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Education for sustainable development and the role of UNESCO associated schools: The case of Japan

article 6-01

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is one of the key themes of education in the international community today. Japan has been enthusiastic about the development of ESD, and during recent decades the number of UNESCO Associated Schools promoting ESD in Japan has grown rapidly from 16 in 2005 to 1,115 today. ESD is positioned along with Global Citizenship in Target 4.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

 

This paper introduces the policy and guiding principles related to ESD in Japan, and examines two case studies of public primary and junior secondary schools to share some tips on how ESD can be developed in schools across the Southeast Asia region.

POLICY TRANSITION ON ESD IN JAPAN

UNESCO Associated Schools (hereafter UNESCO Schools) were created in 1953 to incorporate the principles set forth in the UNESCO Charter into educational settings offering international education. Nowadays UNESCO Schools have been developed into the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network (ASPNet). The number of UNESCO Schools in Japan has increased rapidly during the past two decades, from only 16 in 2005 to 1,115 in March 2023. This represents approximately 10% of the 11,500 UNESCO Schools in 182 countries around the world. Meanwhile, the Japanese Government has also been emphasising the promotion of ESD with the current Courses of Study encouraging the creation of leaders of a sustainable society.

 

Today, not only UNESCO Schools but all schools in Japan are encouraged to participate in ESD. In fact, UNESCO Schools in Japan engage in a wide range of activities, including environmental education, disaster prevention and the revitalisation of local communities, although their activities are not well known at home and abroad. UNESCO Schools are positioned as centres for the promotion of ESD, in order to develop and nurture leaders of a sustainable society.

 

Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) introduced its Guidelines for UNESCO Schools in 2012. MEXT also created the Guide for Promoting ESD, which was revised in 2018 and 2021. Furthermore, in 2021 the second national implementation plan for ESD was compiled, confirming that related ministries and agencies would work together to implement the plan, ESD would contribute to the realisation of the SDGs, and activities would be developed in line with these five priority areas and involving a variety of stakeholders.

Guiding principles of ESD in Japan

In Japan, the following are examples of abilities and attitudes emphasised in the learning guidance, from an ESD perspective:

 

  1. The ability to think critically;
  2. The ability to predict and plan for the future;
  3. The ability to think multilaterally and comprehensively;
  4. The ability to communicate;
  5. A cooperative attitude towards others;
  6. Understanding the value of connections; and
  7. A willingness to participate in all endeavours.

These elements are linked to the following three principles of Japan’s academic courses. The first principle relates to the approach to learning. It is important to constantly improve learning and teaching methods from the perspective of ‘independent, interactive, and deep learning’. The focus here is on emphasising the enquiry-based learning process by appropriately positioning problem-solving learning, increasing opportunities for learner-centred and independent learning, and not only incorporating experiences and activities but also examining how to effectively integrate them into the learning process. Group activities are incorporated to make learning more cooperative, with students discussing, collaborating, investigating, summarising and presenting their findings.

 

The second principle pertains to what will be learned. We aim not only to ‘cultivate the ability to put into practice’ knowledge and understanding, but also to apply what we learn and act on various issues, treating them as ‘our own problems’. In addition, by being aware of the perspective of ‘building a sustainable society’, we can elicit a change in the values of children and students.

 

The third principle addresses the issue of how to effectively promote ESD. In order to do so, it is important to position its implementation in school management policies, develop an internal school organisation, systematically work on ESD throughout the school, appropriately position ESD in teaching plans, incorporate the perspective of collaboration with the community, universities and businesses, and ensure that students communicate and reflect on their learning outcomes appropriately. It is also important to appropriately reflect on the learning results and disseminate them to students.

Niigata Elementary School

CASES OF ESD PRACTICES IN JAPAN

#1: Incorporating ESD into curriculum design focussing on the school community

Niigata Elementary School in the Niigata Municipality is a good example of incorporating ESD into curriculum design. The school first reviewed its educational objectives and organised a new curriculum, identifying the qualities and abilities of learners it wanted to nurture based on the demands of society, the actual conditions of the students, and the results of a parent-teacher survey. Considering the six abilities and attitudes defined in the Guiding Principles of ESD in Japan as mentioned above, the school set the goal of nurturing children who can think and collaborate on their own by putting importance on ‘the ability to take on challenges’, ‘the ability to persevere’, ‘a spirit of mutual recognition’ and ‘a spirit of mutual support’.

 

The school is promoting ESD within its four core learning topics. The first topic of ‘understanding the local community’ is conducted as Community Exploration Learning in ‘Seikatsuka (Socio-environmental studies)’ ‘and ‘Sogo (Comprehensive learning)’, which are cross-curricular subjects. The second topic of ‘human rights and social affairs’ focusses on diversified local communities and the subject of ethics. The third topic of ‘international understanding’ is developed through foreign language studies, Japanese language, music and social studies.

 

The school also has online exchange activities with a primary school in Australia. The fourth topic, ‘disaster prevention’, is developed as practical learning about what to do when disaster strikes through social studies, science and class activities. The important point is that these learning activities are interconnected within the six-year elementary school curriculum, in order to achieve the school’s goals of ‘promotion of independent and personalised learning’ and ‘promotion of activities that recognise diverse individuality’.

 

This case offers some recommendations for ESD practice through activities to discover and preserve the beauty of diverse and rich local cultures, as in most Southeast Asian countries.

#2: Creation of diverse learning in a cross-curricular manner

The Kyoto Municipal Shimogyo Junior High School is developing educational activities in line with its goal of ‘valuing the human spirit and fostering leaders of a sustainable society through diverse learning’ by attaching importance to seven abilities: independence, self-expression, creativity, logical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and perseverance. In order to ensure that the school’s educational goals are not only for teachers and staff, but also for the students themselves, during the 2022 school year the school changed the wording of one of its goals, from ‘to nurture bearers of a sustainable society through diverse learning, valuing the human spirit’ to ‘to become bearers’.

 

The school’s curriculum is characterised by the three pillars of ‘Art, Science, and Toughness (AST)’ in the three-year junior high school curriculum, positioning an integrated learning subject called AST and working to foster the development of qualities and abilities across subjects from the perspective of ESD. Each subject has its own learning units to be studied, but the school makes it easy for both teachers and students to see how the content of their study is connected to the development of the seven qualities by showing how these units are interconnected in a unit array chart.

 

Many Asian schools understand the importance of ESD, but in reality the curriculum often prescribes what should be taught, making it difficult to achieve this goal. The example of this school shows us how important it is to link ESD learning with the existing curriculum, while also emphasising the learner’s independence.

For the future of ESD it will be crucial to effectively utilise a diverse range of networks and institutional programmes to connect domestic and international ESD initiatives and to promote the perspective of ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’.

#3: Broad application of ESD activities

In addition, there are other examples of ESD promotion not only in school education but also in cooperation with UNESCO projects and other organisations. These are:

  • ESD using World Heritage Sites (natural and cultural);
  • ESD using UNESCO eco-parks and geoparks;
  • ESD in collaboration with UNESCO Creative Cities; and
  • ESD in collaboration with SDG Future Cities.

ESD effectively utilises various networks and institutional programmes in Japan and abroad. For the future of ESD it will be crucial to effectively utilise a diverse range of networks and institutional programmes to connect domestic and international ESD initiatives and to promote the perspective of ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’.

REFERENCES

  1. Kyoto Municipal Shimogyo Junior High School. (2023). Reiwa Yonendo Gakkou Hyouka Jisshi Houkokusyo [Evaluation Report of School Activities in the Academic Year 2022]. https://cms.edu.city.kyoto.jp/weblog/ files/201803/doc/146246/4781441.pdf (in Japanese).
  2. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and Japan National Commission for UNESCO. (2021). The Guide for Promoting Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) (first edition 2016, second edition 2018) (in Japanese).
  3. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and Japan National Commission for UNESCO. (2022). UNESCO School Guidebook: Creating the Future through ESD Activities (first edition 2008, second edition 2018) (in Japanese).
  4. Niigata Elementary School in the Niigata Municipality website. https://www3. schoolweb.ne.jp/swas/index.php?id=1510024&frame=frm6094e32e58c35 (in Japanese).

PROF MIKI SUGIMURA

Prof Miki Sugimura is Professor, Department of Education, at Sophia University.

JUNE 2023

Issue 13

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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