ICAS Insights – Nora Yamada

Nora Yamada – Never Waste a Good Crisis: Reflections on Shifting Learning Online

June 2020

In this essay, Ms. Yamada reflects on lessons learned from The British School in Tokyo’s shift to remote classes.


Never Waste a Good Crisis: Reflections on Shifting Learning Online 

The announcement that schools in Tokyo would have to close at the end of February presented a perfect storm of crisis management: we needed to get staff trained up on new technologies fast, build momentum for the change that we had to embrace and ensure that students had what they needed to learn at home.  We could not, however, hold meetings; some staff could not even come into school, and many students didn’t have laptops. We quickly set up a system to enable families to borrow the technology they needed, staff worked in small groups to share knowledge, and we kept communicating with parents, being honest about challenges and reassuring them about the quality of teaching that we were committed to delivering.

In the secondary school, we focused on building competency amongst staff to use tools that could help us with ‘short cycle formative assessment’ (popularised by British educationalist, Dylan Wiliam), through technologies like Peardeck, Google Classroom and Padlet. These tools enabled staff to quickly sample students’ understanding and gauge progress during and inbetween online lessons. We wanted to focus on technology which would help us give real-time, frequent and specific feedback. Having invested in an Edtech and Learning Innovation Coach, we were able to move swiftly and with relative confidence. On the pastoral front, we activated existing tutor-tutee networks (as my colleague Duncan Grey outlined in an article for the UK Times Educational Supplement). We made sure staff were freshly briefed on student welfare and safeguarding issues (can a student join a lesson in their pyjamas? How do you spot anxiety or identify causes for concern in an online context?) and made sure that parents were kept informed, and, importantly, regularly surveyed.

Silver Linings?

International schools in Tokyo have faced fewer challenges than local public schools. Like other private schools in Tokyo (including Japanese schools), we shifted to online lessons quickly and relatively smoothly. We decided to simulate the school day as far as possible, continuing the established timetable for each year group, replacing each classroom lesson with an online lesson, mostly delivered live by teachers using Zoom, and focusing on short ‘generative’ tasks (where students have to create, or evaluate, rather than just repeat).  Even initially, I could see that there were benefits. Without ‘red herring’ of what Tom Sherrington calls ‘proxies for learning’ (students looking busy, engaged, seemingly completing tasks), and aware that not all students could use their microphones to contribute verbally, I had to focus on eliciting short written pieces of ‘evidence’, using the short cycle formative assessment model. The online platform is more conducive, perhaps, to activities that produce small ‘chunks’ of evidence, short tasks which show students can synthesise, apply and evaluate their learning.

Short frequent feedback has always been great practice, but it’s more important than ever in the current context, because it increases student engagement and consequently, motivation.  As Kerry Rice and Kirsten Kipp stated in an insightful recent article, ‘Being an engaged teacher online means being visible in the class, whether that’s through discussion posts, announcements or assignment feedback’. The question of assignment feedback seems particularly important. Rice and Kipp also point out that personalised feedback can strengthen students’ relationships with their teachers. This chimes exactly with what leaders in the field like Doug Lemov have said – he calls it ‘Check for Understanding’ and claims that it ‘is quite possibly the single most important group of techniques in terms of building relationships with students’ (from Doug Lemov’s Field Notes). By equalising the field between confident students who consistently contribute, and those students who self-identify as students who ‘never really answer questions’, online learning can be more inclusive and ‘fairer’ than conventional classrooms. The online teacher who provides precise and prompt feedback to every student is keeping relationships strong and purposeful. As Lemov powerfully puts it:

What happens inside the [teaching] is more profound than the outside the classroom efforts at connections that teachers may make.  Some of those are also valuable.  But without the in-class dynamic none of that moves the needle.  If I am struggling and you go on blithely unaware, well, you can ask me about all the movies you like but…

Inconsistency in what students have – even in a well-resourced context, means that I’ve been planning lessons in a way which consciously seeks to cut through to the chase: can they explain what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned it? What process are they using? Can they evaluate how successful they’ve been? There are students in every classroom who will never willingly raise their hand: suddenly, they don’t have to.

What’s on the horizon? 

After what’s no doubt been an initially very steep learning curve, it seems like all schools and universities in Japan will be investing time and money in order to upgrade their technological capabilities. In Japan, where school classes are routinely forced to close because of winter ‘flu, heavy snow, typhoons and of course earthquakes, the investment should be an easy sell. Gone is the era of Headteachers agonising about whether to close for a day. More pertinently, schools need to be alert to ‘second waves’ of Covid 19, which might necessitate further closures.  Developing the capability to switch online at short notice makes sense.

Bringing the best aspects of online practice back into real classrooms will be a challenge, though not as formidable as the one we have just faced. It’s possible some schools may never return fully to face-to-face parent meetings and students catch-ups. Necessity has certainly been the mother of invention: we now need to be mindful about how we move forward, consolidating the best innovations into future practice,

Come September: Anticipating Problems 

Like other international schools, we have students scheduled to start at Cambridge, Amherst, Maastricht and everywhere in between. For this generation of fledglings or ‘Quarenteens’ as The FT have dubbed them, there’s no doubt that significant numbers of students will want to defer entry. Australian universities, with their spring start dates and straightforward application systems might lure students away from the UK and the US, accelerating a trend we’ve seen for some time.

Universities in the UK, like Manchester and Cambridge, announced last week that would halt all lectures for next academic year. Unfortunately, the headlines didn’t provide the nuance and lots of students and parents were sent into a spin. At Cambridge, for example, the most important method of teaching is the ‘supervision’ meeting (an often one-to-one session between teacher and student), and it is planned that these will go ahead. In fact, as students in many of the oldest British universities are organised into ‘colleges’ anyway, it is anticipated that much seminar and smaller group teaching will go ahead. Roger Mosey, master of Selwyn College, Cambridge has said that the college is planning for ‘small tutorials in freed-up, spacious lecture theatres; students will be grouped into ‘households’ that adhere to social distancing guidelines’.

If large numbers of students do decide to defer this year, it is likely that simultaneously reduced numbers of international students (many of whom may decide to apply intra-regionally and stay in Asia instead) will ensure that there’s no acute competitive crush next year, although UK universities will miss out on the handsome premium that international students pay.

Back in school, we’ll have to focus on making schools as safe as they can be; communicating honestly with families and providing extra opportunities for students to reconnect with their peers. A sense of being members of a community is important: students are learning resources for each other, they encourage each other. Giving them opportunities to rekindle social relationships will be just as much of a priority as getting them back into sparkling clean, socially distanced, reconsidered classrooms.


Nora Yamada is Director of External Relations at The British School in Tokyo.