The English-language learning programs in Japan’s public schools have long been criticized for being too focused on rote learning.
But Mio Horio, a 32-year-old English teacher from mountainous Shiga Prefecture, is challenging the nation’s system and nudging her students to think outside the box.
Horio’s teenage students interact with young people worldwide via Skype and are encouraged to learn about the world on their own.
Horio’s aim is to help her students boost their communication skills and raise their global awareness, both of which she sees as critical in international settings.
Her efforts have been recognized by the international education community, and in December, Horio was placed on a short list of 50 candidates for the Global Teacher Prize, known in the industry as the Nobel Prize for education.
Horio is the second Japanese teacher to be nominated for the prize in its four-year history. The winner is selected from over 30,000 candidates from 173 countries.
“People believe that teaching about global issues is impossible in rural areas, and they imagine a globally oriented approach to education as something taking place in big cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto,” she told The Japan Times in a recent interview via Skype. “But you can find globally minded students in this kind of rural area.”
Horio teaches a class of 40 students at her alma mater, Shiga Prefectural Maibara Senior High School, which offers a course focused on English. Her first group of students graduated last year.
Horio majored in English and speech communication at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies in Hyogo Prefecture. Although she never studied abroad, she believes that teaching English and educating Japan’s youth about global challenges is vital to strengthen Japan’s foreign relations.
“Japan has long been among the world’s leading (economies) … and now that Tokyo has been selected to host the Olympics in 2020, we will see the number of foreign visitors coming to Japan grow,” she said. “Until now, many people have shied away from using English, but saying they lack an opportunity to travel abroad is just a bad excuse,” given the ease of getting online across the globe.
However, she laments the tendency in the nation’s English-language education system to emphasize theory over practice, which she says results in students developing a passive attitude toward their studies.
Horio engages students in discussions on world news and debates on topics such as whether only native speakers should teach English in Japanese schools or whether schools should switch their focus from English to Chinese.
Using Skype, she has so far connected her students with counterparts from 25 countries, including Vietnam, Kenya and Israel. Horio uses a questionnaire-based program meant to enable students to expand and test their general knowledge and also raise their awareness of global issues and cultural differences.
“Students sometimes notice they had biased notions,” she said, recalling a session with children from Israel during which the Japanese students were surprised to see Israelis leading an ordinary life despite reports on conflicts in the region.
She said the classes have helped motivate her students and she is happy to see them sometimes continue discussions in English afterward.
She quoted a first-grader who participated in a Skype call with Malaysian students in May as saying: “Even though Malaysians have different religions and different world views, we could understand each other. It made me think about how people around the world should make an effort to gain mutual understanding instead of fighting over differences in religion.”
Being the first certified “Skype Master Teacher” in Japan — a title issued to educators who use Skype for global education — Horio said, “I want (my students) to realize that what they learn at school is mirrored in society and how it’s linked to the world outside Japan.”
On top of being named Skype Master Teacher of 2016 by Microsoft Corp.’s education unit, she was also recognized as a Microsoft innovative educator expert.
Since May, she has cooperated with the Japanese nonprofit group CBB, based in Cambodia, which operates language education facilities for the country’s impoverished children and runs a project to help local children improve their English-language skills. Education, Horio said, is critical in impoverished regions to tackle poverty and other issues.
The winner of this year’s Global Teacher Prize — worth $1 million and sponsored by the Varkey Foundation, a United Arab Emirates educational charity — will be announced on March 18 in Dubai.
If she wins, Horio envisions using the money for various educational purposes in Japan and around Asia.
“There are children who have no access to education,” she said, expressing her wish to help them.
Horio said she would also like to use the money to help rebuilding efforts in areas of Japan hit by disasters.
Having received queries on how to prepare for emergencies in the wake of disasters — Japan’s safety measures sometimes serve as an example for other nations — Horio also wants to create a platform to share Japan’s knowledge and raise awareness of disaster preparedness.