Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Teachers visit a craft master to learn about the technique of mother-of-pearl inlay © Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology, UNESCO

Learning through Intangible Cultural Heritage for Sustainable Development

In 2013, the UNESCO Office in Bangkok, in collaboration with the Islamabad, Hanoi, Apia, and Tashkent offices, undertook a project to experiment how intangible cultural heritage (ICH) could be used as part of a pedagogical approach to raise awareness about sustainable development. Activities, implemented thanks to the generous support of the Japanese government, were framed around the themes of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). The pilot project produced guidelines and sample lesson plans for teachers to guide them into developing educational materials grounded in local knowledge and practices. Seventeen schools in four countries—Pakistan, Palau, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam— participated in the pilot. The emphasis was not on teaching pure cultural content, but rather on using ICH as a vehicle to enrich the teaching of existing school subjects.

1. Why Intangible Cultural Heritage and Education for Sustainable Development?

In 2003, UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. This Convention is the international acknowledgement that cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

The importance of ICH is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next. It is valuable insofar as those communities recognize these expressions as part of their heritage and consider the expressions as a defining part of their identity. ICH is intrinsically linked to informal community-based knowledge sharing. Yet, it can also become a part of more formal education channels.

Sustainable development is commonly defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (WCED, 1987). A sensible path towards sustainable development is to raise awareness about its importance among these future generations. This approach has been promoted within the education system and celebrated through the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

Communities evolve in a complex system created through the interactions between the social, the economic and the environmental spheres of living. All three, considered to be the three pillars of education for sustainable development (ESD), are strongly influenced by human values and beliefs, in other words by ICH.

Concrete ICH practices, when incorporated into schools’ teaching, can on one hand encourage connections between the “community world” and the “school world”, hence contributing to safeguarding ICH, and on the other hand inspire students to analyze the linkages between their cultural practices and their social, economic, and environmental assets, both present and future.

2. Integrating ICH and ESD into Formal Education: Lessons from the Pilot Countries

Each of the four pilot countries embarked on this project in a way that best suited their respective contexts. It is likely that other countries interested in this approach may have to find their own approach. However, some of the salient aspects of the pilots’ experience are summarized here to provide guidance or inspiration.

2.1 A Multi-Sectorial Effort

Multi-sectorial national teams, including culture and education actors, were set-up to ensure a smooth and customized implementation of activities. The project’s success also relied on close collaboration between institutional partners (i.e. governmental agencies, teachers’ training institutes, academic institutions, and schools) and community partners (knowledge holders, elders, parents, community leaders, teachers, and cultural associations). The latter served as an essential resource in understanding the cultural context and history and securing relevant and accurate information on local ICH. Institutional partners provided a realistic understanding of the educational context and helped link the newly developed materials to the existing curriculum.

2.2 Gathering Information about ICH

An essential phase of the project was to understand local ICH to identify what role it could play in the school curriculum. Secondary information is usually available in publications or on the internet. However, such approach may be limitative as it may not provide teachers or students with contextualized information. Project partners tried to include first-hand knowledge from local community members as much as possible, either by conducting field research in the community or by facilitating some encounters between teachers and practitioners. This approach also helped document some meaningful ICH, such as traditional Uzbek folk music scores, key resources on Palauan culture, calligraphy in Pakistan, and a Vietnamese festival honoring the ancestor of mother-of-pearl inlaying, just to name a few.

However, researching ICH can be a time-consuming activity and needs to be conducted with appropriate methods. To not overwhelm teachers, this step can be undertaken in partnership with local cultural institutions.

2.3 Curricular Analysis and Mapping

Given the chronic overcrowding of programs and the challenges of curricular reforms, it was essential to position the proposed activity in the existing curriculum and subjects. Project teams undertook a mapping of the curricula in their respective countries to identify the most appropriate entry points in their context.

Lesson planning could be approached from three angles: the academic subject topic, the ICH practice, or an ESD principle. For instance, in Palau, an existing subject, Palauan studies, provided a natural entry point. Pakistan and Vietnam teams first identified important ICH in the target communities and then explored which lessons the local knowledge could contribute. In Uzbekistan, students expressed interest in specific ICH, folk music, and folk games, which were researched and linked to music and physical education respectively.

Nonetheless, it was important to ensure that all three components: the formal subject knowledge, the ICH element, and the ESD principles were integrated in the lesson. For instance, a biology lesson could examine traditional skills to select food in relation to specific body functions and emphasize the importance of responsible consumption.

2.4 Lesson Plan Development

Once the approach to ICH-ESD integration was decided, steps to consider when developing the lesson plans included clarifying learning objectives, designing engaging pedagogies and activities, and testing lesson plans.

The national teams found that it was important to clarify learning objectives on both the subject level as well as the ICH-ESD level. Lesson plans needed to challenge students on sustainability issues by prompting questions in relation to the subject such as: is this equitable? How will this activity affect the next generation?

Engaging pedagogies and student-centered activities such as active learning methods involving hands-on learning and problem solving have long proved to be effective with students. Such methods were particularly suited for lessons where students explored ICH elements in a hands-on manner. Pilot teams in Pakistan and Palau used field trips to reinforce classroom-acquired knowledge. To emphasize the central role of communities in ICH transmission, knowledge holders were invited to work with teachers and animate some classes in Pakistan and Vietnam. Another approach that was envisioned but not tried because of time constraints was to encourage students to conduct research or personal project in communities.

Once developed, lesson plans were tested by peer teachers or by students in classrooms. Such testing provided information on the suitability of the ICH and ESD in relation to the subject, the feasibility of the lesson plan in relation to the official curriculum, the accuracy and acceptability of ICH knowledge, students’ comprehension of ICH and ESD values.

3. Project’s Outcomes

The geographical, economic, and socio-cultural situations in the four countries are widely different. Yet, in all of them, this project proved to be very engaging for both teachers and students. Children enjoyed re-connecting with their local practices knowledge systems and were motivated by hands-on innovative methods. Community members were eager and proud to share their knowledge.

As a result, Palau and Uzbekistan have already taken steps to officially include the newly produced materials in their official curriculum. Pakistan and Vietnam are very interested in expanding the experiment to other schools and areas.

Over two years, the project teams in the four pilot countries collected and produced a wealth of information. Over a hundred sample lesson plans were developed. Model classes were filmed and posted on YouTube. Guidelines and resource materials were produced for in-country use.

These results are very encouraging and are likely to attract the attention of other countries. Although the materials were customized for each country, the project key findings are currently being compiled. A synthesis will be published in the first quarter of 2015 to inspire and guide interested institutions.

UNESCO wishes to thank all partners involved in the project in the four pilot countries as well as the Japan Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) for its generous financial support.

Examples of Innovative Lesson Plans

In Pakistan, students explored basic geometrical concepts through tribal embroidery.

In Palauan studies, students transposed the traditional notion of respect towards community members to understand respect and security on the road.

In physical education, Uzbek students practiced traditional folk games to improve their dexterity and develop a sense of teamwork and community belonging.

In Vietnam, students studied oscillation through traditional Muong gongs in physics class.


UNESCO, Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage, 2003 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, also known as Brundtland Commission), Our Common Future, 1987 (Transmitted to the UN General Assembly as an Annex to document A/42/427)