The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Social distancing and the closure of many aspects of society impacts more than just business. Like company executives, teachers have found themselves in rapid-response mode as they look for ways to maintain operations amid a crisis unlike any seen in our lifetimes. These heroes have one of our most precious commodities in their hands: our children.

The coronavirus pandemic will pass and, while the world may never be the same, business will go on. Ensuring that tomorrow’s leaders are ready for the challenge falls on schools. While The ACCJ Journal has focused a great deal on how businesses are managing the situation, we wanted to know how educators are keeping the gears of future innovation turning. We spoke with eight international schools to find out.

An online class at Aoba

As many teachers pointed out, social interaction is a key part of the educational experience—especially for younger students. This is important not only for learning social skills, such as how to get along and work with others—something critical to future business success—but also for the connection between student and teacher.

Technology can, of course, present obstacles. Teachers, students, and parents may need to adjust to new tools. But apart from the technical hurdles, physical separation is cited as one of the biggest challenges of the sudden transition to exclusively online classes.

“The challenge in delivering distance learning to younger students is even more complex because younger children thrive when they have a social-emotional connection with their teacher,” said Scott Wilcox, deputy head of school for learning at the American School in Japan (ASIJ). “Relationships are critical across all levels, of course, but they’re particularly essential to our youngest learners.”

Aoba-Japan International School Primary Principal Sachiko Otsuka noted that, as social interactions have been limited in the online envi­ron­ment, younger learners can be at a significant disadvantage because they are building foundational social skills during their early years.

“From grade 12 down to as early as grade three, students are able to access and navigate online learning engagements fairly independently. But there is an inverse relationship in general between the child’s age and the amount of direct interaction with teachers that is required for optimal results. Below grade three, we have found that substantial parental involvement has been required in comparison to the older students.”

Horizon Japan International School head Emin Huseynov is seeing the same. “Due to the fact that some younger students are not as proficient in their use of technology as their older counterparts, we consider autonomy as the biggest challenge for primary-aged students,” he said. “They need more parental support, but not all parents are able to give the support required for full access to the online curriculum due to work require­ments, number of kids, and other demands on their time.”

Go even younger and you begin to chart new territory in distance learning. Gymboree Play & Music Japan has intro­duced online classes for those in preschool—something that has required adaptation and creative thinking.

“In our usual classes, we follow the lead of the child and encourage each to explore on their own. This is something our teachers cannot do when leading classes online. Many of our teachers have only experienced teaching at a physical location, so teaching online is new to them,” explained Vice President Nicole Yamada. Gymboree’s distance learning offerings include music for ages 0–6 years, art (16 months–6 years), preschool English (2–6 years) and afterschool English (3–9 years).

Gymboree’s approach is creative. They are using the curricu­lum from their classes at the physical locations but substituting props—for art and music—with items that families have at home.

“Our online classes started on April 22 and we expect to continue until we open again. However, we are also considering continuing to hold some classes online as well,” Yamada said.

Another concern is access to computers, tablets, and reliable internet service. Not all families have adequate equipment at home, or enough devices for multiple children who need to use them at the same time. And, despite Japan’s technological prowess, there are plenty of apartment buildings in Tokyo where high-speed internet service is unavailable or unreliable.

Many educators cited the lack of technological resources in public schools—and the lack of training for teachers and students in how to best utilize these learning tools—as a key reason why the Japanese education system was largely unprepared for a sudden shift to online classes. It’s an issue that has not gone unnoticed by the government. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that it wants to make tablets available to all students by 2023.

For the international schools with which we spoke, this is less of an issue. Many took steps years ago to ensure that each student has access to these tools.

Secondary Principal Paul Fradale said that Aoba has been a 1:1 school—meaning there is a device for each student—since 2014. Those in grades one through three have tablets, and those in grades four and higher have laptops. ASIJ established a 1:1 system a decade ago and Columbia International School has had such a system in place for grades 7–12 for 20 years. Nishimachi International School also has 1:1 device provision.

“The need to go online for our classes has surely ramped up the computer skills of the schoolwide community,” said Columbia Principal Barrie McCliggott. “Our students in kindergarten and primary grades are now quite comfortable communicating with teachers and fellow students through a variety of appli­cations. Skills related to finding, verifying, and giving credit for information found on the internet have improved. And dispositions related to self-regulation, independent learning, and becoming self-responsible learners are being challenged and becoming a focus of teacher discussions.”

He noted that technological challenges exist at both the pri­mary and secondary levels related to internet access, device use, and how to access materials before the learning even begins. “This is a bigger challenge for teachers of younger students, who require a little more handholding through the process,” he said.

Art Recreations is an online course for Nishimachi’s grade-three students.

Finding ways to keep everyone involved is one of the most challenging aspects of online teaching. Technology offers amazing capabilities but recreating the sense of class when everyone is in a different location requires new approaches, creative thinking, and flexibility.

McCliggott shared Columbia’s approach. “We have focused on creating learning activities that bring students together as a class using Google Meet or Zoom, as well as activities that provide opportunities for students to work together in small online groups and then present back to the whole class. Traditional activities such as show-and-tell, storytelling, and question-and-answers sessions can still be done online.”

At Nishimachi, this varies from grade to grade and class to class and depends very much on the type of learning activity taking place. “Teachers are using an array of tools, including Google Hangouts, Google Chat, and Zoom, to facilitate multiple ways of interacting. Much like a class in school, this setup means there will be some whole-class time, one-to-one time for those children who require it, and some independent learning time, too. We have digital tools to support each of these ways of learning,” explained Head of School Karen O’Neill.

She cited three tools that help maintain interactive teaching when the group cannot be in the same room:

■ Whole-group sessions
To use the whiteboard, videos, and other screen sharing to deliver teaching points
■ Breakout rooms
To give kids a way to work together, help each other, discuss or answer key questions, listen to each other, and share their work
■ Padlet, Seesaw, Flipgrid
To record thinking, ideas, work, and feedback

All the schools with which The ACCJ Journal spoke are using some combination of dedicated learning apps such as Padlet, Seesaw, and Flipgrid along with Zoom or tools from Google to facilitate online classes. And they are finding that these enhance many aspects of the process.

“Screen-based engagements allow a higher degree of student control of the path, pace, and place of learning,” said Fradale. “And transparency of learning for parents is higher than when the physical campus was open.” Aoba uses Google Meet for large groups and Google Hangouts for smaller team meetings. “This facilitates live, synchronous meetings throughout the day. We have Chrome extensions that provide virtual whiteboards and such to the Google environment for all students and teachers to use,” he added.

Horizon teachers have also found ways to make sharing print materials with full online classes easier. “Some use document cameras to display work on printed materials,” explained Huseynov, speaking of the adjustable, stand-based devices with USB connec­tors that can be used to “project” material into an online meeting in much the same way one would show something on a screen in a classroom. “Document cameras give students the ability to see an object or text clearly from anywhere, which is important for comprehension and understanding.”

Having a range of tools is important because different students respond better to different approaches—and online learning offers opportunities to tailor education to individuals.

“We survey students regularly and use their feedback to refine our approach. Some students prefer synchronous learning expe­­­riences and find that approach motivating, while others favor asynchronous activities that permit more autonomy and independent decision-making. What we’ve learned is that there’s no one right approach for every student all the time,” explained ASIJ’s Wilcox.

“Our goal is cognitive engagement; we want our students to be the ones thinking, talking, and writing—more than the teacher. Our synchronous experiences trend toward teacher-directed mini-lessons and student groups working together, not lecture-based experiences, while our asynchronous expe­riences permit more agency and self-direction. Feedback is at the heart of learning, whether synchronous or asynchronous, and both approaches create opportunities for targeted, individualized feedback.”

An Aoba student joins class on iPad.

The disruption to school life naturally raises many concerns for parents. The lack of social interaction is high on the list, and each school is taking steps to address it.

“We responded to that by making every morning check-in a whole-class, face-to-face experience,” said Nishimachi’s O’Neill. “This allows children to see the familiar faces of their classmates and teacher, and to stay connected on a far deeper level than is possible using a chat application.”

That’s important because, as Chiyoda International School Tokyo’s Daniel Roebuck explained, “There is some feedback—from younger children’s parents especially—that they have some difficulties making their children concentrate on studies without teachers and classmates around.”

The connection to both their peers and teacher is very important, he added. “Our teachers check in with their homeroom class daily to chat and discuss what their targets are for the day.”

Annette Levy, deputy head and director of curriculum & professional development at Saint Maur International School, Yokohama, mentioned how much the children miss the contact with their peers, how the loss of social and athletic pursuits affects them, and how Saint Maur is trying to offset this. “To maintain our sense of community, teachers are being incredibly creative and providing physical education challenges, choral collaborations, and even whole elementary school assemblies online.”

At ASIJ, the biggest concern probably is student readiness for next year, according to Wilcox. “We’re confident our students will be ready for next year and that they won’t be disadvantaged by distance learning at all. In fact, insofar as lessons learned about perseverance, resilience, and self-management, we suspect our students will be positioned to excel next year and beyond,” he said.

“Our teachers and teams are talking and identifying the learning that is most essential and foundational for the next level of learning. In September, teachers will use this information to guide instructional decisions while pre-assessing and adjusting instruction to meet the needs of students. We know parents worry about their children’s preparation and the opportunities they’ll have in the future, but we’re confident our students are going to hit the ground running next year.”

Screen time has been a top concern of society in general in recent years, as we spend more and more time staring at smartphones and tablets. So, it is no surprise that parents worry about how the necessity of looking at a screen to attend school will affect their children. O’Neill said this is the most common concern they hear as they conduct regular surveys to ensure that their e-learning program is meeting the needs of their community. “In response to this concern, both the elementary and middle school schedules have been revised to encourage more offline, active-learning experiences,” she said.

Aoba has done the same. Fradale said some students are reporting eye strain from looking at screens for extended periods, so the school has “implemented mandatory physical activities to address this, in part, and strives to offer a balance of digital and analog engagements and tasks.”

Students struggle with the same thing as workers when all activity is shifted to the home: structure. Our days are largely defined by routines, and it’s the little things in the daily process that help us focus on specific activities and maintain balance in our lives. Schools are particularly structured, with a flow of classes, gatherings, and activities. It’s important not to lose that.

“The secondary school has maintained a fairly synchronous approach to the school day in order to stabilize students’ lives through a known routine,” said Aoba’s Fradale. “Teachers sche­dule telemeetings with student teams throughout the normal schedule of classes, while the students work in large problem- or inquiry-based units.”

Otsuka added: “In the kindergarten and elementary classes, there is a combination of whole-group, small-group, and one-on-one synchronous interactions with students. The majority of the learning from kindergarten to grade three occurs asyn­chronously, where tasks are assigned with flexible completion times. Teachers meet with students synchronously through Google Meet for daily check-ins and targeted support sessions.”

Saint Maur is taking a similar approach at the secondary level, where “all the live sessions are mirroring the regular school day periods, and so all of these virtual sessions are initially as a whole class,” explained Secondary Principal Tim Matsumoto. “Should there be a need for one-on-one or small group sessions, this is possible as well once the needs of the whole class are addressed. During live sessions, teachers utilize small groups and one-on-one support as part of their day-to-day expectations. Teachers are available throughout the school day for questions through multiple platforms and, where appropriate, they support children in one-on-one situations in addition to those offered during the scheduled live lessons.”

The coronavirus pandemic is providing an accelerated testing ground for new approaches to education in a digital age. While there is naturally concern that students may not be receiving the optimal experience, educators are maintaining open channels and close contact so that they can make continual adjustments.

“The divide between children who have access to digital platforms versus those who don’t will continue to widen,” said O’Neill. “I also believe that the Covid-19 situation has allowed educators to leap into the use of digital platforms much more quickly than would otherwise have happened. This will allow a subset of children to be much more adept with technology, leaving others behind.”

McCliggott believes that Covid-19 will result in “a hybrid learning environment that incorporates the positives of the wealth of resources provided through the internet in a learn-anywhere-anytime environment.” He said this coupled with the support, coaching, and socialization opportunities of the traditional school model are a desirable outcome.

Aoba Admissions Director Ae Kimura feels that the results so far have been good and are moving education towards stronger blended systems. “Data we have from our weekly parent and teacher survey indicate that student learning outcomes within the current online delivery are what we expected within the limitations of primarily online learning engagements. This means in the long term we are very confident that our students are not being disadvantaged,” she said. “While not under ideal circumstances, the online learning we are currently under­taking is helping us learn valuable lessons and develop our existing blended learning program. This will help us ensure that our future programs are as high-quality as possible.”

Huseynov hopes the efforts of teachers to maintain learning during the crisis will lead to a better appreciation of the impor­tant role they play in society. “The world is full of millions of teachers—many doing brilliant things right now. They are our metaphorical ‘practitioners’ that will be on the front lines of blending the best of the old and new educational practices. The entire globe now understands that growing and preparing together is essential to future success,” he said.

And Wilcox sees the crisis as providing needed impetus for turning talk into action. “Over the past two decades, there’s been talk ad nauseum in education about 21st-century skills and competencies, but only incremental progress in schools toward those lofty goals. The Covid-19 pandemic is disrupting life as we know it. We suspect the pandemic will create urgency and accelerate this conversation in tangible, norm-altering ways,” he said.

“Our hope is that ASIJ will become even more intentional and bold in its resolve to live our mission and vision, which is fundamentally about not just preparing students for high school graduation and admission into college, but about helping them find their ways in life and be productive global citizens who contribute to their communities in meaningful ways. We know ASIJ students will be well served by the institutional recalibration we are experiencing right now.”

Indeed, that sense of impetus can be found in the views held by the Saint Maur’s administrative team, as expressed by Levy. “Covid-19 has pushed all educators to be even more flexible in how learning can take place. We, as administrators, teachers, students, and families, all appreciate being in school more,” she said.

“While this has been an opportunity to become more creative and adapt, as educators we tend to borrow the best bits of systems. I imagine we will do the same from online learning once we return to our physical campus. We are likely to incorporate some of the best from this online experience into that face-to-face experience.”

There’s a business opportunity here, too. Matsumoto feels that the Covid-19 situation will most likely inject more research and experimental development into platforms that attend to the needs of “smart” education delivered online. “Could this flatten the disparity curve between the haves and have-nots regarding access to educational resources?” he asks.

Elementary students at Nishimachi hold a virtual “book parade.”

Distance learning due to Covid-19 concerns is likely to be with us for a long while. And even after the pandemic is over, the way we teach and learn is being changed forever. Give that screens will play a bigger role in the lives of students, The ACCJ Journal asked these educators for some closing tips to help parents successfully guide their children.

“Parents should allow their child to experience a variety of online learning tools, including educational apps and even YouTube,” said Gymboree’s Yamada. “However, sitting in front of the screen should not be used as a type of babysitting. Parents should stay involved with their child’s learning and be there to support them when needed. Participating in interactive classes and communicating with friends on Zoom are very important for children’s cognitive and social development, so parents should encourage these actions whenever possible.”

Fradale recommends balancing screen and non-screen time. “Less is more in terms of ‘busy work.’ Focus should, instead, be on larger, team-based projects. Maximize student-to-student interactions and make sure that teachers interact with students regularly each day,” he said.

Routines are also important for maintaining a sense of structure and momentum during distance learning. “Build a new daily routine and stick to it. Revise it every few weeks based on observations and consultation with the school,” Otsuka said. “Co-construct agreements with your children about each family member’s role and responsibilities as a reference point. Maintain communication with the teachers so that informed decisions can be made to benefit students and families.”

Huseynov also stressed this point. “Setting up a routine and completing assigned work on time is essential to limiting parent and child stress,” he said. “Students do not need to lose the skills they have already acquired. In fact, they can gain and progress intellectually during distance learning. Schools may be closed, but learning does not have to stop.”

O’Neill also encourages strong parental involvement. “Students need time to practice in order to encode what they learn into their long-term memory. Reading something online without having an opportunity to discuss it with an adult is challenging for any student. Parents must allow for extra time away from the screen, and more time for discussion. Children should be given opportunities to engage either with their parents, with peers, or with their teacher.”

Roebuck mentioned physical and mental well-being. “Take eye breaks. Stretch your legs. Talk to your child about what they are learning. Turn off the TV at mealtimes. Don’t forget play is important. Children are often suffering stress, too, yet cannot express these feelings clearly.”

And Saint Maur Elementary Principal Rachel Forbes-Dias emphasized the importance of tending to mental stress. “Without social and emotional needs being met, learning will not be at its best or may not even be able to take place. Do ensure that your child feels safe and nurture the sense of belonging and love that they need,” she said.

“Acknowledge your child’s feelings and support them in trusting their own feelings. They are grieving what is now lost in their life. Their usual routine, aspects of their relationships, and perhaps their sporting and musical outlets that may have had an important place in their life are gone right now. Give them opportunities to talk about their feelings. Having this outlet should help in allowing them to focus more fully on learning. Find ways to laugh together to ease the stress and realize that our emotions are contagious.”

What Kimura said about Aoba’s experience sums up well the spirit of professionalism, dedication, and teamwork that can be seen across the international school landscape and which is leading the way on future education. “We believe we were able to come this far due to our families’ continued support, the teachers’ commitment to our students, our school’s professional preparedness in a time of crisis like this, and the firm belief in our school’s community capacity to work together during this short-term crisis.”

And as McCliggott said: “Teachers should keep it simple and focus on the big ideas, and parents should encourage students to reach out to their teachers and classmates for shared learning. For students, don’t worry about what you didn’t get, just focus on learning a little more each day—and remember to get some fresh air and physical activity. Education is a lifelong journey and we do well at things we like. So, make it fun.”



From Columbia International School

■ Walk the talk
Your commitment to excellence must continue even online.

■ Evaluate conditions
Make sure students have reliable internet access and devices.

■ Stick with the familiar
Continue using existing channels and systems—especially in the first weeks.

■ Less is more
Streamline content and elevate the most essential learning for students.

■ Seize the moment
Embrace new opportunities and possibilities for your students.

■ Provide space
Allow students to personalize what, how, and when they learn.

■ Design experiences
Create a clear sense of purpose that allows students to work toward mastery.

■ Create opportunities
Relationships and collaboration matter as much online as they do in person.

■ Think differently
When assessing, reference success, be specific, and identify strengths and next steps.

■ Make it fun
Have a positive growth mindset to make distance learning fun and successful.



■ Establish routines and expectations
Set regular hours for your children’s schoolwork. Make sure children move regularly, take periodic breaks, and keep normal bedtime routines.

■ Define the physical space
The regular place for doing homework may not be suitable for extended periods. Establish a space where parents are present and can monitor learning.

■ Monitor communications
Keep tabs on emails sent by teachers. Remember that they are communicating with dozens of other families and bear that in mind when responding.

■ Begin and end with a check-in
A brief grounding conversation allows children to process the instructions they’ve received, get organized, and set priorities. Start and finish each day with one.

■ Take an active role
Help your children process and own their learning. Engage with them, but don’t complete assignments for them—even when they are struggling.

■ Ensure time for quiet and reflection
Families with multiple children may find it challenging to manage everyone’s needs. There may be times when siblings need to work in different rooms to avoid distraction.

■ Encourage physical activity
Make sure your children remember to move and exercise. This is vitally important to their health, well-being, and learning.

■ Remain mindful
Do your best not to transfer your stress and worries to your children. They will be out of sorts and need as much normal routine as parents can provide.

■ Monitor online use
Staring at computer screens for eight hours a day is not good, even for education. Try to find the right balance between online and offline learning experiences.

■ Set rules for social media
Help your children maintain contact with friends, but remind them to be polite, respectful, and appropriate in their communications.

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.