Teacher training in the mountains of Timor-Leste

June 2016

Ainaro, Timor-Leste

We’ve begun another week of teacher training, this time in the mountain town of Ainaro, 5 hours outside Timor-Leste’s capital, up terrible roads.  Two classrooms are full of junior-high teachers from all over the district: around 30 in science and 25 in mathematics.  This is the first of 3 full-week trainings we’ll give them over the coming year, one each for the 3 trimesters of the academic year.  Each training will give them everything they need to go back and teach the newly revised curriculum for the coming trimester, complete with hands-on activities we call pratika.

2 measuring beans
Each day began with measuring growth of our mung beans growing in three different light conditions.

Pratika is our mission.  Approximately none of these teachers are currently using any sort of pratika, very few were taught with any sort of meaningful pratika in their own education, and few understand what it means to offer a pratika experience to students.  Yet, to a person, if queried on the subject, they’ll tell you sadly “Pratika is important in learning science and mathematics, and it’s a pity that we don’t do it!”  And then proceed to list one of 11 reasons for not doing it.

A few years back, our training group got tired of listening to those reasons, so we wrote them all down, divided them into two groups: ones to be resolved by individual schools and teachers, and ones to be resolved by the Ministry of Education.  Then we analyzed what it would take to resolve each one.  We called them ‘obstacles’, a slightly less discouraging term than the excuses they really are.  We pass them out at trainings now, and tell the teachers we know these already, so don’t bother raising them, and that we’re here to help resolve them.




We knew many of the first category were at our fingertips.  “No materials” or “No laboratory,” for example, were sitting ducks:  we can do hundreds of fabulous activities with simple stuff from the kitchen, the field, or the trash heap.  “Too many students,” was a bit more difficult, but still doable:  by dividing them into groups, we’d seen our teachers pull off a decent pratika lesson with up to 80 kids in a class.  Ten groups of 8 is a lot, but when you let them spill out into the school yard, each focusing on a fascinating little experiment, it works.

5 population
The population growth game. Participants choose partners and family sizes until the chalked square on the floor is overflowing. Timor-Leste has the fastest growing population in Asia.

The second category was the tougher nut to crack.  That neither the curriculum nor the national exams mention pratika explicitly is hard to argue with. “No pratika manual” translates, essentially, to a desperate cry for assistance on a systematic level, far more than a book or a random seminar here or there.

Thus it was that we began making inroads with the Ministry of Education.  I’ll tell more of that story later, but the punch line was Ministry approval for us to do a curriculum revision, complete with a pratika manual and teacher guide, and provide subsequent comprehensive training for all teachers in science and mathematics at the junior-high level.  A timely chunk of funding from the Korean development organization, KOICA, was instrumental in making the whole vision unfold into reality.

1 ahi la iha
It was a fairly new school hosting us, but several times a day the electricity went off. This was no surprise to the teachers, some of whom teach at schools without electricity.

So now when we meet a group of teachers, we remind them that these pratika activities are custom made, ready for action; they were developed by and for Timorese teachers in the local context. I tend to discount my input, though decades of work at the Exploratorium Teacher Institute in San Francisco and Community Science Workshops in California have served as a fine base to support these teachers.  Growing up on a Missouri hog farm was more useful still.

These are mountain people.  The influence of their sparse formal education in a distant urban environment is now faint compared to the agricultural routines of their communities.  Life is eked from rocky fields; everyone grows corn, cassava, taro, canna, pinto beans, bananas, papaya and chayote, and purchases a small fraction of their intake. Despite the staggering variety of vegetable possibilities here, most are seasonal, with at least one season shy on calories, finished with the last crop, waiting for the next. Thus these teachers are well accustomed to weeks of monotonous food and, before getting the modest salaries they do now, they knew days on end with un-full bellies.

Timor’s mountains are ever-present and imposing. This majestic heap of limestone is in Ainaro near Ramelau, Timor’s highest mountain.

They cook on wood fires and walk up and down mountain paths to get to work or the market.  Only rare opportunities arise for reading, but some with multiple incomes in the family partake in the surreal, commercial beckoning of Indonesian satellite television.  Without exception, life’s activities are carried out in a cloak of deep spiritual belief and ritual, an even mix of colonial Catholic and ancient animist.  When a teacher today asked me what a doctor had meant by ‘parada cardiorrespiratória’ in her uncle’s death, I knew she knew the real story: bad magic had been afoot.

Thus is it ideal to be giving these trainings together with several of my Timorese colleagues in our science and mathematics group.  They lead the trainings now, and I support them, stepping in regularly to augment, clarify and tweak their teaching.  For a couple of years they mostly learned from me – some content, some pedagogy – as I taught with pratika.  Now it’s clear they are more effective than I at the delivery: their local language is more complete, they are more in tune with the teachers, and when they teach, the participants are not distracted by the tall foreigner with strange hair, eyes and mannerisms.  Still, sometimes I can see a better avenue towards understanding, and I jump right in and make it happen.  We are all good friends now, which makes this ongoing ‘training of trainers’ an easy pleasure.

8 grafiku
Multicolored parabolas from the morning’s mathematics activity.

Today Lita brought teachers back together after they’d finished the heart model activity by saying, quickly, that the dish soap bottle represents the ventricle, the balloon the atrium, the coin the valve, and the tube the blood vessel.  It was a grave error, as I explained to her later:  the teachers could have – would have – worked that out, and they’d have been better off for doing so.  I believe it was Piaget who noted that when you explain a concept to students, you’ve forever robbed them of the far more delicious, satisfying and formative experience of discovering it for themselves.  It’s like being force-fed a delicious gourmet morsel through intravenous drip.

11 IMG_5824
Our famous heart model. One valve is a coin resting in the neck of the bottle, the other is the teacher’s pinch. The balloon at bottom receives the incoming ‘blood’ and the bottle pumps it out the side. Suds make the whole process visible.


The cure for these small but potent crimes is giving teachers and trainers more and more authentic experience as students.  When you’ve tasted it yourself, you’ll want others to taste it too.

Today we tasted it in more way than one.  Five beef hearts were procured for dissection, and both teachers and the school yard dogs were salivating all through the lesson.  Aortas and tricuspid valves were all duly identified, and the impressive thickness of the left ventricle, after having pumped vital red fluid to every cell in that bovine’s body for years, was noted.  At the end of the day we held a raucous raffle and 4 happy teachers walked off with their enormous chunk of involuntary, striated muscle in a plastic bag.  We took dibs on the largest one. One of my colleagues’ sisters-in-law lives in town and was only too happy to cook and be part of the scientific and educational feast.  We all had heart this evening, fried up with banana flower, papaya blossom and potatoes over rice. CG

10 IMG_5798
Our amazing trainer Isabelita leading a group of science teachers through the structure of the cow heart.
One wing of our host school in Ainaro.
One of the rocky rivers near Ainaro on the south coast of Timor.

One thought on “Teacher training in the mountains of Timor-Leste”

  1. Congrats for this initiative!! Love the way you addressed the ‘excuses’ not to use pratika in school! At SportImpact we believe that if you really want to do something, you do it – no matter what. Some things are easier with support from others, but no support cannot be the excuse to not doing.
    Perhaps one day we can mix a bit of Sport with Science Impact.
    Keep it up, all the best transforming science and math education in Timor-Leste!


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