We've all had the experience of being in a class where what the teacher is saying is so interesting that the time flies by, and we understand the explanation and our eyes are opened to something new, right? While teachers are always busy, they continue to work hard to nurture new abilities in their students.
In this lab visit, we interviewed Associate Professor Atsushi Sakamoto of the Faculty of Human Development and Culture. Professor Sakamoto is conducting research on learning by school teachers based on practice.
Q: Please tell us about your research and your area of specialization.
A: I have been consistently studying the learning of school teachers since my undergraduate and doctoral student days. Pedagogy is usually thought of as the study of children's learning. That's natural, but in order to improve children's learning, the learning of teachers who teach children is important, so I study how teachers learn. I also investigate broad research questions such as: What exactly is teacher learning, and how can we promote it?
Q: How did you start your current research?
A: The experience that made the most lasting impression on me happened when I was an undergraduate student. I had a vague notion that I wanted to do research on "how school teachers learn." I consulted with a seminar teacher about this and was introduced to a school where I made an appointment and went for a visit. At that time a seminar class happened to be meeting at the school, and I was invited to sit in. The class was led by an extremely-talented veteran male teacher, and it was amazing! I tried my best to take notes, but I didn't know what to focus on or what to write down. After the class, I was invited to attend a teachers meeting for debriefing and reflection, but I had a hard time understanding what the teachers around me were talking about. I couldn't keep up with their stories and examples, which were along the lines of "what I did in class helped the children learn in this way, but in that situation, if I had done it more in this way, it might have been better."
Q: So that teacher's class was so good that you were drawn into it?
A: That's right. The various decisions and actions of the teachers during a class - how to decide what to do, how to change directions, asking the children questions, sometimes just watching quietly - I was very interested in this. The starting point for my current research was that I wanted to be able to understand the things that I didn't understand. I had always been interested in teachers' learning and had vaguely considered it as a research theme, but only in a half-hearted way. It was this experience that first made me feel, "Wow, this is really interesting."
Q: Are there any types of schools that you specialize in?
A: Not really. I'm involved in primary, secondary, and higher education. I studied
primary education (elementary schools) in my doctoral program, focusing on the topic of how teachers grow professionally, as individuals and as a group. I also wrote my doctoral dissertation about elementary schools.
After getting my Ph.D., I worked at a private university in Aichi Prefecture for three years, during which time I also held a position at the headquarters of an incorporated educational institution in the Secondary Education and Research Department. Every year, two teachers - one from an affiliated junior high school and the other from an affiliated high school - would teach at their respective schools two days a week and work with our department at the university the remaining three days, researching teaching materials, creating lessons, and analyzing classes. During this time I helped these teachers with their research, and in this way became involved with junior high school and high school teachers, with whom there were many opportunities to study classes together.
Q: Do you specialize in any particular school subjects?
A: I'm often asked this, but the answer is No. Some researchers do specialize in a particular subject, but I was involved in elementary schools from the start, and so I dealt with the wide variety of subjects that elementary school kids learn: Japanese language, math, science, society, ethics, and so on.
Q: How do you feel about changes that are occurring in the educational field?
A: When it comes to changes in the teachers, the age structure will change quite a bit from now on as a large number of new teachers are beginning their careers. Recently, some older teachers have retired and then been reappointed, returning to the classroom. But in Fukushima Prefecture, the overall number of teaching positions is increasing, so the average age of teachers will drop rapidly in the near future.
Due to recent revisions in the education guidelines, many people who, from a relatively young age, have become accustomed to presenting things during class, explaining their own thoughts and ideas, and talking with other students in groups, will become teachers. Those classroom activities all have their good points and their challenges, but I think the way students participate in the classroom will change little by little. Compared to when I was a university student, university students today are much less reluctant to make presentations in class and participate in group discussions.
The recent revision of the education guidelines has increased, not lessened, the burden on teachers in terms of the number of hours they work, especially for elementary school teachers. So even if you were busy before, now you are even busier. Individual local governments and schools are doing their best to deal with this, but it is a problem that calls for careful thinking about how to improve the situation.
Apparently, a similar problem, called "curriculum overload," is appearing not only in Japan but also in other countries. With each new generation, there are more and more things that need to be learned, to the point where the teaching requirements are overwhelming the capacity of the education system.
I think we are at a stage where we have to reconsider the kind of education we've been providing up to now, and be more selective about what we teach and what we don't teach. This is an issue that needs to be addressed at the national level, and also considered at each individual school. This is one more thing that makes me even more busy, but I am optimistic that we can find ways to meet this challenge.