How Japan’s Kosen schools are creating a new generation of innovators

By Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Innovation and problem solving depend increasingly on the ability to synthesise disparate elements to create something different and unexpected. This involves curiosity, open-mindedness and making connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated. It also requires knowledge across a broad range of fields. If we spend our entire lives in the silo of a single discipline, we will not gain the imaginative skills necessary to connect the dots and develop the next life-changing invention.

For schools, then, the challenge is to remain true to disciplines while encouraging interdisciplinary learning and building students’capacity to see problems through multiple lenses. Some countries have been trying to develop cross-curricular capabilities. Japan’s network of Kosen schools is a unique example.

Its president, Isao Taniguchi, showed me around the Tokyo campus last week, and it was one of my most inspiring school visits. At first sight, the campus looks like a vocational school, since much of the learning is hands-on, collaborative and project-based. But for those who may associate hands-on learning with an academically less-rigorous curriculum, Kosen is profoundly different.

What makes the Kosen schools different is their unique blend of classroom-based and hands-on, project-based learning.

In fact, the 51 Kosen schools are among Japan’s most selective high schools and colleges, and the curriculum is as much focused on liberal arts as it is technical and scientific studies. Some 40% of graduates will continue studying at university, and those who choose to directly enter the labour market can expect an average of 20 job offers as Japan’s most sought-after innovators and engineers. None of the students I met knew anyone who had dropped out of this demanding programme.

What makes the Kosen schools different is their unique blend of classroom-based and hands-on, project-based learning. At Kosen schools, learning is both cross-curricular and student-centred, and teachers are mainly coaches, mentors, facilitators and evaluators. This is not one of those contrived, one-week projects that have now become quite fashionable in many schools around the world; on the contrary, Kosen students will typically work for several years on developing and realising their big ideas.

Toshiki Tomihira, a student specialising in electrical engineering, invited me to an amazing virtual reality experience of wild water rafting. Daisuke Suzuki, a chemistry student, is working on a low-cost solution to purify soil from heavy metal pollution. And unlike most other school projects, the fruits of the work of Kosen students typically end up not in a bin, but in an incubator where they find their way to market as one of Japan’s many innovations.

While project-based learning has only recently gained widespread traction, the Kosen schools have been in operation since the early 1960s, demonstrating to the world that this is not just a promising approach, but a proven one, as well.

Learn more about Japan’s efforts to help students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills:    

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