Learning to learn anew

July 2016

Viqueque, Timor-Leste

We’re now training the teachers of the district of Viqueque.  Its far subdistricts are some of the most remote in the country, nestled among imposing mountains and a forlorn coastline, complete with several rushing rivers tearing through the rocky topsoil on their way to the Timor Sea.  The district has a reputation for hard-headedness and independent thinking.  We’d had problems before with Viqueque teachers protesting and complaining about various issues.  Thus we brought our two trainers with hometowns in this district to stand up to their compatriots and set things straight.

During the introduction I lead a song that we’ve written to be SESIM’s hymn. Chorus goes like this: Grab it yourself, try it yourself; Raise questions and have discussions; Grab it yourself, try it yourself; Seek it yourself; Only then will you know for sure; Only then will you know for sure.
Teachers were pleasantly tolerant of my amateur sound.

Food and transport money are the perennial topics of protest, but this time things were different.  A stiff-jawed teacher stood up after one of our activities and demanded that we explain things more clearly and completely.  After all, he pressed, they would have to go back to face their students and they want to have everything they’ll need to answer all possible questions that may arise.

It was a legitimate question, but it also let us know that he’d missed some of the main points of our opening presentation.  On the first morning, we had laid three extension cords to get power from the neighboring school building in order to connect the projector and present our pedagogy as well as the scheme of the newly revised curriculum to the district director and all his junior-high mathematics and science teachers.

During that introduction, we’d pointed out that conventional activities of education that grind on in many schools are not so effective, sometimes even destructive. Copying and memorizing vast quantities of questionably relevant information has vanishingly small positive impact on the student.  Basically, transfer of information is but a small and decreasing part of the teacher’s job, and for students to gain true understanding, they’ll have to ask their own questions, personally observe and fiddle around with real phenomena, and engage in discussions about what they can conclude from these simple experiments.

We have done this intro with many groups, and so far, no teacher has ever taken issue with us over these statements.  Yet in a fascinating and multi-dimensional flip-flop, most of the teachers don’t grasp our meaning, precisely because they haven’t experienced it personally.

That soon changes.  During this first week’s training, we send them through the process several times each day, nudging, prodding, praising and even congratulating when they arrive at conclusions based entirely on their own pratika experience. We call this the first level of benefit from our trainings, that is, the first objective we have for them: to experience what it is to learn these curricular concepts through pratika.

This is enormously significant, and we explicitly harangue them with this fact all through the week: You teachers, as students, are having transformative experiences, now check it out!  But that’s not enough.  This teacher represented many of their deep, sincere feelings when he spoke: “We came to this training to learn knowledge from you experts, not to play around with questions and talk among ourselves!  We’ve got a lot of questions on the table now.  None of us know the answers, so we need you to tell us! It’s your job!”

Mestra Lita covers the board with teachers’ questions. The focus here happens to be the reproductive system, a traditionally high-interest topic, but we regularly run out of board space writing up teachers’ questions for other topics as well.

He was referring to the teachers’ questions that arose during the pratika we just did.  It was the classic lung model, where you connect a balloon into the mouth of a chopped single-serve bottle and stretch the base of another cut balloon across the chopped opening. Then when you pull down on the cut balloon, the one on the mouth inflates, and when you push the cut balloon up, the one on the mouth deflates.  It’s your rib cage/diaphragm/lung/trachea system, functioning in perfect parallel, all in less than 10 minutes and 25 cents.

But why do the lungs inflate when the diaphragm is not even touching them?  How does the diaphragm pull down in real life?  Why can’t we feel it with our fingers?  Why does it move automatically when we sleep, but when we’re awake and thinking about it, we can control it?  Why are the lungs not muscles like the heart? These were some of the teachers’ questions written on the board for all to consider.

The lung model, with top balloon as lung, bottle as chest cavity, and bottom balloon as diaphragm.

We have taken to following a standard process for most of our pratika. A set path makes things easier for the novice teacher, and it includes many of the key points of inquiry and scientific method.  After students (teachers) finish a given pratika, we take their observations and list them quickly on the board, often in abbreviated statements.  Then we do the same with their questions.  Often the board gets filled with detailed observations and then again with questions.  All this happens in a natural and easy manner, and teachers are content, even eager, as they do it.

We write down the questions to validate them, to raise them high and give them priority.  Most of these teachers never let their students ask questions, and don’t see the value in it.  Yet, as students themselves, they’ve just unleashed a flood of their own questions and now are quite vehement in wanting answers.

Well, (say we, stalling and waiting for the light to come on) answers are nice too, but actually it’s the questions that are key.  Look at all these lovely questions, every one of them absolutely correct!  And hey, what’s an answer without a question?  Textbooks are full of answers, but who cares unless you have a question!  Answers are cheap; questions are the jewels!

What’s more, we never promised you instant gratification! We’re not even professional scientists, and certainly not deity!  WE’RE NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO ANSWER ALL THESE QUESTIONS TODAY!  AND THAT’S OK!

It’s ok (we continue) because it’s reality: #1, we don’t know all of science, #2, science has not worked out all the answers yet, and #3, questions are unlimited – kids never stop asking them, and every teacher’s good answer has got another question wrapped up in it.

Thus (we conclude) the days of ‘2 + 2 = 4,’ and ‘photosynthesis requires chlorophyll’ are over.  We simply can no longer view learning as the simple acquisition of information.

Many teachers are smiling at this point, nodding their agreement. They’re achieved the second level of benefit we’re looking for:  introspection, recognition, and appreciation of this fresh learning process they’ve just undertaken. This is critical.  If they can’t do this, they’ll never get to the next step.

A math teacher presents the results of her pratika to her (skeptical?) colleagues.

The third level objective then, is to get them to go back and do these same pratika with their students.  This is our most difficult challenge, and yet if it doesn’t happen, nothing changes.  We’ve seen, far too many times, teachers happily doing our pratika for a week, coming to comprehend concepts they’ve been ‘teaching’ for years and never really understood, only to return to their school and lecture at their students about these concepts.  Now we’re unabashed in laying out our goals for them: we need to see a change.

We talked this teacher back into his chair, reassuring him that we’re going to hand them a whole heap of information about this and all our pratika, but that this process is key. Our message is this: You, dear colleagues, will find yourselves in just this situation when you return to your school if you do indeed carry out this curriculum properly.  Students will inundate you with a flood of wonderful questions, only a few of which you will know the answers to.  What we’re doing here is giving you strategies for dealing with this desirable but sticky situation.

And we’ll continue doing that.  We’ll give them two more trainings throughout the coming year, visit their schools, and give them our phone numbers.  Let’s see what happens.   CG

After an activity about plants, we sing Ego Lemos’ somber song “Enrich the earth.” It talks about the desolation that will result from deforestation, and how we humans can’t be so arrogant to think we can live without vegetation. That’s our new driver on guitar, a real professional, not like myself.
Portugal won the EuroCup one early morning in the middle of our training. The raucous parading went on for hours.
The district director Emidio Pinto closing the week’s training by encouraging the teachers to apply what they’ve learned back in their schools.
One day on the way home we saw a complete rainbow, end to luminous end. Many stories surround the rainbow here in Timor-Leste, a widespread one cautioning that you should never point at it, lest your finger become bent for life.



One thought on “Learning to learn anew”

  1. Thank you Gab for taking your team to this remote area. I do so hope that teachers from Lacluta got to the sessions. The only face I recognise is the District Director Emidio.
    I cannot wait to get back to see the effects on the classroom.


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