Dishing out answers in Suai


Our trainings in Covalima and Viqueque municipalities were our last of 2016, and the final B Session trainings.  I went with the crew to Covalima’s capital Suai and sweated through a sweltering week of watching ambivalent clouds pass overhead on their way to drop their cool rain onto the mountain districts to the north.  On the long bumpy car ride getting there I went over with the SESIM team why that happens, starting from moist air over the Indian and Pacific Oceans swirling up from the south, until they were able to explain the science behind what every Timorese knows: mountain districts get the most rain, south coast gets less, and north coast gets least of all.  It is remarkably similar to the west-to-east phenomenon in my coastal California home.

The ocean south of Timor is called ‘Tasi Mane’ by the Timorese, meaning ‘Manly Sea,’ in contrast with gentler northern waters, called ‘Tasi Feto’, or ‘Womanly Sea.’ Tasi Mane generally sees larger waves, rising from the 300km open stretch of ocean touching the north coast of Australia.

Explaining things caught my attention this week. Our trainings are based on pratika, that is, hands-on activities involving observation, inquiry, discussion, and an attempt to draw conclusions based on what we all witness together. In the final step we summarize the collective conclusions and make a link to information in the textbook and other sources, information that is impossible to confirm with the simple apparatus at hand, but has resulted from other experiments done in professional laboratories. That is, we explain.

We have various mantras we repeat at this point in the lessons.  First, we advise them to take book information with skepticism, to keep it under the category of ‘probably right, but not as secure as the observations I’ve just personally made.’  For example, we can observe that a candle goes out when placed under a bottle, but have to take on faith that the air holds 21% oxygen, and that the candle’s combustion consumes that element until there’s insufficient left for the reaction to continue. Our experiment shows that the candle changes the air rapidly into something that is no longer fit for combustion.  The book fills in the details involved in that reaction.

The prognosis is not good for that candle on the right, but you can’t see the carbon dioxide or the oxygen.

We also warn them that the book information is unlimited, and of dubious value if one does not already possess questions, or at least a general curiosity, about this information.  I use the example of my kids.  I must have told them 5 times the English and Tetun names for the casuarina tree here in Timor, and explained that it’s Timor’s only major evergreen and critical for carpentry, shading coffee groves, nurturing agricultural lands, and holding down topsoil.  They apparently aren’t currently interested in this kingpin of the environment, because they always forget about it.  Of course, they never asked me about the casuarina tree.  When instead I answer a question they’ve asked me, they rarely forget my explanation.

Casuarina above, shading the coffee bushes below.

That’s one reason we focus so much on questions.  In previous blogs I’ve laid out how we essentially require questions from the teachers, and encourage them to do the same with their students.  We know the questions are there, and we know that it’s crucial to expose and verbalize them. Only then can explaining be most effective.

Giving time for discussion allows students (here, teachers) time to explain what they know to each other and give feedback on those explanations.

After doing pratika, when we’ve got a list of excellent questions on the board, we point out to the teachers that they likely didn’t have these questions before they did the pratika.  As we do that critical summary and link to information in the text, we point out the vast difference between what we’re doing now – addressing these itching questions – and what often happens in a classroom – dumping a load of arbitrary information onto students.  We believe that difference is paramount; it’s the difference between teaching and lecturing.

Few mathematics teachers would say they have questions about place value, but our cup-and-stick version of an abacus invariably raises many questions about borrowing and carrying and ultimately place value.

Finally, we regularly point out that a teacher won’t be able to explain all the concepts behind students’ questions.  In another blog I’ve elaborated on the reality of this situation.  Essentially, science doesn’t yet have all the answers, we teachers don’t yet know all of science, and students have unlimited questions.  Thus, our explanations, like all explanations, will necessarily be incomplete.  As my mentor Paul Doherty of the Exploratorium Teacher Institute coaches at the end of many an explanation:  it’s always more complicated than that.

Making molecule models is a common way to raise questions about chemistry. Not having access to kits, we do it with potatoes, food coloring, and toothpicks.

That’s the fundamental reason why explanations should be led entirely by questions.  A good example of this came up in our solar system model pratika. For this model we line up seeds, fruits, and other balls of approximate relative size to the planets, and usually we draw a circle on the wall of 3 meters diameter to represent the sun. This time, due to time constraints, we only suggested the sun drawing. One teacher protested and asked why we didn’t make a model of the sun like we did the other planets?

Planet models in a row. Each ball or fruit solidifies for the students the planets’ relative size. We don’t fail to point out that to get the distance between them to follow this same scale, we’d have to walk Neptune 9km away!

Mestre Fin responded that we don’t have access to a 3 meter ball, so we have to make do with a 2D representation.  The teacher pressed again, asking Fin to clarify the info in the textbook stating that the planets make up less than 1% of the solar system’s mass.  Fin then took the group outside, drew a 3 meter diameter circle in the sand, and piled all the planet models up inside it.  Their puniness was duly noted and we all went back inside with a better understanding.  Mestre Fin had never done that before, but this time it was exactly the right move for an effectively explanation.

Mestre Fin making the sun circle in the sand.
A pile of planets inside the sun circle.

I can’t say I enjoyed my time sweating in Suai, though I was able to perform an experiment with my perspiration.  I drank approximately twice the water I normally do in a day, and then found that I peed no more than usual.  Despite the discomfort, it was another landmark for SESIM: the end of the 8 B Session trainings.  In January we’ll do a seminar for pre-service teachers with experts from abroad, and then return to our school visit regimen.  The C Session trainings will begin in March.

One of the teachers showed us a Nobel prize winning idea for chemistry pratika: thrice bend over and tape one end of a straw, and it becomes a puffy place to squeeze, transforming the straw into a perfect eye dropper.
Family representatives assembled at our host school to receive the final grade reports for the school year. We heard that two students attempted suicide on learning that they hadn’t passed on to high school. Neither died, but it underlined the importance families place on a getting a diploma.
I first came to Suai in 2000 and stayed with Dona Filomena, a Timorese Chinese. I went back and found her still active with her businesses. My partner Pamela also stayed with her while observing the momentous referendum in 1999. After the vote, Pamela was forcibly evacuated to Darwin while Suai was destroyed by pro-Indonesia militia and three priests were killed with dozens of Timorese who had taken refuge in the Suai Catholic church. Dona Filomena escaped to Kupang on the far tip of West Timor, returning a month later  to rebuild when the UN had taken charge.




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