Sowing the seeds of education reform

by Marilyn Achiron, 
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Plant a tree? Easy: dig up soil, insert sapling, cover roots with soil, water abundantly.

Unless the tree you want to plant is from Japan and the soil in which you want to plant it is in Paris. Then you have to negotiate with two different ministries of agriculture and arrange to have a branch of a Japanese cherry blossom tree grafted onto roots developed in France before you can follow the four simple steps above.

Who knew?

As it turns out, apart from illustrating how even the simplest and most well-intentioned act of gift-giving could turn into a bureaucratic nightmare if not properly thought out, the plan to plant a Japanese cherry blossom tree on the grounds of OECD headquarters in Paris, in gratitude for the organisation’s support of the Tohoku School, offered the Japanese students involved yet another example of why learning how to learn is as important as what one learns.

The OECD-Tohoku School project was born in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that flooded more than 550 square kilometres of land, killed more than 18,000 people, and triggered a cooling-system failure at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant that led to a partial meltdown at the plant. The idea of the project was to turn the tragedy into an opportunity.  Through a “bottom-up”, project-based approach to learning, backed by the Japanese Ministry for Education, Fukushima University and other local stakeholders, and supported by the OECD, 100 junior and senior high school students in the Tohoku region worked with their teachers and members of the community – including industry, government and academia – to draw international attention to the region’s recovery and attractions. In the process, they began to acquire the kinds of skills – collaboration, innovation, leadership – that are so essential for life in knowledge-based 21st century economies.

“In regular school, we just sit at tables. The teachers teach and we study,” says Chikato Nakamura, 17, who participated in the project. “In this project, adults and children are equal. When we say something, teachers listen. Teachers and students co-operate with each other.”

Emi Kubota, a 17-year-old whose grandparents died in the tsunami, had similar experiences at the OECD-Tohoku School: “In regular school, when I’m worried about something, a teacher will help me. At the Tohoku School, the teacher will help, but I have to try to help myself first; and other students co-operate to solve the problem.”

The two-and-a-half-year project saw its fruition last weekend at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, when 80 Tohoku School students came with exhibits and performances celebrating the customs, foods and innovative technologies of their region. Yesterday, the obstacles thrown up by international law nearly overcome (a French botanist continues work on grafting branches to roots), the students also planted a cherry blossom tree – a symbol of hope, endurance and vitality in the face of adversity. Their presence in Paris was testament to their own efforts, ingenuity and resilience – and evidence that it is possible to change the way students – and teachers – approach education.

The idea now is to plant the seeds of these new approaches to learning in schools throughout Japan – and beyond. Says Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, “These young students are the innovators and game-changers for our schools today and our societies tomorrow. They don’t just have great ideas; they also have the capacity to make them happen.”

Thanks to Hikari Kunishio for her translations.

OECD-Tohoku School
The OECD Tohoku School: Moving forward together: Interview with Kohei Oyama and Yoko Tsurimaki, Students of the OECD Tohoku School Project
Lessons in learning, amid the rubble by Barbara Ischinger, former Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
Rebuilding education after the tsunami – some impressions by Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
Image: ©OECD Tohoku School

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