Creating a new secret base for learning by DIY in a closed school building

Specialized in Community Education, Faculty of EducationKanato Uchida



Born in Yazu Town, Tottori Prefecture
Representative and founder of Frontier School
Representative and founder of Abe Elementary School Project
SDGs Ambassador, Okayama University

 In this edition of SDG Persons, we interviewed Mr. Kanato Uchida, the representative and founder of the Frontier School, a approved SDGs Ambassador activity at Okayama University!
 Frontier School is an education-based activity that focuses on SDGs number 4 so that " everyone's a teacher " and continue to enjoy learning without shying away from each other. Its vision is "a community where each individual is vibrant and full of individuality, where people can learn and grow collaboratively," and its mission is "to create a learning place where everyone can learn from each other as a 'teacher' and be excited and thrilled to be a part of it. Based on the philosophy of lifelong learning, it creates a system and a place where diverse learning can take place over the timeline of life. Please see the following documents for more detailed information on its activities.
Frontier School Overview Document
Frontier School Comprehensive Strategy for Learning 2022

It all started with a game of tag and cleaning in a closed school building

――First, please tell us about the activities of Frontier School.

 Frontier School's three main projects are "Tottori Campus Establishment Project," "Learn Lab." and "Learning Classroom.
 First of all, the Tottori Campus Establishment Project aims to establish an actual place to learn in order to achieve our Vision and Mission. We will create an exciting and thrilling secret base by DIYing a part of the former Yazu Town Abe Elementary School, which was closed at the end of the 2017 school year. One of our goals is to give shape to everyone's ideals of what a better place to learn would be like.
 So what are we going to do in the future with this place of learning that we created? That is Learn Lab. Nowadays, "comprehensive inquiry time" in school education is attracting attention as a class that aims to acquire the knowledge and skills to discover and solve problems. Learn Lab. is a place for young university students to think about the benefits of offering such programs in social education and in places where they can learn. We will use our ideal learning place to think about what kind of learning we can actually do as a intangible aspect and what kind of inquiry learning we can do as a social education place, and provide programs for middle and high school students, college students, and adults outside Frontier School to develop their ability to explore.
 Learning Classroom exists to do both of these projects. We are training to improve the organizational skills of Frontier School, since we cannot do Learn Lab. without having our own skills to do it in the first place. This training is also in line with our mission statement, "Everyone’s a teacher," and each members become a teacher in his or her own field of expertise. For example, this person is good at facilitating and that person is great at thinking, right? We hope that each of them will be able to share their own unique flavor with everyone, and that person will be the teacher and talk with them and ask them to do as they please. We nurture each other and enhance each other's necessary skills in a way that everyone becomes a teacher and everyone improves their skills together.

――How did you establish Frontier School?

 I would like to start with the background of the founding of Abe Elementary School Project, because it is related to the founding of the organization called "Abe Elementary School Project" when I was a high school student.
 I grew up in an area called Abe in the town of Yazu, Tottori Prefecture. Abe has a really small population, and when I attended Abe Elementary School, there were only nine of my classmates. So we all played together regardless of grade level, and when I was in elementary school, we were the kind of childhood friends who would go to the hills behind the school and build secret bases. After graduating from Abe Elementary School, in the third year of junior high school, Abe Elementary School was closed and everyone went to different high schools. When we became a high school student, we decided to get together with my childhood friends for the first time in a long time, and we gathered at my old school, which had closed, to play tag together, which was the first origin of Abe Elementary School Project. There was no teacher or anyone else in the school building and no one was angry at us, so we started playing tag, but when I looked inside the school building, I saw that it was still in the same crappy state it was in when the school was closed. It was somewhat disheartening to see my alma mater, which was filled with memories, in such a state, and we decided to start cleaning it together. The tag game and cleaning were supposed to be over after one session, but there was a feeling among us that we wanted to do a little more, and after two or three sessions, we decided to hold a summer festival. We started moving from there, and in April 2018, when I was a sophomore in high school, I founded Abe Elementary Project with my childhood friends, and organized the Abe Kids Summer Festival at my alma mater, hosted by middle and high school students. Abe Elementary Project still continues to clean up the school building and hold summer festivals.
 Since the Abe Elementary Project is an organization which purpose is to have fun, I thought that we would need another new organization to think about education and the community as an organization. That is how Frontier School was launched in 2020, when I was a freshman in college.

――What were some of the challenges you faced when establishing it?

 It was not too difficult because Frontier School was established to organize and merge the Abe Elementary School Project, which began as just a middle and high school student's flirtation and fun. Since it is not a job, I feel that I have been doing what I want to do in a very casual manner. However, there were two things I needed to consider when we start Frontier School as an organization. One was how to define our vision and mission. The other was how to guarantee the regional character of the group, since many people who are not from Tottori would be included in the group. It wasn't hard work, but it was a lot of thinking. Incidentally, although I mentioned earlier that we should have a crisp and clear approach, there is a "play" part that Frontier School has inherited from Abe Elementary project. We decided to include the element of "play" in education and learning and to value it, so we decided to include "excitement and thrill" in the Mission of Frontier School.

――Thank you very much. Frontier means "unexplored field, new field," etc. Is there any reason why you chose the name Frontier School as the name of your organization?

 I have always had a strong axis of pioneering society and felt a great need to improve myself. I also thought that in today's uncertain and rapidly changing times, it would be important to do a good job of self-discovery, wondering what I am. Based on these factors, I decided on the name Frontier School to mean "pioneering ourselves at a school as social education" in a place that is not a school education.

――Currently, Frontier School has about 60 participants, including members of Abe Elementary Project. What is the reason for such a large turnout?

 I didn't expect so many members to participate myself. Because they are all people who have no connection to Abe at all, when I first entered the university, I thought that I would not be able to gather that many members.
 However, in the case of Frontier School, we are promoting a catchphrase like "Let's create a secret base of learning in a closed school building," so I think that the three keywords, closed school building, secret base, and DIY, are attracting people to participate. "Let's create a secret base of learning in a closed school building," sounds exciting and impactful, doesn't it? We try to make our activities as exciting and thrilling as possible, and I think this is what attracts them to us.
 I think the other two reasons are that they think they can do what they want to do and the looseness of Frontier School. After all, whatever it is, it is hard for people to do without freedom, so I am quite conscious of the proposed degree of freedom. However, too much freedom will not motivate students, so we have created three main projects and set up "special activities" within the learning classrooms to allow members to freely do their own activities. This is a kind of in-house competition in which members are asked to plan something they would like to do as a special activity, and one of the planned activities is selected at the end of the fiscal year.  We are working on a system to include that in next year's project, and it seems that some people are attracted to this kind of thing.

――Do most of your members come from rural areas with local issues?

Some are from rural areas, some are from urban areas, and there is not much correlation there. But on the contrary, I find it very interesting. When we discuss themes that have a regional component, such as "What would you like to do in Abe," we talk about "What was your hometown like? "I think it would be very interesting to hear about all the different topics that would come up.
 However, I want our members to be aware of the regional characteristics of Abe, so when they join Frontier School, for example, we hold a series of workshops in which they watch a commercial for the town of Yazu and try to imagine what kind of region it is. As we held more and more workshops, there were quite a few people who wanted to visit Abe, and the last time we all went to Abe for a DIY project, they were like, "I really came to Abe...! ", haha.

Create a place for lifelong learning with people of multiple generations

――You have been conducting workshops about the secret base for about a year before doing the DIY, is there a reason why you took time so long?

 There are two broad reasons. The first reason is that I thought it was necessary to take the time to verbalize clearly what we wanted to create and for what purpose. When we create something, it is not good if we just create it and that is the end of it. I felt that we had to be very careful with the DIY project because it is not something that can be done that many times. Therefore, we have held a number of online workshops with university students from all over Japan to clarify and verbalize what kind of learning place would actually be interesting.
 Second, I thought that understanding the people in the community was an essential part of the project. Many of our members have no connection to Tottori, so they are considered as a "Related population" to Tottori. However, if too many people from outside Tottori were to joined, the regional flavor would be lost, so we set aside time for several talks on regional characteristics by the Abe Elementary Project, which involves only junior high and high school students and university students from Abe. By doing so, we wanted to make sure that we could align what we wanted to do with the opinions of the local people and also ensure the regional character of Abe.

――What kind of ideal learning place are you trying to create?

Recently, I think there is a trend in the world to place great importance on teaching each other, but I think that teaching each other, for example, in a school, is done only within the confines of a single classroom unit. Recently, there have been more and more group discussion-style classes to realize "independent, interactive, and deep learning," but when I look outside of school, I feel that there are not many opportunities for lifelong learning together with people of multiple generations. Many people suggested that it would be more interesting if we could create a learning place where everyone could learn from each other as a teacher, aiming for a lifelong learning society, so we are trying to embody this in our Mission as well.

――I heard that you held a two-day "Let's create a secret base for learning in a closed school building!" What did you do?

 On the first day, we did fieldwork with one theme of getting to know Yazu Town. In addition to Abe Elementary School, there are other closed schools in the town of Yazu, and we went to see examples of how they are being utilized. For example, "Hayabusa Lab." renovated the former Hayabusa Elementary School and turned it into a community complex that includes a café and workspace. And the former Ooe Elementary School has been reborn as an accommodation facility called "OOE VALLEY STAY. We all went to those actual abandoned school facilities and got to know the town of Yazu. Then we all stayed at a private accommodation and did DIY all day the next day.

――What kind of things did you create with DIY?

We have not yet completed the project, but we are creating a place to learn that will broaden one's horizons, as if one is in a room but has a sense of openness outside. A school classroom is just a space with a floor, shelves on the sides, a blackboard in front, and desks in the same orientation, right? So no matter where in the classroom you take the class, the basic perspective will be the same, and I think that makes it difficult to come up with ideas.
 So we created a private room in the room where we could freely bring in a whiteboard and discuss things together, or think about things while lying down. The top of this private room is a loft, so of course you can go up there. Also, a member who is a licensed second-class architect told me that creating steps can change one's perspective and refresh one's mind. That is why we also created a staircase in the room, just like the one in the plaza. We are also particular about the desk, and created a trapezoidal desk with equal legs. The two desks together form a regular hexagon. We designed the desk to be as easy as possible for group work, and to allow many people to sit and express their opinions, whether at one desk or two desks combined.
 It is not finished yet, about half of it is undone, so we are going to go back and do the DIY again and will finish it in September.

――How did you feel when your ideal took shape?

 Since the positioning was like a start-up, I strongly felt that we were really starting to get started, and everyone felt the same way. I'm glad we did it because it created an atmosphere of, "Okay, let's go!"

――Thank you. Please tell us about the attraction of Abe, where you are based.

 What I think about most is the warmth of people. Of course I was raised by my parents, but I am more aware that I was raised by the community. When I thought about why this is so, I realized that it is because I have always felt that I was taken care of by the people in the community since I was a child. I was back home for DIY the other day, and a community member said to me, "Hey, Mr. Kanato, you're back." and the conversation continued. I think that is only possible because of the relationship we have had for so long.
 Also, all through my childhood, my mother and I used to walk to the nearest Abe station every day. Then, since it was a small railroad company, the conductor spoke to me every time, saying, "Hello, Kanato. " When I come back now, about 15 years later, he still asks me, "How are you doing?" If this were in a city, he might be considered suspicious. But I am very grateful to think that there is a place that calls out to me and welcomes me like that when I return.
 Because of these personal feelings, I have done quite a bit to encourage local love at Abe Elementary project. Without the connection with the local people, Abe Elementary project probably could not have done well. There is just no way to do it with just middle and high school students. When we held the summer festival, we was still a middle and high school student, so we was not paying attention to what we had to do. For example, we had completely forgotten how to manage the parking lot, but when we remembered and went to check it out, we found that an uncle in the community was diligently managing it. I am very grateful and think it is great that there are so many people who cooperate with us even if we don't say anything. The local people have been very welcoming to Frontier School because of our previous connections with Abe Elementary Project. I think the warmth of the people in my hometown, Abe, is one of the driving forces that enable me to take on various challenges.

I want to be involved in social education as a school teacher

――Please tell us what makes Frontier Schools so rewarding.

 After all, it's great that we can all enjoy our activities together. People from various backgrounds gather at Frontier School, so it is fun to hear their opinions, and I think it is rewarding to be able to do things that I would not be able to do if I were spending a normal college life, such as DIY. If I consider the activities of the Frontier School as public, my personal life has also made many connections as a result of these activities. Not only myself, but also the other members of the group are connecting with various people, and through these connections, we are creating relationships with other people. While I have been very rarely involved with people due to COVID-19, being able to create deep relationships, even if it is online, has been one of my greatest memories. Actually, it was the first time for the members to meet each other face-to-face at DIY. We had been doing meetings and workshops online for a long time because of COVID-19, so it was a first time for us to meet face-to-face. But I am glad that everyone got along with each other so quickly that it was hard to believe that they were meeting each other face-to-face for the first time.
 Also, speaking from my own perspective, I think the rewarding part is that I can explore my own current theme. I have one major goal: to be involved in social education as a school teacher. My friends often tell me, "I think you would be more effective if you joined a company instead of teaching," and certainly I can think about education even if I went to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology or a general company. I think it would be very interesting to think about and practice education from various perspectives, but in fact, they are not always in regular contact with school children. From my position as a teacher, where I am always with children, being involved with children and social education is what I would like to do. Also, if I were to become a teacher, I would want to go to a public school, not a private school. If I wanted to do what I want to do now, I think it would be easier to do it in a private school, but if I want to connect with the community as I go forward, I think it would be easier to do it successfully in a public school.
 Therefore, I would like to be involved in social education as a school teacher, which is one of my visions, or rather, a major theme. I am mainly studying school education, but how can I get involved in social education? I am in the process of conducting Frontier School activities in order to personally explore this kind of thing, and it is one of my current themes, so much so that I would like to make it my thesis. So I think one of my benefits is to be able to practice my activities while learning about education at the university.

――What do you think are the challenges in school education today?

 I think that the current issue in school education is that what we are looking for and what is actually being done in the field of education are different. When making a class plan, there is a curriculum guideline, and this guideline includes what public opinion is demanding, such as what kind of classes should be taught in this uncertain society. The reason why they are not able to do what is required of us in the field, even though there are so many good things written about it, is because there are many barriers in the field. For example, teachers have busy schedules, and the skills required of teachers have become so bloated that the field has not been able to keep up. However, with the current emphasis on education that is open to the public, teachers need to be empowered to break through schools that have a closed image. So at Learn Lab., we want to actually do what we are asking for as written in the guidelines from a social education standpoint and foster the ability to live.

――What do you think are the abilities we will need in the uncertain and complex "VUCA era" ahead?
(*VUCA is a term coined from the initial letters of "Volatility," "Uncertainty," "Complexity," and "Ambiguity," and represents a state in which the future is difficult to predict.)

 I believe the ability to think about how to make things better is very important. I think the term "well-being" has recently emerged as a fashionable term next to SDGs. Maintaining the status quo is also very difficult, but how can we become better in pursuit of our own abundance? I think it is meaningful to think about these things, and I think it is important to think about them on one's own or collaboratively with various people. I believe that knowledge, skills, thinking, judgment, and expression play a large role in thinking in this way, and that it will lead to the improvement of these abilities. Therefore, I believe that the ability to think about how to make things better is that will be necessary in the future.

――Finally, do you have a message for students?

 Why don't you challenge yourself to do what you want to do, whether at Frontier School or not, in the future in society?

――Thank you, Mr.Uchida!

Abe Station, registered as a Tangible Cultural Property


Frontier School members

Members of Abe Elementary Project at the time when Mr. Uchida established it

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