Commentary / Japan

Learning for empathy: A world effort to build peace through education

by Santibhap Ussavasodhi and Jun Morohashi

Contributing Writers

In a classroom on a recent Saturday, junior high school students were gathered in small groups discussing death, specifically whether they would consent for their organs to be harvested after they passed away. “I am willing to donate my organs because at that time I will no longer care what happens to my body,” one student told the class. “I will be glad if my body can be useful to others in need after my death.” Many students shared similar viewpoints.

The topic came up during moral education classes in mid-July during an open day at Funabashi Kibou Junior High School in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, where parents had been invited to observe special classes addressing life values. Moral education classes are not meant to judge if students’ opinions are right or wrong, or instruct them how they should think. Instead, the classes aim to encourage reflection and listening to others’ viewpoints to promote critical thinking and empathy — the ability to understand other people’s feelings and the basis for living together in peace.

“To survive in the world peacefully, we must show empathy to others. We must understand feelings of others,” said Mamtaz Jahan, an assistant English teacher from Tejgaon Government Girls High School in Dhaka, who observed the classes with a group of teachers, school leaders and officials from Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. After the session, parents were also invited to speak with teachers about morals and ethics in daily life and how to address these topics with children.

The visit was part of the UNESCO project “Learning for Empathy: A teacher exchange and support programme,” sponsored by the Japanese government. The project targets teachers as key influencers in social transformation linked to the sustainable development goals, particularly SDG4.7 highlighting the appreciation of cultural diversity and promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence.

Teachers can have a direct impact on strengthening students’ resilience to discriminatory and violent narratives as well as model values of respect and trust. In many countries, school leaders and teachers share similar concerns and challenges in terms of the quality and relevance of learning in the 21st century, when societies are rapidly changing in terms of technology, human relationships and how we relate with the natural environment.

The empathy project offers education professionals from different countries opportunities to learn from each other, find inspiration and generate changes in mind-set. The group visited schools and community learning centers in Tokyo to learn what Japan does to make learning meaningful, motivating and empowering, and exchange ideas with Japanese teachers and students.

“We come here from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia to learn about how the education system is running in Japan,” Jahan said, adding that she wanted to know how Japan had incorporated SDGs in education, particularly SDG4.7 promoting a holistic view of learning based on the three pillars of cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioral dimensions.

The global indicator established for Target 4.7 measures the extent to which Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Global Citizenship Education (GCED) are mainstreamed in national education policies, curricula, teacher education and student assessments. Japan has long-standing experiences in inclusive quality education with many schools, including those visited, promoting topics such as sustainable development and peace.

Omori Dairoku Junior High School in Ota Ward is one of the most active UNESCO Associated Schools in Japan, actively promoting ESD through a whole school approach. School teachers collaborated to develop the SDGs Calendar as part of the school curriculum, integrating learning of and for SDGs in all teaching subjects throughout the school year. For example, ninth grade social studies focused in April on protecting democracy (SDG17: Partnership for the Goals) and in May on protecting human rights (SDG17 and SDG10: Reduced Inequalities).

“Learning for empathy is a universal value, but nowadays I think we have to think more about how to integrate it into the field of education, not only in the school, but also at home and in the community,” said Gilang Asri Devianty, a teacher from State Junior High School 2 in Cileunyi, West Java.

Education, including learning for empathy, involves three levels of learners, teachers and the broader education community, which also covers parents and community members.

For example, in addition to the usual parent-teacher association, Hasune Daini Elementary School in Itabashi Ward runs learning-support sessions led by volunteers in the community, many of whom are parents, helping students who cannot keep up with classes.

“We cannot live by our own. We are social beings, so we have to work with the others. To do so, we have to know and understand the others so we can coordinate, cooperate and collaborate,” Gilang said. “I think the very basic thing as a teacher, when we try to educate the students to have empathy toward each other, is to teach them how to accept differences, meaning not judging.”

The world is experiencing a rise of intolerance and conflict despite growing interconnectedness and interdependency among people and nations. Education can help to prepare learners to be active and responsible contributors to sustainable development and world peace. In the Asia-Pacific, an immensely culturally and linguistically diverse region, this is a particularly vital role.

Part of that mission is deconstructing prejudices about “others,” help to instill healthy self-esteem, and raise awareness about basic human rights and values. Education has a role to play in creating a strong sense of belongingness for people who feel excluded or marginalized as well as give them opportunities to develop skills for non-violent expression, communication and action through collaboration.

“I think one of the immediate problems is clashes of identities,” said Muhammad Israr Madani, an Islamic scholar and madrassa teacher at the International Research Council for Religious Affairs in Pakistan. “There are a lot of conflicts between different identities based on their ethnicity, religion, sectarian[ism] and language. Sometimes, identity crisis can create extremism.”

During the visit, participants also went to Mita High School in Minato Ward, to talk with about 30 students who are members of the school’s UNESCO Committee. Each country and the UNESCO Committee made presentations and discussed how empathy was taught in their countries, including challenges and what young people are most passionate about.

Madani said he believed that Pakistan needed to participate in such exchange programs, which would help people with different identities understand each other better. “We need to promote empathy through teacher training,” he said, emphasizing the need for proper teacher training on peace-building and conflict-resolution skills.

The visit ended with participants presenting plans that they would implement respectively in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan, taking into account challenges identified in their local contexts. Despite the differences in language, ethnicity and other factors, empathy — a key to learn to live together — is a thread that unites us all together.

Santibhap Ussavasodhi is the social media officer and Jun Morohashi is head of the Executive Office at UNESCO Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education

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