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When we imagine schools in the future, usually one of the first things that pops into our minds is students watching lectures on their computers. You might even imagine kids sprinting through crowded streets, late for school, with nothing but a simple LCD screen in hand instead of hefty spine-cracking backpacks. And, while many of us might have dreamed of learning straight from a computer, it never really seemed realistic, did it?

Well, it turns out that our sci-fi day dreams might be closer to reality than we’d ever imagined!

Starting this autumn, Saga Prefecture’s Takeo City will become the home of the first public Japanese school to try out the so-called “Flipped Classroom.” Though the idea isn’t entirely new, it is a bit surprising to see it taking hold in a country that many assume to be extremely conservative, especially when it comes to education. After all, Japanese students still clean the schools themselves and are renowned for their heads-down, nearly silent note-taking in classrooms. The idea of flipped classrooms taking over in Japan is nearly enough to boggle the mind.

But first, let’s take a step back and talk about just what a flipped classroom is. And, no, before you ask, it’s not a school girl prank where all the desks are glued to the ceiling.

The traditional classroom, whether in Asia, North America, or Europe, tends to be filled with lectures by teachers, with homework done at…well, home. Obviously, each area and each school has variations on the theme, but we generally think of teachers as standing in front of a room of students, explaining things. The flipped classroom, as the name implies, flips that idea–students watch lecture videos at home, do the selected work, and bring it to school for discussion and extra help when needed.

▼ Think differently.

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Flipped classrooms, as you might imagine, bring some unique challenges though. Teachers have to provide videos to students, and it’s also necessary to be sure they actually watch the videos. The solution that Takeo City’s school came up with is simple: tablets!

Since 2010, Takeo City has actually been supplying elementary students from fourth to sixth grade in two schools with iPads for use in the classroom, and they have plans to do the same for all elementary school students starting next year. In 2015, middle school students will be included in those receiving the devices. This puts the city in a distinctively advantageous position to test out flipped classrooms, and this November, one of the two elementary schools will try out the model for part of their science and math curriculum. From there, they plan to expand to the whole school for all subjects, all the while collecting data on the effectiveness of the method.

In schools with flipped classrooms, teachers have said that students tend to perform better and that it creates a better learning environment–slower learners can watch and rewatch videos at their leisure while quicker learners can zip through the easy stuff. At the same time, when students bring their digital homework to class, the teacher can easily glance at cumulative answers and see which problems were most confusing. This allows them to devote more time to clearing up issues that prove difficult for students.

Another benefit that the Takeo City Board of Education is looking to derive from flipped classrooms is group discussion. The hope is that this new educational model will allow students to practice and develop their communication skills. While they’re probably not imagining lively, outspoken debates, it certainly seems like a great experience for Japanese students. Much to the chagrin of English-speaking assistant language teachers across the country, Japanese children tend not to speak up in class–sometimes even when directly called on.

▼ A Showa Era classroom. It was too cold to talk!

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However, as we mentioned before, there are some potential problems. Students have to be self-motivated to study at home, and it will require greater involvement from parents to encourage their children to watch the lectures. At the same time, it may also prove challenging for teachers, who will be forced to reexamine and modify their role in the classroom. Another issue is the cost of tablets. Each student will need one, and the devices can easily run around 50,000 yen (roughly US$500). Though parents will likely be expected to purchase a device when their child enrolls, schools will also probably be expected to help subsidize the costs.

Now, the question remains: Will flipped classrooms work in Japan?

Though the paradigm has been successful in test programs in other countries and even in some private schools in Japan, it remains to be seen if it will catch on in public schools. Aside from the challenges for teachers and extra costs, we imagine that many parents would be leery of letting their children take classes using very modern methods that have only been tested a few times.

▼ Hey, at least they’re getting new devices!

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There seems to be a lot of mixed reactions to the model among Japanese Twitter users:

I just found out about “flipped classrooms.” And it really does seem right–it’s the revolution we need in education.

Flipped classrooms look great. It seems a lot different from how I was educated as a kid.

This does seem advanced at first glimpse, but I think they’re going about this the wrong way. I think device manufacturers’ profits will go up much more than students’ grades.

Whether it’s “flipped classrooms” or classrooms sharing new problems through discussion, you need “debate.” But there is no tradition of debate in Japan. Is there?

Obviously, not everyone is excited about the program, but with an ever-growing number of institutions, from MIT to Tokyo University, providing online educational material for free, it’s easy to believe that this is just one step towards the future. And with the success of Khan Academy, where you can self-study nearly every major subject, there’s no reason to think that this would be impossible to implement.

But as for what the actual results will be…well, it might take a few decades before we find out.

Sources: Asahi  Digital, Naver Matome, Twitter
Images: Wikipedia (classrooms, tablet), Takeo City Mayor’s blog