Since Confucius and Socrates, educators have recognised the double purpose of education: to pass on the meaning and significance of the past and to prepare young people for the challenges of the future. So the challenge is not simply to deliver more of the same education, but to prepare students for a different world.

These days, digitalisation is connecting people, cities, countries and continents, bringing together a majority of the world’s population in ways that vastly increases our individual and collective potential. But the same forces have also made the world more volatile, more complex and more uncertain. The rolling processes of automation and hollowing out jobs, particularly for routine tasks, have radically altered the nature of work and life.

For those with the right knowledge, skills and character qualities this has been liberating and exciting. But for those who are insufficiently prepared, it can mean the scourge of vulnerable and insecure work, and life without prospects. As our economies shift towards regionalised hubs of production, linked together by global chains of supply and information, but concentrated in locations where comparative advantage can be built and renewed, the distribution of knowledge and wealth is key, and that is intimately linked with the distribution of educational opportunity.

But while digital technologies have disruptive implications for our economic and social structure, they do not have predetermined implications. It is the nature of our collective and systemic responses to these disruptions that will determine their outcomes – the continuous interplay between an emerging technological frontier and the range of cultural, social, institutional and economic ingredients, including education, that we combine in response.

When we could still assume that what we learn in school will last for a lifetime, teaching content knowledge and routine cognitive skills was rightly at the centre of education. Today, where we can access content on search engine such as Google, and where routine cognitive skills are being digitised and outsourced, the focus must shift to enabling people to become lifelong and life-wide learners. Schools now need to prepare students for more rapid change than ever before, to learn for jobs that have not been created, to tackle societal challenges that we cannot yet imagine, and to use technologies that have not yet been invented. Some experts suggest that nearly two-thirds of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that do not yet exist. Schools also need to prepare students for an interconnected world in which students understand and appreciate different perspectives and world views, interact successfully and respectfully with others, and take responsible action toward sustainability and collective well-being.

Japan engages with these challenges proactively. At a time when PISA results show Japan comparing favourably both in terms of the learning outcomes of students and equity in the distribution of educational opportunity, policy makers are not complacent but are carefully analysing tomorrow’s threats to Japan’s current strengths. This review has been commissioned as part of these efforts.

Curriculum design, teacher education, school organisation, financial support for non-mandatory stages of education, and lifelong learning are all part of the reform package Japan has put in place to embrace the future.

But transforming schooling at scale requires not just a coherent and ambitious vision of what is possible, but also smart strategies that help make educational change happen. Knowledge is only as valuable as our capacity to act on it and the reality is that many good ideas get stuck in the process of policy implementation.

The toughest challenge for policy implementation goes back to the way in which educational institutions are managed and governed. Public education was invented in the industrial age, when the prevailing norms were standardisation and compliance, and when it was both effective and efficient to educate students in batches and to train teachers once for their working lives. The curricula that spelled out what students should learn were designed at the top of the pyramid; then translated into instructional material, teacher education and learning environments, often through multiple layers of government; and ultimately implemented by teachers in the classroom.

This structure, inherited from the industrial model of work, makes change a very slow process and the changes in the demands of societies have vastly outpaced the structural capacity of our current governance systems to respond. And when fast gets really fast, being slower to adapt makes education systems really slow and disoriented.

Japan’s curriculum reform is far-reaching, and builds on Japan’s strong tradition of holistic education. It sends a strong signal that students success in the 21st century is not just about academic knowledge, but also about character qualities involved in achieving goals, living and working with others and managing emotions, such as perseverance, perspective taking, mindfulness, ethics, courage or leadership. The curriculum reform appears to build on the understanding that 21st century students live and work in a world in which most people need to appreciate a range of ideas, perspectives and values, and collaborate with people of different cultural origins; a world in which people need to decide how to trust and collaborate across such differences, often bridging space and time through technology; and a world in which their lives will be affected by issues that transcend national boundaries.

But there are other and divergent signals which students and parents receive too. Perhaps the most powerful ones come from the gateways that regulate access to higher education, most notably the university entrance exams. These exams have great influence over how students learn, teachers teach and schools operate.

The university entrance exams in Japan still prioritise routine cognitive skills, and the nature of their assessment tasks often sacrifices validity gains for efficiency gains and relevance for reliability. The gap between the aspiration of the curriculum and the reality of the university entrance exams has compromised the implementation of previous curricula, it risks to do the same this time round. If Japan does not succeed with aligning its university entrance exams with the school curriculum, the private tutoring industry will be quick to fill the gap and the intended curriculum will not become the implemented curriculum and even less so the achieved curriculum. In short, getting the design of the university exam wrong will hold the whole education system back, narrow the scope of what is valued and what is taught, and encourage shortcuts and cramming.

The bottom line is that school systems are rather conservative social systems. Everyone supports educational reform, except for their own children. Parents may measure the education of their children against their own educational experiences. Teachers may teach how they were taught rather than how they were taught to teach. It will require extraordinary leadership to convey the goals of the curriculum successfully to parents, educational institutions and employers.

And that is still the easy part. A far greater challenge is to build the capacity to deliver the intentions of the curriculum in the classroom, which requires deep shifts in pedagogy and instructional practice. Teachers are the key to developing new competencies; they are the people who reach the learners. That is why the quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers. So expectations for teachers are high. We expect them to have a deep and broad understanding of what they teach and whom they teach, because what teachers know and care about makes such a difference to student learning. That entails professional knowledge (e.g. knowledge about a discipline, knowledge about the curriculum of that discipline, and knowledge about how students learn in that discipline) as well as knowledge about professional practice that enables teachers to create effective learning environments which foster the cognitive and social and emotional aspects that lead to good learning outcomes. It also entails an understanding of the research-theory-practice nexus and the inquiry and research skills that allow them to become lifelong learners and grow in their profession.

Overall it requires teachers to be passionate, compassionate and thoughtful; to make learning central and encourage students’ engagement and responsibility; to respond effectively to students of different needs, backgrounds and languages, and to promote tolerance and social cohesion; to provide continual assessments of students and feedback; and to ensure that students feel valued and included and that learning is collaborative.

Japan has a huge advantage over other countries, in the sense that the role of teachers has always extended beyond the classroom and the delivery of instruction. Japanese students are fortunate in that they typically have a teacher who is also a mentor and who takes a real interest in their life and aspirations, who helps them understand who they are, discover their passions and where they can build on their strength. But the price for this has been extraordinary long working hours for teachers and a high degree of responsibility. The revision of the school organisation aims to reduce the teachers’ burden and to provide extra services to students at school. But in moving towards a more Tayloristic work organisation Japan needs to take care not to lose its traditional strength. In the English-speaking world, most notably the United States, teachers have much fewer working hours, but spending most of their time teaching leaves them limited time to pursue other important activities, including working with individual students, parents and, most importantly, with their fellow teachers to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and to pursue professional development that leads to stronger educational practice. Finding the right balance will not be easy.

And there is more to this, Japan needs to invest in supporting the continued professional development of its teachers to adopt the new curriculum and beyond. Given the rapid changes in education and the potentially long careers that many teachers have, teachers’ development must be viewed in terms of lifelong learning, with initial teacher education conceived as providing the foundation for ongoing learning, rather than producing ready-made professionals. Japan’s students are unlikely to become lifelong learners if they do not see their teachers to be lifelong learners. That requires teachers to collaborate and work in teams, and with other schools and parents, to set common goals, and plan and monitor the attainment of goals.

The future of education will also demand much greater attention to equity. Digitalisation and globalisation will continue to amplify the impact knowledge and skills have on the life chances of students. Even if inequality in knowledge and skills themselves do not widen, their impact on social and economic outcomes will continue to accelerate. In some sense, Japan has been remarkably successful in this respect. The achievement gap between students from wealthier and poorer families has remained much smaller than it is in much of the Western world. The current reform targeting the funding of non-mandatory stages of education (early childhood education and care and higher education) will help to sustain that advantage and thus foster inclusive economic and social development. But on other dimensions of equity, most notably gender, Japan has remained remarkably unsuccessful. PISA results reveal wide differences in student aspirations and their attachment to different fields of study, which then translate into subsequent educational and occupational choices.

Last but not least, the increase in the depreciation rate of human capital resulting from technical progress and globalisation should lead people to hone their skills over their lifetime. The only thing that can help people accept that their job may disappear is the confidence that they have the knowledge and skills to find or create a new one. It works the same way for nations. It is important how evenly knowledge and skills are spread within a society. If there are large sections of the adult population which are not keeping up with the demands for new knowledge and skills, it becomes more difficult to improve productivity and make better use of technology, which becomes a barrier to raising living standards. The skills of a nation and how they are distributed are closely linked to social and economic development. And the extent to which the effects of technology-induced economic restructuring are widening income and wealth inequalities, or reducing them, depends fundamentally on the supply and distribution of education, and the growth of skills across populations. OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills shows that Japanese workers are less likely than their counterparts to participate in lifelong learning. Beyond time and financial constraints, the low participation levels reveal the difficult access to lifelong learning faced by non-regular workers, and the need for improvement in the supply of adult training. Japan will need to find a better balance between short-term training and labour market programmes for displaced workers, and long-term policies that facilitate lifelong development of the knowledge and skills for the 21st century.

In sum, the OECD commends Japan for not being complacent at the height of its educational success, but for seeking to address the demanding challenges of the 21st century. Japan has developed a compelling plan for this. But it will require extraordinary efforts to implement this plan successfully. That must entail the investment of financial and political capital, the full involvement of all stakeholders around a shared vision, and significant support for educators, who hold the key to the successful implementation of educational policies. Last but not least, the capacity to look outwards will be a key differentiator for progress. In the future, the division may be between those education systems that feel threatened by alternative ways of thinking and those that are open to the world and ready to learn from the world’s best experiences.



Andreas Schleicher

Director for Education and Skills

Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General