AMERICANS ARE ALREADY suffering from the effects of the techno-revolution, and labor economists predict it is only going to get worse. Automation and AI are rapidly redefining the nature of work; automation is replacing factory jobs; clerical workers, and even doctors and lawyers, now find their daily tasks supplemented by Big Data. Self-driving cars threaten millions of workers in the transportation sector. The impact of this upheaval remains unknown — some say 20, 30, even 40 percent of jobs will be affected as AI becomes more prevalent.
However big its impact will be, the incursion of technology in the workplace is already altering lives. That has forced policymakers around the globe to ask critical questions: What should schools be teaching to prepare our children for a rapidly evolving world? What skills will young people need to survive and thrive in the world of algorithm-controlled choices and robotic-assisted everything?
For more than two decades, education experts in the US have taken their cues from high performing school systems in Asia. They’ve vigorously promoted STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses to prepare children for the future. Innovators, we’ve been told, will need engineering backgrounds, computer science degrees, and high levels of mathematics.
But now some Asian countries are looking back at the West. They believe that schools in the US and Europe — those that emphasize the humanities — may hold the key to surviving the technological revolution. While STEM classes are still important, they say, creativity, self-expression, and critical thinking must be nurtured as well.
In Japan, the business community and higher education leaders agree that “the most valuable employees in the future will be the ones who can think in an agile, sophisticated way” about a broad range of topics, including history, literature, and art, as well as science and math, says Junko Hibiya, president of the prestigious International Christian University in Tokyo. Those students who can engage in the realm of ideas, and communicate well, she says, will be best equipped to solve problems whose parameters are not yet known.
Japanese policymakers insist that transforming their education system is a matter of survival. The impact of the New Industrial Revolution will create winners and losers. And they want to make sure the Japanese workforce ends up on the right side. “In the next 10 years, AI will change the entire job scene,” says former Japanese education minister Hakubun Shimomura, a close ally of prime minister Shinzo Abe, and the man credited with launching reform efforts being rolled out around the country. “Whether this results in a utopia or a dystopia depends on what kind of education we can provide now.”
Japan isn’t alone. South Korea and China — countries that also score well on international benchmarks — are rethinking what and how their kids learn. They’re promoting more dialogue in classrooms, demanding students give presentations along with taking tests, and asking students to express their ideas in writing.
Even the administrators of the influential international benchmarking exam, PISA, are changing their tune. “I would say, in the fourth industrial revolution, arts may become more important than maths,” Andreas Schleicher, coordinator of OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (or PISA), told members of the British Parliament’s Commons Education Select Committee last February. “We talk about ‘soft skills’ often as social and emotional skills, and hard skills [being] about science and maths, but it might be the opposite.”
Higher education is also being transformed. At a time when liberal arts programs are withering in the US, Japanese colleges and universities are opening new international-style liberal arts programs where Asian undergraduates can study history, literature, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy.
All of this might come as a surprise to policymakers in the US who have used lagging scores on the international benchmark tests as a cudgel to promote STEM, and who have pressed schools to adopt more accountability in the form of high-stakes, multiple-choice testing in order to improve our “global competitiveness.”
But while Americans have focused on testing, what today’s students will need for the future has changed. “The challenge for the educational system now is not to develop a kind of second-class robot,” said Schleicher in an interview last month, “but to focus on those skills where humans have an advantage, which is perspective-taking, which is looking at problems from multiple angles and making judgments.”
A heavy investment in a humanities-based education may be every country’s best solution to the problems we are facing. “How do we create workers who can use AI,” asks Shimomura, the former Japanese education minister, “and not be used by AI?”
IT HASN’T BEEN easy adopting a new pedagogy in Japan, a largely homogeneous country of about 125 million people which boasts the world’s third-largest economy, after the US and China. While American teachers and parents fret about the amount of classroom time devoted to testing and test-prep, teachers in Japan are struggling with a different kind of problem: How to encourage individual thinking in a culture that prizes group identity above all.
For decades, Japan’s strictly hierarchical education system has been a source of national pride. Teachers are seen as authority figures who deliver lecture-style lessons while their students, sometimes 40 to a class, silently follow along in a textbook. Tests are administered frequently; all schoolchildren take a series of MCAS-like exams in 6th, 9th, and 12th grade which measure how well students can recall names, dates, places, and facts they’ve been taught in school. Traditionally, little emphasis has been placed on understanding how all those facts relate to students’ own lives, and there have been few opportunities within this system for questioning, critical thinking, and self-expression.
This pedagogical approach has led to Japanese near-dominance on PISA in reading, scientific literacy, and math. (The US hovers near the middle.) Nearly the entire adult population of Japan is literate. (By contrast, 15 percent of US adults read at a “below basic” level.)
But Japanese policymakers and business leaders say these high PISA scores obscure shortcomings baked into their education system that make Japanese students particularly vulnerable to the takeover of AI. Formulating and expressing ideas, even bad ones — often the first step in creative problem-solving — has been historically frowned upon in Japan, says Tomoko Hasegawa, director of the SDGs Promotion Bureau at Keidanren, the largest and most powerful of the Japanese business federations. “When a student says something wrong, the teacher says, ‘You are not correct! Please be silent.’ Now we need students to speak up, express his or her opinion, and think for themselves.”
As the economy hemorrhages jobs, she says, creativity will “produce new ideas and new solutions to global issues.” That, in turn, “will bring more customers and profits and investments. To create a sustainable future, we need to change.”
THE EXPERIENCE OF one school illustrates how difficult it has been to shift the educational culture, offering important lessons to American educators and parents.
In 2015, the Japanese government founded the Kaisei Secondary School in the city of Sapporo as a selective middle and senior high school with a unique mission: to provide a rigorous curriculum while promoting self-expression, critical thinking, and reflection.
Parental support was far from unanimous. The few parents who had contact with the West or understood the mission vied to get their children enrolled. But more traditional parents were put off.
The reasons for their reluctance were, in part, semantic. The mission of the school was so new and so foreign that there wasn’t a neutral vocabulary to describe it. In Japanese, the word for reflection is hansei, which means thinking about what went wrong. The word for critical thinking is hihantekishikou, which implies criticizing others. “These are very negative ideas in Japanese culture,” says Satoshi Nishimura, the coordinator for the International Baccalaureate program there.
So school administrators endeavored to educate parents as well as the students. They developed an illustrated brochure (a powerful tool in Japan) and conducted outreach to find ways to describe the pedagogical approach in a more positive way. They rephrased critical thinking to mean “figuring out where your ideas and the ideas of others are the same, and also the exact ways in which they are different.” Critical thinking, then, wasn’t about disrupting harmony — a virtue in Japan — but encouraging students to think precisely and clearly.
Armed with this useful and durable ability, school administrators explained, students would be better equipped for an unknown future.
Community support for the school grew. Four years later, the program is thriving and hosts teams of teachers from around the country and Asia who come to see this deeper form of teaching and learning in action.
Elsewhere, though, Japanese teachers are still struggling with the new ways. “In the beginning, it was very difficult,” says Minote Shogo, who teaches in Koganei near Tokyo. “I would ask a[n opened-ended] question, and the students would stop and couldn’t respond. . . Gradually, they are speaking about their ideas. And I see that all this time, they have kept this inside, and now it is pouring out.”
Indeed, order is still highly valued, even if opening the floodgates to ideas invites a certain level of disruption. On a visit to another model school, the Kizawa middle school in Toda, a bedroom community outside of Tokyo, superintendent Togasaki Tsutomu described how reform was based on discipline and order. “We try to bring project-based learning and active lessons into every classroom,” he told me. But respect for teachers, and clean, well-maintained classrooms were paramount.
Doesn’t creativity require a little chaos? Doesn’t critical thinking thrive when students question authority? “A car needs two sets of tires to run,” says Tsutomu. “Discipline is a bottom line of Japanese culture. It’s the Japanese way of life. It’s a habit, a lifestyle.”
ALMOST NO ONE in Japan suggests, as some do in the US, that deep content knowledge will become less important because students can just Google things. The new curriculum acknowledges that creativity and a high level of academic rigor need to work in tandem.
And one of the most powerful ways to build critical thinking skills is through writing. Writing has long been considered a signifier of higher order cognition, which is why even the most ardent tech enthusiasts say that AI has a way to go before it can match a human’s ability to write a coherent book or craft a compelling argument. Writing requires students to wring meaning from a text, synthesize that meaning, and reflect it in logical, clear sentences.
Japan’s much-feared university entrance exam will be overhauled next year and for the first time, will require that students read a section of text and provide written answers. When the Japanese entrance exam is altered again in five years, it is expected to require students to showcase even more writing ability.
The US will have some catching up to do in this regard. According to the Nation’s Report Card, only 3 percent of 12th graders nationwide can write a sophisticated, well-organized essay. They have little opportunity or incentive to improve: State exams are largely multiple choice and even the College Board has quietly backed away from promoting the essay section on the SAT.
A growing number of American parents are questioning this drift. And they may be right to wonder whether our reliance on standardized testing has become an overreliance — whether these endless multiple-choice questions are actually measuring the skills, knowledge, and abilities our children will need in the future. Increasingly, parents are pressing for schools to widen the curriculum to include art, drama, music, and an emphasis on so-called “soft skills.” And many are opting out of high-stakes state testing altogether.
In Japan, even PISA exams, once the pride of that country and the internationally respected yardstick of academic achievement, are now under scrutiny. PISA may measure certain abilities, but not the ability to creatively problem solve. So if Japan’s new method of education causes PISA scores to drop, says Shimomura, “then the values of PISA and that evaluation system are out of date.”
THESE DAYS AT Kaisei secondary school in Sapporo the classrooms are lively. In a literature class, I watched as a slight seventh grader presented his independent research on forms of classical Japanese poetry. That would have been a formidable challenge for a student educated under the old system, in which pupils took care to respond in exactly the way the teacher expected.
The Kaisei school, though, had prepared the boy well. He glanced down at this notes, left them on his desk, and walked to the front of the classroom. Peering out from under glossy black bangs at his 25 classmates, he launched in. His chosen research project was about an ancient form of poetry called Senryu. He enthusiastically described the steps he took to analyze how three classical poems had been structured. He discussed the power of meter and the impact of Senryu’s lack of rhyme. He stressed that the themes of Senryu frequently touch upon feelings that often go unmentioned in Japanese society, and tied the theme of one poem to feelings he experienced in his day-to-day life. He connected the narrative power of the Senryu poems he’d studied to video games and manga he liked.
The presentation revealed a sophisticated grasp of history and solid understanding of metaphor. It explained and contextualized facts by reflecting on lived experience and deeply felt emotions. It was delivered with passion and joy. The presentation was the product of a thoughtful human mind, analyzing new information in a personal way. No machine could approximate its unique magic. His teacher and his classmates applauded.
The seventh grader flashed a triumphant grin.
Peg Tyre is a journalist and best-selling author of two books on education. She was awarded an Abe Fellowship by the Social Science Research Council to research school reform in Japan.