The Extraordinary Case of Mr Yamazaki

What happened when a Japanese headteacher imported his ‘Hitaisho’ teaching method to a rural Cornish primary school?

100% Pass rate in KS2 SATS reading tests*

In June last year, I visited one of the most remarkable schools I have ever come across. Tucked away in one of Truro’s most deprived areas, a quiet revolution is under way in primary education. A very quiet revolution. Despite 100% pass rates in this year’s reading SATS*, the only reason I had heard of Mr Yamazaki was because my friend in Japan, where I taught for 2 years, sent me a magazine clipping from a local rag in Kanazawa.

The article outlined how a small, unassuming headteacher from Kanazawa had transfromed a Truro primary school by importing his special educational potion which he likes to calls the ‘Hitaisho’ method (loosely translated as ‘asymmetrical’, or ‘top-heavy’, which refers mainly to the radical approach he takes to Year One).

The next day, I asked my head teacher if I could go and visit — what I saw was life changing…

Reception

Like most things at Mr Yamazaki’s school, reception class is done a little differently. Firstly, they get the entire school to themselves for one whole week at the beginning of the school year.

Every teacher in the school is deployed into reception for that one week, where there is almost a 1:1 ratio of adults to children.

There is a tremendously warm atmosphere as the new children are given time to explore the school and get to know every teacher there, which means that every adult in the school knows their name (and their unique traits).

The children are introduced to their routines from day one and things are practised relentlessly but jovially, supported by each member of staff. By the end of the week, they know how to tidy their classroom, where to sit on the carpet (and how), what the expectations are when the teacher is talking and how to look after the plants and trees in their garden. The effect of having so many teachers around, all reinforcing the same expectations, means that behaviour also gets off to a winning start.

Then the real magic begins (brace yourself). At the heart of Mr Yamazaki’s ‘hitaisho’ method is a beautiful minimalism- a stripping back of every single thing to its ‘bubbling core’ in an attempt to remove all waste from the system. At Mr Yamazaki’s school, less is more. It is a version of mastery that creates true masters.

In reception, this means that there are only 2 learning objectives for the entire year:

  • knowing the alphabet off by heart (by sight and by hand)
  • counting up to 20 and back down again.

That’s it. No…really.

The rest of the time is spent unfolding a very intense programme of oral language development. Mr Yamazaki explains that the typical 4 year old in the UK has a vocabulary of 1,500–1,600 words. With the help of a government-funded research team from the University of Manchester, they have established that at Mr Yamazaki’s school this has more than doubled to 3,800–4,200 words. But HOW do they do it?

Stories. LOTS of them.

To step into Mr Yamazaki’s reception class is to enter an enchanted world of fairy tale and myth which seems to encompass the entire world (and those beyond), from Ghanaian creation myths to Japanese folk tales. From 9am–3.30pm, the children are enveloped in a golden cloak of storytelling embroidered by their expertly trained teachers. The children are constantly retelling stories to each other, their parents and the class, with astonishing eloquence. By the time they leave reception, Mr Yamazaki estimates that each child has heard around 500 stories, each one rich with vocabulary and imagery.

“We want to develop passionate readers and pioneering scholars, who go on to devour everything that this beautiful world can offer them. But no-one can do this without the gift of language. At our school, words are jewels, and we treat them as such. Once you have mastered the alphabet, you can master every phoneme and grapheme. Once you have mastered every phoneme and grapheme, you are ready to master extended pieces of writing. Once you master extended pieces of writing, you can change the world.”

Maths and literacy lessons are short and extremely focussed. By the end of the year, there isn’t a single child who hasn’t mastered the alphabet and counting up and down to twenty (they’ve spent all year on it, which means that the teacher has more than enough time to ensure that everyone catches up eventually and reaches the same level of fluency). All the children know these things inside out, upside down and left, right and centre with their eyes closed.

The rest of the time is divided between storytelling, play and gardening sessions. And when I say play, I mean play.

“As soon as the teacher gets the clipboard or the post-its out, it isn’t play anymore. We don’t take notes. At our school there are no contrived notions of ‘learning through play’ — we call a spade a spade. We learn through study and we play through play. Free, unstructured, joyous play with minimal interference from adults…no observations, no profiles and certainly no portfolios. If anything extra is learned while playing, that’s a bonus, but never the aim.”

But don’t be fooled — while play is taken seriously at Mr Yamazaki’s school, learning is the north star. With all the ‘fluff’ taken out of the system and the curriculum, there are bucketfuls of time to spend on making sure that the children master what is deemed important in each year group. But if you thought reception was radical, wait for Year One.

Year One — The most important year in the school

Here we reach the very core of the Hitaisho method — according to Mr Yamazaki, it all comes down to getting Year One right. In fact, it is no exagerration to say that the entire school revolves around Year One.

In Year One, school begins at 8.30am (everyone else starts at 9am), which on its own isn’t all that remarkable.

However, the reason for this is that again, every single teacher (and senior leader) in the entire school is deployed to Year One every single morning for 30 minutes of phonics, meaning that almost every configuration of teaching is possible, from one to one tutoring to small groups to whole class. Just imagine if the most experienced and skilled teacher in the whole school took your lowest attaining child every single day, one to one, for 30 minutes of intensive phonics tutoring.

“But don’t the teachers get annoyed having to start at 8.30am when they have so much to prepare fo their own classes?!” I ask, amazed by the sight before me.

Mr Yamazaki laughs. “If I told you that in exchange for those 30 minutes a day, you could inherit a class every September made up entirely of fluent readers and spellers, would you do it?”

And every teacher I spoke to was very clear about their answer to this question, making me feel a bit silly for asking it in the first place.

Just like in reception, the Year One curriculum (that is, the things that are measured…certainly not all that is taught or experienced) is composed of just 3 learning objectives:

  • To read and write every phoneme and grapheme in the KS1 appendix.
  • To be able to count to 110 and back down again.
  • To know every single number bond to and within 20.

Just ponder that for a moment…the only 3 objectives measured and monitored are the 3 listed above. If you had an entire year to master 3 objectives, imagine what could be achieved.

The morning is spent exclusively on mastering these objectives, through direct instruction, then practise through rhymes, games, painting, sculpting, singing…every which way until they are fixed in long term memory.

Afternoons again are made up of a varied mix of free play, regular trips to the local wood, storytelling, drama, art, singing and PE. The oral language development is still in full swing, with the children reciting songs, stories and poems all day long.

While there are no official ‘subjects’ in Year One such as history and geography (these begin in Year 4), almost every inch of the earth is covered by some kind of story, song or poem (one little boy very proudly sang me a list of every major river in Africa).

At the end of the day, the lowest attaining children get 30 additional minutes of one to one or small group tutoring with one of the many additional teachers in the school (more on that in a moment).

“What about writing?” I ask, “Do they not work on extended pieces of writing at all? Or beginning to learn genres?”

“There is certainly nothing stopping the children writing stories in their free time if they want to, but we don’t waste any time trying in curriculum time.”

“Waste?” I ask, “That’s an interesting word choice.”

I am beginning to get used to Mr Yamazaki’s endlessly patient but wry smile.

“ In Year One we don’t go beyond the sentence level. Can you imagine the endless hours we would waste if we spent their precious time explaining how to write a letter or a list of ingredients…before they knew every phoneme and grapheme off by heart? It’s quite simple — as soon as you can read, spell and count, the world is yours for the taking. We can’t get them there by adding endless layers of fluff which then have to be assessed, scrutinised and measured. It’s complete madness.”

I am about to ask “But don’t they get bored?” when I look across the room and see one girl’s clay sculpture of ‘ir’, surrounded by paintings of girls, swirls and circuses. She doesn’t look bored to me. And she doesn’t look very bored later in the day either, whilst swinging off the rope swing in the garden into a wall of piled up foam bricks.

Mr Yamazaki tells me that:

“When I first arrived in this country, it made me laugh. People very proudly talked about their school’s ‘mastery’ approach, then they showed me their curriculum. In Year One - in English alone - there are 60 objectives. Sixty, and that doesn’t count individual phonemes/graphemes as objectives, nor does it include anything from maths, art, science, D+T, geography, history or computing. There are 190 teaching days, so just for English, that gives you 3 days for each objective. That doesn’t sound like mastery to me. At our school it’s 63 days to spend on mastering each objective. When we’re not mastering those objectives, we’re developing vocabulary, confidence, love of nature and social skills. ”

Here he suddenly becomes very animated.

“Can you just IMAGINE what could be achieved, the doors that could be opened to every child, if they entered KS2 with complete and unfaltering fluency, along with exposure to over 1000 stories and poems. And the same for maths. I still laugh when I hear teachers complaining about teaching fractions. Fractions are the easiest thing in the world when your multiplication and division facts are fluent. We don’t touch fractions at all until Year 5. Not even a passing glance. Then by Year 5, it takes about a fortnight to grasp almost every fractions objective in the KS2 curriculum. People visit all the time and cannot get over the simplicity of it, they’re shocked. But HOW can you only have 3 learning objectives in Year One? I always turn it around for them…But HOW can you plan, teach and assess the hundreds and hundreds of objectives in each of your year groups and expect the children to master anything? It’s overload everywhere…impossible! Strip it out, strip it all out and you’ll see what happens. The stories that our Year 6 children write are breathtaking. They are better than anything I could write.”

So you get the picture. I won’t go into any other year groups in detail as it could take a little while! However, there are some other incredible features of the school which it would be hard not to mention:

Less Is More

  • There are no teaching assistants at Mr Yamazaki’s school. This means that over £180,000 of funds are available for employing additional fully qualified teachers.
  • There are no iPads or computers in the school. Instead, each class gets one day per half term in the high tech computing suite at a secondary school down the road, jointly funded by 5 neighbouring primary schools. Limiting it to one day per half term means that lessons have to be focussed and meaningful, which puts an end to the countless filler lessons ‘researching’ that term’s topic on iPads.
  • The school is open most evenings until 8pm and provides families with a place to socialise and buy healthy meals for £2 each. There are also books and board games available on every table.
  • For one term every year, there are no printers or photocopiers in the school, which saves thousands of pounds and boosts teacher creativity. While there was a big outcry to begin with, teachers found that the constraints resulted in changes to their teaching that they would never otherwise have thought of.
  • There is no marking at the school. With so few objectives until Year 5, and so many extra teachers, there is no shortage of meaningful feedback, so no marking is required.
  • Each teacher is allowed up to a week of additional holiday, taken with only 2 days notice. With such high levels of mastery and so many additional teachers, nothing is lost by teachers taking 7 extra days away from their class. As Mr Yamazaki says, “Teachers are not selfish creatures. The more we give them, the more they give back.”
  • There are no complicated assessment systems or reporting procedures. To measure attainment, teachers have 2 options: ‘on track’, in which case they needn’t record it anywhere, or ‘not on track’. They record this at the end of every week, and intervention teachers are then assigned to help plug the gaps the following week. This is a dynamic process and ensures a quick response when pupils fall behind.
  • Progress is similar but this is noted once a term as either ‘not enough progress’, ‘enough progress’ or ‘incredible progress’. To determine this, teachers use a ‘comparative judgement’ tool (like nomoremarking.com). A piece of work from the beginning of the term and a piece of work from the end of the term are uploaded side by side on the screen. These are then seen by a teacher from a different class (without the date, year group or name on), who must decide which piece is the better piece. If enough people vote for the most recent piece, a judgement of ‘enough progress’ is given for that particular child.
  • No complicated assessment or accountability measures are required because every senior leader reads one set of books every day. This means that SLT (including Mr Yamazaki) sees every book in the school on a regular basis, and provides one more safety net to catch any struggling pupils.
  • Mr Yamazaki takes one class every single day for a 30 minute task. This keeps his teaching instincts sharpened and means that he has a snapshot of where every single child in the school is on the mastery spectrum. He is at pains to explain that he is not there to test teachers.

There are so many things done so differently that perhaps a ‘Part II’ is needed. But one thing’s for sure, that won’t be my last visit to Mr Yamazaki’s wondrous school.

*Thanks for reading

You made it to the bottom, well done! Now I’m going to let you in to a little secret which I’d like you to help me keep if you’re reposting on social media (for those who hadn’t already guessed)…everything in this blog is a work of fiction. There is no Mr Yamazaki, nor are there any schools in Truro like the one described above. Why? Well, if you want the simple version, check out what the psychologist Daniel Willingham has to say about the power of stories here.

I want these ideas to stick. All of them are based on hours of conversation with my good friend and mentor Oki (a teacher I met in Japan, who came to teach in the UK for 2 years and became so disillusioned that he had to go back.) We Skype regularly, and Oki comes out with so many amazing ideas that I felt I had to get some of them down in writing. Somehow it wouldn’t have been quite the same as a giant list of things Oki has said!

I thought it would be fun to conduct a little thought experiment and imagine what a school would look like were some of his ideas put into practice. So help continue the experiment and don’t tweet any spoilers! ;-)

OK, I won’t lie…I kind of also wanted to see if it was true that people will click on anything if you use a Japanese word + the word ‘method’.


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