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INTERVIEW | Yuichiro Anzai: Why Japan Should Prioritize Closing Gaps in Educational Opportunities





The spread of coronavirus infections in Japan has highlighted strains in the education system cultivated by the nation over many years. Yuichiro Anzai, a leader in the world of education and chairman of the Central Council for Education, an advisory panel to the education minister, talked about the challenges and disparities that have come to the fore in the wake of the crisis. 


Dr. Anzai told The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward in a recent exclusive interview that even as information technology (IT) is incorporated into teaching, it is critical that Japan eliminates educational disparity for the future of society.


Excerpts of the interview follow.





How do you think education in schools will be transformed in the future? 


There may be progress in distance learning systems for higher educationーeducation at high schools and universities, I think. But I have reservations about the idea of introducing distance learning into primary school education. 


To expedite development of children’s social and cognitive abilities at the primary school level, it is vitally important to maintain face-to-face education between teachers and students, and to use techniques designed to help children acquire the skills to solve problems on their own initiative through collaboration. IT should be encouraged as a tool in such education. 



By the time students reach the junior high school level, students can take on homework and work on free-form assignments remotely with success. Remote learning and possibly online education can be added as options for learning at the high school and university level.  


In Japan, however, many schools, students, and households do not fully understand how to best use personal computers (PCs). But it would be possible, I believe, to ramp up Japanese and English language and composition abilities using IT-based training programs. Deeper consideration should also be given to how IT can be used for collaborative learning. This is a must in the light of world trends, in my view.



Are you referring to world trends in digital technology? 


There can be no doubt that digitization will increasingly permeate the world of business and education. There will be more opportunities to use digital networks to send messages and hold conversations using correct expressions in future society. 



As interaction with foreigners increases, the ability to do this in English will become more essential. 


Changes in international society will be accelerated by digital systems, and a world different from that of the 20th century will evolve at a rapid pace. Today’s children will live in that society in the future. Little has been done in Japan’s education, however, in response to the ongoing transformation of the world by this digital revolution.



What do you think of the discussion of changing the start of the school year to September that was triggered by the COVID-19 crisis?


We first should be aware that the time when compulsory education begins in Japan is later than many other countries. In view of the early development of children today compared to the past, I cannot agree with the idea of further delaying the entry of children into elementary school. 



What we should be doing instead is to create a better education environment for the country and for children through our efforts to overcome the international situation and declining birth rate. This is entirely different from an argument in favor of suddenly shifting the start of the school year from April to September simply because of the current coronavirus problems.


The real issue that should be discussed is whether it is possible to shift the education system to enable it to deal flexibly with the ages and grades of children. 


A September admission system, if employed, would impact every phase of education, from preschool and kindergarten, to elementary, junior high, senior high school, and university levels. It would have far more enormous ramifications than the changes of entrance exams pose for universities. And it would affect a wide sphere of other activities, including national qualifying exams, job recruitment, and first-year employment. Moreover, it would require the expansion of faculties and teaching staff, budgetary appropriations, and the revision of relevant laws. 


Putting these aside, it is necessary to craft a far-sighted, rational approach for education that meets the needs of society in the future, and to provide stability by implementing the approach over a longer period of time.  




What are the priorities and where do disadvantaged students stand? 


The quality of education depends on family background and economic resources. It is an expensive investment for a household to purchase a PC and prepare an internet-dominated learning environment for their children’s education. 


The learning environment for wealthy children is also advantageous in other ways, and the disparity is likely to grow further after the coronavirus. 


Some students at prestigious private senior high schools, for example, finish lessons in two years when normally three years is required. Financial flexibility allows students to afford to use the final school year to prepare for university entrance exams or study abroad. Graduates from such high schools account for a growing share of students enrolled at topnotch universities.  



Meanwhile, having normal meals every day may be a challenge for students from families struggling under the economic challenges created by COVID-19. We must reduce the number of students whose educational opportunities are detrimentally affected by economic factors, at least through the high school level. 


The acceleration of these educational disparities is not good for the future of Japanese society. This problem, along with the decline in the number of children, if left unaddressed, will detrimentally affect not only the future of individual students, but also the strength of the nation due to the shrinkage of capable human resources. 


Our top priorities should be to close the gap in educational opportunities, and we need to provide more support for children in need. 



Profile of Yuichiro Anzai


Yuichiro Anzai, PhD, 73, is an expert in information technology and cognitive sciences and an advisor to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, an independent administrative agency. He is also chair of Kojunsha, a general incorporated foundation. His current posts follow his tenure as a professor at Keio University and as president of the same university, among others. He has held a number of public posts, including chairman of the Central Council for Education. His books include Kyoiku ga Nihon wo Hiraku (Education Will Open Japan’s Future, Japanese, by Keio University Press, 2008). 


(Access to the interview in Japanese can be found here.)


Interview by: Ryotaro Fukuda,  staff writer for The Sankei Shimbun)