LEEPing ahead in Japan

Teacher trainer, Mark Swinhoe shares some of his highlights working on the Leaders of English Education Project (LEEP).

It has been 6 months since I joined the teacher training team, during which time I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Ishikawa, Tottori and Osaka to deliver teacher training sessions. However, the majority of sessions have been at the National Centre for Teacher Development in Ibaraki as part of LEEP.

Being a LEEP trainer has really challenged me professionally and the prospect of facing a room full of highly experienced teachers can be daunting at times.  However, it is without doubt the most professionally rewarding experience of my career to date.  Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of working on LEEP has been seeing the way the participants change over the course of the project. 

A good example of this is Week 1 of the elementary school course.  When they arrive on Monday morning, some of the participants suffer from a lack of confidence in their ability to speak English, let alone teach it.  By Friday, they are able to read picture books to students in English, teach students English songs and role-play a planning meeting with an ALT from an English-speaking country. The change in their confidence and enthusiasm is just amazing.

One perk of being a LEEP trainer is attending the trainees’ farewell parties where we get to chat and hear more about what’s going on in teachers’ schools and classrooms.  During one of these, after Week 2 training, a teacher confessed to not really having done speaking activities in class prior to LEEP, other than having students read aloud from the book.  He went on to say that, following the Week 1 training course, he had tried out pair work and group work speaking activities with his students and that this has been a big hit. His students are more motivated, and some parents were even reporting that their children had started speaking English at home! 

Teachers often tell us that techniques and activities from the LEEP course enable their students not only to speak more English, but to enjoy it too.  For me, that’s what LEEP is all about, and I’m delighted to be a part of it.

Project overview

English teachers across Japan are being trained as part of an initiative to improve English language levels in the country.  The Leaders of English Education Project (LEEP) aims to help practising teachers become ‘leaders’, or teacher trainers in a more interactive, student-centred style of English language teaching.

The project forms a key part in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s (MEXT) plans to move classroom teaching practice in Japan away from the traditional focus on English as an academic object of study to a more skills-focussed approach.  Extra urgency has been given to improving English language levels in Japan with Tokyo winning the Olympic and Paralympic Games for 2020.

The cascade training model involves training 500 teachers from every prefecture across Japan, who then circulate their expertise to teachers in their home prefecture, initially reaching 10,000 teachers, then later, hopefully reaching every teacher of English in the country.

Training first focusses on the teachers’ own English teaching skills and how to implement new approaches into their own classrooms, and then moves on to developing their training skills as English ‘leaders’ to deliver this new content to other teachers.

Leading the way in Fukushima

English teaching in Japan is changing. Across the country, a new team of “Teacher Leaders” are helping English teachers to transform their lessons. Laura Mckenzie met one of these leaders in Fukushima.

I joined the British Council Japan as a teacher trainer on the second year of the Leaders of English Education Project (LEEP) in May 2015. I was soon plunged into the thick of things - in my second week the British Ambassador came to visit as I delivered training to future “Leaders of Education” in central Tokyo. There was a real buzz in the training classrooms that week, but I was curious to see how these teachers would get on when they returned to their schools and local areas, and came back into contact with everyday school life.

As a result, I was delighted when I was asked to go to Fukushima to see Yukari Ota, a Teacher Leader from the first year of the project, deliver training to her senior high school colleagues.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but from the moment we arrived, I was struck by the atmosphere in the room. The teachers were enjoying the chance to practise their English with colleagues, but, more than that, they seemed to be inspired and captivated by the person leading the training, Yukari. She peppered her sessions with examples of how the LEEP training had helped her own students become more enthusiastic about English, and how they had started using more English to communicate in the classroom. The other teachers were obviously hooked by their colleague who was facing the same everyday realities as them, but making a change, and they clearly wanted to know more about how she had done it.

I got in touch with Yukari after the training, and found out more about her story. I would like to share it with you, in her own words:

I was selected in April last year. It was just after I moved to a new school. Also, I had just come back to Japan from the US where I had studied Education for six months so I was excited to do something for English education in Fukushima as a LEEP leader. 

After week 1 training, I changed how to teach vocabulary. I used to have students just check the meanings of words in Japanese. After week 1, I tried activities like dash to the board, Pictionary and miming. My students were excited to try these activities and I still do these in my class now.

Yukari’s flawless delivery of the training was no accident, as I soon found out. She had clearly put a huge amount of effort into preparing her sessions:

I started the first cascade sessions in December last year. As they were the first I went to Niigata to watch cascade sessions by Mr. Nozawa (a fellow Teacher Leader) to see how to deliver them... It was a great help for me to prepare. Beforehand, I listed what I should say and practiced for the sessions. I used the classroom and practiced in front of nobody. Occasionally English teachers watched and gave some advice”.

Her efforts have paid off, and Yukari has noticed that, since taking the training, her colleagues have started to view her differently: 

.., other teachers' attitudes toward me have been changing. When I suggested trying communicative teaching method before, not everyone agreed on it. However, after I delivered cascade sessions, many people started to understand what I wanted to try and gradually changed their response.    

“They seemed to be impressed to see English-only lessons delivered and were particularly impressed by ideas such as teaching past perfect, how to check students' reading comprehension, etc. Trainees in my sessions told me that they would like to try some of the ideas used”.

This has created a snowball effect in Fukushima, with large numbers of teachers flocking to see Yukari delivering open lessons in her school:

Last week, I showed my class to teachers from all over Fukushima prefecture – 56 teachers visited, far more than I expected. I think the teachers are interested in how I teach with methods and ideas in cascade sessions. It went well and teachers, including those from traditional, academic schools, gave me positive feedback. I am sure the cascade training had an impact on English education in Fukushima”.

The Ministry of Education calculates that 20,000 teachers will have benefitted from LEEP training by the end of March 2016. Rather than numbers, though, it is the personal connections that result from the training that may be having the biggest impact. Yukari notes that:

Thanks to LEEP, I now have friends to talk about teaching English with, materials and ideas”.

In the months to come, I am looking forward to meeting more people like Yukari all around Japan.

Japan-wide release of Teacher Training DVDs

The Japanese Ministry of Education is distributing over 42,000 British Council teacher training DVDs to be used in every state school across Japan.  The DVDs will be used to help English teachers develop their communicative teaching skills.

They are being released as part of the nationwide LEEP teacher training project and include footage of LEEP training sessions as well as authentic classroom footage of Japanese teachers and their students.  They include practical, step-by-step examples of communicative classroom activities, and have been designed to support teachers who have attended the LEEP training on their return to work.  They can also be used by teachers who will attend the training at a later date, to make them aware of some of the techniques they’ll be learning.

There are three versions of the DVD, for elementary, junior and senior high school levels, each containing eight 20 minute videos, focusing on areas of English teaching and techniques that are relevant at each level.  

From a trainer's perspective - LEEP phase one

Erik Jacobson is a British Council trainer working on the first year of LEEP. Here Erik describes his experience working with elementary (primary) school teachers:

I never imagined I would be reading The Hungry Caterpillar to Japanese ministry of education officials. But that’s exactly what LEEP had me doing a few weeks ago. The officials had come along to observe teacher training on the use of picture books in Elementary schools, and they apparently went away very pleased with what they had seen.

This project involves training primary school teachers from all the prefectures in Japan to increase their confidence and ability to teach English through using English. This means using storybooks, songs, authentic English, games and introducing classroom English (e.g. “Can you repeat that?” “What’s (that) in English?”) to make lessons more personalized, engaging and memorable for Japanese students. Another goal is to get students communicating with one another in English. “Foreign Language Activities” have only recently been introduced as compulsory lessons in Japanese primary schools.

I really love how active the teachers are in the training. For example, after I demonstrate reading a storybook for the teachers using gestures, intonation, pointing and other techniques, they then choose their own story from our library of picture books and plan in pairs how they’re going to tell it. The ideas they come up with are fantastically creative, everything from finger puppets, to prop stethoscopes to origami paper frying pans. After the teachers tell their stories to their students (a.k.a. other teachers) they give each other feedback which is followed by further tips from me.

One key aim of LEEP is for the teachers to eventually become trainers themselves. Once they’ve returned to their prefectures and had time to put the ideas they have learnt into practice, they will cascade the training to their peers. The ambitious goal for the project is for this training to reach every English teacher in Japan. At the end of the year, I will be travelling all over Japan to see how they are doing. I expect to learn a few new tricks myself.