Lessons in learning, amid the rubble

by Barbara Ischinger
Director for Education

A school band played for us. It was the best school band I’ve ever heard—and I’ve heard many. It was the true image of hope, team spirit and positive attitudes. For the students, it was the welcome experience of normality.

A brass band playing in the midst of vast devastation; a landscape that reminded me of street scenes from my childhood in Germany after the war. But this was just one week ago, in Japan, during a visit to the area torn apart by the earthquake and tsunami a year ago today. I went there to participate in the launch of the Japan edition of our Strong Performers, Successful Reformers series and to discuss the OECD’s Tohoku School project with local partners.

This is a project whereby students learn through doing. In this case, they are planning an international event, scheduled to be held in 2014 in Paris, to attract visitors to the devastated Tohoku region of Japan. To do this, they will need to acquire and use very specific skills, but ones that still aren’t commonly taught in classrooms: critical thinking, creativity, teamwork. They will have to think and act like entrepreneurs: create a plan, develop it and see it through.

PISA results show that students who are motivated perform better in school than students who aren’t; and project-based learning is a great motivator. The students participating in this project are given real-life tasks to perform to accomplish their goals and they learn while doing those tasks.

These children are learning these skills in dramatic circumstances; but these are skills that all children, everywhere, need to learn to participate fully in 21st-century societies. Students around the world need the confidence to not just accept what they have seen around them during their childhoods, but to be bold and courageous and try new things, consider professions for themselves that aren’t customary in their families or even in their regions. Every child should have the confidence to think big—have big dreams, big ambitions—and both teachers and parents should help to instil this confidence in their children.

The responsibility for education does not only lie in the hands of government and enterprises, it also lies in the hands of individuals. To be committed to lifelong learning is the solution. We want to plant this seed in the Tohoku School and elsewhere, so that schools teach students the skills they need to become lifelong learners. Indeed, one of the main messages of the OECD’s Skills Strategy, which will be unveiled in May, is that to thrive in the global knowledge-based economy, we all need to become lifelong learners.

The children and teachers I met in the Tohoku region understand the value of learning. I found evidence of that in an unlikely place: a non-descript building next to a temple that had been claimed by an enterprising local NGO as a study room. The room seemed to absorb the temple’s spiritual atmosphere and comforting silence. It is where displaced students could go to prepare for their school entrance exams. These students are living with their families in one-room temporary housing; were it not for this space, they would have had no other quiet place in which they could concentrate on their studies. The teachers there were coaching the students, mentoring them. You see small gestures like this and you feel that something is coming back: flowers are blooming, spring is unfolding.

Video series: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education
Photo: Japanese cherry – sakura flowers. Petals of cherry blossoms on the water surface as a sign of sorrow and sympathy to the Japan after by floods and earthquakes. 
Photo credit: Repina Valeriya / Shutterstock

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