Hiroshima – from symbol of human destruction to leader in educational reform

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General

I spent two days in Hiroshima, discussing education reform and global policy trends with prefectural leaders and the academic community. This city, target of a simply unimaginable attack on human mankind 59 years ago, is now the birthplace of some of the World’s most innovative education policies and practices.

No building, no tree and no other remainder of human activity in this city is older than 59 years. As school principal Kadoshima drives by an office tower on our way to his school, he explains this had been the place where his grandmother and two uncles had been burned alive like most other residents of the area, leaving nothing but a shadow on the floor. But I am also told how many of the survivors left wandering between life and death for the ensuing months and years have envied their fate. His father and his uncle were the only ones who remained from the family, as they had happened to spend the 6th of August in 1945 with classmates in the country side.

As we arrive at Hiroshima Nagisa High School, we meet a group of cheerful children on the school’s playing field. But what looks like casual play is actually part of a carefully planned and sequenced curriculum designed to help students develop their five senses; to find themselves and join others in life, work and citizenship; and to develop autonomy and identity that is social and cognisant of pluralism.

Classroom after classroom I observe deep and intense learning with a curriculum characterised by rigor, focus and coherence, and with lots of lively interaction both among students and with their teachers. Mathematics and the arts are not seen here as competing for scarce student learning time, but as reinforcing each other. Much of the school’s effort is devoted to making learning central and encouraging student engagement, to foster lifelong skills-oriented learning instead of exams-focused drill, to ensure that learning is social and collaborative, and to promote connections across subjects and activities in the school. I find Rudyard Brettargh from Australia and Olen Peterson from the United States co-teaching an English class, and that again is not by accident, but the idea is to show students that there is not just a single, but multiple ways to speak a language.

Many of the school’s pedagogical approaches are designed to construct experiences in learning, over exclusively intellectual engagement. In one classroom I meet a group of students cooking Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima’s most popular local dish, but they are not all doing the same, each student is creating and preparing their own variant of the dish. Students experience that they won’t know exactly how things will unfold, that they will be surprised, and that they will make mistakes and learn from them along the way.

During these days, a group of students from the United States is visiting Nagisa High School and they have immediately immersed into all aspects of the school life. Likewise, Nagisa High School students frequently venture outside. Principal Kadoshima shows us pictures from the many field trips his student have taken to other countries and cultures, or simply to the world of work and other social contexts in Japan. The meaning of all this to prepare global citizens for a world in which most people will need to collaborate with people with diverse views, experiences and cultural origins; and a world in which people’s lives will be affected by events that transcend national boundaries, and the authority of national jurisdictions to address them. During these trips, students learn to engage with dilemmas and controversy that result from globalization which have no singular solution, but where awareness of different perspectives on these dilemmas is essential to finding the common ground necessary to solve them. They learn to understand the global economic, social and political environmental forces that shape our lives; and to develop the skills, attitudes and values which enable people to work together to bring about change and to take control of their own lives.

Not least, the school is stretching students not just intellectually but also physically. One picture shows an exhausted group of students lying on a bridge at dawn, after walking 44 kilometres through the night. The aim is to strengthen resilience, the capacity to cope in an imbalanced world, recognising that the world exists in constant disequilibrium – trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles. And Nagisa High School shows that learning is at the centre of resilience. This is all about helping vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. At the individual level, this can shape the reach of social networks, the quality of close relationships, access to resources, but also beliefs and habits of mind, including the disposition to assess, take and manage risks. At the aggregate level, it can support Japanese communities and institutions with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to the rapid economic and social changes which Japan is facing.

Hiroshima Nagisa High School
Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education Video
Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education – Lessons from PISA for Japan
PISA 2012 Country-Specific overview on Japan
Photo Credit: Hiroshima Nagisa High School

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