How EMU’s Place-Based Education Methods can help Teachers in Japan

By Rachel Renou | Published March 19, 2020

A photo of Junko Kondo standing next to her presentation.
Junko Kondo
A photo of Junko Kondo standing next to her presentation.

Junko Kondo

YPSILANTI - Junko Kondo is a doctoral student at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies in Kyoto, Japan. Kondo is studying Environmental Education in hopes of positively changing the current state of teaching in Japan. After graduating with a bachelor’s in American History and a master’s in Anthropology Kondo began teaching middle and high school social studies for several years. However, the job began to take a toll on her health and well-being.

In a presentation for the Teacher Education Department at the EMU COE on Thursday, March 5th, Kondo showed alarming statistics about what it's like to be a teacher in Japan. According to a study done in 2018, Japanese teachers work the longest hours compared to any other country. She told those at the presentation that she often worked from the early hours of the morning to late at night on weekdays and the whole weekend as a teacher in Japan. Teachers are seen as another guardian over the student. For example, Kondo spent the weekend taking her students to and from their extracurricular activities. Although this form of intense teaching creates a deeper connection between the teacher and student, teachers often feel run down. Kondo recalls little to no support systems or professional development offered to teachers. As a result, many teachers are left stressed, lacking a personal life, and even experience illness due to overworking.

On a cultural exchange program in Micronesia, Kondo first experienced place-based education and became hopeful for what this concept could mean for teachers in Japan. Her first impression of place-based education was that this was a more fun and authentic way of learning that might improve the well being of educators. It also touched on the importance of one’s environment and how you can learn from the place you are in. This was also important to Kondo because as a teacher she saw enrollments of both students and teachers decreasing. Japan is experiencing aging and depopulation which is in part due to environmental factors such as natural disasters. She believes younger generations need an appropriate competence of how to care for the environment around them. Therefore, Kondo quit her teaching job to pursue research in the field of Environmental Education.

While studying at Kyoto University Kondo wanted to research the application of place-based learning in formal education. She looked into supporting organizations for place-based education and found the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition at EMU. Ironically, Kondo had already been aware of the Great Lakes Coalition because her hometown is Shiga, Japan. Shiga is home to Japan’s largest freshwater lake. Michigan made a contract with Shiga to be their sister county. Kondo mentioned “Lake Biwa is famous for having a cruise ship named Michigan. So you may not know the name Shiga, but everyone in Shiga knows Michigan” (Kondo).

Kondo is here at the EMU COE studying for three months during our Winter 2020 semester. She is working closely with SEMIS Director, Dr. Ethan Lowenstein, to study place-based education. Since arriving in Michigan, Kondo has begun conducting her research by running an audit of Dr. Lowenstein’s class, observing and facilitating student group discussions, attending the SEMIS conference on January 31st, 2020, interviewing high school teachers and community partners, and more. Overall, Kondo is conducting a case study of how this method of teaching is practically applied, and gathering takeaways to apply back in Japan.

Now, nearing the end of her time at EMU, Kondo’s presentation reflects these takeaways she has gathered. Kondo says that a theme prevalent in the interviews she conducted was growing a community. Building a community in the classroom allows teachers to build stronger trust with their students, earn their respect, and energize students because they feel comfortable participating.

Second, Kondo has learned that place-based education empowers liberating discussion and facilitates a nurturing environment for students to speak up. She believes learning is very connected to the physical space teachers build. Teachers can build this space by setting chairs into one big circle allowing for limited distraction and includes everyone in the conversation.

Lastly, Kondo understood the importance of a structured learner-centered approach in place-based education. Although “learner-centered learning is supposed to contain many uncertainties, I found place-based education activities here are carefully designed” (Kondo). She says that logistics and structure that develop guidelines for the classroom are helpful for teachers while still allowing for an open learning space

Kondo is excited to bring these principles of learning back to Japan. She believes these concepts will help improve the well-being of teachers as they focus on a more democratic classroom. She plans to introduce the learner-centered approach by applying these methods in schools and recommend it to others. She will serve as a researcher and advisor to overworked teachers seeking a new way of teaching. Kondo hopes this will lead to more discussion among students which takes some pressure off of the teacher’s shoulders.

In her presentation, Kondo expressed her gratitude for EMU and the COE. “People are so kind and good at encouraging each other which is an important nature for educators” (Kondo). When teachers encourage their students to play a more active role in their own learning, it can make a positive difference in schools and the lives of our teachers.

About The College of Education at Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, The College of Education (COE) at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) continues to be one of the largest producers of educational personnel in the nation. The COE includes a comprehensive variety of programs at the bachelor, master and doctoral program level. Non-degree and certifications are also offered through the COE as well. The COE includes departments for teacher education, special education, and leadership & counseling. All of the professional education programs offered by EMU’s COE are accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) and are also approved by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). The graduates the EMU produces are highly desired in the field, due to the strong reputation the COE has earned throughout their many established years. The COE has been recognized for its strong success rate by U.S. News and World Report’s: America’s Best Colleges.