New discoveries in science teaching

During the course of these last trainings we made two significant discoveries with the teachers.  One involved the colors of light and pigment. We have only two pratika involving colors: making rainbows and spectra with sunlight, and observing afterimages from staring at colored shape (the ‘Bird in the Cage’ exhibit at the Exploratorium).  This is a woefully inadequate treatment of this important topic, but all the other activities I know from my country require either fancy filters, fancy markers, or a dark space to shine and mix colored lights.

We’re working on making these elements accessible, but meanwhile we also point out that every video screen is composed of tiny pixels of red and blue and green: the primary colors of light.  These create the thousands of colors you see on that screen, and are linked directly to the cone nerves in your retina.

Screens’ pixels exploit the limits of your eye to resolve tiny things at a distance.  Bringing a magnifying glass up to a white screen can show the pixels, as can flicking some water on the screen, because each drop becomes a tiny lens.  (If no one is looking, you can even spit gently on your screen – right now, try it! – and see this effect.)

Well, it seems in Timor-Leste, which has largely leapfrogged the age of landlines and wired telephones, mobile phones are more common than magnifying glasses, and we found that on many phones if you press the phone’s camera up against the screen, the image shown on the phone screen is a clear grid of pixels, red and green and blue!  Then click the photo and you have it forever, in digital form!  Astonishing.


Two years back we found that you can pop the lens off the front of the toy lasers you can get for 50 cents in local shops and tape it to the phone’s camera to get a microscope of pretty impressive quality considering the amount of work it took to make it.  If you view the pixels through this added lens, they’re even bigger!

Likewise, if you press a phone’s camera onto a color printed page, many times you can resolve the ink dots of the three primary pigment colors – cyan, magenta and yellow – in the camera’s image.  Up until this discovery, this was the realm of microscopes.

The other astonishing find was also in the area of optics.  In these final trainings we presented our lens pratika as we have so many times before, but this time we got a shock.  In general we light a candle and look for the real images formed on paper, and look through the lenses to view virtual images.  This time, one of Mestre Luis’s groups found a real image behind the candle.  The arrangement was: paper – candle – lens.  Check out this reenactment; you can barely see the upside-down flame image:


I was at the other training site when I heard about this, and assumed someone was not observing correctly.  However, upon meeting up, Mestre Luis reproduced it for me.  Absolutely astounding.

I saw that what was happening could not be due to the transmission of light through the lens, but rather a reflection of light.  It was actually the exact same set up we use to view a real image from a spoon, which is a concave mirror.  Thus, something concave was reflecting the candlelight and focusing it to an image.

There was only one thing in this position, and that was the lens itself.  It was a convex lens, so even though the front surface was reflecting some of the candlelight, it could not have been forming a real image.  It must be then, that some light from the candle is reflecting off the back inside surface of the lens, which is a concave surface.

I have a plan to test this theory by scratching the back surface of the acrylic lens with course sandpaper, thus destroying the smooth inside reflective surface. Lenses aren’t so easy to come by here though, so I’m currently trying to dream up a different way to prove my theory.  If you put your eye nearby the image, you can see a faint virtual image in the lens, but this is entirely unsatisfying.  I want something concrete and undeniable. Wish me luck, and try these pratika for yourself!

Two of the pratika in this last session involved vinegar: this one, about acid rain, in which we water plants with vinegar and note the results, and the rock exploration pratika where we use vinegar to test limestone. In both cases, the next day we got these amazing crystals growing.
We’re going to do more experimenting with this brand of vinegar. I’m not sure I’d put it on my spinach though.


Forming the jumble of facts into a web of knowledge

Having finished up the trainings of more than 1000 Timorese junior high mathematics and science teachers over the last two years, we’re still full of hope and optimism, but also want to bravely face the realities we’ve seen in our trainings. Continuing this blog in a somewhat negative vein, I’ve noticed during these two final trainings teachers’ lack of common analytical and reasoning skills, a non-ideal situation that compromises their classroom teaching.

Series and parallel circuits are not hard to create with cheap light bulbs and batteries, but it immediately becomes obvious how much more complicated they can become than the quaint diagrams in the textbook. It’s a fine opportunity to embrace the complexity of reality and figure out how things really work.

For example, to wrap up our pratika with polygons, I drew a common representation of the types of quadrilateral as a Venn diagram, largest category ‘polygon’, then ‘quadrilateral’, then ‘trapezoid’, under which huddled the three interrelated categories of rhombus, rectangle and square.  I may as well have written in a different language, and in a sense I had, because I had mistakenly assumed they understood the structure and meaning of a Venn diagram.  After all, it’s in their 7th grade textbook.

The Venn diagram Mestre Tito and I put up to analyze types of quadrilaterals. The chalk board was not optimal; it seemed to be made of plywood painted with normal black paint.

I ended up spending a half hour or so explaining Venn diagrams and the great utility of describing things within this structure.  I drew other diagrams as examples: life, containing animals, containing mammals, containing pigs, containing that one rooting out under the tree;  Timorese citizens, containing functionaries, containing teachers, containing those in this training, containing Mestre Gaspar here.  And then I returned to the quadrilateral example, specifically emphasizing the definition of each level in the diagram.

This is elemental mathematical structuring and a basic skill in general science, yet it was new to nearly every one of these teachers.  At the same time, they knew by heart the names of each of the polygons in question.  But these names had been stored away in their brains in a random heap, with only tenuous connection to the other info up there.

With either trigonometry or similar triangles, and these handy little inclinometers, you can hone your analytical skills by measuring the height of the school flag pole.
The other measurement you need is the distance from the spot of your inclinometer measurement to the base of the flag pole.

Similarly, we led a pratika related to the genetics section of the 9th grade curriculum, modelling the passing on of dominant and recessive genes using white and yellow corn kernels. It was the standard activity of crossing of homozygote (BB and bb) and heterozygote (Bb) parents, and showed the probability of various results, and how an offspring could be born with a visible recessive trait that is not seen in either parent.

Teachers counting up the results of the last round of breeding between white and yellow corn.

There are only a few possibilities in these crossings, and after we did some of them I had to urge them quite vehemently that each possibility had to be worked out to see the whole picture.  They appeared far too satisfied to get only a few random bits.

Mestra Sandra collects and analyzes results from the ten groups in the corn breeding genetics pratika.  The results were pretty close to the probability calculations. Later we realized we should be using the symbols K and k, because they represent the gene for a single trait.

In another instance, the mathematics group worked out the formulae that give the total number of sticks necessary to construct a series of linked figures, such as squares, hexagons, or three dimensional figures like cubes or little houses.  Each one has its one special sequence formula, and I noticed some of the teachers were already at work memorizing the formulae from the manual before they knew, #1 where they came from and, #2 the significance of the variables in the formulae (T for the total sticks and n for the number of figures).  Alas, if you don’t know those things, the formulae are entirely worthless, whether or not you’ve got them memorized.

Extracting equations from sequences. These teachers have got two linked cubes on the right, and are working on the hexagon next.

It seems clear that structuring one’s web of knowledge and learning to apply it to the world around, as opposed to collecting a bucket of facts, is something new and radical for most of these teachers.  The SESIM trainers have come to understand this, and if we can get other teachers to see the value of it, it will pay great dividends for them and for their students.  We do our best to present this value by means of doing simple pratika related to daily life.  In reading the final feedback sheets from our training participants, it’s clear that we do have a lot of converts.

Mestre Caetano, right, accompanies teachers of the science section to observe and systematically categorize characteristics of the local rocks they’ve been building with and farming around all their lives.

Next week we’ll be back visiting schools and I plan to pen the final pages of this blog from the mountainous sub-districts of Ainaro and Baucau, after accompanying teachers who have attended our trainings deliver pratika to their students.

Despite the low priority on teaching analytical skills in schools, plenty of professional and lay Timorese use these skills regularly, such as these youths we found driving their fully steerable cars down the sidewalk in Viqueque.
Schools would do well to make use of what these kids already know, that is, to link into their web of knowledge.
Talking on the string telephone: no contract required, unlimited minutes, and always good network, until the string goes limp.
Our host school in Viqueque had set up and painted a nice set of tire stools and wood benches under their young banyan tree, which also doubled as shade for the teacher’s motorcycles.
Each morning we found local community members getting water from the school’s ailing water system: a pipe flowing weakly into a basin. By 9:00 the flow stopped, so locals had to be sure and get their day’s worth early.

Information, yes, but learning also requires meaningful connections

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.

SESIM’s caterer in Viqueque was extraordinary, delivering a huge variety of local delicacies for two snacks and the noon meal.

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.

In the next room I found the text for the day still up on the board in Portuguese (which many here still struggle to understand): “Different perspectives of development. In general, development is the act or effect of increasing something, implying a growth of some sort, blah, blah, blah”  It’s a needlessly abstract and disconnected intro to a subject critical to each of their lives.

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.

The teachers make compasses from sticks and rubber bands, then play for a while making circles.
After playing, the resulting designs can be analyzed to show the definition of a circle: the path of points equidistant from a central point.

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.

A small triangle is used to construct a similar larger triangle, at a scale of 3:1.

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.

A group from the science section analyzing soil properties and making a poster with the results. 

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.

The plate tectonics model: crackers floating on boiling ketchup. You can see it all: mountains rising, mid-oceanic ridges separating and plates scraping transverse to each other.

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.

Constructing triangles with sticks and confirming their angles always add up to 180 degrees. We had three woman teachers in the Viqueque mathematics section this session, up from two last time. The Baucau mathematics section was over 40% women.

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.

We were fortunate to have a few sunspots for viewing these two weeks. The previous week there had been none, which made for a rather dull, though bright, image of the sun.

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?!

Mestre Tito at left watches the group carry out the balance pratika with four different sacks of marbles. That’s F1D1 + F2D2 = F3D3 + F4D4, with the F forces given in units of ‘marble’ and D distances measured from the center of the ruler. As long as your marbles are uniform, the experimental result nicely follows the formula.

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.

A random hand of 20 non-face cards makes the base of our statistics pratika. Mean, median, mode, amplitude, maximum, and minimum are all noted.
A bar graph is then constructed with the cards themselves, each number a column.
And then a pie graph is constructed, and the angle allotted for each number calculated and confirmed.

Primary mathematics training of trainers

In March I was asked to plan and prepare for a nation-wide training on primary-level mathematics, grades 1 through 4.  This request came through my position at the Ministry of Education’s curriculum unit.  I went through the new primary curriculum we’ve created over the last 4 years, complete with lesson plans for each discipline, each day, and compiled the mathematics topics I know to be problematic.  These included place value, data analysis, rounding, fractions, decimals, geometry, weights and measures, and estimation.  I put together a plan for the week and wrote a little manual for the training.

This is the ‘abacus cup’ activity, where each cup represents a place value. Reading the number represented by the various sticks in each cup solidifies the structure of our base 10 number system.
After all, the 2 in 423 does not mean 2 at all, but rather 20. Everybody uses these numbers with ease, but you have to play with them to understand them deeply.

Then I called all my mathematics teacher colleagues who could get away to give a lesson or two and we trained the trainers for a week at the National Teacher Training Institute in Dili.  Our trainees, who would become trainers, consisted of top primary teachers who had been involved in previous trainings, and who were reportedly not afraid of mathematics.  (Those who were afraid of mathematics got trained next door on the new 5th and 6th grade curriculum, all disciplines.)

As always, we made great use of leaves, stones, seeds, rubbish and local artesania. This was by necessity, since no one has any special equipment, but it’s actually even better than special equipment, since it links the concepts firmly to daily life.

It went well, with everyone having a good time doing pratika while they learned the basic concepts.  My feeling was the same as I’ve had working with the junior high teachers:  just giving them time and space and encouragement to work out exercises and solve problems was all it takes to ramp up their teaching capacity quite a bit.  Confirming that they’re on the right track is invaluable for them.

This is our leader whom we call ‘Commandante Mena’.  She runs the National Teacher Training Institute’s primary in-service training programs. She attended the TOT to brush up on her mathematics skills. She’s measuring the width of the room using informal units: her feet.
After using informal units, the trainers used formal units – cm – and worked out the conversion factor.

Now the fun begins.  Those ‘National Trainers’ are this week passing on what they’ve learned to directors, assistant directors and top mathematics teachers in all the municipalities of Timor-Leste.  Those attending this week’s training will then return to their own schools and pass the material off – third time now! – to every teacher there.

Students will be shown how to measure their height with units of centimeters and also meters.

The natural question is ‘How much is lost with three pass offs?’  Or perhaps, ‘Isn’t there a better way to do this, such that teachers can be trained directly by an expert, so that at least the teacher is given correct, clear information directly?’

If you have any sort of balance, and a syringe or measuring cup, you can use water to measure the mass of an object in grams, since one mililiter of water is 1 gram. That’s Mestre Ze from Ermera in back, of Green School fame, and Mestre Angelo from Lautem, who took us fishing last year.

Sure there is!  But it’s too expensive! This trickle down technique requires much less travel and trainer time. Experts are also few and far between, and most of them are full-time teachers, so taking them out to train deprives their students of a teacher.  This week is the single week of vacation between the first and second trimesters of the 2017 academic year, and it’s important to make full use of it.  (There are usually two weeks with kids out of class, but this year the first week was Holy Week, spent preparing for Easter.)

This is the training of directors and assistant directors, and the scene is familiar: working together to solve the exercises. I was careful to be available, but also patient enough to let them crystallize what they did and didn’t understand.

The Ministry of Education also has a small video team, and I arranged a couple of SESIM teachers to teach nearly the entire training manual on film, which then goes by USB drives to each school, so that they can at least have a video expert on the spot.   Of course, on video one is limited to lecture and demonstration, but we always invite the viewers to grab it themselves and try it themselves.

Mestra Joana is a mathematics teacher from Portugal and has worked with us in the primary curriculum project for 4 years. Her Tetun is great, and she speaks Portuguese so that we can all understand it!  Here she’s showing the directors how to make paper pentagons. 

This sort of ongoing training will be necessary for years to come.  I intend to continue working with the Ministry to find ways to increase the effectiveness of the trickle, and to do my best to inspire teachers with the intrinsic wonders of mathematics.

Why bother?

The second of 4 rounds in our final ‘C Session’ trainings had SESIM in the two farthest districts from the capital, Dili. Lautem composes the easten tip of the island and includes Timor-Leste’s largest national park. Covalima is only 70km from Dili as the crow flies, just over a half hour plane flight, but fully 9 hours if you travel by car down the mountainous roads.

IMG_7289 (2017_03_26 04_01_28 UTC)
Sunspots were non existent this week. The sun without spots is not one of the more impressive objects for celestial viewing, but these Lautem students had a go at it.

I’ve trained in both of these municipalities before, and returned this time to Lautem with Mestra Mimi and Mestra Sandra working with the science teachers and Mestre Bernardino and Mestre Hortencio working with the mathematics teachers.

Now that we’re nearing the end of our program, I often become philosophical.  What have we gained?  Several things:  Teachers have now witnessed how to teach and learn with simple hands-on and inquiry activities using only simple, everyday objects.  They understand a lot more basic science and mathematics concepts.  They can’t argue that it’s not possible to carry out this sort of education in their classrooms, because many teachers are now actively doing this.

IMG_7308 (2017_03_26 04_01_28 UTC)
I’m ever impressed by my colleagues’ enthusiasm for model volcanoes. This one is has a bottle built into the earth holding the soda and soap, while the vinegar and red color comes down the tube to meet and make the eruptive reaction. Students will go gaga over this.

We want them all to take these new skills, all this valuable knowledge and understanding, and apply it in their classrooms. I’ve written in previous blogs about our strategies to make this happen. But another perspective on this challenge hit me during this week. Even after enjoying and benefiting from three trainings over the past year, the path of least resistance is still very clear for many teachers: keep on lecturing.

  1. It’s what the students and their parents are expecting.
  2. It takes less time and effort in preparation and cleanup.
  3. Though school directors have been informed that pratika is now part of the curriculum, most are unsure of what that means, and so there is rarely any positive pressure or support from above.
  4. When lecturing, unanswerable questions rarely arise. With pratika, they’re almost a sure thing, which can be awkward if you are not confident.
  5. Few teachers anywhere have much experience with pratika, so it is unlikely that anyone will be able to help if the activity is not working.
  6. Though these pratika can all be done with simple materials, still most schools do not have sufficient cabinet space to easily store many science supplies. Also, most classrooms don’t have good tables for doing pratika.
  7. If one is to carry out successful pratika, there is some chance other colleagues and/or the director will be jealous and make life difficult.

How about the reasons to do pratika?

  1. Students love it and learn better from it.
  2.  It can be quite fun and rewarding, once you get the hang of it.

So this is what we’re up against. We’re asking an enormous amount from individual teachers and also the Ministry of Education. Only the best, bravest teachers are doing this well right now. To get pratika happening in every classroom is a huge step that will take years of ongoing effort.

IMG_7326 (2017_03_26 04_01_28 UTC)
You can stand at the board and talk about velocity, or you can get a measuring tape and a clock and go measure it.

SESIM has various plans to continue meeting with these teachers, around 1000 across the country, but nothing is quite sure. We know that some are doing well already and we’re giving them as much enthusiastic boost as we can as we send them off after the final training. SESIM has begund working with the Ministry on a pilot program called GTP, short for Teachers Working Groups, which will meet regularly in each municipality and continue increasing teachers’ abilities.

We’re in an election year here. Timor-Leste has already chosen a new president and in July is scheduled to choose a new parliament. New ministers and vice ministers will be placed according to the outcome of these elections. In the past this has always meant big changes in the Ministry of Education, and we at SESIM are expecting the same this year. Just as in my native land, newly placed officials are not often impressed with existing programs and would rather put their names on new programs.

IMG_7559 (2017_03_26 06_08_29 UTC)
Modeling genetics with white and yellow corn kernels in an egg carton. Again, nothing complex, but a bit more prep, a bit more effort to get everyone headed in the right direction.

At SESIM, we’re gearing up presentations for the new minister, vice minister, director general, and heads of various critical departments. We’ll show them what we’ve accomplished and hope they’re impressed. We’ll show them the evaluations from teachers that say they love our trainings and student assessments that show they love it too. And then we’ll hope for at least a bit of support to continue working with these teachers in some way. Wish us luck.

IMG_7434 (2017_03_25 06_34_08 UTC)
The soil analysis activity is simple, but requires a good bit of prep: three kinds of soil, many little bottles or cups, vinegar, hand lenses. It’s not the path of least resistance.
IMG_7529 (2017_03_26 06_08_29 UTC)
The pratika on characteristics of rocks is super simple. Once the few materials are passed out, the teacher’s job of encouragement, suggestions and confirmation is actually easier than lecturing.
IMG_7277 (2017_03_26 04_41_11 UTC)
These teachers are pushing crackers around on top of mashed up banana, modeling the earth’s tectonic plates moving around on the magma below. Divergent, convergent and transverse boundaries, mid ocean ridges and mountain ranges are all possible to demonstrate.
IMG_7280 (2017_03_26 04_41_11 UTC)
This demo models the forces that moves the tectonic plates. Ketchup or rice porridge is boiled on a stove and the floating crackers move around on the convection currents.
IMG_6811 (2017_04_01 09_07_26 UTC)
Preparation for the cow eye dissection we know is difficult, due to the rarity of cow butchering. We tell them to keep their ears open for big parties where cows are often killed, such as weddings or funerals, and then request the eyes to use in class the next day.

Environmental science in the junior high curriculum

The current round of trainings has us teaching quite a lot of environmental science, from geology to atmospheric science to agriculture.  Alongside health, this area of science forges the firmest link to people’s quality of life.  When your environment collapses, you’re left with few choices.

Environment is closely related to population, and Timor’s is currently the most rapidly growing in all of Asia.  Statistics show the growth slowed over the last 5 years, but the current level is far from sustainable.  People want big families for a whole range of reasons. Money is also flowing better than ever now, with good petroleum checks coming in for the government to use. More money can often translate to more clearing of forest, less care for agricultural lands, and more garbage.

I’ve witnessed many times that the Timorese being more aware of their environment than my compatriots in the U.S.  They know life comes from the land.  They know where the vast majority of their calories come from and know how to produce many staples themselves.  They know how to make land produce, and which land won’t produce. During the economic crisis of the mid 2000s, most Timorese were only moderately affected, primarily because their link to the land surpassed their link to the global economy.

We’ve done our best to develop pratika that make use of the tight connection Timorese have to the land, and result in ongoing preservation.   Following are some examples of our work.


Acid rain is not a problem yet in Timor, but it’s in the curriculum, so we get students to maintain two similar plants for a week, giving one clean water and one vinegar.  Guess which is which in this photo.


‘What lies beneath our feet?’ ranks right up there with ‘Why is the sky blue?’ in questions kids seem to ask.  We make a sectional model of the earth, showing the relative depth and composition of each layer on a cone of paper. The scale is 6000km to 30cm.


Then we take them outside and walk the scaled radius of the earth, dropping labels at the boundaries between the layers (Thanks to Eric Muller a the Exploratorium Teacher Institute for this one.) This model’s scale is one step = 100km. The astonishing thing is when we plot the deepest hole ever dug (12 km), the deepest trench in the ocean (11km) and the highest mountain (9km).  They barely show up on this model.  Conclusion: we have to be pretty creative to figure out what’s going on down there.


After each pratika we get observations and questions from the teachers, and usually write them on the board.  We hope they do the same with their students, thus validating these observations and questions, valuable as the info in the textbook or even more so.


Next day we send them out hunting for as many different types of rocks as they can find. Then we observe and categorize the rocks according to the standard characteristics used in geology:  hardness, color, layers, foliation, grain size, reaction with acid, etc.  We are careful not to say we’ll ‘identify’ the rocks, because we’ve found it is an unrealistic expectation.  Though we’ve learned much from local and international geologists over the last few years, one of the most important points is that you can’t truly know the composition of a rock unless you’ve got some fancy equipment at a lab.  Acting like you can is not honest teaching.


At the same time, the proper name and chemical composition of a rock is less important than the characteristics you can discover by means of tests with simple stuff.  These are the characteristics one must consider when choosing a rock to build a house, pave a road, strike a fire, construct a terrace, or sharpen a knife.  So we don’t really need the lab.



We then do the same process with soils, checking various characteristics that are easily observable.  We bring three special soils (sand, ‘white earth’ heavy in lime, and clay) and they gather the local topsoil.


One test is about how much water leeches through and how quickly. The mark you can see on the lower bottle was how much water they poured in from the top.  This knowledge is absolutely critical for agriculture, which nearly everyone outside the capital is involved in, and we find teachers get very excited about these simple ways of quantifying these characteristics.


We’ve developed two models of global warming.  One is creating a little greenhouse with a transparent container and setting out two cups of water in the sun, one under the greenhouse.  The water under the greenhouse gets noticeably hotter after an hour.


Then we play a marble game, shooting 10 marbles at a wall and counting how many bounce back out past a chalk line.  Then we add 5 rocks into the space and shoot the 10 again, count again.  Then we add 5 more, repeat, and repeat two more times until there are 20 rocks.  The trend is that the more rocks there are in the space, the more marbles get caught inside the line. Rocks represent greenhouse gasses, marbles the sun’s radiation, the wall the earth’s surface, and the line the top of the atmosphere.  Not a perfect model, but in general the results match reality: we put out more greenhouse gases and the atmosphere catches more radiation and warms.


A nice simple bio activity to do anywhere is to block off a square meter and index what you find living and not living within it.  This is our springboard to teaching about ecosystems.


We also do a simple demo with erosion, dumping water on slopes both grassy and bare.


We do two pratika around the concept of natural selection   First we scatter onto a grassy patch 40 pieces each of leaf strips in green, yellow, brown and red, then give teachers one minute to pick up as many as they can.  Mostly they find the red ones, proving the value of camouflage.


Then we take them back inside for the food free-for-all, giving each group four utensils to use in grabbing corn kernels:  scissors, chop sticks, tweezers and a spoon. The results show that different beaks work best for different foods.


‘Science is fun!’  That was the main message of the hands-on science education advocates of my youth back in the 20th century.  It sure is: the teachers we work with have a blast at our trainings.  But they also learn concepts that stand to improve the quality of their lives when applied to their fields and local environments.  ‘Better living through science!’ would be closer to the mark here.


Our training happened to be in the week before the presidential election, and the man of the house where we were staying dressed up in full traditional garb to go to the campaign rally of his candidate.  Some of that is real gold.  The fur on his ankles is from a goat.

Final session trainings underway in the far mountains

March had us moving into the C Session trainings, the last chapter of our curriculum revision and teacher training program. I’m now in Ainaro, where this blog began, and it is great to see the teachers again, check how they’ve been doing, and enjoy the cool mountain air and stunning scenery.  I’m team teaching with Mestre Tito in the mathematics group, and the pratika of these final sessions are some of the most fascinating we’ve got. More on these activities later, but first some thoughts on why we’re here and how we’re doing.

As I’ve described in previous posts, most of the teachers we work with have inadequate background to be teaching what they are charged to teach.  In essence, they’re the best that could be found at the time of their hiring.  New young teachers are exiting university programs each year, presumably better qualified than many of these current teachers, and the Ministry of Education is grappling with the dicey challenge of replacing incompetence with competence.

It is no easier to fire a teacher here than it is in my home country.  And here there are even fewer peripheral positions – reading specialist, after-school coordinator, etc. – into which a school can shunt teachers that have proven to be ineffective in the classroom. The easiest avenue is to wait for them to retire, and many are indeed approaching that age.


Deliciously cool mists swirled up the mountain side from the Timor Sea each afternoon and treated us to a gentle rain, soaking gardens and keeping the dust down.

But young or old, competent or not, our chore is to inspire these teachers to improve their pedagogy by means of pratika.  As mentioned before, we see three levels that teachers go through toward this end:

  1. Having an authentic learning experience themselves from hands-on, inquiry-based lessons based on local resources and locally relevant connections to the curricular content.
  2. Reflecting, analyzing and gaining consciousness as to how that learning happened for themselves and how it can happen for their students.
  3. Creating opportunities for their own students to have the same authentic experiences.

For years, SESIM has been wildly successful on the first level.  Teachers rave about our trainings, and we see them learning new, vital things through pratika, right before our eyes.  This is easy, even fun. And we often make efforts to raise consciousness about the pedagogy, stopping them in the midst of the process, point out what is going on, and discuss its enormous advantages over the standard lecture-and-listen education that is happening in most schools.

It’s that third level that is the tough nut to germinate.  We’ve made this set of pratika a mandatory part of the national curriculum, and we’ve provided all the materials that are not easily available.  We’ve written a calendar that shows when each pratika is to be done and ensured that questions about the pratika will be included in the national exams.  We visit each school to help them carry out at least one pratika.  But still, when we check in with students, as we do wherever we travel, we find that few teachers are doing as well as we’d like in carrying out all these pratika.

Gandhi said that the effort is more important than the results, but in this case, the teachers’ effort is the result we’re looking for!  These things take time, but as Martin Luther King Jr. said, time alone changes nothing; it’s the struggle that produces change.


We’re just a stone’s throw from the highest peak in the country, Ramelau, which happens to be nearly a 1/3 taller than anything in the whole of Australia.  A symbol for the resistance in colonial times, it is an impressive massif from the top of which you can see both the north and south coasts of the island, various neighboring islands, and deep into Indonesian West Timor.  I’ve been up it many times and hope to climb it again with my SESIM colleagues when we visit the school at its base in a couple of months.


Thus, we struggle.  We frame it in terms of ethics:  these students deserve a better education.  We put it into legal context: this is the official curriculum, and you’re official teachers!  We use scare tactics:  inspectors may cut you down on evaluations if you’re not teaching up to par.  We try to get them to look to the future:  if current students don’t learn science and mathematics well, who will be the nation’s engineers, doctors, businesspeople, accountant, and technicians when we’re all old and grey?  Do you want to rely on foreign experts forever?

One of our primary sources of hope is the enthusiasm of the students.  We believe that if students get wind of the phenomenal amount to be learned from pratika, they’ll give positive pressure to their teachers to bring it on.  Likewise, we coach teachers on how to harness students’ creativity and energy to carry out these sometimes logistically complex activities.

In our darkest moments, when we visit a school and find the teacher has veritably fled from the pratika we’ve trained them on, our solace is that even attaining the first level objective is positive, and most teachers we’ve seen are working on or have attained the second level too.  And then we redouble our efforts toward the third. A luta continua.