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July 22, 2013

Where is Disaster Risk Reduction Curriculum Development Going?  Thoughts after the Fourth Global Platform

Himalayan Blue Poppy (Mecanopsis Betonicifolia)

The biennial Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction was established in 2007 by the UN General Assembly to support the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA). It is an important international gathering where diverse key stakeholders including representatives from governmental, inter-governmental, non-governmental, civil society organizations share experiences, identify gaps and develop targets and strategy. One of the targets resolved at the Global Platform’s second session in 2009 was to integrate disaster risk reduction (DRR) in all school curricula by 2015 (1). This commitment was reconfirmed at the Global Platform’s third session in 2011 (2). Although the fourth Global Platform taking place in Geneva in May 2013 affirmed that ‘integrating disaster risk management into education at all levels including higher education curricula should be a priority’ (3), the clear target deadline of 2015 has disappeared. However unintentionally, this may slow down international momentum towards integrating DRR in curriculum.

According to latest national progress reports (2011-13) on implementation of the HFA, just over half of the self-reporting 99 countries answered positively on DRR inclusion in both primary and secondary national curricula, while only four countries assessed themselves at progress level 5 (i.e. ‘comprehensive achievement with sustained commitment and capacities at all levels’) for the HFA curriculum indicator (4).

Formal curriculum is always a difficult area to tackle as proponents of different ‘adjectival educations’ (e.g. environmental, development, life-skills, human rights, peace, sustainability education) have experienced. There is a familiar list of obstacles when it comes to integrating and infusing new themes, topics and issues into formal school curriculum: overcrowded curriculum, conflicting curricular priorities, lack of teacher capacity, lack of teaching and learning resources, lack of financial and human resources, to name a few. Formal curriculum change also requires long-term and forward planning according to the national curriculum review cycle. Therefore it is not surprising that there has been a recurrent tendency to work on ‘low hanging apples’ in non-formal education such as student clubs, school assemblies, special events, school/campus ground operations, rather than tackling the slippery slopes of formal curriculum change.


At one of the side events on education during the recent Global Platform, ‘the importance of developing and promoting nationally-adopted, evidence-based key messages, as a foundation for DRR curriculum and public awareness education was highlighted’ (5). Such messages are expected to be developed based on an extensive list of ‘key messages’ providing guidance to households, compiled by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: 49 generic key messages for all hazards and 124 hazard-specific key messages (16 for drought, 24 for earthquakes, 24 for floods, 30 for pandemics, 23 for tropical cyclones, 7 for wild fires) accompanied by content specific details (6). The ‘key messages’ are broadly defined as ‘the core, common and comprehensive information about safety and resilience that are needed to promote consistent and sustained DRR’ (7).

Key messages will give a practical and pragmatic entry point for DRR curriculum development, but three issues arise for a mid- and long-term comprehensive DRR curriculum development.

First, examining the ‘key messages’ against a comprehensive DRR learning outcomes list covering knowledge and understanding, skills, and attitudes and dispositions (8) reveals that the suggested ‘key messages’ belong to a very limited range of knowledge and understanding and skills learning outcomes. Attitudinal/dispositional goals hardly figure. More than half of the ‘messages’ fall under an outcome concerning ‘self-protection and self-management’ skills (e.g. ‘if you are indoors, drop to your knees, cover your head and neck, and hold on to your cover’, ‘check for damage and stay out of damaged buildings’, ‘wash hands very well with soap’). Also, only a small proportion of the messages address learning outcomes concerning ‘knowledge of hazards and disasters’, ‘knowledge of basic safety measures’, ‘knowledge of disaster management mechanisms and practices’ and ‘action skills’). Not only is there an urgent need to work on the complicated task of systematically integrating identified ‘key messages’ in curriculum through the grade levels and across subjects, but also overlooked DRR learning outcomes need to be addressed if DRR education is to realize its ambition of developing learner’s overall responsive, responsible and proactive capacities to create a culture of safety.

Second, the pre-determined key message approach needs to guard against becoming dominated by a prescriptive and transmissive pedagogy. As the fields of environmental education and life-skills education have experienced, giving information on what to do does not automatically facilitate desired action and behavioral change. Internalization of new knowledge, acquisition of skills and cultivation of attitudes and dispositions requires carefully facilitated non-didactic pedagogical strategies as well as time. Employing diverse pedagogies is as important as developing content informed by key messages. Pedagogical diversity is also important from a child/learner participation point of view.

Third, considering the uncertainties surrounding any natural hazard, teaching various techniques as to what to do is not enough unless attitudes and dispositions are developed in learners that enable them to engage proactively within an uncertain natural environment. When the devastating tsunami hit the Kamaishi city, Iwate Prefecture, Japan on 11 March 2011, students took life-saving actions by making quick, flexible judgments by themselves, so helping themselves and the vulnerable. This was the fruit of a DRR education initiative implemented at schools in the city over the eight previous years. The initiative had emphasized the development of critical thinking skills (questioning assumptions and engaging in lateral and divergent thinking around natural hazard scenarios) as well as nurturing attitudes for living with and handling uncertainty, coping with difficulties, being compassionate and caring towards the vulnerable. It had never been a question of following a manual (9).

- Fumiyo Kagawa

(1) UNISDR. 2009. 'Outcome Document: Chair’s Summary of the Second Session Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.'

(2) UNISDR. 2011. 'Chair’s Summary: Third Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction and World Reconstruction Conference Geneva, 8-13 May 2011, Invest today for a Safer Tomorrow –Increase Investment in Local Action.'

(3) UNISDR. 2013. 'Chair’s Summary: Fourth Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.'

(4) Prevention Web.

(5) 'FINAL REPORT: The Role of Public Awareness and Public Education in Building Community Resilience.'

(6) International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. 2013. Public Awareness and Public education for Disaster Risk Reduction: Key Messages

(7) Ibid. p.11

(8) Selby, D. and Kagawa, F. 2012. Disaster Risk Reduction in School Curricula: Case Studies from Thirty Countries. UNESCO, Paris/ UNICEF, New York.

(9) Katada, T. 'Higashi Nihon Daishinsai wo Kangaeru' (in Japanese)  ['Reflection on the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami']

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