An ever-increasing number of schools in Japan are promoting SDG-focused initiatives in the field of education.
SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) were adopted in 2015 at the United Nations Summit with the target of fulfilling them by 2030. 17 goals were established in order to solve the challenges facing the world in the 21st century — including environmental issues, economic growth, human rights, conflicts, and education — and ultimately realize a “better and more sustainable future for all.”
This article introduces some examples of pioneering SDG-focused efforts being led by some Japanese schools.
Yanagawa Elementary School in Koto Ward, Tokyo, has been practicing ESD (Education for Sustainable Development) as a whole school system since 2010, and has set SDGs as one of its goals. Over the years, it has rolled out many ground-breaking activities and is garnering attention for such efforts. In 2011, the school was accredited as a UNESCO School and has been promoting SDGs through a process involving practical implementation and trial and error, including efforts to disseminate information externally through the school’s network. In 2017, the school received the “SDGs Partnership Award” (Special Award) at the 1st Japan SDGs Award in recognition of such activities.
“Have Questions” Problem-based Learning
The school focuses on question-oriented education with a “Have Questions” approach. Rather than simply teaching knowledge, the school aims to provide an education in which each student is interested in learning on his or her own initiative. “Our aim is to make students sense the joy of learning, and to encourage them to want to know more and investigate on their own. We focus on stimulating the children’s interest,” say school principal, Junji Sawada. “What is also important is that the students are able to think about what they can do with what they have learned, then take action. Only then will they be able to truly learn about SDGs. For this reason, we try to give the students many opportunities to output what they have learned.”
Based on this foundation, the school proceeded to make SDGs a part of day-to-day life. Rather than having the children think about social issues out of the blue or directly engage in initiatives, the school created an environment in which students could become aware of SDGs on a daily basis in a variety of settings within the school. There are items on exhibit together with the icon of a relevant SDG. In the library, the books are categorized according to the SDGs, and an “SDGs Corner” has been set up with books related to the monthly SDGs. Events and activities at each grade level are also linked to the SDGs, so that students are naturally exposed to SDG perspectives and ideas in their school life.
Cross-curricular Management Based on an ESD Calendar
Yanagawa Elementary School practices learning management centered on a cross-curricular “ESD Calendar” to implement ESD-based learning.
The ESD Calendar is a graphical representation of the content studied in class, showing the connections between the various subjects. By connecting each subject unit with related topics, especially integrated learning, and writing the meaning of the connections and color-coding them according to the ESD theme, an image map of the cross-sectional flow of learning that transcends subject boundaries is created. By structuring the learning content scattered throughout each subject area in this way, the school is able to organize the entire curriculum and reduce the time required for its preparation. The ESD Calendar is the key to promoting deeper learning.
This ESD Calendar was proposed by Yanagawa Elementary School and is now used in many schools throughout Japan. It has also been translated into various languages and used overseas, particularly in Asia. Principal Sawada shares, “It is the role of Yanagawa Elementary School to actively disseminate such information and promote education that contributes to the formation of a sustainable society.”
Bringing Learning to Life Through Output Opportunities
The event that symbolizes these efforts is “Yanagawa Festival,” a study presentation held every year. In preparation for this presentation, the students consider their own themes from among the topics they have studied in class, research them in groups, and build on their learning. On the day of the festival, students from each grade set up booths in classrooms and the gymnasium where they hold presentations. The festival is open not only to parents but also to local residents, as well as teachers and educators from other schools.
Visitors are free to ask questions, to which the presenting students promptly respond. Visitors are always surprised to see the students speaking in their own words, without looking at a script, both during their presentations and in response to questions. By doing their own research and thinking, each student is naturally able to take ownership of what he or she has learned. It seems that by participating in Yanagawa Festival, students have gained confidence and developed a sense of self-esteem.
Connections with the Community That Nurture Leaders of a Sustainable Society
Yanagawa Elementary School is the only designated community school in Koto Ward, and its management requires the cooperation of parents, local residents, and academic experts. The area has always had a strong downtown culture and is rooted in good old-fashioned human relations; evident by its close ties with the local community. Some parents of students have served as interpreters for visitors from overseas, and during a comprehensive learning class on festivals, the town council presidents of the school district gather wearing hanten (traditional Japanese robe) and answer any questions from the students. The school is also blessed with an enriched learning environment in its proximity; including many museums and historical sites.
By becoming a school rooted in the community in this way, the school will help to create a sustainable local community, and the children will naturally learn how to be leaders of such a community. Glimpses of this were apparent during the comprehensive learning about the festival, with students making comments like “I learned that the festival has been carefully passed down by people in our community,” and “I want to donate money and participate in the festival so that it can continue in the future.”
What is important is that the students will continue to study and work on these issues and maintain their awareness of SDGs even after they graduate and go on to junior and senior high school. It is not an easy task, but (says Principal Sawada) “Our responsibility as educators is to lay the groundwork for this. That is why we will continue to increase exposure to SDGs and create an environment where our students can naturally become aware of them.”