Sitting in the opening session of this training and listening to the Baucau municipal superintendent of education praise SESIM and urge his teachers to heed our wise guidance, I looked over the sea of nearly 100 teachers that would be with us this week. Which ones would be motivated, proactive, diligent, keen learners? Which ones would we need to cajole, implore, demand, even threaten in order to get them to carry out the week’s activities?
You can’t tell by looking. Sometimes the grizzled old mountain men, stooped from so many years of grading papers, become the spark of their group, whipping their colleagues into active learning. Sometimes the healthy young recent grads will spend the whole week on their phones and avoid helping their elders to learn new concepts.
We take pains to avoid stereotyping, but we’ve found that using three broad categories for our participants can be quite useful. There are rock stars, who will grab our ideas and run, needing very little support from us. They’re easy to support; they devour everything we offer at the trainings, and when we visit them they’ve got questions and new ideas for us to learn from.
There are also duds, teachers who shouldn’t be in this profession, and have no inclination to change their ways. My Timorese colleagues agree that you can’t make the horse drink even if you’ve led it to water, and that it is bad practice to try to force anyone to learn anything. We’ve seen some pretty impressive duds. A couple times we’ve gently informed them that if they don’t participate in any of the activities, we’re going to count them absent.
And then there are teachers of the middle group of teachers, by far the majority, who stand ready to be inspired, learn new concepts, and add new methods. With our assistance they are ready to increase the effectiveness of their teaching and work a little harder if it means the kids will get more out of it. It helps if their employer, the Ministry of Education, requires them to take this new path, and also if dynamic trainers invite them with a smile to begin the walk. SESIM has now got these two elements in place.
Over this last year of intensive training, we’ve come to a consensus that we should focus the great majority of our efforts on this middle group. That’s where we’ll get the most bang for our buck, the biggest change on the ground. When we find a teacher refusing to come alive after a few invitations, we don’t linger with them any longer. When we find a rock star in our presence, we let them know we’re with them, thank them for their spark, and then turn back to the middle group.
Nearly all teachers of all three groups have been taught and now teach according to a conventional model that has the teacher as expert distributing information to the receiving students. ‘Sage on the stage,’ the method’s been called, or the ‘banking model,’ or the ‘bucket method,’ where the teacher diligently fills up the student’s empty mind with their life-giving knowledge. Thoroughly discredited and ineffective as it’s been proven, it lives on, like a staggering zombie, in plenty of schools I’ve seen around the world, and most schools here in Timor-Leste.
We try to show teachers a better way, but before we do, we acknowledge that they’ve never really seen anything else happening in schools. From entering pre-school to receiving a college diploma, few have deviated from this rutted path. When we show them new pedagogy, then, it’s like putting someone on a motorcycle when they’ve been pedaling a tricycle all their lives. It’s going to take some time to learn it well and get used to it, but the results will be astonishing.
We used to tell teachers that we’re going to show them a new pedagogy, one that’s been used with great success in other more developed nations. But somewhere along the line we realized that, in reality, every single one of them has been on the receiving end of this sort of pedagogy, and most of them have dished it out as well. It’s just that all this tremendously valuable, highly effective, utterly efficient teaching and learning takes place far from the school grounds. It happens in kitchens, fields, fishing boats, house-building operations, women’s weaving sessions, and other similar family and community situations.
In each of these cases, the person with knowledge was not a sage on the stage, but rather a guide by the side. Grandma knows dozens if not hundreds of weaving techniques, and if you want to learn them, you sit down with her, watch for a good long time, pick up some palm leaf strips, and start taking her advice as you try to figure it out. There is no classroom, no chalkboard, no written curriculum, no artificial time limits, no artificial division of students according to age, no grades, and the only test is whether the finished product works or not. And if it doesn’t work, efforts will be increased until it does work.
You can see that these teachers live and breathe a vast paradox. If they want their kid to learn how to raise pigs or catch a fish, they know exactly how to do it: just as their elders taught them. But when they enter the classroom, they ‘teach’ in a most impractical way, with terribly discouraging results. Everyone from Ministry officials to parents to the students themselves expects nothing more and nothing less. When students emerge at the top of the education ladder and are unable to carry out basic arithmetic or write basic ideas coherently, let alone think critically and solve problems creatively, it’s all just par for the course. The reforms called for often consist of increasing the intensity this same, ineffective pedagogy.
We now let teachers know straight away at the beginning of the training that we’ll be using the same techniques that their ancestors used, and linking the curricular concepts to knowledge that their ancestors developed. It’s not new pedagogy at all; it’s grandma’s pedagogy! Thus, they needn’t worry. Instead, they should smile and hold on tight, because this motorcycle is going to take them places they’ve never been before.
When the 7th grade science curriculum addresses photosynthesis and light’s impact on plants, we lead students to experiment on this topic with mung bean sprouts. When the 8th grade mathematics curriculum explains statistical analysis, we show them how to gather some statistics they care about and analyze them. When the 9th grade science curriculum mentions the ways diseases can spread, we model the situation with 10 of them each getting a cup of drinking water, exchanging some with a few people, and then taking a sip to see if they were ‘infected’ by the one of the two original salt-water tainted cups. We refer to this as teaching with pratika. We find it has the comfortable effect of extracting the given concept from the distant nebula of the formal curriculum and nestling it right down in the familiar world of the student’s own experience.
In many places in the world, including my home state of California, it’s accepted that this is an effective way to do things in a classroom, and good schools try to make it happen. Here it is something fresh and daring, never before seen inside the school gate. SESIM is showing how it can be done with few additional resources and few other systemic changes. The rock star teachers hop right on and ride away with their students. We’re confident that most of the others will soon see that this way, grandma’s way, is the path toward more effective schools.