In the Land of the Rising Sun

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 17, 1998 | FOSS International

Top image: The FOSS staff received at the JSSE meeting. From left: Hisaki Hitomi, Yasushi Ogura, Linda DeLucchi, Larry Malone, Larry Lowery.

You're going to Japan in July? That's the hottest time of the year—and it rains all the time. You'll be steamed! Why are you going then?

We (Larry Lowery, Linda De Lucchi, and Larry Malone) were going to Japan in July because that's when the Japan Society for Science Education (JSSE) was having its 22nd annual meeting, and they were inviting us to present FOSS.

We had met Yasushi Ogura, then a graduate student, and now a researcher of the National Institute for Educational Research in Tokyo, at a National Science Teachers Association convention. He attended a FOSS introductory workshop and became interested in the active-learning philosophy and pedagogical approaches employed by FOSS activities. He and a number of his colleagues in Japan are trying to foresee the future of science education in their country, and they are not convinced that the traditional approaches alone will serve in the future.

Ogura readily admitted that Japanese students perform very well on the rigorous national examinations, due in part to the cultural traditions of hard work and honor where academic performance is concerned. But the examinations rely heavily on students' ability to recall facts and names that have been committed to memory. This is shallow mastery of subject matter. And no one is going to be hired to take tests after completing their schooling—they'll be hired to develop new products and procedures, solve problems, and engage in long-term planning for the benefit of the people, the land, and the planet. Ogura and his associates are looking for ways to enhance the science preparation being provided the next generation of Japanese citizens. Ogura thought maybe the FOSS story could provide an infusion of fresh ideas for rethinking science education in Japan.

The JSSE meeting was held on the campus of the Tokyo Gakugei University (est. 1949), one of the leading teacher-training institutions in Japan. About 300 participants from all over Japan attended the three-day meeting. JSSE members are university professors in math, science, and education, graduate students, and others involved in science education. They are active in establishing the standards, courses of study, and learning materials that are used nationwide in Japan. They are the agents of change if change is to happen.

Atushi Yoshida and workshop audience

Atushi Yoshida (left) addresses the workshop audience.

We arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday, July 28, in plenty of time for Larry Lowery's "most honorable lecture" on Thursday. The lecture was the featured general session. Larry spoke, with the aid of a most skilled interpreter, on the subject of active learning, brain development, and research on instructional methods and educational outcomes. Just about all of the audience could follow Larry's flow of ideas pretty well in English—the study of English is mandatory in Japanese schools—but it was nice to have the interpretation in order to convey the subtler and more technical dimensions of the address.

The second most honorable presentation was given by our colleague, Dr. Floyd Mattheis, Professor Emeritus at East Carolina University, Greenville, NC and one of the original FOSS trial center directors. His presentation at JSSE was entitled "Science Education Reform in the United States as it Relates to Curriculum Research and Development" and provided a forum for an exchange of ideas between educators from Japan and the United States. Floyd is highly respected by the Japan science education community as a result of his 13 study visits to the country since 1977.

On Friday we trotted out the FOSS kits and worked with a full house of 50 participants, again with the benefit of an interpreter (although the materials spoke for themselves in a universal language that was fully understood by all). After a brief discussion of the FOSS history and philosophy, a summary of the educational/ political environment in which it was developed, and the goals for students and society that FOSS strives to attain, we cut to the chase.

Workshop participants

Some of the 50 FOSS workshop participants.

I started with Black Boxes from the Models and Designs Module. It was a big hit. The concentration and diligence were palpable. And the results were typical—indistinguishable from the models developed by American science educators—or sixth graders for that matter—around the world. And the reasons for including the activity in the module were absolutely clear to the participants. They enjoyed the challenge, weathered the frustration, seized the opportunities for creative problem solving, and took full advantage of the materials to develop, refine, argue, and revise their models. And the drought stopper stopped them all. The notion of a self-starting siphon was unfamiliar, but intriguing.

Note: Three weeks later one of our hosts, Hisaki Hitomi, was in Berkeley gathering additional science curriculum information for a research project. He brought a wonderful piece of Japanese folk art to us as a gift. It is a cup with a little gnome in the bottom, looking up at the drinker. He is a reminder that a polite guest does not fill his cup 100% full, but rather in deference to the host, fills his cup to only 80%, or possibly 90% capacity. If the guest has the temerity to fill his cup full, he gets a surprise. The entire contents of the cup streams out a hole in the bottom, onto his shirt and into his lap. The cup, like the drought stopper, is a self-starting siphon.

Linda finished the workshop with the Human Body Module, demonstrating how an introduction to fundamental body systems can be accomplished with a hands-on approach. And the Mr. Bones assemblies looked very familiar—arms akimbo, lower legs reversed, lumbar vertebrae tried on as neck bones. Again, we were struck by the universality of the approaches people employ around the planet when they work with materials to construct understanding of the natural world.

We had a wonderful time. The participants had a wonderful time. But is that all? We're hoping to continue our dialog with our Japanese science educator friends. There was a mutually expressed sense that as members of two of the most influential countries on the planet, we share some responsibility for helping our citizens attain a substantial level of scientific literacy. Whether the FOSS methods will influence changes in Japanese science education remains to be seen, but we welcome the opportunity to continue the discussions.

During our visit we had an opportunity to participate in the Youngsters Science Festival held at the Japan Science Foundation's Science Museum, located on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. For one week each year the Science Museum is transformed into a hands-on science extravaganza where thousands of students, teachers, and families share in the excitement of science. Many of the exhibit booths are staffed by students who engage the festival participants in interactive science and engineering events. Because of the popularity of the festival, it has been recreated in many other parts of the country. There really is no equivalent community/ school science celebration in the United States.

Workshop participants

Larry, Linda, and Larry at Toshugo Shrine in Nikko.

We did have a few days after the conference to see some of the natural marvels and cultural locations in Japan. One stop in Nikko was the Toshugu Shrine, completed in 1636 to honor the first Shogun, Iyeyasu Tokugawa. Here at the sacred stable we saw a series of monkey carvings representing the "life of a man." One is the famous "hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil" icon depicting good advice being delivered from mother to child. It seemed like good advice for curriculum developers, so we took our vow of eternal integrity as we emulated the famous carving. This was just one of countless powerful locations we visited over the next few days.

I would like to recognize several people whose insight, kindness, and generosity made our trip to Japan a memorable life experience. First, Yasushi Ogura who initiated the whole adventure and made many of our arrangements for housing, transportation, and recreation. Thanks to Atsushi Yoshida for guiding us into the center of Tokyo to seek out a Japanese bird identification guide. And thanks to Hisaki Hitomi (and Hiroko) who guided us around Nikko, one of the cultural and scenic gems of Japan. And finally, thank you to Professor Takashi Shimojo, director general of the 22nd annual meeting of the JSSE, for making our visit to Japan a possibility.

Workshop participants

Close-up of the "hear no evil..." woodcarving.