In 1993 and 94 I was assigned by Palms to a teacher mentoring role in Samoa. While I was encouraged to believe I could guide effective teaching practice, I never had the certitude to believe I was going to revolutionise Samoan education. Indeed I know of few educators who would have the arrogance of certainty to apply a single approach that fails to account for particular circumstances.
I had spent 15 years in Victorian classrooms, attempting to drag senior secondary students out of earlier teacher-centred learning experiences, into a student-centred enquiry learning approach. Put simply, it was a process of finding topics in my subject area that would stimulate students to ask questions that assisted their exploration of the key concepts and knowledge. Research skills were honed as required.
The idea was to help students to become independent learners, despite the dangers of not spoon-feeding them enough before their formal Year 12 examinations. My son, who graduated year 12 a couple of years ago, speaks of his surprise at the dropout rate of first-year university students from private schools, given their wonderful ATAR scores. His surprise highlights both the problem of not encouraging independent learning and also the possibility that this continuing tension in the Australian school system suggests we are also a “developing” country.
In reviewing “Classroom Change in Developing Countries: From Progressive Cage to Formalistic Frame” in Devpolicy, Robert Cannon agrees with author Gerard Guthrie that, “Attempts to replace formalistic teaching with progressive styles in developing countries are usually culturally inappropriate, and second, they usually fail.”
It is clear from my own experience and that of the many teacher mentors, who have undertaken a Palms assignment, that an intention to replace one system with another is a fanciful proposition, especially when local cultures “… are dimly understood … by outsiders charged with making ‘improvements’”. However, does the labelling of Western educational models as “progressive” reveal a Straw-Man argument is in play as a convenient contrast for Guthrie’s dubious point?
Finding a sensible centre
Where existing formal teaching methodologies are underpinned by a very formal hierarchical culture; where students are never to risk adults losing face by asking questions they may not be able to answer, change will be slow. However, arguments contrasting extremes miss the point. Learning options that encourage self-enquiry are valuable and to suggest that such classroom reform amounts to being “…caged by Western culture-bound value judgments” seems to be a hobby-horse of Guthrie’s that dangerously ignores the world in which students and teachers in all cultures now find themselves.
Teacher-centered approaches prevailed in my 1960’s Australian classrooms. This also reflected our more hierarchal culture at that time. Some teachers were able to use rote learning exercises to foster mental engagement for some students, but many were similar to the ones I first saw in Samoa. Teachers write sentences on the board that students copy into their book. At the exam, teachers write the same sentences on the board with random (not just subject specific) words missing. Students pass if they can fill in 50% of the words.
Students taught to think, rather than just remember, will always be more fulfilled in themselves and probably more productive in the economy. A big part of enabling people to live life to the fullest is enabling them to investigate options. This happens where enquiring minds are fostered.
While teachers in “developing” countries have little training, the “frame” of traditional formalistic classroom teaching espoused by Guthrie does at least provide a useful cultural security. However, students’ access to the digital world encourages and requires questioning minds. They will not be well served, nor remain tolerant of teachers unable to assist them to process information independently.
Needless to say, I did not overturn culturally reinforced rote learning practice in Samoa, but when the young teachers I was mentoring became inquisitive about how I would approach their lessons, rather than telling them, I got them thinking about the objectives and planning alternative approaches that might work. This gave example to student-centred enquiry. I was then able to challenge them to offer their students objectives rather than “How to?” instructions, which inevitability made them vulnerable to student questioning. They survived and thrived to try it again.
The qualified and experienced teachers recruited by Palms are prepared for engaging with culture and building relationships over the first six months of their assignment. They are encouraged to develop frameworks for identifying the existing strengths and assets in a school. To suggest change before doing so would be arrogant. They then stay long enough to build on these strengths and complement them with further options for building self-reliance in students.
Palms model of long-term assignments means we avoid being the outsiders with a dim understanding of local culture. A dichotomous question of a “progressive cage” replacing a “formalistic frame” misses what can be achieved in assignments where development is built on sound relationships that provide appropriate awareness through mutual development.