Global education experts urge Japan to look beyond rote learning

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

The teaching methods of Kazuya Takahashi, 35, using Lego blocks and speaking entirely in English, may not be the norm in the Japanese education system.

But on a global level, the educator, who teaches at the Kogakuin junior high and high schools in Hachioji, western Tokyo, is considered ahead of the game and has won recognition for his efforts to promote global citizenship.

His methods may provide clues as to where education should be heading in Japan, a nation often criticized for focusing more on cramming knowledge rather than encouraging critical thinking.

At the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, which ran for two days from March 12, Takahashi gave a presentation as one of the 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize, known in the industry as the Nobel Prize in education.

The event was attended by around 1,600 people from 110 nations.

Although Takahashi missed out on the $1 million prize, sponsored by education charity the Varkey Foundation, he was recognized for getting students involved in projects that tackle social issues around the globe.

Takahashi spoke of his approach, which is a direct challenge to Japan’s test-oriented education system in which students cram to get high scores so they can enter prestigious universities and later join big-name corporations.

He believes classes should inspire children to think more creatively and develop skills to express their ideas, not just to compete for the correct answer, as normally is the case in Japan.

“(Educators) all over the world have the same goal,” said Takahashi. “We do not teach math, we do not teach them global citizenship to let them get into college and get a job. Our dream is to teach kids to take responsibility for what they learn and to use that for others.”

To instill individuality in each student, Takahashi uses Lego blocks in class. To nurture their awareness of society and issues overseas, Takahashi organized a competition in collaboration with a range of organizations, such as the Japan Space Elevator Association, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and projects on social issues in Indonesia.

“We have to teach kids that everyone is different, and we have to respect each other,” he said. “We have to look at them from different perspectives, through different lenses.”

At the end of the two-day forum, Hanan al-Hroub, a teacher and former refugee from the Palestinian territory, won the Global Teacher Prize for her efforts to curb violent behavior in children who witness violence daily in the tense standoff between authorities in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

The forum highlighted the efforts of al-Hroub, Takahashi and other finalists from countries including Kenya, Pakistan and India as an example of competencies teachers need to develop to give students awareness of global issues.

Educators and experts in various fields also discussed the role of teachers in achieving a United Nations goal for 2030 to provide all children with inclusive education of a consistent quality.

Experts who spoke seemed to agree that global awareness should be infused in the educational policies of each nation, including Japan.

“Any nation that wants to promote opportunities for its people and for itself is under the obligation to make it possible for students to develop global awareness,” Fernando Reimers, a professor at Harvard Graduate Schools of Education, told The Japan Times.

Reimers heads the Global Education Innovation Initiative and International Education Policy Program at Harvard, a research consortium studying education policies and programs.

“I would hope that (in Japan) that educational leadership would understand it is incredibly important to promote global awareness and global citizenship,” he said, given the integration of trade, politics and advances in technology in today’s world.

He believes one of the best ways to do this is to promote the study of foreign languages and to organize exchanges and interaction with students from around the world.

As an example, he pointed to China’s efforts to engage students in international education projects, such as the curriculum offered at United World Colleges, where students are taught in English on campuses worldwide.

“It is a sign of how important global education is for Chinese people,” he said.

To nurture global citizenship, Reimers said teachers should engage their students in discussions on complex global issues and place greater focus in the curriculum on world history, geography and globalization.

“(Children) should develop the notion of self and others, the same and different, and understand that in the difference there are opportunities,” he said.

Education systems should be designed to encourage children to seek different approaches to problems through multiple perspectives instead of achieving specific goals, he said.

“I think that shift from leading for effectiveness to leading for relevance is the most important mind shift that should be taking place in governments around the world,” he said.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said Japan should put greater emphasis on socio-emotional skills in education. He said this is one of the biggest challenges the nation faces.

“I think there are big lessons to be learned . . . in Japan. When you look at traditional forms of teaching, Japan is one of the greatest success stories that we have on the PISA assessment, with remarkably strong results,” he said, referring to the OECD’s triennial Programme for International Student Assessment.

This survey assesses to what extent 15-year-old students have acquired key knowledge and skills. In the 2012 PISA, the latest survey, Japan ranked top in both reading and science performance and second in mathematics among 34 member countries.

But Schleicher said children need to be prepared for “civic engagement” on global issues, and social responsibility should be a bigger part of the education process.

He praised the concept of yutori kyoiku (relaxed education policy), which took effect in 2007 to relieve academic pressure on students and broaden their perspectives and creative abilities with a greater focus on independent “general studies” classes.

“It was the right idea, quite well intentioned,” Schleicher said. But he added, poor implementation meant it was ultimately unproductive.

He said teachers should be given more professional autonomy.

“The time is right for Japan to make a really bold step toward carrying and scaling more active learning into the classroom,” Schleicher said.

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