This April, the first group of students at the University of Tokyo embarked on a new gap-year program. The small group of students secured their enrollment at the prestigious university, submitted their plans for the year and took off to learn from the world.
The new system allows students to postpone enrollment for a year to immerse themselves in activities different from sitting in large first-year lecture classes. Everyone interested in changing education in Japan should wish them well.
At the same time, educators, parents and students should work to expand this system. The University of Tokyo often takes the lead in educational changes, but other universities should establish the same gap-year system.
The system encourages students to study abroad, do volunteer work or find activities to broaden their perspectives, and learn to become not just good test-takers but authentic learners.
The gap-year system helps to break the overly passive habits and teach-to-the-test tradition of Japan’s current educational system, and replace it with more valuable learning experiences. Putting a gap year together would be a challenge for most students. So, helping them to take charge of their learning and become autonomous in their approaches should become one important change in how education is conducted in this country.
Requiring students to submit a plan for their activities, obtain permission and carry out their work by themselves teaches important life skills.
Instead of sleepwalking through a set of required courses, the gap-year students will be out in the world making decisions, undertaking challenges and broadening their perspectives.
The first gap-year students are undertaking a variety of activities. One student is working on a philosophy thesis, others are joining restoration efforts in Tohoku, several are studying languages abroad and at least one more will be traveling across Asia.
Those activities will offer learning experiences that challenge the status quo of rote learning, one-way lecturing and information intake.
Neither the students nor the system is radical by any means, and certainly not self-indulgent. Rather, the students are following what Mark Twain famously said, “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.”
If companies are interested in hiring employees who can take initiative, see the big picture and work well with others, they should consider a gap year as a major plus on any applicant’s resume.
Real-world experience, language ability, emotional maturity and a can-do attitude are essential skills in any dynamic, progressive workplace, and they are great attributes for individuals in society as well. The gap year is an important way forward for Japanese education.