As I continue working with students and staff members, the questions I sought out at the beginning become more defined and a different perspective is emerging.
I came here on a pursuit to explore the perspectives and general view students have on mathematics and its impact on their studies along with their performance. This is especially interesting since Japanese students have been seen to rank near the top in global math and science surveys. The origin of this quest stems from how mathematics is often stigmatized in the west, often seen as boring, irrelevant or scary/difficult.
I have learnt that education here is different in the sense that the most stressful and challenging period of a student’s education are in their Jr high school/ high school years, as they are to write extremely difficult entrance exams that would dictate the schools they go to and their career paths. This is different than in Canada in the sense that once the students here are in a university, it is smooth sailing from there. University graduation/completion rates are extremely high in Japan and much less stressful when compared to their high school experience due to such high stakes standardized testing. It is often described as students working hard during high school and then 'letting their hair down' at university.
Due to this approach, the standard high school math curriculum in Japan is incredibly dense and compact (comparable to higher level math in Canada), often seen as a gate keeper subject as described by some teachers. Due to the intense curriculum, and how public schools typically teach math (very traditionally – where the teacher is the source of knowledge through a stand and deliver format), students take the role of receivers as passive learners taking notes. This is comparable to a typical western math lecture at university where the sole focus is often on teaching as much content as possible within a tight semester.
Since my school is approaching education differently than how typical schools here teach, my senior high math classes are mostly flipped classrooms, as that is the only feasible way to reach out to all 40 students (classroom size is mandated by the public system) in a diverse way, while ensuring the best use of limited class time. Depending on the difficulty of the content that week, the teacher may switch to in-class teaching, and alternate with other teaching strategies such as group-led learning, team teaching, or classroom inquiry/investigations.
It is extremely difficult for the teacher to attempt large scale inquiry, interdisciplinary, design based, or project-based learning while working with all ELL students of varying degrees along with an overpacked and rigid curriculum. We often hear teachers back at home who teach diploma courses say how there isn't enough time to carry out different approaches to learning, picture that here but with a much more dense curriculum (they teach two different curriculums side by side with very different topics as part of the whole Japanese curriculum, where one is heavily tested on as part of the national curriculum, and the other is demanded by universities for entrance testing), with much higher stakes standardized testing for students with a class of 40 students. These exams literally define the student's future for post secondary unlike our diplomas and their ease in rewriting and laxed time constraints.
Despite all of this, the math teacher I work with is optimistic and squeezes in as much non-traditional approaches to learning along with ELL activities as possible. Currently we are trying out more group work in getting students out of their desks with math sorting activities, mixing and matching, and ELL phrases/vocabulary. It is here that I’ve had the great opportunity to work with teachers in planning and carrying these activities out. That said, the culture of students and their behaviour in Japan is much different than in western society, which does play a huge role in sort of activities and expectations teachers can put on students.
Students here are very collective as a cohort, sharing notes with their peers, collaborating on homework, and are always helping one another out. They are very mindful of each other, even to the extent of waking each other up on a long day in the middle of class. This communal feeling is sensed throughout the school community as well. Students worked together to write a school song in which they are so proud of, having a chance to show-off their school and their song on TV. To such an extent that they are mostly internally driven and dedicated to their class and school community. Students would be working on planning the school festival instead going to clubs and even during class time. This strong sense of school community and self regulation amongst the students is the goal in which I hope to create among my students in creating a classroom of community and belonging.
Unlike the stigmatized perspective students have of hating math and seeing it as irreverent in the west, students here either enjoy math or just see it as a necessary subject that they must work at if they are to have many opportunities in the future (career wise). This comes from my discussions with various teachers and students themselves. The focus is very different, again, because of those entrance exams. There also is not much of a fear in math as in the west and this has great source in the fact that all math exams are in written response format with no numeric responses, nor multiple choice as we often see in Alberta. Students are not allowed to use calculators throughout their schooling, so mental math is worked on since childhood. This also plays a huge part of students’ confidence in math.
Working with my math teacher serves as a great inspiration in my own practice as he models how even with a tight curriculum, there is always a way to go beyond it, especially if it serves the best interests of the students. Despite having over 20 years in teaching experience from all over the world, the math teacher constantly continues to learn from students, work at improving his teaching and practice. This has been evident numerous times when lessons don’t go as smoothly as planned and the new changes in the following class to adapt and modify the instruction, being received noticeably better by students.
From the students' perspective, I can only imagine how hard it is to learn math in English, as math is a separate language itself. Students here are juggling between three languages: Japanese, English and Mathematics all within their math classes which is incredible. Although there is a translator for the first semester of high school, students work towards being able to handle math classes fully in English by their second semester. Much of my role and the EAL’s (English as an Additional Language) team role is furthering the use of English in math and helping students develop strategies for success.
From the perspective of a math teacher, this makes math class a great balance between an ELL class and math itself. As such, this limits the types of discussions, activities, and explorations that could be done, given the extra language component.
From looking at various lenses, I can see that the priorities and focus is different and thus with the questions I came here seeking out answered, new questions arise in how I take this understanding and apply it in my own teaching as well as how to best work with and help teachers and students here given what they have to do.