Day 6: Welcome to the Future

My day started with the beginning of Tsuyu, the rainy season of Japan. Unlike Singapore or Delhi rains which come and go at random, the rains in Tokyo are continuous and not too harsh. Its been raining all day today but the intensity of rain isn’t enough to keep people from going about doing their usual things. Of course the large number of umbrellas in the street slow people down, but the Japanese have learnt the most effective ways and means to avoid crashing into the other umbrellas. From lifting their umbrellas up to inclining in to the side, it comes naturally to them and they do it as they walk around on the wet streets.

After a class about Western influence on Japanese architecture, I wandered around the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. Shinjuku is one of the many “centers” of Tokyo. The Shinjuku train station is the busiest train station in the world with over 3.5 million daily commuters. Remembering my recent visit to Shibuya and its similarity to Times Square, I didn’t expect to see anything radically different. I was so wrong. First of all, it took me 20 minutes to find my way out of the Shinjuku station. I had expected it to be crowded, but not so big. There were different train lines converging at Shijuku, and restaurants and stores clustered near the platforms and ticketing stations. Once I was out of the train platforms, English signs nearly disappeared and I was left to depend on my intuition. When I finally walked out of the train station I found myself among a number of high rises, all of different shapes, sizes and colors. The roads were narrow as they are everywhere in Japan, but somehow space didn’t seem to be such a huge problem given the large entrance courtyards of skyscrapers. Pavements changed color frequently and with every turn I took, I felt like I was stepping into a different area altogether. As I walked around, I tried to look up to see how tall the skyscrapers were, but my umbrella would interrupt my view, and I could barely see the roofs without getting rainwater in my eyes. When I reached the area of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, I just didn’t know how to feel. I had never seen any area as upscale or developed as this one. Not only were they buildings tall, but they were of the most unique shapes and were made of varying materials. At one point, I crossed a circular courtyard with a line of statues bordering it. I felt like I was in the future. The ginormous buildings and exceptional architecture felt like something the world I knew isn’t quite ready for. I later found out that the annual budget of the Tokyo Metropolitan government is more than the national budget of India, which is sad for India, but explains so much about Shinjuku. After walking a little further, I hit the entertainment area of Shunjuku, which included shops, restaurants, etc. But even this wasn’t comparable to anything I had seen before. It was unbelievably lively for a weekday evening. It went beyond just lanes and alleys into the main streets.

At around 6 p.m. I went back to the Shinjuku station, hoping to experience some of the rush hour crowd at the busiest train station in the world. Near the ticket counters, there were people walking in all four directions and somehow managing not to crash into each. Occasionally, people in a hurry would run across the platform. I dared not stop to take a picture, because if I did, someone from behind would crash into me. The platform, where people were waiting for the train to arrive was so packed that not everyone was able to fit into the first train that arrived. Many people had to wait for the next one. The number of people who came out of the train at Shinjuku station in order to transfer to one of its many lines was also so huge, that the train would nearly be empty in the few moments before commuters leaving from Shinjuku entered the train. When the doors shut, a girl’s backpack got partially stuck in the door due to lack of space inside the train. It was not so bad once I was inside the train, but I think I got lucky, considering that 6 pm is just the beginning of Tokyo’s rush hour.

This is the first time I’m seeing the better parts of a city after seeing the more depressed parts. After seeing the tightly fitted houses and stressed lifestyle of Tokyo, I hadn’t expected to see such a contrasting better half. I plan to go back again to take another look. I haven’t quite digested Shinjuku yet. I also intend to re-visit Shibuya. I may have been wrong about it.

The Unfortunate Demise of School

“I think there won’t be any school by 2028”.
I was at a startup conference in August, and we were all separated into groups as per our industry of interest. I was in the education group, and we were attempting to see the future.

Since you probably laughed at that last line, let me rephrase. We were attempting to do some scenario planning, which is basically an attempt to predict the future. We mapped out significant events that had occurred in the field of education for the past 15 years. Then looking at all these events, we started looking 15 years into the future to try to predict what it held for us. We talked about focal concerns-the education bubble, mismatch between skills provided by schools and skills required at the work place, equal access to education.
According to many of my group mates, the demise of school as we know it wasn’t too far away in the future. All our focal concerns for the future of education, all the problems being faced today about skill development, seemed to point to how dysfunctional our current concept of ‘school’ is.It certainly seemed like an idea not very sustainable for the future.
There are so many online sources of learning that the value of school as a source of knowledge will definitely reduce. So in some ways, the computer has already replaced the teacher.
More than that, we have a lot more knowledge than we did a 100 years ago. The speed at which we create knowledge increases every decade.There is so much to learn, that soon, it will be hard to pin down what exactly is the necessary knowledge required to be taught in school. After kids know how to read, write and add numbers, which way do you go? You could teach them science, math, the arts, business, or you could just try teaching them everything. The problem with teaching them everything is that there just isn’t an end to it.
An interesting perspective that someone brought up was “Fuel will run out and therefore getting to school will become impossible. Kids will have to be homeschooled”. Although it may seem too presumptuous, it’s not impossible.
Between expensive transport costs and reducing faith in the existing education systems, parents may just decide that school isn’t worth the 14 years of time and money. Given the kind of resources widely available through technology, parents may not need to give as much attention to their kids being homeschooled as they do now. And if the concept of homeschooling becomes more and more widespread, we may see communities beginning to get together and teach each other’s children according to each of theirs skills and expertise. It would be a mini and informal structure of school, governed highly by choice.
Eventually, I think school might come down to the basic elementary skills that are absolutely essential. After learning math, reading and writing, kids should be able to more openly explore, through games and online courses, subjects of their interest, and discover what their passion really is. Soft skills that are slowly getting recognized now, such as the ability to be a good communicator and leader, being a quick learner will be a part of the schooling experience. Extra curricular activities will be considered as important as academics, and parents won’t tell their kids to stop playing basketball and go do their homework.

I imagine that what we know as higher education today i.e. college, where we develop as human beings and try to achieve overall development and employable skills will come down to the level of school. Although we will be able to finish our formal education faster, learning will be a lifelong journey, since there will be more ways to learn than to just go to school or college, and all these ways will be affordable and less time consuming than our existing ones.
And considering how fast our world is changing, lifelong learning that continues after school and college will become a need. Knowledge will become obsolete so quickly that our jobs and livelihood will depend on a continuous learning process.

Although school as we know it may not exist in 2028, I envision our learning to be a lot more accelerated and effective than it is today.