Category Archives: Education

Building the Great Wall

There is certainly much ado regarding the construction of a wall on the border of the United States with Mexico. Known primarily as the Great Wall or Trump’s Wall, the objective is to stop undocumented movement through the southern border.

As with most politically motivated projects, this proposal has created tremendous emotional reactions, both pro and con. In an emotionally charged debate such as this, everyone on both sides of the issue is absolutely convinced they are right. The emotions of this debate are fostered by frustrated illusions on the one hand and fear of unpleasant changes of lifestyle on the other. There is little effort put forth by either side to inject a bit of objectivity into an analysis of the situation. It is within this continuing disorder that a parasitic industry of traffickers, lawyers, jailers, and unscrupulous employers rake in tremendous profits. Many special interests are involved, some representing very powerful financial pursuits and a very few working for a solution.

If the answer to the problem of controlling illegal migration is to be reduced to simply putting an obstacle in the way, that is to build a wall, it is doomed to failure from the start. Actually it would likely result in strengthening the same parasitic industry of human trafficking by provoking an increase in the fare paid for transportation as they become more creative in their methods.

If we are able to overcome the emotional part of the discussion, perhaps we can come to the same conclusion as the American poet Robert Frost, when he wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” That is to say we need some order in the backyard and a clear definition of the boundaries in order to avoid a constant dispute with the neighbor. Remember that a good fence serves in both directions. In looking at El Salvador and the USA, it is clear that a case may be made for mutual accusation of invasion and abuse in recent history. It is also very clear that neither party has been represented by its most favorable spokespersons in this exchange. Fear is not a good advisor to either party. In order to move forward, we must quiet emotions, identify appropriate counterparts and start dealing with this in an objective manner.

In most cases, the decision to set off on the journey to the USA is made with the perception that it is the only option to obtain a decent livelihood. It is not a decision taken lightly. Loved ones are left behind, knowing that some will never be seen again, and children are left with grandparents. The sale of land or debt incurred provides the veritable fortune demanded by the trafficking industry. This is reality for, and is the decision made daily by, dozens of men and women in villages and hamlets throughout El Salvador. We often ask how it is possible that they are willing to give up so much and to risk life itself under such adverse conditions when it is compared to the option of investing a modest amount in their own country. The answer is very simple. The confidence factor. There is little confidence that conditions in the country can actually provide a secure enough opportunity to motivate such an investment.

Following the illusion of the “American Dream” requires a high level of courage and sacrifice. It also demands resignation! This combination forges a determination that will not be interrupted by concrete walls or razor wire. To put this in perspective, most are already paying 20 times the cost of an air ticket, and in addition, are willing to risk their very essence and being on a route fraught with inconceivable dangers. Can any wall actually contain this level of determination?

The only wall feasible for containing the migratory flow from El Salvador to the United States is one that makes it more attractive to stay here than to leave. It must replace the “American Dream” with the “Salvadoran Sueño”. It must be a wall that displaces the perception of migration as the only real economic option. That is a wall built of opportunity, in El Salvador.

The foundation of this wall must be an integrated educational program that prepares the young with a proactive attitude and sense of responsibility, real life skills and opportunities for achievement. This implies a true technical-professional preparation and scientific focus in the development of a new enterprises and technologies. The wall itself must incorporate innovation, investment and open access to all technical information and productive processes. The top of this barrier must be a public policy that motivates initiative and protects local and individual economic activity from outside intervention.

So, let’s come together and build this Great Wall. Let’s create the Salvadoran Sueño that keeps our talent here through a solid program of training and opportunity and keeps your opportunists on your side of the fence.

The practical issue that comes to mind of course, is the cost. Who is going to pay for all of this? A very good question and one which deserves serious discussion. A good question to start with is, who is paying now for the disorder? The information on security and protection costs is readily available for review and is staggeringly high. As an example, in 2015 the daily cost for holding a minor in custody for illegal border entry into the USA was $252. That amount would pay a full scholarship for 45 students at Amún Shéa, a private innovative problem-based learning program in Morazan, El Salvador, which is an area of extremely high migration. Does a 45 to one ratio sound like a good investment?

Mr. Trump, you are a businessman and fully understand the difference between an investment and wasted expenditure. Let’s make a deal and work together on building a wall of education and opportunity that works for both of us. If we accept that good fences (walls) make good neighbors, then great gates may be built as well, wide open and welcoming, making us even better neighbors!

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Finding the starting point

img_5791Opportunities for learning have never been more extensive and accessible as they are today. The digital era opens the opportunity for anyone to learn any field, whether academic, technical or artistic.

Everything anyone desires to learn is literally at the distance of their fingertips and often under the guidance of world class experts. The major difficulty is actually choosing an appropriate package for oneself from among the many resources offered. Indeed, the offer is so overwhelming that it exceeds our ability to actually conceive it. Clearly, it is necessary to find a pathway, a starting point from which to navigate.

Some areas  of discussion on education and methodology will be phased out if we really enter into and seize the opportunities of the digital world. The controversial discussion regarding the role of the teacher and the conflict between the focus on content and processes, will tend to dissipate before this magnitude and diversity of learning opportunities.

How is it then that we have not taken full advantage of what the digital age offers? And how can we find that starting point?

From my observation of the educational process, while working in the Amún Shéa School in Morazán, I would argue that the current process of teaching and learning in general is governed by imitation. Many teachers do not teach from their own knowledge of the subjects, but reproduce the style and method of teachers they studied under during their own educational process. This lack of comprehension skills is replicated in students, cycle after cycle. It then radiates out into all areas of society where the norm becomes a game to provide the correct answer, albeit without much real knowledge of the subject.

This same phenomenon can be  observed daily, even outside of school. In my activities in tourism, as owner of the Hotel Perkin Lenca, on a daily basis I see the difficulty of understanding of my employees, suppliers and even the personnel of governmental agencies that visit us.

We have wasted effort and resources on motivational courses, technical training and the development of methodological manuals that in the end produce little progress in the participants. We have been commenting for some time now on the need to teach by example, because the difficulty in transferring new techniques and procedures, via both written and oral, is so evident. It turns out that this does not solve the problem either as it only provides another model to imitate.

Changes in knowledge and processes have reached an unprecedented rate. There is no longer time to imitate. Any copy, very soon becomes obsolete . It may sound extreme, but the accumulation of knowledge and processes is no longer valid. Where then does this leave our educational systems?

Regardless of age or position in society, the future will depend on individual capacity of comprehension, not only for success, but to maintain a minimum level of well-being.

The starting point then, is comprehension. Educational  institutions will maintain their relevance to the extent that they focus on promoting comprehension at three levels: oral, written and social. The concepts of oral and written comprehension are well known and basic. Social comprehension refers to empathy, the understanding of the human condition in others.

Those who are equipped with comprehension have all knowledge at their disposal. No barrier exists that can stop them.

Encontrando el “punto de partida”

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Las oportunidades para el aprendizaje nunca han sido tan amplias y accesibles como hoy en día. La era digital abre la oportunidad de conocer y aprender a cualquier persona en cualquier campo, ya sea académico, artístico o cualquier otra especialidad.

Todo lo que uno desea aprender está a la distancia de sus dedos y a cargo de expertos de respeto, de clase mundial. Incluso, la dificultad actual es elegir el paquete apropiado para uno mismo entre tanta oferta. Es una oferta abrumadora que sobrepasa nuestra capacidad de concebirla. Claramente, se requiere de encontrar un camino, un punto de partida, para navegar en ella.

Algunos temas de discusión sobre la educación y la metodología quedarán desfasados si realmente entramos y aprovechamos las oportunidades del mundo digital. Aspectos polémicos como el rol central del docente o el conflicto entre contenidos y procesos, tenderán a disiparse ante la magnitud y diversidad de posibilidades de aprendizaje.

¿Cómo es entonces que no hemos aprovechado plenamente lo que ofrece la era digital? ¿Y cómo podemos encontrar el punto de partida?

A partir de la observación de la labor de enseñanza en el Centro Escolar Amún Shéa, en Morazán, sostengo que el proceso de enseñanza y aprendizaje actual en general se rige por la “imitación”. Muchos docentes no enseñan a partir de su conocimiento de las materias, sino que reproducen el estilo y método de los docentes que tuvieron en su propio proceso educativo. Esta falta de comprensión se replica en los estudiantes, ciclo tras ciclo, y luego se irradia a todos los ámbitos de la sociedad, donde la norma vuelve un juego de ofrecer la respuesta correcta, sin mayor conocimiento real del tema.

Este mismo fenómeno se observa a diario, aun fuera de la escuela. En mi actividad en la actividad turística, como propietario del hotel Perkin Lenca, observo a diario la dificultad de comprensión de mis empleados, proveedores y hasta del personal de las instancias gubernamentales que nos visitan.

Hemos desperdiciado esfuerzo y recursos para realizar cursos motivacionales, capacitaciones técnicas y elaborar manuales metodológicos para que a final obtengamos pocos avances por parte de los participantes. En Amún Shéa desde hace mucho tiempo hemos venido comentado la necesidad de enseñar con el ejemplo, porque era evidente la dificultad existente para trasladar nuevas técnicas y procedimientos por medios escritos y orales. Resulta que eso tampoco resuelve el problema dado que solo provee otro modelo para imitar.

Los cambios en conocimiento y procesos han alcanzado una velocidad sin precedente. Ya no hay tiempo para imitar. Toda copia, muy pronto, se vuelve desfasada. Decirlo puede sonar extremista, pero ya no hay acumulación de conocimiento ni de procesos válidos. ¿Y entonces, donde quedan los sistemas educativos?

Sin importar la edad o el puesto que se ocupe en la sociedad, el futuro dependerá de la capacidad individual de comprensión, no solo para el éxito, sino para sostener un nivel mínimo de bienestar.

El punto de partida es la comprensión. Las instituciones de educación mantendrán su relevancia en la medida que enfoquen en el fomento de la comprensión a tres niveles: oral, escrito y social. Los conceptos de comprensión oral y escrito son muy conocidos y básicos. La comprensión social se refiere a la empatía, la comprensión de condición humana en las demás personas.

Los que estamos equipados con la comprensión tendremos todo el conocimiento a nuestra disposición. No existe barrera capaz de frenarnos.

Perdiendo el control

Una simple búsqueda en Internet de la frase “métodos alternativos de educación” arroja más de 2,5 millones de recursos en algo menos de medio segundo. “Los problemas en el sistema educativo” registra unos 13,5 millones en menos tiempo. Aquí estoy a punto de añadir otro recurso más a la discusión.

He llegado a la conclusión de que en estos temas vamos a seguir patinando mientras no lleguemos a tratar el punto central de “control”. ¿Quién controla la educación? ¿Para que finalidad?

Poniendo el control total del aprendizaje en las manos de los estudiantes estaríamos mucho mejor. Las instituciones educativas debieran limitarse a proporcionarles infraestructura, herramientas y orientación, dejando el diseño del “programa” en las manos de cada estudiante. Así, cada uno podría seleccionar las combinaciones y configuraciones más adecuadas para trazar y realizar su propio plan de vida.

Hay que botar el anticuado modelo industrializado de educación basado en contenidos. No hace falta reformarlo, sino botarlo. Necesitamos acercarnos a lo expresado por Terry Shaneyfelt en su artículo titulado “COP, PLN, y Conectivismo: Una expresión creativa” donde sugiere que el aprendizaje sea el resultado de una combinación de herramientas digitales (PLN) y comunidades de práctica (COP). Las COP deben entenderse como la unión voluntaria de un número de personas en torno a un interés compartido.

Todas las herramientas necesarias para permitir el aprendizaje individualizado ya existen. No hay excusas, sólo miedo. El miedo a perder el control.

Tenemos que perder el control, entregar la responsabilidad al interesado y confiar en que este se desarrollará con verdadero progreso. Y de hecho, también escribir menos sobre estas cosas y poner nuestras propuestas en práctica.

La pobreza como una identidad cultural

Desarrollar un programa educativo dentro de un área marcada por la pobreza tiene complicaciones. A medida que se adquiere experiencia, la visión de que la educación realmente puede causar una mejora en las condiciones socioeconómicas locales se convierte en una brumosa comprensión de las condiciones que crean y, más importante aún, reproducen la pobreza.

Al iniciar la escuela Amún Shéa en Morazán hace ocho años, en el noreste de El Salvador, sostuve la idea de que las condiciones socioeconómicas bajas eran de carácter técnico, que podrían mejorarse a través de la formación de las personas para que asuman la tarea del desarrollo. Mantengo todavía la idea que la solución está en la educación y la formación del individuo. Lo que ha cambiado mucho es mi entendimiento de la naturaleza de la pobreza.

Cuando la frase “somos pobres” se afirma en las personas como una condición permanente, como a menudo se escucha por aquí, es evidente que la pobreza se ha convertido en parte de la identidad cultural. Como tal, la sociedad toma medidas para proteger y reproducir esa herencia. El miedo al cambio es la norma y la demonización de los que rompen con el status quo es el medio para reforzarlo.

En muchos niveles y entornos la pobreza es recompensada y el progreso castigado. Lo que he observado en la educación es que una vez que los estudiantes alcanzan un cierto nivel, el entorno deja de estimularles a seguir adelante. Esto ocurre típicamente en los grados séptimo y octavo cuando los estudiantes alcanzan y comienzan a superar la madurez emocional y también el promedio de escolaridad de la sociedad en general incluyendo, en muchos casos la de sus padres y profesores. Estos jóvenes suelen ser percibidos como una amenaza a medida que desarrollan el pensamiento crítico, la madurez emocional y la capacidad técnica por encima de la norma establecida.

Este fenómeno es parte de un miedo inherente de perder el control, impulsado por sentimientos de insuficiencia y baja autoestima. Esto significa que para acelerar el cambio socioeconómico positivo y la mejora necesaria de las habilidades técnicas y académicas de nuestros estudiantes es necesario atender las necesidades emocionales de los adultos, al menos de los que participan en la comunidad educativa.

Afortunadamente, hay excepciones dentro de las comunidades locales. La Fundación Perquín para el Fomento de Oportunidades Educativas (PEOF) está trabajando un innovador programa educativo que tiene la visión de proporcionar las herramientas para el aprendizaje directamente a los estudiantes. Al mismo tiempo, estamos trabajando para lograr la incorporación de una atención focalizada dirigida a profesores, padres y madres como componente permanente en el programa educativo.

No estamos solos en eso. Fue una sorpresa agradable encontrar intereses comunes y una visión compartida dentro de un segmento importante en el Ministerio de Educación Salvadoreño (MINED). Esto nos llevó establecer un programa para padres y profesores como una directriz principal en el convenio “Piloto para Educación Rural Relevante” firmado entre PEOF y el MINED.

Cuando la educación asume la tarea de cambio socioeconómico, el enfoque se amplía desde el cuerpo estudiantil hacia toda la comunidad, partiendo del punto de vista técnico, hasta incluir los problemas sociales y emocionales que se han incrustado en el mismo tejido cultural. Este reto es mayor que el que nos planteamos hace ocho años, pero por ello mismo es necesario que sigamos adelante.

Poverty as a cultural identity

Developing an educational program within an area scarred by poverty can get complicated. As experience builds, the vision that education can actually cause an improvement in local socioeconomic conditions has evolved, from being a given and straightforward process into the quagmire of understanding conditions that create, and even more importantly, reproduce poverty.

When starting Amún Shéa school in Morazán, in northeast El Salvador, eight years ago, I held the notion that the chronically low socioeconomic conditions were of a technical nature, which could be improved through the formation of individuals to take on the task of development. I still hold that the solution lies in education and formation of the individual. What has greatly changed in my understanding is the nature of poverty.

The verb “to be” in Spanish has two conditions: one of a temporary nature (I am hungry) and another of a permanent nature (I am from Delaware). When the phrase “we are poor” is stated in the permanent condition, as often heard here, it is clear that poverty has become part of the cultural identity. As such, society actually takes measures to protect and replicate that heritage. Fear of change is the norm and demonization of those who break with status quo is the means by which this is reinforced.

It is notable the extent to which poverty is rewarded and progress punished on many levels and in many settings. What I have observed in education is that once students reach a certain level, they are no longer encouraged to seek personal development. This typically happens in the seventh and eighth grades as students reach and begin to surpass the emotional maturity and academic capacity of local society in general, including in many cases that of their parents and teachers. Clearly these young people are perceived as a threat as they develop critical thinking, emotional maturity and technical capacity above and beyond the established norm.

This phenomenon is part of what I see as an inherent fear of losing control, fostered by feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. It leads me to the conclusion that in order to expedite positive socioeconomic change and for the needed improvement in technical and academic skills in our students, we must deal simultaneously with the emotional needs of adults, at least those involved in the educational community.

Thankfully, there are exceptions within the local communities. It is this group with which we as Perkin Educational Opportunities Foundation(PEOF) are building a solid innovative educational program with the vision of providing the tools for learning directly to the students. At the same time we are working towards incorporating a focused attention directed towards teachers and parents, into the educational program.

We are not alone with this issue. It was a pleasant surprise to find shared concerns and vision within an important segment in the Salvadoran Ministry of Education (MINED). This led to  is establishing a program for parents and teachers as a prime directive in the technical agreement “Pilot for Relevant Rural Education” PEOF signed recently with MINED.

When education takes on the task of socioeconomic change, the focus broadens from the student body to the entire community and from the technical angle to include those social and emotional issues which have embedded themselves into the very fabric of the culture. Much more than I planned on dealing with eight years ago, but then even more crucial to follow through.

Learning Connections

Taking up the invitation put forth by Terry Shaneyfelt, in his blog COPs, PLN, and Connectivism: A Creative Expression, I was inspired to play around with the concept as a way of better explaining my thoughts on education. I did have to play around with my software as well, given I recently evolved to Linux; learning is fun, I love it! So, here goes:

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In applying connectivism to our school setting in Amún Shéa, we need to add the influence of traditional institutions. This includes the Ministry of Education, the community as a whole, church and other institutions which hold sway over the domain. While by no means tagging tradition with negative influence, it may be held that these institutions generally tend to move along towards change at a fairly slow pace.

What does become clear is the role digital tools play in the creation of Communities of Practice that transcend physical location and allow the grouping of people around the world based on passions and interest.

The challenge perhaps resides in converting the TRADs into COPs, as well.