After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, Kazuya Takahashi, an English teacher at Kogakuin University Junior and Senior High School in western Tokyo, urged his students to discuss the Islamic State threat.
The junior high students were asked to share their thoughts on how the tragic event could affect the ongoing Syrian crisis and discuss the pros and cons of accepting refugees.
“I explained to them that the most important part of their education is not gaining knowledge itself but taking responsibility for what they learn,” Takahashi, 35, said. “I want them to use their knowledge in real life and encourage them to contemplate the problems they might encounter.”
Takahashi was recently nominated for the prestigious Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize in education, for his work in the classroom and contributions to society. Takahashi, the first candidate from Japan, is among 50 nominees selected from 8,000 candidates representing 148 countries.
The award was introduced in 2013 by Sunny Varkey, the son of immigrant teachers to the United Arab Emirates and who believes education is the key to fixing the world’s problems, including violence and poverty.
Takahashi has been recognized for his innovative approach and for shining a spotlight on the importance of the role teachers play in society.
Takahashi, who was born and raised in Yuzawa, Akita Prefecture, said he was not interested in studying as a child.
But when a Japanese history teacher in Takahashi’s school reached out and introduced him to the traditional tenkara fly-fishing method and the history behind it, he became interested in learning.
“He made me think of Japan’s history as something closer to my heart. He made me realize you can start learning from something tangible,” he said, recalling how the encounter sparked his interest and motivated him to study.
“It was the moment I decided to become a teacher,” Takahashi said.
When Takahashi entered Keio University in 1999 as an English literature major, he became passionate about Shakespeare’s poetry and would indulge himself in the literature in both English and Japanese.
He started pursuing an academic career — splitting his time between Japan and the U.K., where he received guidance from a professor at Cambridge University.
After acquiring a Master of Arts in English medieval literature from Keio University in 2006, Takahashi started working as a researcher at the Seigakuin University General Research Institute in Saitama Prefecture. Encouraged by his supervisors, he then enrolled in a course at the University of Georgia while still with the institute.
In the U.S., he learned the basics of active learning and explored ways to spark students’ interest during classes. As an intern at Blackboard Inc., an international company developing technology and learning platforms, Takahashi became interested in online education.
“I thought I could use it at school,” he said, recalling his first attempts to create platforms for his educational program.
Without anyone’s help, Takahashi translated the educational software Edmodo, introduced by American company Edmodo Inc., into Japanese.
Edmodo, which resembles social networking services such as Facebook, enables teachers to communicate with students and their parents as well as co-workers and other educational institutions. Teachers can distribute assignments and measure students’ progress.
It is believed the software has more than 51 million users worldwide and is now available in several languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, German and Chinese.
“It was around 10 years ago when I realized that online tools would make a significant change in education” and would bring a better future for children, Takahashi said.
He said he believed such tools were needed to change Japan’s education system, which is mostly based on rote memorization of factual knowledge.
“It’s obvious we live in a world where there is no question that allows only one single answer,” he said explaining why it is essential to better prepare students for critical thinking.
After returning from the U.S., Takahashi taught English at Seigakuin Junior and Senior High School in Tokyo, and introduced a test enabling students to showcase their skills and foster creativity using Lego blocks.
He also widely uses the blocks at Kogakuin, which he joined in April this year.
Takahashi wants his students to gain more opportunities to express themselves and gain the skills required for college-level work.
He said he believed interacting with students online will make the learning process more efficient, while calling for problem-based learning to become standard in Japan.
In his classes, students discuss health and other social issues in order to learn how to express themselves and view things through different perspectives.
Takahashi also sends students to Indonesia to participate in a program aimed at improving their social skills through helping with local issues. Specifically, the students together with local authorities and entrepreneurs, engage in activities to commercialize products made from recycled rubbish.
For the Global Teacher Prize, Takahashi has a chance to win $1 million — the largest prize of its kind. The winner will be selected in March from 10 finalists to be announced in February by a committee comprising school principals, educational experts, journalists, public officials, company directors and scientists from around the world.
If he wins, Takahashi would use the prize money to establish a foundation to help students in the Tohoku region, which was hit hard by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, study abroad as well as invite students from other countries to the region. He also hopes to establish a school one day.
“I want students to realize that their potential and talent can be variously utilized,” Takahashi said. “I want them to learn that global skills are not about acquiring good grades or a good command of English, I want to inspire my students to contribute to the world.”