of science and the teachers regularly conference to develop rigorous lessons. We were grateful to the principal and staff for giving us such insight into education in Japan.

Tokyo Railway Museum 

After we were farewelled by our hosts at Takasago Elementary School, we ventured on to the Tokyo Railway Museum. The Railway Museum is situated in Onari, Saitama City and was built as the centerpiece of the JR East 20th Anniversary Memorial Project. Spread over 4 levels, including a rooftop, the museum is home to a range of exhibits, from early steam engines, including the imperial train, to the super-modern bullet train. The museum also houses a number of simulators. I had a chance to drive one of the famous bullet trains. My task was to take the train from one station to another. I did manage to get the train to the required station, although it was a little slower than we normally expect the bullet train to travel, and I didn’t quite get the train all the way to the station. It was an interesting experience to drive a train through an interpreter.

Leah Taylor driving a train at the Takyo Railway Museum.
Maybe I shouldn't apply for a job as a train conductor just yet...

In the evening, we attended a farewell dinner with the Sony Science Teachers Association, our hosts for this year’s visit. It was wonderful to see so many teachers and people associated with Sony Education at the dinner. Our many ‘interpreters’ were busily supporting conversations between Australian and Japanese teachers. The evening was a great finale to what has been an amazing opportunity to gain a little insight into Science teaching in Japan.

With much sadness we farewelled our ‘Japan Mum’ and interpreter, Keiko who was invaluable during our tours of schools and greater Tokyo. Her insight into the Japanese school system and background in education was invaluable as we delivered our lessons. We were all grateful for her support and occasional suggestions to help our lessons flow and be received well by the Japanese students. We also said farewell to Setsuko from Sony Education. Setsuko had joined us at each of the schools and often acted as an interpreter during the dinners and meetings when one interpreter was not enough.

This experience in Japan has been amazing. I have gained greater insight into teaching science in Japan and the Japanese school system more broadly. I am so very grateful to the Australian Japan Foundation and ASTA for this fantastic opportunity and I look forward to sharing this experience with my peers in Australia.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you all enjoyed the experience of visiting and teaching in schools in Japan, as well as the many scientific centres. Wouldn't it be great if Australian Primary Schools all had a dedicated science laboratory and were taught science for a minimum of 3 hours per week, just like in Japan. The Japanese government knows that human capital and innovation is so much more important than what our government shows in its actions and in funding education.