This past fall, DPS team member and Asian Education Advisory Council (AEAC) chair Priscilla Rahn was selected to spend a week in Japan participating in the KAKESHASHI Project. Priscilla was invited to bring her perspective – and that of educators in Denver – to this people-to-people exchange designed to strengthen U.S.-Japan relations through greater mutual understanding between our two cultures. Read about Priscilla’s experiences and learnings from Japan’s educational system below. Thank you, Priscilla, for continuing to support our Shared Core Value of Equity!
An Education in Japan
By Priscilla Rahn
This fall, I was honored to join ten Asian American leaders from across the country who were chosen to participate in a unique person-to-person exchange trip to Japan. Part of the KAKEHASHI Project, which serves as a bridge between the people of Japan and the United States (KAKEHASHI means “arched bridge”), the experience left me with a deep appreciation for Japan’s remarkable people, culture, history and customs.
Every day of our weeklong adventure was packed with enriching experiences — from learning about the Japanese economy and retirement system and touring the Japanese Stock Exchange to visiting the beautiful shrines of Kyoto.
As an educator here in Colorado, serving as Chair of the Asian Education Advisory Council (AEAC) for Denver Public Schools, I was fascinated to learn about Japan’s educational system. Our meeting with officials at Japan’s Ministry of Education and tour of Kanagawa Sohgoh High School, a high-performing, comprehensive public school outside of Tokyo, offered a window into a successful system that is very much distinct from America’s pedagogy.
For example, each of Japan’s 47 prefectures (prefectures are districts, much like counties in the U.S.) hires teachers and assigns them to schools. Principals do not hire teachers. Also, teachers spend no more than five years at one school. This creates a dynamic in which educators benefit from exposure to new settings, share best practices and students experience a more diverse array of educators.
Also, prefectures control budgets for schools under their jurisdictions. This stands in sharp contrast to most American school systems, which allocate budgets per pupil and give principals and school committees more flexibility and authority over the allocation of resources.
As Japan is a global leader in technology, I was surprised that I did not see a single laptop, tablet or other modern digital tools in the classrooms. The instruction style is “old school,” with teachers writing on chalkboards and students using paper and pencil. This is designed to build a learning environment with fewer distractions that is conducive to concentration.
While the instructional tools I observed were minimalist, teachers employed high-impact, dynamic instructional strategies. For example, students in the English language classroom were asked to read an article and then share their opinions in small groups. The teachers were very much engaged in learning with their students and asked probing questions.
Every aspect of the student experience reflected Japan’s cultural values, including community, shared responsibility and cleanliness. In many classrooms, students had a place to leave their shoes before entering the classroom. Each was supplied with several brooms and dustpans, a clear indication that maintaining a clean and orderly learning environment was a community responsibility. Also, each floor of the school had a student lounge area with tables and chairs made and decorated by students.
While it is difficult to fully weigh and assess the pros and cons of our different educational systems, I know there is much we can learn from the Japanese people in this area and others. And, they are certainly very open and interested in learning more about America and hearing from our people. Throughout Japan, I experienced remarkably welcoming, kind and polite people. Whether in a store, restaurant, office building or riding public transportation, our group was greeted warmly and sent off with a bow and gratitude.
One thing is for sure: I look forward to returning to Japan. I am so grateful for our Consul-General Hirakoba, the Japanese Government and the Japan International Cooperation Center for continuing to build positive relationships between America and Japan. I have many new friends and lessons learned that I will treasure for a lifetime.
Chair, Asian Education Advisory Council (AEAC), Denver Public Schools
Summer School Principal, Denver Public Schools