We’re here in Viqueque now, at the last of our trainings, two years’ worth of sweat and tears, and numerous smiles, resulting in thrice meeting with over 1000 junior high level science and mathematics teachers in the 13 municipalities of Timor-Leste. Last week I assisted the group in Baucau with science and here I’m focusing on mathematics again with Mestre Tito, a son of this proud municipality.
Teachers here are quick to protest something that doesn’t seem to make sense, quick to demand a clear explanation, and always full of questions. Their methods overall though, are run of the mill standard throughout the nation, and much of the world: lecture and listen, chalk and talk, sage on the stage, demanding of their students lockstep rote memorization for future regurgitation on an exam.
Education has long fascinated me in part because there are many good ideas on how to do it: so many effective strategies, so many successful paths to knowledge, so many right answers for the question of how to learn. One should be extremely skeptical when a pedagogue is heard to proclaim they’ve identified the one true path.
When teaching science and mathematics, a generally good response to any student’s answer, especially a correct answer, is: “Ok, now how did you arrive at that?” Likewise, of a group of well-educated students, one could always ask, “How did you learn what you know?” To which one could expect a vast diversity of answers.
That said, there are also plenty of bad ways to do education, ways that result not only in the student’s continued ignorance but in them feeling futility and aversion to a given subject, sometimes all of formal education. A school is often thought to be functioning adequately when students and teachers meet daily without tension in classrooms where various content is raised. But I’ve seen that damage can be done in even these tranquil conditions.
For example, here in Timor, I’ve learned it is commonly believed by parents that students must bring home each day a notebook full of text that the student copied from the board. Teachers help perpetuate this by regularly putting up text of questionable worth, sometimes even having students take over in scribbling it onto the board, while the teacher reclines. With this notion, if a teacher misses a few days it is no worry at all: just leave the material to be copied with a reliable student, and ‘education’ will continue.
Once the material has been copied by most of the students into their tattered notebooks, graced with the fake smiles of Indonesian popstars or European footballers, a teacher is expected to ‘explain’ it. Teachers at the lower end of the quality spectrum may just read over it, enunciating clearly, or not, perhaps explaining a few terms, or not, or maybe translating bits of it into the local mother language.
The challenge of not having enough textbooks is serious, but the missed opportunities in this scenario are numerous. Firstly, consider the origin and relevance of this information. In the event that a teacher or school does not have the flexibility to teach according to a locally determined curriculum, it seems the bare minimum that should happen is the contextualization of the concepts to be presented. In this way, one hopes, the interest of at least some of the students can be raised to actually pose questions or formulate connections between the material of the curriculum and their own lives. If not, it’s all just random info-bits to be added to those already stored away, or, more likely, forgotten with those already forgotten.
Worse yet with this scenario, students, with their parents, are led to believe that this sort of ingestion of information is what education is all about. We SESIM trainers have seen the direct ramifications of this mindset in our trainings. Teachers note that if students just do pratika, attaining successful results and getting a solid, deep understanding of a concept, and then go home with empty notebooks, parents and even school directors may not be pleased. Where’s the random text copied into the notebook?!
And so, our challenge goes beyond the mechanics of the classroom. We must work to transform long-held assumptions and misconceptions about how learning happens, and how we know it is happening. For most adults here, ‘learning’ is the dull, laborious copying and memorizing of random information that some unnamed expert has deemed important. At SESIM, we are pushing the envelope on the radical concept that learning can be a joyful event filled with personal observation and discovery, and that learning can result in a deep familiarity of a body of knowledge that can be used to improve the quality of life. We often pull this off with the teachers in our trainings, judged by their smiles and feedback forms, and hope that they go on to make it happen with their own students.
This then is the new learning paradigm SESIM has offered to the nation of junior high science and mathematics teachers: that concepts be connected via pratika to student’s lives and experiences. We continue to have hope that this deep shift in understanding about what constitutes good learning will eventually be normalized because of its intrinsic value and effectiveness. And it doesn’t hurt that kids happen to love it.