Lessons in recovery

wBalloons-EiffelEight 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.

Useful links

OECD Tohoku School

The OECD educationtoday blog will have more coverage of the project later this week.

What did you learn in school today?

The happiest days of your life, they said
The happiest days of your life, they said

It’s probably safe to say that, in absolute terms, more children are now in school than at any other time in human history. Not just that, it’s also likely that a greater proportion of children – both boys and girls – are in school than ever before.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, just under three in five children of primary school age attended class at the turn of the century; today, that figure is above three in four, according to Unesco. Similarly, back in 1999 in the world’s developing countries, there were around ten boys in school for every nine girls; today, the ratio is close to parity. All this represents good progress for the Millennium Development Goals on education.

But here’s a question: What are all those children actually learning in school? Regrettably, in many developing countries the answer looks to be not much or, at least, not enough. It’s become increasingly clear that the progress developing countries are making in improving the quantity of education is not being matched by a rise in quality. The problem was described in stark terms last year by the Africa Progress Panel, which stated that many children in African schools “are receiving an education of such abysmal quality that they are learning very little. Far from accumulating ‘21st century skills’, millions of Africa’s children are emerging from primary school lacking basic literacy and numeracy.”

The problem is not confined to Africa. Despite a big rise in enrolments and numerous government initiatives, India, too, has many failing schools, as writer Rakesh Mani found when he arrived to teach at a school in Mumbai: “Only a handful of my third-grade students could read first-grade books, and almost all struggled with elementary arithmetic,” he wrote recently. “Despite this being an English-language school, few teachers – and fewer students – could speak the language at all. Indeed, most of my students were unable to recognize basic alphabets or perform simple addition.” The quality deficit in Indian education was also highlighted in an OECD report a couple of years ago, which noted that “barely over one-half of fifth-grade [rural] students demonstrated a sound ability to read a second-grade text”.

The reasons for all this are no mystery. In many developing countries, teachers are in short supply, while those who are available have often received little training and may rely on outdated techniques like rote learning. Teacher absenteeism can also be an issue. On the student side, malnourishment and sickness can hold back children’s learning – it’s hard to study when your stomach is growling. Families may also struggle to pay school fees and may take children – especially girls – out of school before they finish their education or for parts of the year.

So, if we’re to measure progress on education, it’s clearly not enough to look just at enrolment rates. We need also to examine quality in education – an idea that’s emerging strongly in the Post-2015 process of creating a new round of global development goals.

Of course, a number of models for assessing how well students are doing in school already exist, including the OECD’s PISA programme, which examines the performance of 15-year-old students in over 70 countries every three years. While most of the focus has been on the performance of developed countries in PISA, a growing number of developing countries have also been taking part in recent rounds of the three-yearly assessment as well as in follow-up rounds.

PISA’s role in development could be extended still further: “With increased numbers of developing countries participating in the PISA 2015 cycle this could potentially serve as a baseline for measuring progress by developing countries, including some of the least developed, towards a post-2015 education goal,” a recent paper from the OECD notes. Indeed, work has already begun at the OECD to make PISA more relevant to developing countries, with the aim – as a recent blog post noted – of ensuring the programme offers “developing countries more tailored and relevant policy analysis and insights”.

Useful links

PISA for Development

OECD Insights: From Aid to Development

Are today’s students prepared for the knowledge economy of the 21st century?

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), evaluates the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems in some 70 countries that, together, make up 90% of the world economy. By testing between 4 500 and 10 000 15-year-old students in each country, OECD PISA provides an internationally standardised assessment and has become a powerful tool for countries wanting to improve their education systems. Four assessments have been carried out since 2000.