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From Sage On Stage To Guide On The Side: My Journey As An Educator In Japan by Jason Wolfe

by Jason Wolfe

Bio: Designing a classroom experience centered around creativity and innovation is an exciting topic for this educator with a background in plant ecology and corpus linguistics. 

Jason Wolfe, a Canadian long term Tokyo resident, has taught eikaiwa, high school, and university, and now teaches design full-time and speaks about design thinking.

His volunteering keeps him active in the maker movement, JALT, and TEDxYouth@Tokyo. A collaborator with many groups seeking to provide a much-needed perspective on the future of learning, Jason’s insight into the benefits of tactile explorations inspires the creative problem-solving confidence that will challenge your perspective.

A Little History

I came to Japan in late 2005 and started doing the eikaiwa stuff, GABA mainly, and although I have some issues with the company and how they treat their “non-workers,” I had a positive experience because of all the connections I made there, both personal and professional. 

Over time I found my way into a national high school teaching higher-level English to returnees. This was a nice jump as I was tasked with creating and implementing my own curriculum for the first time.

This was more of teaching something ‘in’ English, instead of teaching English as a language or second language. 

I would later learn proper terms for this, PBL, CLIL, etc.

This was a major high point because previously I’d always had to teach a prepared curriculum and, being who I am, generally had issues with it. I taught what I was interested in, and at the time, it was environmental issues and philosophy.

That school was at the beginning of a transition from a 3 + 3 (junior and senior high school) to a 6-year school, and more importantly, a switch to an International Baccalaureate (IB) school. This is usually done by introducing a cohort on the new plan while the older grades are still in the old system. Every year you add a new cohort as another grade graduates and slowly the school is transitioned. I became part of both schools and there was some learning involved with the IB methodology.

Although the IB program we were teaching, the Middle Years Programme (MYP), was a methodology designed to be implemented with any national or regional curriculum, it was a very different approach. The biggest learning change was assessment. This included rubrics and very clear instructions on what is expected from students to receive a certain grade.

Grading was also organized into four or more criteria with very clear distinctions. In a nutshell, there was much less of “I think this is a 7/10, feels like a 7…” These and other IB related things really opened my eyes to education and what it means to be an educator.

From Sage on Stage to Guide on the Side

From then I started defining what kind of educator I was. I realized I was not really interested in what I thought education was … students as empty glasses to be filled by the all-knowing teacher.

I wanted to challenge and motivate my students … create life-long learners (some more IB jargon).

Currently …

I currently teach Design to junior high school students at a private 6-year high school in downtown Tokyo called Kaichi Nihonbashi Gakuen. This is an IB MYP class and since we follow the national curriculum I had to align my course to the national standards of 技術 (Industrial Arts) and 家庭科 (Home Economics).

Yes, I teach sewing and cooking.

But, I do it in a design thinking sort of way, where I provide problems and challenges and they have to solve them by making something.

Here are a few examples of some problems and solutions:
  • Design a locker shelf that will make the classroom a better learning environment for you and your peers (1st-year JHS wood processing project). Students use SketchUp to 3D design their shelf and planning models then make the real thing.
  • Design a Japanese inspired healthy breakfast cookie (2nd-year JHS nutrition project). Many people skip breakfast and a cookie is a hand-held solution to that problem. But, a cookie is a little strange for breakfast…hence the Japanese culture addition.
  • Design a product that will make elderly people healthier … using only the parts from an old umbrella! (3rd-year JHS community/society project). There are too many elderly people in Japan (contentious!) and too many umbrellas. Let’s create something that solves both problems.

One thing I try to do as we go from 1st year to 3rd year is to try to make my projects less and less Googleable.

This is to force them to be creative. 

Kids are naturally creative, but in high school they are busy and the whole system seems to reinforce the idea that creativity is not as important as test scores and finals.

If I don’t think about forcing creativity, they’ll resort to using Google, not due to lack of creativity, but lack of time. The students will Google that project and see what comes up … I think the idea of giving students something unGoogleable is a must for this generation.

Another task I strive for is radical creativity. As I tweak and update my lessons from year to year I look for areas where creativity can be maximized. This is how I ended up with the challenge to make the elderly healthier using only parts of an old umbrella. Recently I have found that the projects coming back to me are similar and following a trend. I will have to tweak them and possibly allow them to use any waste resource and might even add unGoogleability to the lesson requirements.

When I Google the students’ ideas, I want to see nothing in the results.

How can I implement lessons that push for maximum creativity?

A lot of my personal inspiration for creativity comes from the D-School at Stanford. I started following a lot of their steps in my English classes and my science lessons and eventually, I ended up teaching Design. I am very happy with this transition.

Although I teach a little English on the side, my full-time work is as a design teacher – challenging and, hopefully, inspiring students to maximize creativity and prototype like crazy.

The goal is to make quick and dirty solutions to the problem and then iterate and expand.

The language of instruction is English. I teach two classes, the DLC and the GLC class, or the lower and higher English level, respectively. They will study Design for the three years of junior high school.

The goal of the 4-year MYP program at my school is to get their English proficiency up to a level where they can study in an IB Diploma Programme (DP) class in English.

This is a daunting challenge as DP classes are rigorous and challenging. The first year class comes in at a very low-level English and I often have to use some Japanese, provide some bilingual material, and/or have a Japanese teacher assist at times.

Navigating the material at their level is a challenge but the complex nuances of IB assessment is also very complicated (in Japanese too) for their young minds.

Here are some pictures of students working:

Other Responsibilities

The biggest responsibility I have outside of teaching is managing the English book library. The library is a little small and the English books were very few and of limited quality and interest. I have to choose, buy, and process most of the Englsih books.

I love books, but I am not a trained librarian, I had to learn/guess a lot of stuff, and it is a learning process.

There are a few different categories I try to build upon. I make sure to get English books that:

  • Correspond to the taught curriculum in both Japanese and English
  • Inspire a love of reading
  • Should be part of all libraries (I don’t know if anyone will read War and Peace, Marcel Proust, or Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations…but they are there as an antilibrary)
  • Facilitate academic research for the end of junior high and senior high school projects
  • Progress students through the extensive reading program

Here is our (English) library

For the extensive reading program, I need to provide materials that will allow for a transition from a basic beginner escalating up to native, or near-native, high school level. We try to do this in 4 years, junior 1 to senior 2. The minimum they need to achieve is CEFR B2 in all 4 skills, but even at that level, the DP course will be quite a challenge.

Another thing my school does and I am directly involved with is native speaker homeroom teachers (HRTs).

I am currently a third-year HRT with the GLC class and have to deal with all the responsibilities that go with that. Parent/Teacher interviews, discipline, dealing with personal issues, fieldwork in another city for 3-4 days, classroom tidiness, and other things.

It is a lot of work but mostly, very enjoyable.

I am now in my 4th year at this school, happy and content, but wondering how to keep adding creativity to my life and where the next changes will happen. I have always found that my favorite age to teach is junior high, but it takes a lot of energy and I am not sure I can do that until retirement (although I could as this position is permanent). Change is approaching…but when, where and what…TBD.

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