If there is anything we can be sure of in today’s rapidly changing and complex world, it is the increased automation and tremendous shift in the professional landscape. Career opportunities are suddenly opening up in new fields while quickly shutting down in old ones.
This prompts educators to ask: What skills and qualities do the modern workplace and society demand? What new jobs will be created in the future? How do we prepare students for jobs that may not even exist yet? Is what we teach today really what our students need to know for their future success? These are some of the pressing issues 21st-century educators are facing with respect to providing an adequate learning experience.
In the meantime, policymakers are making strategic decisions about the future of education: How can the teachers of today be supported in building up the workforce of tomorrow? Does classroom instruction accelerate the rate of development proportionately with the speed of technological, scientific, political, and economic change? An adequate system of education rests upon a strong link between learning outcomes (obtaining knowledge and skills, including soft skills such as teamwork, persistence, self-discipline) and employability.
School leaders who are in charge of planning and implementing teacher training programs might find it advantageous to take part in talent acquisition workshops. When teachers are made familiar with the workforce needs, they can adapt their teaching strategies to meet the requirements of the future job market.
The reality is that traditional teaching practices focused on content fail to address the skills that the modern workforce and society demand. On the other hand, with the “one size fits all” approach to teaching we might run the risk of failing to identify the hidden talents and dispositions of our students. What’s needed to allow the nation’s best minds to emerge, flourish, and provide leadership, is a system that enables the country to identify, develop, and use its human talent effectively.
The first step of identifying the talents of students requires teachers to incorporate a wide range of learning approaches and experiences while being observant and sensitive to children’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. What would happen if we turned schools into the headquarters for identifying and developing talent? What if our primary responsibilities as teachers were to identify, develop, and nurture students’ talents? By giving precedence to talent identification over knowledge transfer, particularly during children’s early years, we would be on the lookout for students’ preferences, passions, and natural aptitudes for certain areas in a strive to help learners make the best career and life choices.
To accomplish this mission, teachers need to be prepared to make sacrifices – to go deep, beyond class schedules, timetables, and curriculum in search of greater expertise. We need to match our teaching to students’ aptitudes and abilities to provide them with the opportunity to excel in what they are good at. As educators, we need to train ourselves in recognizing talent and developing our students to reach their potential and design their reality by following what they are interested in.
At the risk of degrading my ‘reputation’, I would draw my case as an example. A product of a post-communist education system with a strong teacher-centered tradition, I did not know my strengths nor my aptitudes by the time I graduated high school. I was a true epitome of Seneca’s position: “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable” (Seneca the Younger). Ironically and quite surprisingly, my state of being adrift fueled my recently discovered desire to leave a mark on the world. Through my efforts to help children get in touch with their talents, I aspire for the next generation to pursue their interests and create a reality that is more aligned with their dispositions and inclinations. We have been told that “life is more about the journey than the destination” and that what counts is the effort we put into the steps we take. Yet, no-one wants to be a feather in the wind, blown to-and-fro without reason. Most of us want to accomplish something in our lives.
If we are to help children decide in which direction to steer their boat and take advantage of favorable winds, we need to find the approximate intersection between individual talent and future workforce demand (dependent on constantly changing factors in the external environment). Children rely solely on us – on our perceptions of the things they are good at and of the knowledge and skills they will need in their future.
Once students’ aptitudes and interests are identified, children should be given the opportunity to further discover and develop their potential in the context of the information age. To some extent, technology is not only driving the way in which information is created, stored, and disseminated but it is also defining the way talents are allowed to develop and to be molded by experiences.
Far-sighted educational institutions take into consideration the vastly changing external environment (such as the economy, labor market, globalization, technology, legislation, customer demands, societal changes) as well as the internal personal factors in the form of cognitive and affective dispositions when planning curricula and educational activities. The focus is on developing students’ potential around the demands of the 21st century for creative innovators, critical-thinkers and problem-solvers, communicators and team-players, risk-takers, and lifelong learners.
There is no doubt that Japan’s postwar education, based on facts and memorization, was an important part of the country’s rapid economic growth (Dierkes, J. p.76). As the economy matured, however, growth reached its peak and the traditional method of rote learning became outdated and ineffective.
We know that nurturing creative innovators is closely tied to the deployment of artificial intelligence into the workforce. Ultimately, there is no doubt that the robots, responsible for improving the productivity of human labor, originate from the dreams and desires of the human imagination.
Even though many are concerned that automation will displace a large number of jobs, leaving people in various sectors unable to earn a living, computers are still unable to think outside of the box. Therefore, in a rapidly changing society, with the widespread use of robots and artificial intelligence, a culture of innovative ideas and creative thinking is vital.
Teachers can encourage and train students in the practice of looking for relationships among things, of making new and original combinations of ideas and knowledge in the process of creating and inventing.
Self-confident critical-thinkers and problem-solvers
Regardless of personal qualities and life situations, we find ourselves with no shortage of problems to deal with. Problems ‘reside’ everywhere – at home, at work, in our communities, in our relationships. The future won’t be spared from problems either. In many cases, the solution to one problem creates new problems, such as the above-mentioned case with artificial intelligence.
It is of paramount importance to nurture the skills of critical thinking and self-expression to allow students to make use of their knowledge in the resolution of problems. To accomplish this, teachers can start by emphasizing problem-solving in everyday situations. Problem-based learning with the use of real-world experiences can cultivate the habit of looking for possibilities and solutions to problems.
A problem-solving mindset is built upon self-confidence and a positive attitude. A spirit of optimism fuels our minds and propels us toward planned action. We can inspire children to approach every problem with the confidence that what they choose to do is right and with the attitude that every problem has an answer. Positive thinking naturally imbues children with confidence in being able to find solutions to problems.
Communicators and team-players
To thrive in a global world individuals need to develop the capabilities to communicate and collaborate effectively with people from various backgrounds. Recognizing and adapting to individual and group dynamics, to cultural and social differences, to communication styles and approaches has become increasingly important in a globally integrated world.
Living in a highly homogeneous society, with around 2.93 foreign residents, the children of Japan need to be provided with such experiences that emulate the real world of diversity, of different ways of being, doing, seeing, and understanding (Itabashi, H., 2020). With the language barrier, which almost feels like an impenetrable fortress to absolute newcomers, and with a limited number of positions available to foreigners, with English-teaching being one of the main jobs held by foreign workers, foreign nationals have limited access to the job market in Japan.
On the other hand, major demographic trends – the shift from the traditional family to the nuclear family, the weakening of community ties, and the spread of mobile phones – are altering Japan’s social landscape. They are depriving children of opportunities to practice and hone their linguistic skills. Designing an improved language curriculum that uses a variety of activities to restore these skills is one way for schools to contribute positively to children’s future.
What is more, the challenge facing English teachers is how to teach students to communicate in English within the confines of the classrooms. In a second language classroom, where the focus is on verbal communication, the success lies in taking the lessons beyond the classroom and into the real world where children can apply what they are learning to real situations. One solution would be to organize visits to sights of interest, attractions, entertainment venues and other places usually patronized by foreigners where students can practice the language learned in class either with the staff at the facility or with tourists.
Flexible and adaptable risk-takers
Learning a new language often requires us to take a journey into unfamiliar terrain. The road is bumpy and uncertain. In a community with high ‘social expectations’ and a low tolerance for failure, teachers need to find ways to reframe mistakes as opportunities. By taking the stress out of the learning equation, teachers will create a safe environment that would allow children to take risks with regard to foreign language acquisition.
With the accelerating pace of technological and social change, how well can we adapt to the new order? Whether we are navigating changing job conditions brought on by automation or changing family dynamics, each of us is being forced to deal with more change than ever before.
The educators of today are not an exception to the rule. Bombarded with stimulating and entertaining technology, fewer and fewer students remain receptive to the old-fashioned methods of teaching. To be effective in this dynamic information and technology-driven age, teachers must quickly learn to deal with the change by adapting and growing. Indeed, the change must arise from the teachers who need to seize the opportunity and lead by example.
The future calls for flexible and adaptable risk-takers who are not afraid to jump into the unknown with both feet and to make mistakes as long as they learn from them. To improve adaptability, challenge students to get into the habit of thinking in “what if?” terms. Asking “what if” questions forces the brain to simulate and helps students picture multiple scenarios.
Our world today demands staff who feel comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, who can adapt to change and have an insatiable appetite for learning. To overcome the challenges of an uncertain future, students must be equipped to adapt to the changing conditions and to cope with the new realities by being self-driven lifelong learners.
As Micheal Thomas advocates “Learning shouldn’t be work. Learning should be excitement. It should be a pleasure. One should want more. The teacher is somebody who would facilitate and show how to learn” (Thomas, M, 2017). It is widely perceived that the rote memorization approach fails to inspire an appetite for study. This is what led to a change of direction in Japan’s education system, in favor of a more relaxed and flexible style of education.
Recently, the themes of inquiry-based problem-solving and self-motivated deep learning have slowly permeated the education system. Shifting away from the method of simply acquiring knowledge, the Ministry of education revised the curriculum guideline to aim at fostering students’ desire and ability to learn by themselves (MEXT, 2011). Students need to be inspired and helped to become lifelong learners. In a constantly advancing world, learning is a never-ending process. It is not something that can be solved by intermittent training.
Navigating an Ocean of Information
The information-driven era we live in overflows with data. Every consecutive tide of information shifts the landscape within weeks, days, or hours, depending on the industry. Tidal waves of data have the power to sweep sailors away if they don’t hold the right-sized bucket to dip into a specific part of the ocean and capture only what they need. Learning is the most crucial method by which we can adapt to a world overflowing with information without drowning.
The ability to select the right size bucket is deeply dependent on one’s so-called Me skills – self-awareness, control, focus, and organization. It’s time to revolutionize the school system from wasting time and talent to cultivating human potential. Let’s give the next generation the gift of knowing what they are best suited and hardwired to do given the characteristics of the workforce of the future. Out of genuine care for our students, we can support them in writing the narrative of their lives and imbuing them with meaning.
Dierkes, Julian, “Postwar History Education in Japan and the Germanys: Guilty Lessons”, Routledge Taylor & Francis, 2010
Itabashi, Hiroyoshi, “Foreign population in Japan reaches record 2.93 million at end of December,” The Asahi Shimbun, March 2020, accessed 29 June 2020, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/13256541
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Elementary and Secondary Education Bureau, “The Revisions of the Courses of Study for Elementary and Secondary Schools”, 2011, accessed 28 June 2020, https://www.mext.go.jp/en/policy/education/elsec/title02/detail02/__icsFiles/afieldfile/2011/03/28/1303755_001.pdf
Obe, Mitsuru and Funatsu, Yasumi, June 2019, Asian Nikkei Review, accessed November 2019,
Thomas, Micheal, The “Language Master,” 1997, accessed 20 June 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFnObQKDV_0