Pratika at the elementary level

July 2016

Dili, Timor-Leste

This week a few of us did a training for 3rd and 4th grade teachers from schools involved in a rural school development program with support from communities in Australia.  Two teachers each from 9 schools attended the three-day training at our National Commission for UNESCO office in Dili.

The participants were highly representative of the bulk of primary level teachers in Timor-Leste: few had any background in science or mathematics, few had studied much past high school, few had any knowledge of different pedagogies, and few had ever discussed the process of learning or teaching.  On the bright side, all were from the communities in which they now teach, with full knowledge of local languages, cultures, and traditions.

Measuring and debating volume and capacity.

The bustling capital of Dili, these days looking more and more like every other mid-sized Asian city, is always a distraction for district teachers attending a training here.  They come straggling back late from lunch and are antsy for dismissal in the afternoon so they can go check out the shopping districts.

Still, at our training, they were engaged.  They were not sleeping because, first, we showed them pratika, which most had never seen or done before in a classroom, and second, because the new curriculum is now required, so they take any chance to learn it firsthand from qualified trainers.

Building and testing simple structures with papaya branches. Look for the triangles!

The primary school curriculum reform has been taking place over the last 3 years and is now coming to a close, with each discipline wrapping up lessons for 5th and 6th grade. It was quite an overhaul: old textbooks and teacher guides were analyzed, along with curricula from various other nations, by a team of nationals and internationals.  A new syllabus was created to suit the needs of Timor-Leste, and finally – the kicker – lesson plans were written for every discipline, every day of the year, every grade level kindergarten through 6th grade.  Many supplemental books and materials were also created and distributed.

I was involved from the start, overseeing science and mathematics.  Those two teams included two other internationals (one Portuguese, one Australian), three local experts, and 6 or 8 local teachers.   (More info from the start of this massive project is on the last page of my previous blog.)

Measuring to place the earth and moon at proper scale. Earth is a soccer ball, moon is a small rubber ball, 1/4 of the diameter. Thirty earth diameters separate the two.

Timorese now number around 1.3 million, slightly more than the population of San Francisco, California.  Even in such a small nation, curriculum reform was a monumental project. It was difficult to find qualified Timorese to write curriculum, and difficult to find qualified international advisors with meaningful knowledge of Timor’s culture and languages.  (The previous curriculum had been written by Portuguese experts, plenty competent, but writing primarily from a colonial perspective, resulting in whole swaths of the curriculum irrelevant to life for tropical subsistence farmers and fishers, which the majority of Timorese are.)

But a strong team was indeed assembled in mid-2013, and buckled down to writing and editing the thousands of pages of materials now composing the new curriculum.  Once the syllabus, lesson plans and supplementary materials were ready, two grades at a time, the rollout and training took place.  This was sometimes sporadic and often lacked sufficient support, but the team pressed on.  Unlike the schools in San Francisco, it takes torturous hours driving down rough tracks to even arrive at many of Timor-Leste’s schools, and the teachers themselves lack transport to pop down to Dili for trainings.  Thus, training and mentoring tend to be costly and time consuming.

Goody bags full of teaching materials to go back to the schools. (Our office motorcycles already put in for the night.)

This training then, was a great opportunity to get these teachers up to speed, as well as to set them up to be mentors to their colleagues back home. We took lessons directly from the plans in the curriculum, and chose lessons that the teachers would be teaching back at their schools in the upcoming trimester. The biggest change of the new curriculum, aside from fully prepared lesson plans, was the plethora of pratika, that is, activities that get the students grappling with the concepts in a real and tangible way.  In the new curriculum, pratika is not only the foundation for science and mathematics, but also is a core element in art and culture, health, and social science.

Of course, most kids love learning with pratika, and these teachers, as students of our training, were no different. They dug into each pratika we fed them with the same gusto that they dug into the noon meal they were provided. Here are a few of the activities we did with them over the course of the three days, taken straight from the new national curriculum in mathematics and natural science for grades 3 and 4:

  • Calculating the area of figures formed by stretched rubber bands on geoboards.
  • Measuring the volume of various vessels and the mass of various food items.
  • Measuring the room with both meters and centimeters, then converting one to the other in order to combine the results and get a final total.
  • Making various shapes with papaya branches, testing their strength when exposed to force, and finding ways to reinforce them.
  • Finding small animals in and around the building we were in, and then analyzing and describing their habitats.
  • Making marbles out of local clay, letting them dry and firing them, then testing them for strength.
  • Using two balls as an earth-moon model, and figuring the scale for size and also distance between the two.
  • Making a two-pan beam balance from wood, PVC and two water bottles.

For this last one, we rolled out our power tools: hand drill, drill press, and circular saw.  We let any teachers try these tools if they wanted, and encouraged the women especially.  I know the kids in our Community Science Workshops in California routinely gained confidence and skill from using power tools, and I found the teachers here seemed to enjoy and gain from it as well.

Feeling the power of a circular saw.

Of course, they won’t have these resources back at their school, but they’ll have the balances they made, and can use them until the Ministry of Education provides better resources.  And we hope the seed of an idea will form in them: a deep assumption that they can build things from simple materials and then use them with great success and even pleasure to enhance the quality of their teaching.  This is the change we’re looking for.

Everyone crowded around the workbench to make their beam balance.
Testing the beam balance. Taking advantage of a small syringe and the fact that water has a mass of 1 gram per milliliter, these balances can be quite accurate.
Our eco-lunch, plate baskets and waxed paper to avoid 24 styrofoam containers per day.



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