Riyo Whitney discusses international education

Riyo Whitney discusses international education

Riyo Whitney joined Bunka Suginami Canadian International School (BCS) as principal in April, but she’s already making her presence felt. The bicultural educator was born in Japan but raised in Canada, and she brings her distinctive background to running this academic institution that offers a dual Japanese–British Columbian high school diploma.

Prior to coming to Japan, Whitney spent 25 years as a teacher and five years as an administrator at several school districts in British Columbia and Alberta, as well as San Mateo County, Northern California. During our conversation, we touched on her history as a teacher and an administrator, the importance of an international education, and how to get Japanese students interested in studying abroad.

What inspired you, in the beginning, to go into education?

Growing up in Canada, I “represented” Japan in my circles, and I enjoyed sharing my knowledge (albeit a bit limited when I was young) about the culture as well as the language. I was motivated to learn as much as I could about Japan, particularly its sociology and the language, to share with anyone remotely interested. Being bicultural, I’ve always had the sense that knowing another culture and another language helped me better understand and appreciate different perspectives. So I felt, through teaching, I could cultivate a better world — a naive thought that planted the seed for a career in education.

And what led you to take your position at BCS?

I had a good position in a good school district in British Columbia — until I heard about this truly unique opportunity. I felt as if I’d been training all my life for this position! I am able to bring all of my skills and experiences together: administrative leadership; teaching multiple subjects at all levels, including the university level; international education; curriculum design for the Ministry of Education; and working alongside External Affairs at significant events, such as at a G7 Summit.

Innovation doesn’t happen without going outside of the box.

Why do you think it is important for students in Japan to have access to a Canadian or an international education?

I think the students here at this school are very lucky to be able to access the British Columbia curriculum here in Japan. This top-rated curriculum opens up doors to the international world, which is important for building global relationships. Traditional teaching has seen the teacher as more active than the students, and students get fed information to memorize. At BCS, we have the students figuratively obtain the “ingredients” and cook them themselves with guidance from the teacher. At our school, graduates obtain both Japanese and British Columbia diplomas, providing more options and access to international universities abroad as well as to high-ranking universities in Japan. Innovation doesn’t happen without going outside of the box.

What can be done to encourage more Japanese students to take an interest in studying overseas?

The Japanese government is putting effort towards increasing the proficiency of English skills by Japanese students, but as long as English is taught in a dry and boring manner, students are not going to be interested in English, never mind studying overseas. All stakeholders have to collaborate to make learning of English more meaningful, authentic, and fun. Teachers need on-going professional development and Japanese universities have to reconsider the dreaded grammar-based exams. Also, every globally minded organization and growth-minded association — particularly English-speaking ones such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (CCCJ) — has to play a role. That is why I am a CCCJ member: because I think education is one of Canada’s most important commodities that need to be promoted. So, people like us need to get out and seize every opportunity to promote Canada and its assets, such as education. When we just talk about it vaguely, it doesn’t go anywhere. But if we have something specific that we can promote, such as BCS, then I think it’s a start.

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