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‘The Playful Ants’ that Change the World

Takuma Terada
(Former Director, Learning Transformation Promotion Division, Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education)

Designing and Transforming Learning for Children

Yasuhiro Karakawa, leader of the "Playful Ants Incubator” introduces people in Japan who are creating new values in the world via their unique lifestyles and work styles.


Playful Ant 04 – Takuma Terada(Former Director, Learning Transformation Promotion Division, Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education)

In April 2019, a “new school” in Hiroshima Prefecture opened on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. The HiGA (HiROSHIMA GLOBAL ACADEMY). HiGA is far from the image of a public school with its integrated junior and senior high school boarding system, introduction of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, and English-based classes with foreign students making up one-third of the student body. One of the most differentiated activities of the program is a unique course called “Future Creation Program.” It is a project-based learning (PBL) course in which students work with their peers on global issues such as war, poverty, well-being and create their own solutions.

I was given the opportunity to provide consulting and coaching services to the team of teachers involved in the launch of this “Future Creation Program” for one year from 2018 to prepare for the school’s opening. It all started when I received an enthusiastic call from Takuma Terada, the leader of the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education’s Learning Transformation Promotion Team, who was navigating the creation of this unique new school.

Before his career as an official of Hiroshima Prefecture, Terada was a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. What led him to leave the fast lane as an elite of the central government and come to Hiroshima? Where did his sense of purpose and passion come from?

Wandering student days

Terada:People often misunderstand me, but I am not an elitist at all (laughs). I went to an ordinary public school in Kanagawa Prefecture for both elementary and junior high school. I thought I would go straight to a local public school for high school, but my father, who was a teacher at a public elementary school, strongly recommended that I take the entrance exam for a competitive private high school in Kanagawa Prefecture in the hopes of giving me a window into a wider world, and I was unexpectedly accepted into the school. But it was a completely new world for me. It was a gigantic school with about 1,000 students per grade, and the students were divided into 10 or more levels according to their test scores, and were periodically replaced. I was somewhat proud of my ability to study well at my local junior high school, but immediately after entering the school, I was assigned to the lowest class, and all the other students around me were athletes who had entered the school via sports. And because I was in the lowest level of both humanities and sciences, I attracted a strange kind of attention among the students. It was an original experience that made me realize how small the world I was living in was.

Terada speaks in a calm and unhurried tone. Having known only the “point” of his career at the Ministry of Education, I had an image of him as an elite who must have walked through his career without fail. Opposite to my image, Mr. Terada started at the bottom of the high school ladder, but worked hard and went on to Waseda University School of Law. “I wanted to be a prosecutor,” he said. He studied hard to acquire knowledge of the law in hopes of being able to protect the ‘weak’ people in society. But he explained; “I stumbled right at the start of my college life.” Soon after entering the university, he became absorbed in music activities and his love life, while neglecting his studies. Thanks to the patient persuasion of his family and friends, he was able to “return to society,” but ended up staying in college for five years.

Terada: Once I returned to society, I often visited court hearings to learn about the real field of prosecutors. One day, I was very impressed by a trial of a case I heard…. To put it simply, a Chinese woman had been abandoned by her husband in Japan, and with no one to turn to, no job, and no money, she became so desperate that she committed theft. The fact that she committed the crime itself was of course wrong, but it seemed to me that the circumstances she was in and the process she went through should also be taken into consideration when determining the sentence. However, the prosecutor, in the course of his work, calmly and relentlessly pursued only how she herself was at fault. Seeing this, I lost sight of what justice was, and my goal of becoming a prosecutor waned.

Purpose to raise strong and flexible children through education.

After having lost sight of his goals, Terada spent his idle life as a student. His father invited him to volunteer at a local public elementary school, where he worked, and while volunteering there for about a year, he realized that there were many problems with public education.

Terada: When I learned that approximately 400 children commit suicide every year in Japan alone, I realized that I wanted to reduce the number of child suicides to zero. In order to do so, I thought it would be necessary to have an impact on the environment around children, such as schools and homes, and to “change the system” of public education. This was the main reason why I joined the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Of course, each child’s environment is different, and I believe that some children may experience setbacks during their lives. Even if they experience setbacks in their lives, I wanted to help raise “tough and flexible children” who can grow without despair by simply being optimistic.

In the first year at MEXT, Terada worked around the clock. The workload was so overwhelming that he often slept less than double digits, in a week! He was so desperate to complete given workloads that he had no room to think about the ideals he had when he originally joined MEXT. The turning point came in his fifth year at MEXT when he was assigned to the Cabinet Secretariat.

Terada: In the team at the Cabinet Secretariat, young, selected officials from various ministries gathered to discuss the direction of national reform from various perspectives. As a member of MEXT, I had never doubted that education was the most important agenda, but as we discussed and made decisions as a team, I realized that my common sense was not necessarily the common sense of others with other agendas. Through these discussions, I was able to return to my original objective of changing education for the future of children.

After two years of invaluable experience at the Cabinet Secretariat, Terada returned to MEXT, where he became involved in the “Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education” and other tasks regarding the very foundation of the education system.

Terada: The more I thought about the educational system at MEXT, the more I wondered if there was a big gap between the “education adults want” and the “education children want.” It was then that I received a letter of transfer to the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education. I’ve always been extremely shy (laughs).  However, because I know I am shy, I always try to go to any type of gathering or new challenge that I am invited to join.  I believe that something unexpected will happen. For this reason I was very excited about the opportunity to go to Hiroshima.

This is how Terada came to lead the “Learning Transformation Promotion Team” at the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education in 2014. What was his passion and purpose back then?

Terada: I kept the goal I set in college of “reducing child suicide to zero” as my ultimate goal, and of course I still have it. To be honest, however, there are many factors that influence “child suicide” which cannot be easily controlled by education alone. I thought it was necessary to subdivide such a big issue to manageable processes so I could work steadily on each one to gain results, even in small steps.

The span of age at which public education can deliver something directly to children may be limited, say from 6 years old to 22 years old at the most. However, children’s lives will continue after the age of 22 of course, and even if they run into difficulties and are beaten down in their lives after the period of public education, they need to be able to overcome them flexibly. With this in mind, I strongly felt that I wanted to change the focus of education from “adult-oriented education with the priority on how to pass university entrance exams” to “child-centered learning that respects children’s individuality, characteristics, and motivation, instills a sense of self-affirmation and a small success experience, and fosters responsibility for one’s own life and society. In other words, I wanted to create a learning through which children themselves could learn how to “struggle with joy.”

The expiration date of his three-year secondment came in a flash. At that time, Terada was strongly aware of his passion to give shape to ‘real education’ in Hiroshima. Determined to commit himself to that passion, he left MEXT and became an official of Hiroshima Prefecture in 2017. At MEXT, his focus was to think about “what to create” through policy making. At the “Learning Transformation Promotion Team,” his focus moved to think about “what to destroy” in the current situation in order to give shape to new education. His stay in Hiroshima Prefecture drove him to think about “what to leave behind” for the autonomy of the members in the future.

Terada: HiGA has been positioned as a “flagship school” for public junior and senior high schools in Hiroshima Prefecture, and has adopted new learning systems such as project-based learning (PBL). It is true that there have been some concerns and strong resistance in that process even within the Board of Education who are accustomed to the traditional way of teaching in public junior and senior high schools. Many of the HiGA teachers who participated in the launch preparation were enthusiastic, but some of them were still hesitant about the new approach. As I observed them, I began to think that what we should do is to reform learning without destroying it. If we want to value the lives of children, we should first value the lives of the teachers who have the greatest impact on the children. I came to realize that it is important to respect the individuality of each teacher and encourage reforms that will bring out their potential so that they can take on new challenges without being forced to deny their past learning and experience. 

Accept weakness, struggle happily and become stronger

After having launched HiGA successfully in April 2019, a thought came to Terada. “I know about educational administration from my past experiences. But I don’t know anything about the field of teaching. I want to learn about it so that I can have the same perspective as teachers.”

Guided by that desire, Terada decided to go to the Graduate School of Education at the University of Michigan from August 2021. The program, called “Design & Technologies for Learning Across Culture & Contexts (DATL)” is aimed to consider the “design of children’s learning” from various fields. The students are very diverse, including school teachers, museum staff, educational application development engineers, medical educators, and people who provide educational services in poor communities.

Terada: To realize learning that respects the diversity of children’s personalities and characteristics, the teachers themselves need to be diverse. It is not enough to have diverse nationalities of teachers. They also need to have diverse cultures and backgrounds as well as specialized knowledge. In that sense, I wanted to break down my past achievements and position, and dive into a new place full of diversity for myself, and acquire such knowledge and values. Through DATL, I would like to be able to play a role in connecting the views and ideas of various people in society while maintaining the same perspective among school teachers.

Terada: There is another reason. To tell you the truth, I’ve always been very bad at English. When I was working on the “Transforming Learning” project, many foreign guests visited our office. I was just too lazy to interact with them and would even look for a reason to leave my seat about five minutes before the guest came to the office. Of course, my subordinates on the team knew this, and they teased me “Oh, he has run away again! (laughs) I think I had a strange complex of not wanting to show my weakness to others.

One morning, as I was getting ready in front of the mirror, I suddenly found myself thinking, “I hope today will be another calm and uneventful day. I was shocked to find myself wishing for another unchanging day, even though I always tell the children and teachers that they must change under the vision of “Transforming Learning” and thought “this is not good.” 

If I do something half-heartedly after the fact that I had decided to change myself, I felt I might end up running away again. So, I decided to put myself in an environment where I couldn’t escape and where I would be forced to experience the biggest change, and I decided to go abroad, which was my least favorite thing to do. 

He seriously tackled the task to change himself, including taking on the English language a subject he used to hate. He took the TOEFL test 12 times only in a few months. Regardless of his determination and efforts, he couldn’t get accepted by his first choice of graduate school on the West Coast, unfortunately.

Terada: My son, a big fan of Shohei Otani, had been asking me to take him to California. But now that we are in Michigan in the Midwest, I feel bad for my son who was looking forward to going to California. On the other hand, I would like to be able to convey to him that in life there are things and realities out of reach even if we work hard toward our goals, and that if we perceive those realities positively it will make a big difference in our futures. It would be more convincing to show him that I am ‘happily’ struggling. When I myself think about going out into the unknown world. I must confess that there is always anxiety, but there is also a lot of anticipation of what new things will be encountered along the way. I’m looking forward to showing my children a wider world soon.

Post-Interview Reflection

About a year and a half before HiGA opened, I met Terada in a cafe in Roppongi Hills to talk about my participation in a project to design and prepare the HiGA Future Creation Program. It had been pouring rain that morning, and I was feeling a little depressed before going to the meeting, but I remember going home feeling completely refreshed when I heard Terada talking playfully about what kind of a new school he wanted to create. Through the interview this time about his life and work, even partially, I was able to learn that while Terada has always been aware of his “big purpose in life,” he has been able to flexibly adapt to changes in his environment and position that he couldn’t always control 100%.

The playful ant continues to walk in small steps toward a larger purpose. Whenever there is a wall or a hole on their path, they continue to flexibly change their path without hesitation instead of stopping and giving up. Even if it looks like a detour in the short term, playing around, one step at a time, brings us closer to our larger goal in the end. More to say, that kind of detour unexpectedly navigates the playful ants to gain the new insights and networks that can never be gained by simply following the shortest path and enhance their unique values. I’m looking forward to hearing again about what Terada will gain through this detour someday in the future.
Stay Playful.  

『The Playful Ants that change the world』

In an ant society, you can easily identify the herd of “Worker Ants”—the textbook definition of ants, the ones who continuously carry the food. If you take a closer look, you may notice that there’s a different group of ants walking about playfully in their own world. These are “Playful Ants”—ants and thanks to their curiosity, they at times stumble across an unexpected feeding ground or detect sudden threats in advance allowing them to warn the colony of danger in advance.

In this interview series, I introduce interesting lifestyles and work styles of different “Playful Ants”, in order to help incubate them into this world.

Each human being is as small as an ant. However, if each ant pursues his or her own path purposefully and playfully, that path can connect to an opportunity to explore and create something new. That can turn into the power to change the world in its own way. I’ve come to believe so after spending many years on designing and leading practical innovation projects, and working with many global and Japanese corporations as a consultant.

Yasuhiro Karakawa (Playful Ants Incubator)
With a purpose of “incubating Playful Ants both in the corporations and the society” Yasu has been leading practical innovation projects with global corporations in more than 10 countries while also serving as a strategy advisor and a guest lecturer.