Significant changes in the world we live in have forced major adjustments at the frontline of education too, including increasing needs for online classes amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from such educational developments in the world at large, what kind of education should we be providing right here in Japan? To consider this issue, we hosted the SB Student Ambassador National Convention, an event at which high-school students can further their knowledge together with companies striving to achieve sustainability and communicate the values held by the next generation to a wider audience. The day’s activities included a speech by a representative from Benesse Holdings on the current state of and issues in Japanese education, and this was followed by lively debate and presentations by the high-school students. Here we look at the spirited discussions informed by the views of those in direct receipt of education and at the stimulating mutual learning experiences that this produced.

Despite its world-class education, surveys suggest Japan is a country beset with pessimism about the future, where few young people believe they have the power to change the country and society. Is this what Japan is really like?

The SB Student Ambassador National Convention was an event held across two days in Tokyo and Osaka. The Tokyo part of the convention took place on October 17, 2020 at the campus of Nihon University College of Economics, with high school students from across eastern Japan participating in various rooms split by discussion topic. The speech on the topic of education was given by Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute’s Mr. Shunpei Komura.

At the beginning of his speech, Mr. Komura stated:
“I’ve sometimes wondered why we spend a lot of time thinking about poverty issues in far-off Africa while ignoring problems right here at home. While both are obviously important, today I’d like to talk about Japanese education, an issue right in front of us.”

The convention saw online participants joining those on campus, enabling a large number of students and people with an interest in sustainability to take part.

Mr. Komura first described the major shifts currently underway in Japanese education. One driver of these changes is the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s “GIGA School Program” (GIGA standing for Global and Innovation Gateway for All), which aims to change frontline education provision using digital devices, such as equipping every school in the country with one PC per student. Another factor behind these changes is the educational impact of the graying of Japanese society and its declining birthrate.

“While it is said that the average life of a company is about 30 years, the ever-increasing lifespan of human beings means we are in an age where most people have 60 years of life following their graduation from university. They will therefore change jobs numerous times during their life, and we must consider what kind of skill and personal development they should pursue while working. That is the era in which all of us live.”

As the students listened attentively, Mr. Komura next highlighted objective data showing the strengths and weaknesses of Japanese education in an international context. For example, Japanese compulsory education is among the best in all OECD member countries. Japanese students also have very strong science and mathematical capabilities on a global level, and Japan is actually a nation with a lot of potential scientists, on a par with the US and China.

On the other hand, Japan has issues with students’ abilities to explain their own thinking using evidence, and despite the nation ranking a lofty 2nd among OECD countries for scientific literacy, few of its students believe that science is useful or say they really want to become scientists in the future. Moreover, Japanese students’ “sense of happiness” is far below average, and surveys show a high level of pessimism about the country’s future, with Japan having the lowest score among all nations when students were asked “I believe I have the power to change my country and society.”

The handouts distributed for the speech show Japan also has the lowest level of affirmative responses to the statement “I have a dream for the future.” The next part of the speech detailed the framework for next-generation learning currently being considered in international society.

At the same time, while surveys report issues with the motivation and attitude toward learning of Japanese students, they also show that a growing number of junior high and high school students are actively involved in educational projects in all regions across Japan. In recent years, there has been an increase in academic research being conducted in schools and in the creation of opportunities for activities aimed at solving a variety of social issues, all of which raises a question about the changing role of schools.

Mr. Komura cited the Benesse STEAM Festival as a real-world example of junior high and high school students from across Japan working together and sharing in investigative learning. In this event, students were formed into three groups (academics, social innovators, and manufacturers) and each group interacted with experts in the relevant field to exchange opinions.

Toward more diverse learning in which students take the lead and develop a social consciousness

Following Mr. Komura’s speech detailing a variety of issues and circumstances in Japanese education, the students got together in workshops. Forming into groups, they engaged in lively debate about how they wanted education and learning to change going forward, and what they themselves could do to realize this.

Although the groups were made up of individuals from different schools who were meeting for the first time, students soon began speaking up and there were some energetic discussions.

After an hour exchanging opinions, each group made a presentation. So, what do high school students in the current Japanese education system think learning in the next generation should be like?

Opinions raised by several of the groups included “Education today is a one-dimensional process of simply inputting knowledge” and “There is very little learning about society, so we never develop an understanding of whether our interests can be useful to society.” There were also strong ideas about future reforms to encourage more autonomous active learning and requests for more diverse learning, including “It is important for schools to be a communication space centered around the students,” “Linking learning to actual society would clarify the meaning and purpose of studying, and lead to increased motivation,” and “We need flexible learning which can first establish each student’s dreams and goals and then mold a curriculum to achieve them.”

Benesse is aiming to be a company that elicits each person’s individuality and provides a range of learning and opportunities

After the event, we asked Mr. Komura about his impressions of the day and what he had learned from it.

“I was interested in what the students would identify as problem areas and what they think is important on the topic of education. Their presentations communicated that their underlying feeling is that rather than having adults playing the role of defining their education, they want to implement their own ideas more and take action to shape society. To that end, unless the style of learning is also more flexible, they will have no capacity to do this.”

“As I talk to lots of students and teachers in various schools almost every week, I know myself that this is an opinion shared across the country. Taking this idea on board, I think we have to prepare learning that enables that students who want to make their own choices to do so. This selection process itself can be a learning opportunity, giving students the chance to think about what kind of things they like and what they might be suited to. Providing such an opportunity becomes more and more important the higher up the grades students go.”

“In addition, they seem to want to find ways to learn that are in line with their own interests and concerns, rather than just studying for entrance exams and tests. When each individual thinks about their own life, it is important we allow them to express their individuality and identify their dreams as far as possible, and that we give them the motivation to “take pleasure” in learning. Students have strong motivations deep down, and I want Benesse to be a company that nurtures these motivations through learning and opportunities that are not all of a uniform type, so that we can support the “well-being” of the next generation.”

Information, Article cooperation

Shunpei Komura

Shunpei Komura
Lead Researcher at Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute.
In partnership with local authorities and schools from across Japan, Mr. Komura is engaged in the practice and research of next-generation learning that encapsulates the thinking of the SDGs and STEAM. While serving a Special Advisor to the President of Okayama University, he hosts “SDG Youth” events that encourage dialog between junior high and high school students from across the country. He was involved in translating Andreas Schleicher’s book “World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System” into Japanese.