Transforming education the no-choice way in Japan

by Deborah Roseveare
Head of the Education and Training Policy Division, OECD Directorate for Education

Most of the time, transforming education involves a strategy that is proposed, debated, planned and rolled out.

For pieces of hope in a land of despair
On a road near Kamaishi Higashi Junior High, we bumped into a group of students. 
They say they’re on their way to see their school.  “We’re going in to find what was ours” they say.

But for the children, teachers, families and communities of the Tohoku region of Japan hit by the earthquake and tsunami, education was transformed in the space of an afternoon — with no warning, no planning, no time to develop a strategy and no choice.

Yet despite being uprooted from their homes, grieving for lost loved ones and unclear about their futures, for the children of Tohoku, the last few months have transformed what they learn, how they learn and why they learn.

They’re learning to live, to value what they previously took for granted, to collaborate and support each other, to express their emotions and to say what they think. They’re learning to improvise, to innovate, to solve problems, to think critically, to take initiative. And they’ve demonstrated courage, resilience and adaptability.

Students are also learning new skills. For example, the Recovery Assistance Media Team provided cameras to children to collect images of disaster areas seen through their eyes and involve them in learning to document and record events. Another group of university students in Sendai organised the first TEDx event ever in Tohoku, with the aim of sharing proposals for the future of the Tohoku region and Japan.

Student volunteers at Fukushima University set up learning support and play support services to children in emergency shelters and later in temporary housing. These student volunteers learnt how to plan and organise support and how to reflect carefully as weeks went by to ensure that they continued to respond effectively as children’s needs evolved.

Students are also learning to use art and theatre to share their experience with others, like the high students who prepared and performed the tremendously moving “A Message from Fukushima”. This theatre play – a component drama – is now available with English subtitles on YouTube and is well worth watching.

The students of Tohoku know that their world has irrevocably changed. But their experience also demonstrates the value of new, action-oriented ways of learning. The transformation in their learning shows the way for redesigning education across the whole Tohoku region so that it meet the needs, hopes and aspirations of students, families and communities across the Tohoku region and build a better and brighter future.

Please take a further look at these initiatives through the links below:
Recovery Assistance Media Team
TEDx Tohoku event
Student volunteers at Fukushima University
“A Message from Fukushima”

See also: OECD Economic Survey of Japan 2011

Photo credit: Kamaichi East Jr. High

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