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Origami workshops unfold hidden joys of learning


So often in our examination-dominated education systems, the excitement of learning degenerates into rote learning. Not so in Barbara Pearl's hands-on approach to learning math, where children discover how to estimate the distance of a jumping frog, measure the angles of a paper sailboat and explore the patterns of a humpback whale. This award-winning American teacher's lessons are, however, about much more than just teaching math. Pearl's background in elementary education inspired her to integrate the classic art of origami with reading, writing, science and history.

"Where every child counts" is the motto of Pearl's program. No one is left out of the learning process, she says. "When children feel successful, they are more motivated to learn. As children learn how to make an origami whale, they can explore the characteristics of a whale through scientific investigation, read a book about mammals, listen to the song of the whales, write a creative story, or find out how to save a whale with Greenpeace," Pearl said.

Pearl has been involved extensively in teacher training, both in the U.S. and internationally. She is currently in Japan, bringing enjoyment to teachers and learners alike with her delightful methods. Dressed in a kimono, she weaves in Japanese music, children's multicultural literature and storytelling.

"In America, our educational process is now looking for ways to incorporate more interactive learning where children are not only memorizing facts, figures and formulas, but are also manipulating materials, exploring patterns and making connections," she explains. Recently, the Japanese Ministry of Education has been striving to incorporate sogo gakushu, an interdisciplinary approach to teaching.

Since the end of last year, Pearl has been invited to lecture in Hong Kong and Japan, to present workshops and demonstrations. Later this year, she is scheduled to speak at several chapters of JALT (Japan Association of Language Teaching).

"Origami is creative, colorful and artistic and captivates children of all ages," explains Pearl. "It nurtures children's creativity and challenges their imagination. In the classroom, paper folding can be used to teach basic geometry and English skills, to help children develop vocabulary and math concepts, spatial sense, concentration, the ability to understand patterns, make connections, think critically and solve problems. It encourages exploration.

"Teaching in this way is meaningful because students are able to apply concepts and vocabulary concretely. Children who have been difficult in the classroom often respond particularly well to these methods."

Pearl's innovative approach to teaching began over 20 years ago when she found herself teaching remedial math at a junior high school in El Paso, Texas, and began to explore strategies to motivate reluctant learners.

Her book, "Math in Motion: Origami in the Classroom," was first published in 1994. Now in its fifth printing, it includes lesson plans, teacher guidelines and online support. (See Pearl's Web site for a sample lesson plan at

Pearl has just been nominated second vice-president of the U.S. National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, an organization that supports teaching standards in the math classrooms of America. She often presents at major educational conferences for teachers of bilingual, mathematics and gifted students.

During the weekend of March 4-5, families can experience "Math in Motion" (in English and Japanese) at a special two-day Family Weekend at Comunika Campus, an international educational and retreat facility in Chiba Prefecture. Pearl's programs are scheduled for Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. There will be a general program for all ages, with storytelling and some audience participation. Parents and children will learn to make origami models. For children aged 7 or older, there will be a hands-on workshop, with parents.

Family Weekend at Comunika Campus costs 18,000 yen per adult, 12,000 yen per child under 12 (under 3, free). It includes a one-night stay in a comfortable modern wood dormitory, four delicious organic meals, Saturday night barbecue, aromatherapy bath and a variety of outdoor activities to choose from: forest hiking, tennis, guided rice field strolls to the famous Kiomizu Temple, a beach romp (weather permitting) and a spacious modern indoor play hall. Babysitting can also be arranged. For further information contact: or call (0470) 87-9556.

The Japan Times: Feb. 25, 2000
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