Eight giant balloons from Japan floated in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower this weekend, a reminder of one of the worst natural disasters of recent times – and of the determination of survivors to rebuild their region.
The balloons were raised by students taking part in the OECD Tohoku School, an innovative educational project launched in northeast Japan following the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Over the past two-and-a-half years, around 100 young people from schools in Tohoku 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 this weekend. 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 has been working 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 Sato. “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.
The OECD educationtoday blog will have more coverage of the project later this week.