Farewell for now

This will be the final post on this blog for the near future. Here at SESIM, we’re wrapping up this phase of work and making plans for future projects.

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Happily tinkering teachers at a recent SESIM seminar led by our colleague Manish Jain from India. SESIM is supporting these teachers to gear up small science centers in their districts.

To summarize, over the last two years, SESIM, the Center for the Study of Science and Mathematics, under the umbrella of the Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO and the Timor-Leste Ministry of Education, has carried out three week-long trainings for all of the more than 1000 junior high science and mathematics teacher in the nation.  SESIM teacher-trainers are also nearly finished visiting all these schools – nearly 300 – to monitor and mentor the teachers. SESIM has done seminars for extracurricular science and mathematics groups in most of districts of the nation, and supported the Ministry to carry out pilot sessions with Teacher Working Groups in four districts as models for ongoing teacher support in the area of Science and Mathematics.

It’s been a pleasure to briefly document our progress over the last year on this blog.  I hope I’ve offered enough detail in my portraits for outsiders to reach some understanding of the challenges we face developing science and mathematics education in the young nation of Timor-Leste today.

Needless to say, these have been the views of myself and SESIM.  We continue to work closely with the Ministry of Education.  Recent elections will result in various changes in educational policy and programs, and we’ll be doing our best to make them changes for the better.

Some have asked how they can support our efforts here in Timor.  If you’re Australian, you may find a Timor-Leste Friendship group nearby you to help guide your efforts; many are focused on improving the quality of education here. Katrina Langford in Melbourne is highly knowledgeable on Timor issues.  She runs www.timorlink.org , teaches Tetun and sends out periodic information on Timorese education by email; contact her here: timorlink AT hotmail DOT com .   If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia, stop by and see us: there are direct flights to Dili from Darwin, Bali and Singapore.

If you’re interested in supporting SESIM’s ongoing efforts financially, you can contact Ms. Lizia Santos, the chief finance officer at our parent organization, the Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO, here cedeliziasantos AT yahoo DOT com.

Here at SESIM, we’re still working on good systems for getting out the news of our many activities.  We have a Facebook page “Grupu Siensia no Matematika” for our Science and Mathematics Group, an informal gathering of pre- and in-service teachers in Dili that meets most weeks at our new laboratory to tinker together on the topic of their choice.  Beyond that, we haven’t got any regular way to post news but I’ll post again here if we come up with something more consistent or if anything momentous happens.

Feel free to contact myself ( curt.gabrielson AT gmail DOT com ) or the Timorese chief of SESIM,  Luis Nivio Soares, ( fire_nivio AT yahoo DOT com ) by email if you need any more information.  Thanks for following the blog; you can still sign up on the side bar there for email notification whenever it is resurrected!

Curt Gabrielson


Seminars for informal science

In the midst of all these trainings and school visits in the last few months, SESIM squeezed in 5 one-day voluntary seminars we call GSM, meaning ‘Science and Mathematics Group’.  This is the name we’ve given to after-school science and mathematics clubs, or any informal gathering of teachers and/or students fooling around with interesting stuff to learn STEM subjects.  A few schools have been doing this off and on for years, and we’re trying to popularize and normalize it by showing teachers how easy and pleasant it is to spend a few hours messing about like this.

We’ve run these seminars recently in 5 places – Manatutu, Maubisse, Baucau, Ermera, and Suai – and each time got from 20 to 40 teachers to come voluntarily, that is with no stipend or transport money, only the promise of some snacks, coffee and a simple lunch.  We’d have liked to reimburse their transport costs, but we didn’t have it in the budget this year.  In most cases we tacked these seminars onto a week of training, so teachers living far from the training center could just stay another night (in the relative’s home they’d been staying in) and not incur extra costs.  (See below for more on the transportation reality of Timor-Leste.)

The mathematics line-up was as follows:

  • Building and analyzing the platonic solids with sticks and bits of flipflop
  • Making a set of tangrams and working out basic shapes with them
  • Calculating and graphing the price-per-liter of water in the commonly purchased quantities: small cup, small bottle, large bottle, 5 gallon tank, and a filter system
  • Discovering and drawing or making with sticks the 9 basic types of triangles based on the categories of angles and sides

Science had more pratika than we could do in a day, so some turned into demonstrations:

  • Building a ‘shake table’ to simulate earthquakes, then building stick and rubber band houses to test for stability
  • Using microscopes to look at leaves, bugs, water organisms, printed colors, hair and skin, and soil
  • Building a kerosene-powered still and distilling the local palm wine to become a burnable spirit
  • Building a flaming volcano using carbide and water
  • Building a small biogas setup powered by animal poop

The teachers were pleased, as we expected.  We urged them to take these activities back and start up science/mathematics clubs at their schools, and even arrange to gather regularly as teachers to share ideas.  Only the Suai group has really formed an association of teachers, involving the municipal director of education.  The others all say they’re ready to come together again whenever SESIM calls.

It seems we’re on the right track, but we still have a long way to go.  We’ll  increase our support of this sort of inspiring, informal education as we finish up work with the formal curriculum and teacher training that’s been the focus of most of this blog.


Timor’s transport troubles.

Transport costs make many things prohibitive in this small island nation, where roads are hard to negotiate and to maintain, petroleum is not subsidized, and a teacher’s salary is around $300/month.  Prohibitive for individual teachers, and also prohibitive for the government agencies that would like to reimburse them.  To make it worse, in the early years of independence, many operations intentionally over-paid transport costs as a form of stipend, so many people got used to going home with the extra cash from the transport ‘reimbursement’.  Now there is not as much development money flowing, and many teachers have decided if they can’t make some cash from the training, it’s not worth going to.  While it’s true that many professionals around the world get paid to attend trainings, so is it true that many others pay to receive valuable training.  It’s also true that when one pays for something, ownership follows and a more serious intent.

Meanwhile, as we jostle down these bone jarring and sometimes dangerous roads, we’re inclined to think that teachers who have to travel significant distances do deserve a travel stipend beyond the actual cost of the bus.  Whatever the logic, the reality for now is clear:  we heavily depend on teachers’ goodwill, enthusiasm and motivation to improve themselves and give students a better learning experience.


School visits: The challenge continues

As we go from school to school, often living with teachers or local relatives of my colleagues, we get a brief picture of life in ‘the mountains’, as the Timorese refer to any place outside the capital Dili. Many times we see schools better organized and students more disciplined than at the average school in Dili. Also, many times the classes are of reasonable size; in Dili you’ll never find a class with less than 30 students in a public school, but this is common outside the capital. As frequently noted, education can work a lot better with small classes.

But these are all just single factors. Good education is like any art: to do it really well requires getting dozens of details right, from the tidiness of the campus to the chalkboard technique of the teachers.

The two key issues we try to rectify in our work are poor understanding by teachers of the curriculum’s content and poor technique in conveying it, that is, bad pedagogy. Both these issues are deep and wide, and any one day won’t change much, no matter how well we work. Thus, a third goal is general encouragement, tinged with a slight threat: all this pratika is now part of the official curriculum.  In other words:  its your job, now get at it!

One additional issue is time management. I’ve seen that time is not money here in Timor-Leste, and in fact there is often no economic benefit to doing things quickly or efficiently. Truth is, time and time again SESIM finds itself in situations where being punctual and having a tight plan ends up costing us or at least not offering any benefit at all. Far more important is flexibility and the ever-ready ability to grasp an opportunity when it arises.

But certainly time can be equated to knowledge, and students need every available minute of class time to get smarter. We try to get teachers to be punctual with start and stop times, watch the clock during the lessons, and not waste any time with unnecessary parts. It’s often an agonizing decision for us observers as to how long we wait while a teacher heads down a marginal pedagogical path or offers unclear or wrong information to the class before we step in to put things back on the high road.

I continue to gain insight in both content and pedagogy from the teachers I observe. I find it a great privilege to have visited so many schools and seen so many perspectives. I hope I can pass on the best of my findings to the other teachers we’ll work with in the future.  Here are a few more photos of our visits.


School visits: stepping into an altered reality 

We’re hustling to visit the final few junior high schools in the nation before the end of our funding.   I went to Ainaro for a week with Mestra Mimi, and then Baucau for a week with Mestra Vero.  They observed and assisted the science teachers while I looked after the mathematics teachers.  In this blog and the next, I’ll give insight into what we found as we watched teachers do their best to teach with pratika: the simple, hands-on and inquiry activities they did themselves when they attended our trainings.

Visiting schools is both a lost cause and the only way to know whether the training we’ve done has had any effect at all.  It’s a lost cause because we visit each school for only one or two days, attempting to observe each teacher for all or parts of two classes and give them feedback or direct assistance. Even when we give suggestions and the teachers are open to it, we never know if it gets implemented. Much better would be to take up residence at a school for a week or two and meet every afternoon with the teachers to make a game plan for improvement.  But with limited time and funding, we chose to make a brief presence at each school, do our best to give full encouragement, and then hope for the best.

Visiting schools is like observing life in a mountain stream: as soon as you’ve stepped in, you’ve inextricably altered the situation, the silt swirls around, creatures dart from one place to another, and you get the feeling you’ll never really see what you came to observe.  Often it becomes something of a show. A few teachers set up their classes for us as theater, repeating a pratika activity that they’ve done previously, or having students ceremoniously present results they got the day before.  This is not what we want, because we can’t see how they taught the activity originally, and students pick up the idea that pratika is something formal to be perfected and performed, instead of something to be engaged in regularly on an informal basis.  With some teachers, it is clear that pratika is something only done for visiting observers.

As I watched some of the teachers struggling through the pratika lessons we developed for them, all linked directly to the curriculum, I sometimes found myself thinking, “Ooooo, they really need more training on this activity;  here in their school it is too late to help them much.”  But at the same time, in many trainings when the teachers were confused and ungrounded, drifting without anchor to the reality of their classrooms, I also recall thinking to myself, “Ooooo, it’s too hard to teach much at these trainings; just wait until we visit their schools and we can really help them out!”  Clearly, we’re muddling forth in the midst of a grand compromise.

At the schools we often get two or three teachers teaching in different classrooms, and then pop in and out of each, helping where we’re needed, and leaving the better ones alone.   We meet with them all when it’s over to get their self-assessments and give our own.  We always meet with the school directors to let them know about the requirements of the new curriculum.  And we have a look at how they’ve organized and stored the materials and supplies we’ve distributed over the course of our trainings.

On a bad day, the teachers and director are unresponsive and students are resigned to low expectations.  On a good day, we get the feeling we’ve accomplished something and quality education is on the wing.  Here are some photos.

New discoveries in science teaching

During the course of these last trainings we made two significant discoveries with the teachers.  One involved the colors of light and pigment. We have only two pratika involving colors: making rainbows and spectra with sunlight, and observing afterimages from staring at colored shape (the ‘Bird in the Cage’ exhibit at the Exploratorium).  This is a woefully inadequate treatment of this important topic, but all the other activities I know from my country require either fancy filters, fancy markers, or a dark space to shine and mix colored lights.

We’re working on making these elements accessible, but meanwhile we also point out that every video screen is composed of tiny pixels of red and blue and green: the primary colors of light.  These create the thousands of colors you see on that screen, and are linked directly to the cone nerves in your retina.

Screens’ pixels exploit the limits of your eye to resolve tiny things at a distance.  Bringing a magnifying glass up to a white screen can show the pixels, as can flicking some water on the screen, because each drop becomes a tiny lens.  (If no one is looking, you can even spit gently on your screen – right now, try it! – and see this effect.)

Well, it seems in Timor-Leste, which has largely leapfrogged the age of landlines and wired telephones, mobile phones are more common than magnifying glasses, and we found that on many phones if you press the phone’s camera up against the screen, the image shown on the phone screen is a clear grid of pixels, red and green and blue!  Then click the photo and you have it forever, in digital form!  Astonishing.


Two years back we found that you can pop the lens off the front of the toy lasers you can get for 50 cents in local shops and tape it to the phone’s camera to get a microscope of pretty impressive quality considering the amount of work it took to make it.  If you view the pixels through this added lens, they’re even bigger!

Likewise, if you press a phone’s camera onto a color printed page, many times you can resolve the ink dots of the three primary pigment colors – cyan, magenta and yellow – in the camera’s image.  Up until this discovery, this was the realm of microscopes.

The other astonishing find was also in the area of optics.  In these final trainings we presented our lens pratika as we have so many times before, but this time we got a shock.  In general we light a candle and look for the real images formed on paper, and look through the lenses to view virtual images.  This time, one of Mestre Luis’s groups found a real image behind the candle.  The arrangement was: paper – candle – lens.  Check out this reenactment; you can barely see the upside-down flame image:


I was at the other training site when I heard about this, and assumed someone was not observing correctly.  However, upon meeting up, Mestre Luis reproduced it for me.  Absolutely astounding.

I saw that what was happening could not be due to the transmission of light through the lens, but rather a reflection of light.  It was actually the exact same set up we use to view a real image from a spoon, which is a concave mirror.  Thus, something concave was reflecting the candlelight and focusing it to an image.

There was only one thing in this position, and that was the lens itself.  It was a convex lens, so even though the front surface was reflecting some of the candlelight, it could not have been forming a real image.  It must be then, that some light from the candle is reflecting off the back inside surface of the lens, which is a concave surface.

I have a plan to test this theory by scratching the back surface of the acrylic lens with course sandpaper, thus destroying the smooth inside reflective surface. Lenses aren’t so easy to come by here though, so I’m currently trying to dream up a different way to prove my theory.  If you put your eye nearby the image, you can see a faint virtual image in the lens, but this is entirely unsatisfying.  I want something concrete and undeniable. Wish me luck, and try these pratika for yourself!

Two of the pratika in this last session involved vinegar: this one, about acid rain, in which we water plants with vinegar and note the results, and the rock exploration pratika where we use vinegar to test limestone. In both cases, the next day we got these amazing crystals growing.
We’re going to do more experimenting with this brand of vinegar. I’m not sure I’d put it on my spinach though.


Forming the jumble of facts into a web of knowledge

Having finished up the trainings of more than 1000 Timorese junior high mathematics and science teachers over the last two years, we’re still full of hope and optimism, but also want to bravely face the realities we’ve seen in our trainings. Continuing this blog in a somewhat negative vein, I’ve noticed during these two final trainings teachers’ lack of common analytical and reasoning skills, a non-ideal situation that compromises their classroom teaching.

Series and parallel circuits are not hard to create with cheap light bulbs and batteries, but it immediately becomes obvious how much more complicated they can become than the quaint diagrams in the textbook. It’s a fine opportunity to embrace the complexity of reality and figure out how things really work.

For example, to wrap up our pratika with polygons, I drew a common representation of the types of quadrilateral as a Venn diagram, largest category ‘polygon’, then ‘quadrilateral’, then ‘trapezoid’, under which huddled the three interrelated categories of rhombus, rectangle and square.  I may as well have written in a different language, and in a sense I had, because I had mistakenly assumed they understood the structure and meaning of a Venn diagram.  After all, it’s in their 7th grade textbook.

The Venn diagram Mestre Tito and I put up to analyze types of quadrilaterals. The chalk board was not optimal; it seemed to be made of plywood painted with normal black paint.

I ended up spending a half hour or so explaining Venn diagrams and the great utility of describing things within this structure.  I drew other diagrams as examples: life, containing animals, containing mammals, containing pigs, containing that one rooting out under the tree;  Timorese citizens, containing functionaries, containing teachers, containing those in this training, containing Mestre Gaspar here.  And then I returned to the quadrilateral example, specifically emphasizing the definition of each level in the diagram.

This is elemental mathematical structuring and a basic skill in general science, yet it was new to nearly every one of these teachers.  At the same time, they knew by heart the names of each of the polygons in question.  But these names had been stored away in their brains in a random heap, with only tenuous connection to the other info up there.

With either trigonometry or similar triangles, and these handy little inclinometers, you can hone your analytical skills by measuring the height of the school flag pole.
The other measurement you need is the distance from the spot of your inclinometer measurement to the base of the flag pole.

Similarly, we led a pratika related to the genetics section of the 9th grade curriculum, modelling the passing on of dominant and recessive genes using white and yellow corn kernels. It was the standard activity of crossing of homozygote (BB and bb) and heterozygote (Bb) parents, and showed the probability of various results, and how an offspring could be born with a visible recessive trait that is not seen in either parent.

Teachers counting up the results of the last round of breeding between white and yellow corn.

There are only a few possibilities in these crossings, and after we did some of them I had to urge them quite vehemently that each possibility had to be worked out to see the whole picture.  They appeared far too satisfied to get only a few random bits.

Mestra Sandra collects and analyzes results from the ten groups in the corn breeding genetics pratika.  The results were pretty close to the probability calculations. Later we realized we should be using the symbols K and k, because they represent the gene for a single trait.

In another instance, the mathematics group worked out the formulae that give the total number of sticks necessary to construct a series of linked figures, such as squares, hexagons, or three dimensional figures like cubes or little houses.  Each one has its one special sequence formula, and I noticed some of the teachers were already at work memorizing the formulae from the manual before they knew, #1 where they came from and, #2 the significance of the variables in the formulae (T for the total sticks and n for the number of figures).  Alas, if you don’t know those things, the formulae are entirely worthless, whether or not you’ve got them memorized.

Extracting equations from sequences. These teachers have got two linked cubes on the right, and are working on the hexagon next.

It seems clear that structuring one’s web of knowledge and learning to apply it to the world around, as opposed to collecting a bucket of facts, is something new and radical for most of these teachers.  The SESIM trainers have come to understand this, and if we can get other teachers to see the value of it, it will pay great dividends for them and for their students.  We do our best to present this value by means of doing simple pratika related to daily life.  In reading the final feedback sheets from our training participants, it’s clear that we do have a lot of converts.

Mestre Caetano, right, accompanies teachers of the science section to observe and systematically categorize characteristics of the local rocks they’ve been building with and farming around all their lives.

Next week we’ll be back visiting schools and I plan to pen the final pages of this blog from the mountainous sub-districts of Ainaro and Baucau, after accompanying teachers who have attended our trainings deliver pratika to their students.

Despite the low priority on teaching analytical skills in schools, plenty of professional and lay Timorese use these skills regularly, such as these youths we found driving their fully steerable cars down the sidewalk in Viqueque.
Schools would do well to make use of what these kids already know, that is, to link into their web of knowledge.
Talking on the string telephone: no contract required, unlimited minutes, and always good network, until the string goes limp.
Our host school in Viqueque had set up and painted a nice set of tire stools and wood benches under their young banyan tree, which also doubled as shade for the teacher’s motorcycles.
Each morning we found local community members getting water from the school’s ailing water system: a pipe flowing weakly into a basin. By 9:00 the flow stopped, so locals had to be sure and get their day’s worth early.

Information, yes, but learning also requires meaningful connections

We’re here in Viqueque now, at the last of our trainings, two years’ worth of sweat and tears, and numerous smiles, resulting in thrice meeting with over 1000 junior high level science and mathematics teachers in the 13 municipalities of Timor-Leste. Last week I assisted the group in Baucau with science and here I’m focusing on mathematics again with Mestre Tito, a son of this proud municipality.

SESIM’s caterer in Viqueque was extraordinary, delivering a huge variety of local delicacies for two snacks and the noon meal.

Teachers here are quick to protest something that doesn’t seem to make sense, quick to demand a clear explanation, and always full of questions.  Their methods overall though, are run of the mill standard throughout the nation, and much of the world:  lecture and listen, chalk and talk, sage on the stage, demanding of their students lockstep rote memorization for future regurgitation on an exam.

In the next room I found the text for the day still up on the board in Portuguese (which many here still struggle to understand): “Different perspectives of development. In general, development is the act or effect of increasing something, implying a growth of some sort, blah, blah, blah”  It’s a needlessly abstract and disconnected intro to a subject critical to each of their lives.

Education has long fascinated me in part because there are many good ideas on how to do it: so many effective strategies, so many successful paths to knowledge, so many right answers for the question of how to learn.  One should be extremely skeptical when a pedagogue is heard to proclaim they’ve identified the one true path.

The teachers make compasses from sticks and rubber bands, then play for a while making circles.
After playing, the resulting designs can be analyzed to show the definition of a circle: the path of points equidistant from a central point.

When teaching science and mathematics, a generally good response to any student’s answer, especially a correct answer, is: “Ok, now how did you arrive at that?”  Likewise, of a group of well-educated students, one could always ask, “How did you learn what you know?”  To which one could expect a vast diversity of answers.

A small triangle is used to construct a similar larger triangle, at a scale of 3:1.

That said, there are also plenty of bad ways to do education, ways that result not only in the student’s continued ignorance but in them feeling futility and aversion to a given subject, sometimes all of formal education.  A school is often thought to be functioning adequately when students and teachers meet daily without tension in classrooms where various content is raised.  But I’ve seen that damage can be done in even these tranquil conditions.

A group from the science section analyzing soil properties and making a poster with the results. 

For example, here in Timor, I’ve learned it is commonly believed by parents that students must bring home each day a notebook full of text that the student copied from the board.  Teachers help perpetuate this by regularly putting up text of questionable worth, sometimes even having students take over in scribbling it onto the board, while the teacher reclines.  With this notion, if a teacher misses a few days it is no worry at all: just leave the material to be copied with a reliable student, and ‘education’ will continue.

The plate tectonics model: crackers floating on boiling ketchup. You can see it all: mountains rising, mid-oceanic ridges separating and plates scraping transverse to each other.

Once the material has been copied by most of the students into their tattered notebooks, graced with the fake smiles of Indonesian popstars or European footballers, a teacher is expected to ‘explain’ it.  Teachers at the lower end of the quality spectrum may just read over it, enunciating clearly, or not, perhaps explaining a few terms, or not, or maybe translating bits of it into the local mother language.

Constructing triangles with sticks and confirming their angles always add up to 180 degrees. We had three woman teachers in the Viqueque mathematics section this session, up from two last time. The Baucau mathematics section was over 40% women.

The challenge of not having enough textbooks is serious, but the missed opportunities in this scenario are numerous. Firstly, consider the origin and relevance of this information.  In the event that a teacher or school does not have the flexibility to teach according to a locally determined curriculum, it seems the bare minimum that should happen is the contextualization of the concepts to be presented.  In this way, one hopes, the interest of at least some of the students can be raised to actually pose questions or formulate connections between the material of the curriculum and their own lives.  If not, it’s all just random info-bits to be added to those already stored away, or, more likely, forgotten with those already forgotten.

We were fortunate to have a few sunspots for viewing these two weeks. The previous week there had been none, which made for a rather dull, though bright, image of the sun.

Worse yet with this scenario, students, with their parents, are led to believe that this sort of ingestion of information is what education is all about.  We SESIM trainers have seen the direct ramifications of this mindset in our trainings.  Teachers note that if students just do pratika, attaining successful results and getting a solid, deep understanding of a concept, and then go home with empty notebooks, parents and even school directors may not be pleased.  Where’s the random text copied into the notebook?!

Mestre Tito at left watches the group carry out the balance pratika with four different sacks of marbles. That’s F1D1 + F2D2 = F3D3 + F4D4, with the F forces given in units of ‘marble’ and D distances measured from the center of the ruler. As long as your marbles are uniform, the experimental result nicely follows the formula.

And so, our challenge goes beyond the mechanics of the classroom.  We must work to transform long-held assumptions and misconceptions about how learning happens, and how we know it is happening. For most adults here, ‘learning’ is the dull, laborious copying and memorizing of random information that some unnamed expert has deemed important.  At SESIM, we are pushing the envelope on the radical concept that learning can be a joyful event filled with personal observation and discovery, and that learning can result in a deep familiarity of a body of knowledge that can be used to improve the quality of life. We often pull this off with the teachers in our trainings, judged by their smiles and feedback forms, and hope that they go on to make it happen with their own students.

This then is the new learning paradigm SESIM has offered to the nation of junior high science and mathematics teachers: that concepts be connected via pratika to student’s lives and experiences.  We continue to have hope that this deep shift in understanding about what constitutes good learning will eventually be normalized because of its intrinsic value and effectiveness. And it doesn’t hurt that kids happen to love it.

A random hand of 20 non-face cards makes the base of our statistics pratika. Mean, median, mode, amplitude, maximum, and minimum are all noted.
A bar graph is then constructed with the cards themselves, each number a column.
And then a pie graph is constructed, and the angle allotted for each number calculated and confirmed.