Avoiding cultural pitfalls on the road to effective teaching

September 2016

Lautem, Timor-Leste

As we bring the first B session trainings to a close in Lautem and Baucau municipalities, and prepare once again to visit a few schools and observe teachers carrying out pratika with their classes, the conversation among us trainers turns deeply philosophical:  How can we affect the greatest change?  How can we open the teachers’ eyes to the wonders of teaching well?  How best to avoid the common pitfalls and get teachers to try these activities in their classrooms?

Teachers measuring the path followed for the ‘Distance traveled and displacement’ pratika. Teachers are nearly all active and keen learners when we do pratika with them. The big questions is if they can return to carry out these same simple pratika with their students.

Part of the challenge is to maintain the excitement generated during the A session trainings, when the teachers were doing pratika for the first time.  During the Phase I trainings for the first 5 municipalities last year, we noticed the overall energy level of the teachers get lower and lower when we met for sessions B and C.  This year for the Phase II trainings, we used a strategy during the A sessions of putting each school in charge of a B session pratika, so that in theory they would read all about it in the pratika manuals and teacher guides and be ready to present to the group during the B sessions.

This somewhat high-pressure situation puts them in the drivers’ seat and also lessens the amount of time they have to listen to us trainers.  We assured them that we would step in anytime necessary to help.

Well, as could be predicted, some of the groups were far from ready, some dodged out altogether, while some did an admirable job.  The scheme did not at all result in a lessened burden for SESIM, in that we had to be listening intently to every hazy instruction or awkward explanation from the presenting group, always ready to cut in and clarify, or even to rewind and re-present something that had been presented dead wrong.  It was actually quite exhausting, and sometimes a bit confusing for the participants.  We’ve decided not to continue this strategy for the C session trainings, thinking that it’s better for SESIM to model the presentation of each pratika, which teachers can try to emulate back at their schools.

The sedimentation demo consists of putting a variety of rock and sand sizes into a bottle with some water and shaking it up. These teachers made it into a comedy routine, which was nice, but we had to rush later to make up for the time spent laughing.

The good side of the peer presentation was that we could see with 20/20 vision what teachers did and didn’t understand.  This is what happens during the school visits as well. When sailing the high seas of classroom teaching, lack of understanding and misconceptions surface like sea serpents, often surrounded by a froth of obscuring, protective behavior, for example teachers writing excessively on the board to avoid having to explain something that they don’t fully understand, or passing out ready-made ‘observations’ to ensure correspondence to the theory.

When a teacher comes to the end of their understanding, we believe there is no better response than to say: “I don’t know any more about this, but I’ll try to find out more, and you can search for more information too.”  To say this here in Timor-Leste is something rare and new.  Many teachers balk at this option, and some go so far as to say that would lower their dignity in the eyes of the students.  In essence, for cultural reasons, many teachers choose obfuscation and deception over honesty and communication.

One of the Lautem teachers conducting the Galileo demo with Mestre Fin’s assistance. Four pairs of objects are dropped, with efforts to isolate different weights and different air resistances: 1. a large rock and a marble, 2. two rocks of the same size, 3. two rocks the same size, with one wrapped loosely in paper, 4. two wadded up papers of the same size, one with a rock inside, and 5, a wadded up paper and an open sheet of paper. Teachers should have no trouble amassing these materials and doing the pratika, but what to do with the flood of questions that arise?

Once a teacher at a training told Mestra Vero that he would absolutely not lower his dignity by admitting that he didn’t know an answer.  Later in that same training, a teacher asked a question that Mestra Vero didn’t know the answer to.  She jumped at the opportunity, explaining that she did not yet know how to answer that, and would have to search for more info.  Then she smiled, looked over at the teacher with the dignity concern and said, “There, did you feel that I lost any dignity just then, or not?  I still feel I have plenty!”

I have identified other aspects of local culture that may impede good teaching, and my Timorese colleagues often agree. We must be sensitive, but I take my lead from them, and we step forth boldly to try and alleviate the largest problems.  One is the acceptance of complaints.  Many teachers are seasoned experts at complaining, finding excuses, placing blame elsewhere, and otherwise justifying inaction. This seems to be an acceptable way to avoid learning or doing a job well, and even derailing a training for extended periods.

I often contrast the situation to trainings I’ve done in my own country where problematic, obstructive teachers were ostracized and rendered mute.  Here fellow teachers often just sit back and observe, leaving us trainers alone in the effort to get over the complaint and on with the lesson.

For example, in the mathematics group, one teacher protested that the seeds some groups were using for the squaring activity were oblong, and resulted in rectangles instead of squares.  It was a legitimate point, but instead of making it and letting it go, he more or less demanded the trainers remove any evidence of rectangles.  Mestre Bernardino explained quite clearly that the perfect squares resulting in the diagrams need not represent area, but the teacher would not let it drop.  Nearly 45 minutes were lost on this minor issue.

Here are corn kernels in numbers of perfect squares, which generate approximately square figures, to the approval of the complaining teacher.
But the oblong pinto beans in numbers of perfect squares shown at the bottom of this display generate rectangular figures, much to our teacher’s consternation.
The perfect cube activity that follows makes use of potatoes, cassava, or young papayas. The chunks can be eaten afterward.

Sometimes teachers ask questions only to test the trainers.  This is especially true teachers among the participants attended college together with the trainers, or even more touchy, are previous teachers of the trainers.  Ego and norms of filial respect often negate the fact that students can go on to surpass their teachers’ knowledge.  This is a small country and both situations arise regularly, to the detriment of our trainings. SESIM trainers are developing an arsenal of defense to avoid these traps.

Another issue that often wastes chunks of time and stultifies free exchange of ideas is the high level of formality assumed in a classroom situation.  For example, in pratika that have groups do a final mini-presentation back to the whole class, each group’s representative, when called for their turn, will generally stand and say, “Thank you for the time and attention you’ve given me to present the findings of our group.  Our group carried out the pratika according to the directions given by the trainers and achieved the following results:…”  Sometimes they’ll even describe the procedure and materials used, even though everyone has just done that same procedure with the same materials.  All this instead of simply stating, for example, “Our team’s result was as follows:”

What could be a one minute presentation of the silicon (red potato cube) and oxygen (white potato cube) reaction can be drawn out for five minutes with enough fancy formalism.

This filling time with formality is a deep cultural habit that I think has ramifications throughout the classrooms of Timor.  Teachers are used to the challenge of dragging out a small bit of content to fill the entire teaching period.  But now that the curriculum is solidified together with a calendar, the challenge is the opposite:  how to conserve time and cram the required teaching into the limited periods allotted for each discipline.

I call these ‘cultural distractions,’ which is not to say they are wrong or bad, but rather that they sometimes stand at odds to effective and efficient learning happening in trainings and classrooms.  The best teachers we work with, including the entire SESIM crew, know how to skirt cultural traditions in a respectful manner and create a learning environment with maximum freedom for students to question and discuss. Some of this is related to personality, but I have seen various different personalities successful at the task.

The trick is to keep one’s eyes on the prize of active students (or teachers in a training) making authentic observations and having rich discussions toward a shared understanding of the phenomenon at hand.  SESIM is working hard to show by example how to pull this off in the classrooms of Timor-Leste.



Lautem municipality’s junior high science and mathematics teachers, together with four national trainers and an American far from home. It took us forever to get them to stop taking selfies and pose for the group photo.
Some girls at the neighboring school had their eye on the small sour mangoes ripening in this gorgeous tree their school yard.
Sandra’s uncle, at whose house we stayed, a has a very nice well that never goes dry and is only 5 minutes walk slightly downhill from the house. While I enjoyed the novelty and exercise of carrying all my own washing water this week, I could see getting tired of it after a while.
The runoff from his well is channeled through a nice bamboo grove and down into the marsh area beyond. Massive salt-water crocodiles are abundant in this area, and several people are eaten each year near beaches and wetlands.  Crocs are sacred to the Timorese, and especially those from Lautem.  They are commonly referred to as ‘Grandparent’, and represent the collective ancestors of the Timorese. Few Timorese will kill a croc.  Under Indonesia, they were actively hunted by Indonesian police and soldiers, so the population has risen dramatically since independence. I’ll be staying well clear of the marshes here.



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