Big lessons for the world in cleanliness from little Taiwan

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By Jagvir Gehlaut

The ubiquitous wisdom goes, “Cleanliness is next to God,” but are we, Canadians, truly inculcating these values in our younger generation?

In Canada, wherever we go, be it parking lots of shopping malls, parks or even schools playgrounds, – the stinking garbage is a universal sight.

Concerned citizens believe that the proper disposal of garbage is going to be our next biggest challenge and – ‘may be’ – even bigger than environmental pollution because air can be cleaned by the trees or emerging technology such as carbon capturing schemes, but the garbage can not be tackled by any tree or any available technology.

Are we learning or teaching about cleanliness in schools in Canada? The honest and upright answer is probably NO.

In the summer of 2018, I got the opportunity to teach in Taiwan, but it quickly transformed into a -’learning’ assignment for me. Right from the moment when we, a group of about 16 teachers, touched down at the airport, the squeaky-clean streaks welcomed us, and it made a lasting impression.

After one day, our group of teachers was taken to the school where we spent the next month. Although this school was one of the most prestigious private schools in Taiwan, the students were engaged in every possible activity to keep their school clean.

When we arrived at the school at 8:00 am, the school was so clean and refreshing that it would be a pleasing sight for any human being. This freshness and cleanliness were the result of the hard work of the students who put in about 20 minutes during the previous evening to clean, mop and dispose of the garbage in a meticulous way.

Every day, at 3:50 pm, the students from every classroom would prepare for the clean-up campaign as soon as the dismissal bell rang. Some would take mops, some brooms, some buckets, a few would choose rags, and others would pick-up toilet brushes. Immediately, the majority of the students would dedicate themselves to rigorous dusting, wiping the windows, mopping the floor and stairs, sterilizing the door knobs, handrails, and elevator keypads. The remaining students would dash out to the front and back-yards to gather leaves and other biodegradable matter.

Every able-bodied student would take up this challenge daily, rain or shine, from Monday to Friday. Senior students from higher grades were charged with supervising the work done by their juniors. Within 20 minutes, the school and its compound were spotless.

This was a highly impressive endeavour and quite motivating. Every Canadian teacher from our group was extremely amazed and wished that this could be implemented in our school system.

“To maintain sanitary conditions for the public, Taiwanese students have been cleaning their school since I can recall,” explained Chien Ming Huang, vice-principal of Discovery Public School. Born and educated in Taiwan before emigrating to Canada, Mr. Huang completed his schooling doing daily chores of cleaning classrooms, hallways and playgrounds without any break. “The students need to be taught these habits at home, not just at school, because it is important that they learn the meaning of responsibility,” he further elaborated.

The Singaporean ministry of education implemented a mandatory daily cleaning policy in all schools in February 2017: from primary schools to junior colleges. The students will be using rags, brooms and other appropriate cleaning tools to make sure that their classrooms and other common areas are rubbish free and remains squeaky clean.

This is similar to what is being done in Taiwan, where cleaning tasks in some schools are organised into a school-wide contest. The class that wins first place for cleanliness every week is awarded a plaque of honour to hang on the classroom door.

Motivating the students to tidy up after themselves in schools would definitely galvanize societal attitudes. “When this message is reinforced by the parents at home, there will be a change in cleaning habits of the young students,” a diverse range of parents stated.

Experts say that schools should prioritise intrinsic motivation over extrinsic punishments in order to get both parents and pupils to see the value in such cleaning activities. After all, similar practices are a part and parcel of school life in other East Asian societies, such as in Japan, where students do “O-Soji” (big cleaning) in classrooms and toilets on a regular basis.

And they have proven to have positive trickle-down effects – Japan is known for its impeccable cleanliness, with citizens accustomed to even taking their rubbish with them in the absence of dustbins in public spaces like parks.

Detractors:  Even a mention of any new policy or step to modify the behaviour of the general public might receive severe backlash. This is particularly true for children, whose parents would be seething in anger and questioning the effectiveness of such a move. No doubt, this would be met with fierce resistance by some parents and human rights groups. Some of them would organize protest rallies at the Premier’s office and probably at Prime Minister’s office as well.

To quell the fears of all those parents and human right activists, I would present some arguments and facts to support this endeavour. Singapore is world renowned for its cleanliness but even the officials there have adopted this policy for a reason. After all, comparable practices are an integral part of school life in other East Asian societies, such as in Taiwan, Japan and even South Korea.

Other than churning out some of the world’s top scientists and engineers, Japanese schools are teaching the students to become the most conscientious citizens in the world. These academic institutions are teaching them a simple lesson: how to clean up after themselves. The practice of cleaning starts in grade one and continues right through high school. From mopping the floor to cleaning the hallways, these activities are elemental to the process. When they get older, their cleaning responsibilities expand to school washrooms as well.

Japan does not have a national mandate concerning cleaning, but it is expected on the part of the students in most of the schools. According to a 2001 article in the Japan Times, cleaning responsibilities usually incorporate some form of scrubbing, sweeping and dusting but varies from school to school, with a few of them drawing the line at toilets.

The teachers assist the students by charting out a proper schedule that divides cleaning tasks among the student body fairly so that no one is stuck with the same activity, such as cleaning washrooms. Older students often join the junior classes so that the younger generation can have role models to look up to.

When students are personally obligated to take care of their surroundings, the rationale goes, they will waste less and treat their environment in a respectful way. Group cleaning activities strengthen camaraderie and create an equalizing sense of purpose and community among them. It also embeds the notion among the students that no work – not even cleaning washrooms – is menial.

These practices motivate students to positively collaborate in order to efficaciously accomplish tasks and to help their peers build a confident mindset. Students grow up to become productive citizens who are dedicated to the happiness of their fellow beings.

Encouraging young ones to care for their surroundings from an early age would instill lifelong values to keep our community clean automatically. This shows them that dealing with garbage is a community problem that starts with individual responsibility and takes a team effort to solve.

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