The balloons were raised by students taking part in the OECD Tohoku School, an innovative educational project launched in northeast Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Over the past two and a half years, around 100 young people from schools in Tohoku, the region around Fukushima, have been working together to plan an event in Paris to show off their region and to demonstrate its recovery.
“It’s not just adults who are working to help our region prosper, it’s students too,” explains Yurina Sato from Yanagawa Junior High School in Fukushima prefecture. “It’s a strong message to local people that we are moving forward.”
The results of the students’ work were on display at the Eiffel Tower ceremony. Over two days, the students staged an ambitious set of activities on the Champ de Mars in central Paris that reflected on the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, and the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and looked forward to Tohoku’s rebuilding.
Visitors also had a chance to sample the region’s culture, including an energetic “deer dance”–a traditional performance that’s taken on a new significance since the disaster. The elaborate costumes and drums used in the dance survived the disaster unscathed and are now presented as a symbol of the region’s resilience.
But it was the future that dominated many of the student projects. A team from the Yanagawa school worked with a local producer to create a new line of fruit jellies, which they’ve started retailing in their area. “We’ve sold at least 8,000,” says Yurina. “We want to help local industry in our region.”
Unsurprisingly, the region’s energy needs were on many minds. Kaoro Kanno is one of a group of students from Adachi High School that worked on measuring radiation levels around the school and on exploring possibilities for renewable energy.
“The disaster was a turning point,” Kaoro says. “We have to do something now. We thought that if we miss this chance, then who will do it?” Students at Kaoro’s school have been working on using hot springs in the area as an energy source, and are hoping their experiments will lead to the creation of a real source of sustainable energy.
As well as teaching the students valuable new skills, the OECD Tohoku School may also have lessons for Japanese education. The project challenges traditional styles of teaching and learning by putting students in the driving seat. “In this project, it is students who are taking the initiative, not teachers, not the school,” explains Chikato Nakamura. “It’s a big difference.”
Chikato is on the team from Iwaki city that came up with the idea of raising the balloons above the Champ de Mars. Walking under them, he explained that the four blue balloons, hoisted to over 21 metres, represented the height of the tsunami surge| in his area. Against them, the four red balloons represented the determination of Tohoku’s people to recover from the disaster.
Chikato is hopeful not only about his region’s prospects, but also about the project’s impact on other Japanese schools: “I think Japanese education should do more project-based learning,” he says. “When you study just with a pen and paper, it’s not really learning. Doing actions outside the classroom is really important.”
Many thanks to Saki Kinnan of Osaka University for help with translation.
© OECD Observer No 300, Q3 2014
Published on oecdinsights.org on 1 September 2014