In international education in Japan, there's diversity between as well as within schools

Four school profiles show the range of philosophies families can choose from

If you have the financial means and the desire to send your child to an international school in Japan, you can probably afford to be choosy. But what are you looking for?

Are you after something closer to the schooling you received “back home,” or an education that’s more flexible in responding to your child’s needs? Is your priority ensuring that your child has the option of fitting into the education system in your home country or elsewhere abroad, or is fostering independent critical thinking your highest priority?

The Japan Times looked closely at four top international schools, each showcasing certain specific developments in modern education. The past 10 years have witnessed a sea change in schools, with technology and globalization transforming the way our children are educated.

Yet before we head off into what’s new in education, let’s introduce the schools and focus on what’s the same. Historically and today, modern education involves some type of examination process to enable entry into university.

The English National Curriculum, studied at the British School in Tokyo (BST), emphasizes depth, with only three subjects required for final examinations. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the American School In Japan (ASIJ) offers a choice of over 20 Advanced Placement (AP) Exams, any number of which students may opt to take at the end of high school. In between these extremes, India International School of Japan (IISJ) students study for five subjects and take exams administered by India’s Central Board of Secondary Education in each. Finally, Osaka International School (OIS), an International Baccalaureate school, requires students to take exams in six subjects in accordance with the IB Diploma Programme.

But there’s more to education than exams, as each school shows.

One recent development in education is a emphasis on experiential learning — learning by doing — which BST has embraced wholeheartedly.

“To us, one of the most important things is what goes on outside the classroom,” principal Brian Christian says. “In Britain, there is a real sense in education that we have a responsibility to help develop character.”

To complement the academic curriculum, BST uses the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to teach students what Christian calls “grit,” or perseverance — getting kids outside and experiencing culture and nature.

“In the secondary school, we take the whole school out of school for a whole week twice during the year,” Christian says. “Using Hakuba (in Nagano Prefecture) as our base, the students travel to different areas, doing community service or expedition work.”

Plans for the future include setting up an educational center for students in the countryside outside of Tokyo, where students will be able to stay and really get stuck into projects in the wild. BST has also started the 19:20 Project, which connects sports and learning in conjunction with the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019 and the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. Not only does BST hope to focus on the development of sport in the school, but also to become a digital hub of information and learning surrounding the games, examining them in the context of Japanese history, culture and economics, for example.

Christian sees the National Curriculum — used in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and elsewhere — as an effective tool to plot students’ progress throughout their academic lives at BST.

“Imagine a sort of academic ladder,” Christian explains. “The English National Curriculum sets out where children should be on that ladder from the moment they join us at the foundation stage of nursery right the way through to 18 years old, where the student typically sits three or four A-level examinations for university entrance.”

Another exciting trend in global education is the move away from cookie-cutter classroom instruction and toward “design thinking” — creating new and innovative ways to solve problems — and individualized study .

ASIJ epitomizes this cutting-edge approach to schooling.

“We don’t believe in one-size-fits-all,” says head of school Ed Ladd. “It’s really about personalized learning — trying to match our learning to the individual rather than trying to force the individual into a set mold.”

At ASIJ, this means adapting to students’ strengths, whether they be academic or in sports or the arts.

As high school principal Rick Weinland says, “All students have some kind of passion or interest — we want to create a pathway for every student.”

In August ASIJ will open its newest facility, a center for design thinking and collaboration called the Creative Arts Design Center. The school already boasts state-of-the-art facilities for athletics and the arts, in line with its ethos of “multiple pathways” to success. With the new facility, the administration hopes to nurture students to become “creative, innovative thinkers” — or, in many cases, teach them to relearn these skills that, ironically, schooling may have dulled in the first place.

“We know elementary kids by nature think creatively that way,” Ladd explains, “but traditional schooling sometimes educates that part of their brains out of them as they grow, and we wanted to make sure we had practices in place to nurture innovation and creativity.”

Such practices include Choice Genius Hour — 50 minutes each week where middle-school students choose what they will study — in addition to RED (robotics, engineering and design) courses in middle school and the CID (Creativity, Innovation and Design) program at high-school level.

ASIJ upper-secondary students choose from a wide variety of options in constructing their own unique path to university, made up of a combination of classes to prepare for the AP Exams (created by the same nonprofit that runs the SAT college entrance test), Global Online Academy courses and Individual Inquiry and Research options, ASIJ’s new twist on the old “independent study” method, in which the student chooses a subject under the supervision of a teacher.

Amid the current push to educate “world citizens,” schools today recognize the importance of simultaneously fostering a strong national and international identity. IISJ was established in 2004 with the support of both the Japanese and Indian governments, and remains true to its ethos to “provide a home away from home.”

“The education they would be given at home in India is the same as the one they are getting here,” explains director of school and founder Nirmal Jain. “The culture is the same as in India with the cultural environment we provide, the Indian food we serve, our extra-curricular activities — with cricket, Indian music and Indian classical dance.”

Jain credits her multicultural staff with bringing the “international” into this otherwise Indian environment. Jain believes it is vital that the staff “emphasize about different cultures and different perspectives,” and the school includes local excursions on its curriculum — such as rice planting in Ibaraki or hiking in Nikko — to connect with the local culture in Japan.

In addition to the five subjects studied for examinations, IISJ also follows India’s new CCE (continuous comprehensive evaluation) system.

“There was a lot of pressure on the students, so to distribute assessments over the year, we continuously assess students now from April to March,” Jain explains. “If a child is not good at expressing themselves in written examinations, they now have the formative assessments — including the teacher’s assessment of projects, behavior, submission of homework, or the child’s interaction with other students or teachers the entire year — as a chance to do well.”

Like 31 other schools around Japan and over 4,000 more around the world, the Osaka and Senri International Schools affiliated with Kwansei Gakuin University use the International Baccalaureate program, a recognized trailblazer in international education. OIS was the first school in Japan to offer a full range of IB programs catering from elementary age to high-school level. The school is unique in Japan in that it was founded according to the idea of “Two Schools Together,” with Senri International School (SIS), a “category I” local Japanese school, sharing a campus and various programs with its sister school, OIS.

OIS plans to expand its IB Diploma Programme to offer the new Dual Language Diploma (in Japanese and English) across both schools, in addition to the current DP in English.

“We have a firm commitment to the IB, and we really believe in working together as two schools, immersed in Japanese culture and language along with our internationalism,” says OIS head of school Bill Kralovec. “An international school can sometimes exist in a bubble, isolated from the local culture, but in sharing a campus, we share a variety of classes and all the extra-curricular activities, from sports and the arts to student council and academic competitions.”

The faculties of both schools benefit as well, he says: “Japan is a distinct culture with an established way of doing things, so it’s a very stimulating environment for education, always making you question and improve your teaching practices.”

Another thing the two schools share is a commitment to is their fine arts program. Kralovec calls it “truly world class,” with four different string orchestras, a variety of bands and choruses, not to mention a two-school theatrical production involving students from grades three through 12.

Following the IB program, upper-secondary students at OIS choose six subjects to study at higher or standard level, in addition to completing the IB Core, which consists of an extended essay (a mini-thesis), a Theory of Knowledge (philosophy) essay and CAS (a program that requires students to get credits in the fields of creativity, action and community service). The IB Diploma is recognized throughout the world.

Whatever school you choose, Japan’s diverse international system spoils you for choice, and your decision will depend on what is the best fit for your child and your future plans. Does your child need structure or freedom with choosing classes? Depth or breadth? Grit or innovation? What cultural identities are the most important within your family?

Of course, an international education doesn’t appeal to everyone, and with such schools charging often-hefty annual fees, the financial burden will be an issue for all but a tiny minority of families when deciding which school their child will attend. However, it is worth bearing in mind that some international schools offer scholarship programs based on academic ability and/or financial need, so parents may be unwise to write off the option of an international education without checking out the options first.

It’s an exciting time for education, and with over 100 international schools in Japan to choose from, perhaps the right answer for you and your child is out there somewhere.

For a comprehensive list of internationally minded schools in Japan, see long-time educational blogger Aileen Kawagoe’s site: Your comments and story ideas:

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