Professional Development through Class/Lesson Observation
It is a common practice among teachers in Japan to engage in professional development activities in the form of a lesson study or research of teaching/learning by visiting other schools and observing classes. It is meant to help teachers enhance their capabilities and competencies and to incorporate new ideas and methods into their own teaching. It is a great way to connect with and learn from other educators by witnessing their teaching techniques within their natural ‘habitat’. It gives observers the unparalleled opportunity to focus on the reaction of the students, to research how the students respond to the lessons, and to probe into the details of lesson planning, implementing, and assessing. In a way, class observations and lesson studies represent a cost-effective knowledge-exchange practice within the academic field that not only helps improve education but it empowers teachers by indirectly communicating the notion that the best ideas will sprout from the bottom and will move upward to the top.
Our observation day was held at the distinguished Horizon Japan International School Sendai where an Early Learning Center and an English Immersion Primary School (one of the few across the nation) are nestled. Our visit somehow awakened in me the realization of how lucky I am to have lived in a range of different countries and environments and to have experienced various academic approaches from different perspectives – being a kindergarten, primary, and a high-school student in Bulgaria, an undergraduate student in the US, and a graduate student in the UK, an English language teacher in a primary International Baccalaureate school in Indonesia, and currently a homeroom teacher in a Japanese private kindergarten. My life has moved me through a wide variety of experiences and faced me with a myriad of distinct realities. Even at this early stage, I wouldn’t hesitate to ‘grade’ my life as a life well-lived with horizons well-expanded.
My experience traveling and living in such a broad spectrum of environments have fine-tuned my observation skills, ability to inquire and question, and to make connections between different elements on the basis of some shared similarity or commonality. At times, I amaze myself at the connections I make or conclusions I draw as a result of filtering the information through the lens of all that I have seen and experienced. During my visit of Horizon International School, I set my observation lens wide open for the purpose of detecting clues and details that would explain the success of this school. I was there to learn and build upon what I already know. I was there to integrate new knowledge into my ever-evolving framework of teaching approach.
Unfortunately, during our observation, ELC students were in the middle of their assessment period and we could not peek into an actual teaching session. Nevertheless, the school environment along with our interactions with the principal and vice-principal, the faculty and the students themselves did reveal some of the reasons behind the distinguished status of the school.
First Impressions – the School Environment and the Classrooms
The moment I crossed the threshold of the school, I was welcomed by an atmosphere soaked in the International Baccalaureate spirit – kids’ vivid and unique artwork (asserting the school’s emphasis on self-expression) was prominently displayed on the walls of the corridors and the classrooms while learner profiles were hanging within the classrooms. Having plenty of students’ work on display communicates the school’s efforts on building up and reinforcing the students’ sense of belonging to the school. The element of international-mindedness is present both through the artworks and through the students and the faculty itself. One doesn’t need to be an IB evaluator to recognize the masterful use of IB as an approach to learning.
On a side note, it is kind of silly how I have grown into a highly IB-minded educator. I noticed a couple of old chairs and desks along the corridors of the school with some (apparently unrelated) objects placed on them and my first thought was: This must be some sort of a provocation. It turned out, that the pot, with a flower and a twig in water, were part of the school’s decoration focused on simplicity and minimalism. As for the role of the ruler, I am still convinced that it could serve as a great provocation tool.
Moving on to the classrooms, one can easily see that they are spacious, flexible, inviting and offer intentional learning spaces that support inquiry and extend opportunities for play, self-expression, communication, socialization, and emotional well-being. Every ELC classroom represents an ordered and stimulating environment in which children can make choices whether to build, sort, create, experiment, pretend, work with friends or by themselves. Through the rich collection of educational materials, the classroom environment arouses curiosity and stimulates purposeful play thus facilitating children’s natural process of learning through choice, challenge, and change.
First Impressions: the Students, the Class, and the Staff
Recently someone asked me “Are Japanese kids happy compared to Indonesian?” and I felt unprepared to give a properly thought-through answer. Therefore, during my visit to Horizon International, I was on the lookout for students‘ emotions and apparent signs of happiness. Positively, these kids appeared happy in a civilized and composed manner. They projected an open attitude and outlook. They were curious about us, the strangers, and willing to use the English language as a tool to inquire about who we are (quite aligned with the Unit of Inquiry they were currently wrapping up). Our presence triggered their curiosity and they had the courage to inquire and act via simple research in the form of asking questions. These students fascinated us with their high level of confidence (characteristics believed to be shared less among the Japanese compared to the American younger population).
The school’s success is partially attributed to the individualized instruction thanks to the ideal student-to-teacher ratio. The small class size allows teachers to focus more attention on individual students thus making them feel valued and important. Still, the class size is sufficient enough to ensure that students represent a diverse set of personality types. This opens up opportunities for more complex children’s relationships and interactions and thus contributes to the children’s learning experiences.
The promotion of global understanding and the integration of the international-mindedness is evident through the background of both the faculty and the students, the availability of additional foreign languages (such as Turkish), the topics discussed (content taught), and the output displayed. Progressive schools such as Horizon International School have recognized the global status of English and don’t necessarily require a teacher to be a native speaker. Children are taught by teachers from international backgrounds who help them understand that there is no unaccented English. From an early stage, the staff of Horizon International is preparing students to be flexible and adapt to different accents, backgrounds, values, beliefs, and perspectives. As one of Horizon’s teachers puts it “Students have a wonderful and rare opportunity to communicate with teachers from all over the world at Horizon Sendai Primary School.” The reality is that, in their future, the “Global Citizens” of tomorrow have twice as high likelihood of encountering, interacting and communicating with non-native speakers than with native speakers. And I deeply praise Horizon International School for its vision and values. How else can you “explain” international-mindedness if not through the key figures of the school, namely the teachers.
This situation reminded me of my first months of studying in the US when my original intention was to communicate predominantly with international students (Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian etc). Not only that I was interested in foreign cultures but I also believed that since we were in the same situation we could more easily empathize with one another. Well, it turned out, I couldn’t understand what they were saying due to their very pronounced accents (and probably they were facing the same hardship when communicating with me). At that moment, I felt not only miserable but also shut out from a world I was deeply intrigued by. I made it all the way to the melting pot country, after taking all sorts of standardized tests, to wake up to the fact that knowing how to communicate in English means understanding and adapting yourself to accents and pronunciation patterns as well as making informed assumptions regarding the meaning of what has been said by a speaker of English as an additional language.
New Things I Came Across and Intend on Researching Further
It was my first time hearing about the subject Moral Education and this sparked my interest in delving deeper into the topic and figuring out whether it serves as the scaffold linking all the subjects together and situating the knowledge within a context.
When I was teaching in an Islamic, IB school in Indonesia, the religious element of the combined (National, International, and Islamic) curriculum provided the rationale behind what we were learning and why. The Qur’an teaches us to be open-minded by traveling the earth and examining the experiences of other nations with an open heart and eyes in order to broaden and deepen our understanding of life (6:11, 30:42). It also stresses the importance of taking care of the less privileged which gives a reason as to why we need to take an active role in our community.
I have always hold the strong conviction that life skills take priority over academic skills. Teaching of good behavior and values can ensure engagement in the learning process. It is important for children to understand that people differ in their opinions and that we need to strive to live in harmony with ourselves, others, and the nature by learning how to be aware of and manage ourselves and our emotions, communicate, socialize and empathize with others, and cope with difficulties within ourselves and with others.
In addition, it is important to help children understand the roots of their national identity and foster love and respect for tradition and culture while nurturing open-mindedness. During my life in Indonesia I witnessed quite the opposite – population that suffered from a lack of strong national identity and was easily swayed by outside influence. Indonesian children happen to thrive in an environment that propagate the belief that their population is inferior to the Western race and therefore deserves less.
Lastly, I was impressed by the Free Choice activities students get to engage in on a daily basis. It is such a simple practice that combines two of the most prominent features of effective early years education – play and choice. It offers early age children the unparalleled opportunity to learn through choice. It helps them develop their ability to make choices and take responsibility in line with their age thus nurturing happier, more fulfilled, and confident children.
Final Thoughts and Tips
If I could give some tips for those who are going to embark on a lesson/class observation, I would recommend you to conduct a thorough research of the school beforehand to get a sense of its philosophy and policies. It is better to dive into the field research with some expectations based on a solid desk research. Questions would naturally arise from any discrepancies between reality and expectations or between one’s own method of teaching and that of the teacher under observation. In addition, opt for attending an actual lesson and if possible, do a follow-up observation during the assessment period in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the effectiveness of the learning. More so, expect children to adopt a socially acceptable behavior on your first visit thus preventing you from gaining an idea of their real behavior and responsiveness to the lessons. Do not miss an opportunity to have conversations with the students. Their attitude, behavior, and responses will reveal the most important fragments of the story.