Exploring the Theory and Practice of Inquiry Teaching in Japan and the U.S.

With the generous support of a UCLA Non-Senate Faculty Grant, I was able to accept an exciting invitation to visit Japan for a mutual sharing of theory and practice on inquiry-based learning and teaching with Japanese teachers and researchers. Dr. Katsushiro Yamazumi, who has done research at UCLA Lab School, invited me to visit three Japanese university-based elementary schools and present a seminar at Kansai University. Dr. Yamazumi kindly arranged visits and debrief sessions at the three elementary schools, all of whom have interpreted John Dewey’s work on experiential and inquiry-based learning in diverse ways. The trip was filled with stimulating conversation and insights.

I learned about the connection our own Principal Corinne A. Seeds had with the interest in John Dewey’s ideas about critical thinking and democracy in education in Japan. Ms. Seeds had worked for many years with Helen Heffernan, the head of elementary and rural education for the California Department of Education (1926-1965). For 15 years, Heffernan and Seeds co-taught summer courses at UCLA for teachers and supervisors. With the end of World War II and the occupation of Japan by the U.S. army under General MacArthur, Heffernan was asked to serve as elementary schools officer on MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo. While in Japan from October 1946 to early 1948, she worked with Japanese educators, and based on the ideas of progressive education, she strongly influenced them to try to establish democratic school education. (Learn more in Democracy and Schooling in California: The legacy of Helen Heffernan and Corinne Seeds, by Kathleen Weiler)

Following is a brief summary from my observation notebook from my trip.

Ochanomizu Elementary School – Tokyo

The first school we visited was the prestigious Ochanomizu Elementary School, which is associated with Ochanomizu Women’s University. Like UCLA, this university started as a Normal School for training teachers about 100 years ago. At Ochanomizu ES, we observed classrooms of first-, second- and fifth- graders. Most notable was the self-directed character of the students in their investigations about living things, the home-school connection in the early grades and the year-long inquiry project called “Learning from Experts” that engaged the fifth graders in understanding how their school was organized and the jobs of adults and students in this system.

We also discussed how the school administration and the Ministry of Education support individual teacher research projects and how the projects are then shared with the school community and the public at large to further the goals of democracy in education.

Nagara Municipal Elementary School – Gifu Prefecture

Nagara Municipal Elementary School is Dr. Yamazumi’s project school. This school was the brainchild of Yoshibei Nomura, the first principal of the Nagara Elementary School after World War II. He advocated collaborative democratic life in his idea of living/life education.

Nagara ES continues as a training center for new teachers, using a blend of traditional Japanese educational practices as well as inquiry-based learning. Here we observed first-, third- and fifth-grade classes as well as support classes for special needs students.

Notable here was how similar their lesson organization is to our UCLA Lab School workshop model — with a connection, teaching point, guided practice, independent practice and closing share. A key learning was the school’s practice of having student class leaders share a connection with the previous day’s lesson and facilitate an oral review of key points before the teacher presented the teaching point. The role of student leader rotates so that all children can experience stepping up to the role.

We learned that Japanese students spend a great deal of time in elementary school learning observation and listening skills as the basis for their collaborations; expressive language is emphasized less than in elementary school in the United States.

Students practice recording their observations through sketching and keeping observational notebooks. Cameras and computers are used sparingly by the students before 5th grade.

Nara Elementary School – Kyoto

At Nara Elementary School, just east of Kyoto, we accompanied Dr. Yamazumi’s graduating teacher candidates in observing and debriefing two lessons on Project Based Learning in the first and third grades.

We noticed how self-sufficient the students were in setting up, working together and closing their project-based inquiry on what makes a community. Everyone had a productive role and a mission to accomplish. The students seemed eager to involve the adult visitors and articulate their process and products.

Notable was the school organization, where students stayed with one teacher through the younger grades (grades 1-3) and then changed to another teacher for fourth and fifth grades. This allowed students to pursue year-long projects with continuity and age-appropriate challenges.

Also of interest was the way the Japanese education students asked questions of the experienced demonstration teacher. They, too, had a class leader, as we had witnessed in the Nagara Elementary School classroom. Like many novice teachers, their questions were about planning and implementation of lessons. They were most curious about my question regarding how the inquiry project had emerged from the students the previous year and developed during the current year.

At the end of our visit, we were invited to have lunch at the school. To our surprise, everyone – from principal to students to gardeners – ate tsukemono, sushi, miso soup, udon noodles, salted fish and maybe a little chocolate.

Seminar at Kansai University

The seminar at Kansai University was attended by about 25 teachers, researchers and university faculty. Presenters included Dr. Yamazumi, who spoke about children’s agency in inquiry-based learning and concept formation at UCLA Lab School; Jun Kamiya, Ochanomizu’s physical education teacher, spoke about the challenges of shifting to a competency-based approach in physical education instruction; Tomatsu Mori, Osaka Univeristy Elementary School’s 6th grade history teacher, discussed primary sources and creative problem-solving focused on heterogeneous thinking; and I talked about our UCLA Lab School work on the pedagogy of inquiry. I shared our Inquiry Pedagogy Committee’s Best Practices on Inquiry. The presentation included pictures and other documentation of our younger and older students in each part of the iterative process – Beginning the Process, Investigation, Application of Knowledge with Assessment and Documentation appearing throughout.

A lively discussion ensued about the similarities and differences in our approaches. We also focused on how we could continue the conversations between Japanese and American educators who are interested in furthering the ideas of inquiry-based teaching and learning.

Next Steps

Back at home I have been sharing my observations and learnings with the UCLA Lab School community. Together with interested faculty, I hope to continue working with our Japanese colleagues. In the spirit of inquiry, we’ll be asking questions, doing research and exploring possibilities.