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Tokyo elementary school leads the way on education for sustainable development (Mainichi)

A student inserts carbon dioxide around a globe, rear, in an experiment to compare it against a globe under normal circumstances, front, in Koto Ward, Tokyo, in May, 2014. (Mainichi)

A student inserts carbon dioxide around a globe, rear, in an experiment to compare it against a globe under normal circumstances, front, in Koto Ward, Tokyo, in May, 2014. (Mainichi)

A Tokyo elementary school affiliated with a UNESCO program for education for sustainable development (ESD) is leading the way with cross-subject environmental education.

Yanagawa Elementary School in Tokyo’s Koto Ward is a “UNESCO Associated School,” of which there are around 9,600 worldwide. The school uses its integrated studies time for ESD, and won first place in a national ESD competition in the 2012 academic year.

During class one day in the first semester this year, fifth-graders were getting an ESD lesson on global warming. As guest teachers, an employee from Tokyo Gas Co. and a worker with Koto Ward’s global warming response department joined in.

The ward employee initially asked the children to answer what devices in their homes use gas, to get them to think about energy by starting with things close to their lives. The employee repeated the question for electricity and oil, and explained that the average home’s energy use is 47.2 percent electricity, 30.2 percent gas and 21.8 percent oil.

Then the Tokyo Gas Co. employee took over as teacher. “Do you know how the most common type of electricity is currently made?” asked the employee. A student immediately answered, “Thermal power!”

The student may have gotten that answer from the news. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan has become more dependent on thermal power. Since thermal power uses fossil fuels like oil and coal, it produces carbon dioxide emissions.

Next for the class was an experiment to teach the children about the effects of carbon dioxide on Earth. Two globes, each surrounded by a plastic sphere, were presented. Under teacher instructions, a student inserted carbon dioxide into one of the spheres, which was to represent the “future Earth.” The other was left alone as the “current Earth.” At this point, both globes’ temperatures measured at 23 degrees Celsius. Next, each was exposed to light for 10 minutes.

The new temperatures after light exposure were 30.4 degrees Celsius for the “future Earth” and 29.6 degrees Celsius for the “current Earth.” In only 10 minutes, the globe surrounded by carbon dioxide had grown 0.8 degrees Celsius hotter than the one under normal circumstances.

The guest teacher instructed the children to write down what they had learned from the experiment. While some students set off scribbling away, others sat with motionless pencils. As students started finishing their answers, the teacher had them read what they had written. “When carbon dioxide levels rise, the temperature also rises,” said one student. “When exposed to the same sunlight, carbon dioxide makes it hotter,” said another. After some of these answers, the teacher was about to move class forward when school principal Toshio Tejima, who was watching from the side, stepped in.

The reason was that this was the most important part of the class. The principal wanted to be sure the students had not just memorized that carbon dioxide was a principle cause of global warming, but that they had truly absorbed the experiment and its meaning. If the class were to proceed while some students still had not written what they had learned, their chance to learn would be lost.

Yanagawa Elementary’s ESD, while taking place during integrated studies time, is designed to mesh in with the school’s other subjects. “Education is enriched when a variety of experiences and studies intertwine, rather than through merely teaching scraps of information,” says principal Tejima.

Forming the base of this interconnected study is an “ESD calendar” that the school makes at the beginning of the school year. It is a yearlong curriculum, with class units organized into various categories like the environment, human rights and international understanding. For the fifth grade curriculum, the integrated studies period is being based around a project for kids to cut their carbon dioxide use, and classes include “our home in 100 years” in Japanese class, “rice-making” in social studies, “plant germination and growth” in science and “global warming, the disappearance of the forests” in moral studies, all attached to an overall theme of protecting the environment. Connecting classes across subjects is also an aim for the next revision of the government’s education guidelines.

The ESD calendar was introduced in the 2010 academic year, when Tejima became principal of the school. At first, the teachers were unenthusiastic about the unfamiliar idea.

“The teachers were like, ‘What is ESD?'” he laughs. “Now, though, we are offering effective education that reaches across the bounds of subjects while connecting it to other knowledge and experiences.”

Principal Tejima also says that students at the school have shown improvements in their ability to express themselves since ESD was introduced. Every year, at a school festival in the third semester, the students present to each other what they have learned through ESD. In the first year, some students had to look at their notes while making their presentations, but by the second year they were memorizing their demonstrations and delivering them while making eye contact. In the third year they were introducing gimmicks to their presentations to better get their message across.

“ESD is effective for acquiring skills to think about the future and other things, to make decisions and to express oneself. It has also fulfilled a role of integrated studies in raising students’ appetite for education,” says principal Tejima.

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