We talk with Finbar Burke of Discovery International School in Nagakute
You founded Discovery International School five years ago, but you’ve been in Japan much longer. What did you do before opening Discovery?
My first job in Japan was English teacher, and I found that I most enjoyed working with children. That was not surprising, as I grew up surrounded by children at my mother’s in-home day care. After obtaining my Master’s degree and leading preschool programs at other international schools I decided to create Discovery.
What gave you the inspiration to found it?
I wanted to create a space that belongs to children—where the adults are resourceful mentors for children’s chosen pursuits and passions. I also wanted to establish an environment where parents can feel completely at ease about their children’s care. The Japanese government does not actively enforce certification for English preschools, so many are not certified and some employ staff who are not qualified for work in early childhood. Discovery was founded to offer families a high quality English preschool and kindergarten. We are certified by Aichi Prefecture and employ licensed and experienced early childhood professionals. We have a close-knit and proactive community of families, and an open door policy for family visits to the classroom.
We recently visited your new facility, which opened last September. It’s a beautiful space. Tell us about why you moved and what went into decisions on design.
We first rented and quickly outgrew a building with the floor space of a 2-story home. An opportunity presented itself to build our own facility just a few minutes’ drive away. Safety was the highest priority in the design process. Beyond standard measures we added extra details like padded flooring and doors that can’t pinch fingers. To promote social interaction among children we outfitted tube telephones between walls, along with sliding windows to pass notes or gifts. We chose soft pastel colors for walls and natural building materials to create calm and pleasing rooms, and large windows to bring in ample sunlight (the angle of the building was carefully determined for that purpose). Our playground was designed by children, parents and teachers, and is still being prepared and built by the entire community.
Tell us about your curriculum. What sets Discovery apart from other English preschool options in the Nagoya region?
We are one of only a handful of Reggio Emilia-inspired programs in Japan. Children are truly at the center of pretty much everything that takes place for our curriculum and decision-making. We expect that each child comes to us with abundant experiences and knowledge, and pay mindful attention to each child’s interests and expressions. We use our knowledge of the children to build our curriculum collaboratively with them. Rather than dispersing facts, we help children discover their own new knowledge and understandings. They are encouraged to learn through trial and error, to critically consider viewpoints of others, and to express themselves through various media. Discovery belongs to the children, even for reconsidering rules. Discovery children learn how to make themselves heard and understood, how to function effectively in a group, and how to appreciate the process of learning and growth. They are learning effective life skills in an environment where each child can feel confident to be just who they are.
That sounds intriguing. But, what does it look like in the classroom?
As an example, our 4-6 year olds are right now preparing to make a formal request to City Hall to build a public lavatory at a nearby park. Some background: We have our own school playground but the older children sometimes visit neighborhood parks. One nearby park lacks a lavatory, so we decided not to visit that park again. Some children were upset and demanded to know why the park lacks a facility.
We contacted City Hall and learned that when the park was built, officials determined that a lavatory wasn’t needed. The children thought this unfair, and a few of them decided that they themselves would build a lavatory for the park. Since then, all of the children have busied themselves constructing a model lavatory in the classroom. That has presented wonderful design problems with plenty of trial-and-error.
The children are working their way through building walls strong enough to stand, measuring spaces for lavatory equipment, and even little details like how to fasten a toilet paper roll to the wall while retaining the ability for the roll to spin. They have a meeting scheduled with City Hall officials to find answers to their questions and to offer their services for constructing the park lavatory. They have recently been hypothesizing about where lavatory pipes lead, so a separate visit is scheduled to the local water treatment facility.
Wow! It’s as if these very young kids at your school are budding scientists, engineers…
That they are! Adults tend to give little credit to young children, but actually they often naturally approach new experiences in a similar way to scientists. With support, young children are as capable as adults at offering ideas and action to solve problems.
We hope they will succeed at their City Hall meeting!
Our sincere wish is that the officials will respect the children and take their proposition and questions seriously. Regardless of the outcome, the children are taking citizen action on something important to them. They will gain much from this experience no matter the outcome of the meeting.
In your program, how do kids learn basics like phonics?
Project work, like the park lavatory, is just one of our daily pursuits. We have dedicated sessions every day for literacy, individualized to each child’s developmental need in each area of literacy: comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and vocabulary and grammar. There are also times for hands-on cognitive development, physical education, voice and music, and visual arts. All of those skills combine during project work, like the lavatory project which involves maths, science, literacy, and art. Learning this way, motivation is strong and it is easy for children to acquire new academic skills and concepts. The learning is meaningful and real, and absent of pressure.
Most parents of bilingual kids are looking for a place where they can keep or improve their children’s English skills. What is Discovery’s approach to this?
Multilingual development is a tremendous gift especially when able to begin at an early age, but only if the learning continues unimpeded. Parents and educators need to fully understand that multilingual fluency takes years. Consider that fluency for a child in a monolingual setting is not fully achieved until age 8 or 9. Our preschool and kindergarten provide a solid foundation for social English fluency through graduation at age 6.
We have a continuing program in the afternoons for children who move on to Japanese elementary schools. Like our preschool program, literacy development is individualized so that each child is receiving precisely the instruction they need. Our main focus for elementary afternoon sessions is on building new vocabulary and correct grammar, increasing reading and writing abilities, communicating effectively, and maintaining high motivation by learning through projects chosen by the children.
What is the age range and ethnic diversity of children who attend your school?
Families have enrolled from Australia, Brazil, Belgium, China, England, Japan, India, Korea, South Africa, Sweden, Taiwan, and the United States.
Children may start on a weekly basis with a parent from 6 months old. Full-time attendance without a parent starts at 18 months, and children graduate at 6 years old. The afternoon program is available to fluent and near-fluent elementary school students. Enrollment for all programs is permitted at any time of year, so long as a space is available in the classroom.
If a parent would like more information about your school what is the best way to contact you?
Just give us a call or email (English or Japanese). We will be happy to set up a time for you to visit. You can review our information in advance at our web site, and you can catch a small glimpse of how we work with children by following our Facebook page.
We also work with regional universities, interns, and professional visitors, and we welcome collaborations with the local community. Please contact us if you have interest in an educational or professional collaboration.
Discovery International School is located in Nagakute at the east end of Nagoya, with easy access from Meito Ward, Nissin, Owari-Asahi, Seto, and beyond. School Director Finbar Burke, M.Ed., has been a recognized leader of early childhood programs for over 10 years. He is available to lead seminars and workshops on early childhood development and children’s language development. Finbar also moderates two local Facebook boards:
Nagoya Expat Help:
Nagoya & Beyond: With Kids: