Japanese students may soon be saying goodbye to traditional divisions between grades and subjects in a new focus on human skills to get the most out of technology
Society 5.0 is Japan’s vision for the future. It is a super-smart society where technology such as big data, Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and robots fuse into every industry and across all social segments. The hope is that this information revolution will be able to solve currently impossible problems, making everyday life more comfortable and sustainable.
“The essence of Society 5.0 is that it will become possible to quickly elicit the most suitable solution that meets the needs of each individual,” said Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the International Conference of the Future of Asia in 2017.
If imagination is the first step to possibility, Japan’s already leading society’s next big evolution. Now the country’s education sector is tasked with preparing its students for an unknown but exciting future, creating a generation that will be instrumental in making it a reality. And as Japan is already one of the most advanced societies on earth, the rest of world is paying close attention.
“We have to give students the skills to both survive that changing society and for them to lead that change,” said Japan’s education minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi.
Hayashi, who is also minister of culture, sports, science and technology, says he is carefully considering how to adjust the education system to meet the needs and values of society 5.0 from primary school to the university level. One of the first things he did upon entering his post in 2017 was set up a committee on the issue, which included specialists in cutting-edge areas like AI.
After much discussion and debate, the committee reached an overall conclusion – to prepare students for the rapid technological change, the key is to focus on human strengths.
“In the era of Google, people no longer need to memorize every single fact. Many tasks today are best carried out by computers,” explained Hayashi. “Therefore, the emphasis must be on human skills such as communication, leadership and endurance, as well as curiosity, comprehension and reading skills.”
To make this happen, the Japanese education minister says there are two radical changes that that could be critical. If successful, the shifts would be relevant to traditional education systems worldwide and position Japan as a role model for teaching in the age of high technology.
The first idea is to make grade progression more flexible. This would mean that instead of either totally failing or totally passing each year, more support classes would be provided to ensure there are no gaps in understanding. For example, if a student passes fifth grade but didn’t do well in math, he or she could re-take the fifth-grade course subject until the skills is fully learned and understood.
“It’s around fifth, sixth and seventh grade that basic skills are supposed to be perfected. These are the foundation for everything. If you don’t have the reading skills and if you learn history, physics or chemistry, you won’t understand the definitions and you will be lost,” said Hayashi.
Removing the barriers between subjects and disciplines is the other adjustment that must be made for the next generation to be prepared for the super-smart future, according to the minister.
Today in Japan, as in many countries across the world, students taking university entrance exams are divided into two groups: those who study humanities and social sciences and those who study hard sciences and math. The choice is one or the other. Yet, in a world where technology is integrated into nearly every part of society, Hayashi says that approach will no longer be practical.
In the future, Hayashi wants to see an educational system where subjects like math, data science, and programming are basic requirements, as are subjects such as philosophy and language.
“If you are studying physics as a major, you should also study subjects so that when you are faced with a philosophical or ethical issue in your future career, such as the concept of designer babies, you can combine your scientific knowledge with ethics,” he said.