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Interview with Miyu Ishiwata

Miyu Ishiwata of EikohMs. Miyu Ishiwata is involved with Eikoh – one of the largest jukus in Japan – and which was founded by her father. She is also Director of Little Steps – a private school for children in Tokyo.

This interview was conducted in Tokyo by John Lowe in November 2009.

John:
Hello Miyu-san – could you tell me a bit about your background?
Miyu:
I graduated from Tokyo Gakugei University and specialized in education. Prior to that I had considered a career in the medical profession, but ultimately decided to specialize in the world of elementary education. In my consequent studies, I soon became really interested in the developmental process in which children learn, and that lead me to think about studying developmental psychology overseas. But before that, I really needed to improve my English language skills, so I attended a special English language school, called Phoenix. I ended up staying there for five years.
John:
Why did you stay so long?
Miyu:
Although the school doesn’t exist now, I really liked the system and method of teaching there. The school actually had a graduation system, so I did a two-year graduation program, and then stayed for a further three years. Instead of the traditional grammar translation approach, there was much more focus on real communication. There were: writing classes, debate classes, presentation classes, and so on, and they all had a definite focus. I also liked the project-based classes that were the school’s core curriculum: drama, business presentation, debate classes; which included students of varying English ability level and background. We don’t have those kinds of classes in Japanese schools, and I really think that project-based classes create a need for genuine communication through the higher instances of self-initiative and interpersonal responsibility by the group.
John:
What happened after that?
Miyu:
I started employment! I joined the company Eikoh, where I worked in the foreign teacher dispatch department. Eikoh has many different business departments within the field of education, and even has kindergartens in Australia; so I enjoyed the variety. Eikoh then acquired an adult English language school, where I subsequently became involved in the core management. Because of my continued interest in children’s education, I gradually transformed the school from adults to a focus on kids, and we renamed the school ‘Little Steps’. Little Steps focuses on children from ages 2-12, and is based in Omotesando. We don’t concentrate solely on English language, but want to create an creative hot-bed environment for kids to develop a full range of key skills.
John:
How do you teach English?
Miyu:
We teach English through presentation, art and also through drama. The age groups comprise of three distinct groups: namely 2-3 years of age, 4-6 years of age, and then 7 years old and upwards. The first group (2-3) are more interested in exploration and play, and are not motivated to sit down for long. We use picture books, and a variety of activities and games. In the second group (4-6) the children start to become more aware of learning and the activities become more controlled. The third group (7+) starts to focus more on study - although there is scope for ‘play’ in their drama class, and through art they will explore and reflect on their environment.
John:
How important is it for kids to learn English?
Miyu:
For Japanese children it’s very important. Children are so receptive at this age, and their listening skills develop very quickly. Also, the innate ability to mimic with accuracy and conviction the unique phonetic sounds of a foreign language soon deteriorates with age and continued conditioning. Although we mainly have Japanese students, we do have students from different countries, and this promotes real communication and international understanding. We also desire that the children will improve not only in their command of the English language but in other skills and even develop their sense of identity even mental prowess.
John:
How is your approach different?
Miyu:
We take a very personalized approach to learning, and we also try to involve the parents in their children’s learning - and not just the mothers - we want the fathers to be involved as well!
John:
Do you use technology at all in your school?
Miyu:
I think that the general preference in Japan right now is to use mobile technology rather than PC systems. We, however, are continually looking for the best ways for kids to learn English also as communication tools between among us; the school, teachers, parents, and the students. I’m looking forward to seeing how the formal introduction of English into the elementary school curriculum will improve the English education system in Japan.
John:
What is the future of English language schools in Japan?
Miyu:
At the moment English language schools in Japan don’t have a good reputation- and I believe we do need to develop the foundations of English education and English schools in terms of both the prevailing philosophies and curricula.
John:
What does the future hold for you personally?
Miyu:
I am also involved in the hospitality industry (Niki Resort) and started a summer school in Nasu in collaboration with an NPO. We started this dynamic program two years ago, and invite special teachers such as designers and scientists to participate in an program with both children and adults. Our aim is to enable a platform to learn together at a local level, with the collaboration of both children and parents; to explore a positive culture of learning which both reacts to and revitalizes the local community culture. We had a five-day program last summer which attracted more than 700 participants in what we called a “Schule im Berg”. I am also interested in organizing a learning festival for kids in Tokyo in association with 2010 being national ‘reading year’ in Japan. This is planned to feature symposiums and workshops: through which the children will be able to learn experience through creation of the project together.
John:
Thank you very much for your time.
Miyu:
Thank you.



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