RSA JFN Event: The Future of Education

In early December 2019 the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan hosted a joint event with the RSA Japan Fellows Network entitled ‘The Future of Education’. The event was conceived and organised by Kirsten O’Connor of QuestTokyo, an educational consultant group in Japan. After a short networking time over snacks and drinks Kirsten called the session to order and started by giving a brief overview of her own educational background -she used to be the head of the primary school at the British School in Tokyo - and some of the issues she saw developing in the educational sector and beyond in Japan for her experiences in this role.

These issues and topics were:

1 - the dichotomy between academics and fun, or play versus formal,

2 - the top 10 challenges faced by UK headteachers,

3 - the top 10 skills for 21st century success as suggested by the World Economic Forum,

4 - how the classrooms of the future would look,

5 - how these future classrooms and learning styles could help students gain knowledge of the SDG’s and the WEF’s suggested skills,

6 - the most in demand new jobs according to LinkedIn.

These topics being covered, this then led to a free flowing discussion on these issues and a number of interesting points were raised. For example the issues of creativity and student agency featured heavily, as did appropriate teacher training for these needed new approaches. Here the main points were to what extent creativity should be encouraged when the very creative student output using technology could be classed as cheating, and how much ‘old fashioned’ content should be dropped from new curricular set ups in modern schools. After a very engaging open discussion on these and other related topics the attendees were divided into groups of 5 or 6 and given some further questions to discuss -see below- while Kirsten wandered around each group during this discussion time. Below is the synthesis of the very passionate discussions that ensued in each group: 1 - What are the key priorities for schools educating children for the future? Why? Considering that a complete human being’s education and culture should encompass all fields of knowledge, it must be accepted that, living in the present time, the children of the future will have to focus particularly on sciences and IT, and the challenges those disciplines tackle. Other indispensable skills that must be nurtured are individual initiative and interests through inspiration by brilliant examples. A fruitful –non toxic- notion of competition must be implemented, and this would help also in learning from fellow classmates. About the technical “indirect” abilities, children should be given useful tools to build their own study methods, customized person by person and subject by subject, and by doing so they would also visualize how to exploit their own investigative skills in and out side any given framework. Lastly, as the future students should have free access to information, they should be able to distinguish the good from the bad (a la fake news), as that is also a primary requirement of being a good citizen.

2 - How can schools maintain creativity in students while still meeting exam benchmarks?

Although creativity is a trademark peculiar and unique to every single individual, it should not be forgotten that creativity, in actu, pertains to the original production -regardless of the field- therefore the students should be led to constantly produce works of the kind that require its own resourcefulness to be stretched more and more. This is because in the end the product of creativity is the result of a long and constant exercise and practice, thanks to which intuition can take root and finally shine independently. In this regard, benchmarks may seem potential fences that stifle creativity, but as they are necessary to set certain standards they should be chosen so as to channel the cleverness of the pupils, aiming to a definite goal. By this, not only the exercise of creativity would take place, but the students would also be able to precisely focus on their talents.

3 - How can AI be harnessed as a positive force in future classrooms? What are the current concerns? As this topic is exceptionally hot and vast, the main concerns have been identified as the difficulty in not to create an abyssal gap between “AI native users” and elders ( a version of the so-called digital immigrants / digital natives divide) , followed by the question of what the ideal age would be to have the pupils “meet” the AI, and if the teachers would be properly ready to fruitfully use AI tools to impart content. As we are now at the dawn of the implementation of AI in the world of education, we can only guess what the future may bring concretely, yet all audience members agreed that the positivity of the human touch cannot be truly replaced by a computer. Furthermore, if this intelligence is used to obtain information, the risk is that it would become too easy to get information, so critical thinking may be negatively affected, therefore the best way it could be harnessed entails using all the concrete applications that trigger and enhance the reasoning processes of the students.

4 - How can we ensure the teaching of SDGs to students actually has an impact on future industry behavior?

In relation to this question, all the audience agreed that once the green virtuous behavior is instilled in the pupils, positive and responsible action will automatically follow the internalized knowledge. If the “sustainable thought” is taught to the extent that awareness of the problematic situation we are in is because of the past wrong behaviors, and this permeated the choices of the future students, then their very way of thinking would be naturally bound to produce green actions, as “the best waste is the one that is chosen not to be made in the first place”.

5 - How should high schools and universities create ‘workplace ready’ graduates? Synthetically, as we belong to an ever-changing society -and more particularly the job market- instead of giving students an exaggerated amount of potentially sterile notions, it is crucial to provide them with useful mental tools to tackle a wide variety of situations. A versatile matrix of thoughts that can always be adopted and declined as the particular situation requires. The creation and improvement process of this matrix must also conceive that the warp of the matrix itself may change, to endlessly evolve fruitfully. Therefore, the most fertile soil onto which any notion can take root is the one evolving in a healthy way.

6 - Is multilingualism always a good thing? Why? The participants agreed that multilingualism is always a good thing, as not only the structure of the brain and memory improve while learning new languages, but also every tongue mastered entails entering a whole new cultural world, behavioral standards and traditions: no thorough linguistic study comes without a social study. The audience also specified afterwards that of all the studied languages, an individual should always have a predominant mother tongue, that is to say the one in which he/she thinks about the most elevated topics. The importance of this exclusive language is at its highest during the age of maximal development for children.

7 - How will the predicted ‘Asian Century’ affect schools around the world?

To effectively answer this question we should try to grasp the entirety of the implications of the reality of this Asian Century. The theoretical ones are indeed the social and linguistic ones, while the practical ones may be seen as the economic and governmental ones. As these separations are nothing but mere building blocks for an analysis, it is important to embrace the whole picture, with the two categories intimately intertwined as they reflect a plurality of Asian societies. Concretely, more and more students of the future will have to study and master Asian languages, many will study in or move to those countries to live and work there. The key to adopt an attitude that will bring productive results is to familiarize students gradually but authentically to the manifold situations and realities that the vastness of Asia with its cultures and models offers.

8 - What will schools need to remove to make space for all these new agendas?

Considering that all of us studied some subjects and notions that nowadays are considered hopelessly out of date, it should not be forgotten nevertheless that actually no knowledge is essentially useless. Yet, as the things to be known are increasing day by day, especially in the STEM field, many topics or portions of topics that have been thoroughly studied so far by the majority of the students should be shrunk, or better reformulated, so that the pivotal notions are held but the total amount of time spent on them is minimized. Considering that even the ancients claimed that vita brevis est, sed ars longa (life is short but the Art is long), and that a high school student of today knows more about the universe than the most knowledgeable astronomer of 200 years ago, the key is indeed summarization and synthesis.

After the group discussions Kirsten brought the groups back together to give some individual oral feedback from each group and then the reactions from the wider audience to each sub groups’ comments and points. The issues were beautifully recorded by Divya Marie Kato FRSA whose visuals will form part of our Japanimates collection.

Kirsten rounded up the session by thanking the audience for their time and hoping that many of them would be interested in taking part in a follow up session in 2020. A short final networking session then took place before everyone left the BCCJ, and some members went in groups to continue the discussions at nearby establishments. So all in all it was a good start to the RSA JFN’s Education theme and one we hope will be revisited next year.