Tag 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!

Changing Attitudes, a major challenge for Development and Education

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At Amún Shéa, we are enjoying a substantial degree of success using critical thinking, analysis and debate on relevant issues as tools to foster positive can-do attitudes. Our current challenge in this component is to instill a sense of social responsibility, intrinsic motivation and self-discipline in each student. This is easily the least understood aspect of the program within the educational community and requires considerable tact in its presentation. Empowerment of students sounds enlightening, but the shift in control that occurs when it is actually carried out (and not just spoken of) triggers an incredible resistance.

We have a formal educational community organization consisting of representation from the student council, the teachers’ commission, the parents’ organization, school administration and the Foundation. It is fascinating to observe the chemistry between these groups as we work towards shared decision making. Discipline is the “elephant in the room” theme brought up each time an adult feels pressured by this process. The discipline conversation always directs our attention to an idealistic and more ordered past where social structure seemingly had greater definition, and appearance revealed worth.

Perhaps the uncertainty of the world today causes one to yearn for a simpler, less complicated period. The vision of impeccably uniformed students with greased-back hair, toes pinched in freshly polished shoes and creases you could cut cheese on, mothers pretending they love getting up at four in the morning to produce such a fine specimen and fathers over in the shade nodding their approval, brings to mind a safe haven in the past. Perhaps a reluctance to accept the inevitable changes that children push for, a reluctance to abandon status quo, creates this yearning for “The way it used to be.”

This “safe haven” period generally refers to the industrial age educational system. The world moves on however, and humanity evolves. We have entered into a new age, not yet fully defined perhaps, but marked by what can only be defined as dimensional or evolutionary changes. Either by design, choice or by chance, the past is relevant only as a lesson and a reference point as we move forward. New definitions as well as fresh norms of social conduct are necessary in order to navigate ever-changing currents, hurdles and opportunities in our increasingly complex world.

Strict obedience to authority is absolutely necessary in many minds, and there within lies a major problem in changing attitudes. Our position is that the final product of strict obedience is dependence, which is fine if your objective is to create soldiers and employees for the industrial age, but which does nothing to jump-start new socioeconomic growth. Genuine progress demands out-of-the-box thinkers, independent and skeptical of external approval, willing to take risks and with a high degree of both ability and self-confidence. We must understand that the phrase, “Because I am in charge,” is a direct affront to this process.

Observation leads me to contemplate the extent to which our thinking processes are evolving. Not all of the differences of opinion and position may be attributed to adolescence and generational “growing pains.” Without overstepping my area of experience, I believe we need to take a good look at decision making processes and the impact that honor codes have on that process. I would hazard a guess that those who yearn for the “safe haven” past maintain a strict code of honor which firmly establishes right and wrong within their understanding. An evolutionary process manifesting itself in many younger people seems to be that of developing a decision making process of comprehensive assessment unique to each situation; flexibility.

Care must be taken that our attempt to promote acceptable social behavior among our youth, through codes of honor, does not actually condition them to accept superficial codes. Codes which are imposed and not naturally assimilated are easily exchanged for another. While strict ethical codes are pictured as noble, there are many sectors of society which operate with authoritarian codes that accept no questioning; criminal organizations, youth gangs and cults, to name a few. We would be much further ahead by accepting that both evolution and our youth are moving in the right direction and support them in this transition.

Caught in transition between the industrial/information age and the incoming yet-to-be-named eon, we need to structure our programs with flexibility that bridges rather than breaks down community during this period. A level of tension, both generational and from a difference in vision will be prevalent, even volatile at times. We must learn how to responsibly manage those differences and understand the processes provoking those them.

It is clear that changing attitudes is a long-term endeavor, in all probability involving several generations. The length of the process should not be seen as a problem, insomuch as we have a comprehensive strategy and are moving daily in the right direction.

Integrating Education and Development

Garden Results

Northern Morazán is a remote border region in El Salvador. It is an area where the dimensional divide between education and development is very clearly demonstrated. Hundreds of local young people graduate from “vocational school” each year and enter “the real world” without the basic skills needed to face daily obstacles and to seize the occasional opportunities when presented.

High school in El Salvador has both a two-year general program as the route to university studies and a three year vocational option. Most rural students opt for vocational studies, as they lack the financial resources involved not only for tuition but for travel, lodging and living expenses to go to university. The problem is that most rural high schools have only one, and at the most two, vocational options. The high school in Perquín, Morazán provides Accounting and Secretary as the two vocational options, from which over one hundred students graduate each year. The obvious contradiction is that northern Morazán, statically the poorest area in El Salvador has little to no openings for these positions. The other difficulty is that the educational curriculum for these specialties is outdated, requiring the graduate who does find employment to relearn their skills once again.

Actually, a vanguard educational system should be the most significant means available to lead development and fight poverty in remote areas of developing countries. However, the traditional separation of formal education from socioeconomic developmental programs results with both falling far short of essential expectations and having little impact on real living conditions. It is indeed a sad truth that expectations regarding both program areas have plummeted, as the status quo of helplessness reigns supreme.

Attempts to effect change are often viewed as unrealistic and discarded as impractical theories. Programs too often are funded only because tradition and political correctness mandates tolerating this social burden, even though the probability of failure can easily be assumed.

Both, may we say, industries, have become institutionalized and increasingly specialized, conceivably to their own detriment. There is an obvious flaw in educational programs that are focused on forming excellent employees but work within a reality of very few job opportunities. Equally, developmental programs often mistakenly assume that the beneficiary population has sufficient knowledge or has the capacity to assimilate new techniques and productive innovations, creating frustration and inefficiency during program implementation and operation.

Very often these educational and developmental programs operate side by side without ever coming into contact with each other. Ostensibly they are all inclusive and mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, neither has managed to solve the social or economic woes in rural areas of developing countries. Both focus on content, knowledge, tools, resources and projected outcome. It is striking that neither consider attitude, self-motivation and self-realization to be basic components in their strategic planning and methodology.

A credible study of the long history of charity programs, reconstruction projects and readily available technical training courses will reveal a high degree of passivity and dependence on outside intervention as a direct result of their implementation. Development projects actually become a means of subsistence in and of themselves without hope of actually originating self-perpetuating productiveness and sustainability. The projects themselves become the employer and the organizations are often converted into a type of family business. Within this setting, traditional education has no clear purpose and therefore offers very little beyond simply keeping the children occupied while parents are working. It could essentially be said that these areas are primary components (purposely or not) of the Poverty Industry, in that “Education” provides the beneficiaries for continuous “Development” which maintains the demand for perpetual assistance and expert intervention.

Constructive socioeconomic change requires integrating the technical capacity focus of development with motivation or positive change in attitudes which are developed through appropriate educational methodology. This implies bringing the two programs together in a way that will enhance both. It requires providing education with a purpose for its existence. It means channeling development through those with interest, willingness and the capacity to assimilate innovative programs. It will provide a support structure to development and coverts education into a relevant, meaningful activity.

Amún Shéa, Center for Integrated Development in Perquín, Morazán is an example of the needed integration, with a curriculum that strives to bridge the dimensional split between academics and development. This is done with hands-on participation by the students in building solutions to local developmental hurdles. Beginning in 2008 with kindergarten through third grade, the program has expanded one grade per year, reaching ninth grade this year (2014.) Accreditation for High School next year is in process with the Salvadoran Educational Ministry.

Amún Shéa stands out from the Salvadoran norm in several concrete ways. The Amún Shéa program runs from 7:30 am to 3:00 pm, practically doubling the half-day public education system. Whereas the methodology in the public system is limited to the teacher copying material from a textbook to the chalkboard (whiteboard now, in some cases) and the student copying that same information into their notebook, our problem-based methodology integrates current and developmental concerns into the subject matter.

As the school runs a full day and nutritional-related health deficiencies within the area are alarming, Amún Shéa incorporates a complete nutrition program which provides nourishing meals, nutrition training, cooking lessons, vegetable farming, fishing farming and hygiene training. Coordinated with the USA-based organization GlobeMed, the objective of the program is to go beyond providing the daily snack and lunch to each student to actually modifying eating habits and diet within the community, beginning with the families of the students. As well, this activity opens the opportunity for families to learn from the program and implement vegetable gardening and fish farming as a business enterprise, which helps broaden the local production base from subsistence basic grains.

Amún Shéa students take on real-world problems for their scientific investigation projects. In one case, the sixth grade investigated the local municipal water supply after experiencing firsthand in their homes the indication of contamination within the distribution system. They traveled to the water source of the system, high in the neighboring Honduran mountains, interviewed the inhabitants living around the source and inspected the source. They then inspected the filtration plant, tanks and distribution system. They uncovered lapses and gaps of responsibility between the municipality and local health authorities. In the end, their investigation forced improvements in the water system for over 3,000 people.

Creation of business plans is another exercise for the integration of real-world situations into the subject material. Several small enterprises have germinated from this process, as parents are convinced of the viability by their child´s work.

Cultural research and investigation as a means of building community and personal identity is an elemental part of the program. Collecting testimony from senior citizens regarding past events, practices and local history, researching local legends and lore, and searching out traces of indigenous roots all assist in personal orientation. In this aspect, not only the past is covered, but current tendencies as well, including immigration, economic activities and opinion polls.

Each student is equipped with a Personal Learning Environment, basically the digital tool-kit and portfolio they will use and further develop throughout their lives. This emphasis on digital tools and resources actually levels the playing field for our students, giving them access to the same information and processes as students in more favorable conditions. It also compensates for the lack of locally available information in needed areas of technical study.

Integration of education and development is the key to initiating positive socioeconomic changes. Its success will depend on the extent that real-world application is implemented throughout the process.

The Mandate of Education in Development

Niño brazos en alto

Education has a mandate in socioeconomic development! Especially in economically unstable regions, the implementation of new productive endeavors or innovative methods requires a time consuming learning process. In underdeveloped regions of the world, much of the effort of outside experts is consumed in teaching basic concepts and simple mathematic operations instead of implementing the necessary modernization.

Typically, these development projects are implemented in close proximity to a local school. These schools, as part of the “formal educational system” use standardized lessons which are often completely divorced from community needs and employment opportunities. This void easily reaches a point where the focus on the hypothetical leaves students unprepared for real-world situations. This situation actually disempowers people and generates passivity in the face of personal and shared challenges.

The mandate is to bridge this gap between education given and the knowledge needed, if we are to see positive change in socioeconomic statistics. A first step is to merge the activities of education and development so that obstacles to growth become areas of study in the school. Next, outside technical assistance must be made available through the school, which amplifies coverage, lessens time spent on basic concepts and takes advantage of potent youthful energy. This merging of activities enhances the quality of each by providing purpose and motivation for each.

Unfortunately, the intent of creating equal opportunity through the standardization process, while claiming different degrees of success in different places, in general failed completely throughout economically stagnant regions of the world. The wholesale training of an employee class, and then sending them out into a jobless situation, is counterproductive. Opportunity lies in entrepreneurship and the application of creativity to specific local circumstances.

Amún Shéa, a school in the Morazán province of El Salvador, has accepted this mandate and has taken on the challenge of merging education and development. It is a unique but proven educational project, designed to combat the self-perpetuating underdevelopment that is endemic to the region. It is working to stop this repetitive cycle through human development which focuses on changing attitudes, building real-world skills and creating opportunity for realization of hopes, dreams and goals.

It is gratifying and provides hope to see endeavors similar to Amún Shéa developing quietly throughout the world. It makes the future brighter. Be a part of it!

Education, Poverty and Status Quo

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Gaining distinction as the poorest area in the country, both in economic terms and academic achievement, is not an easy task. It takes years, even decades and many progressive steps to achieve it, and even more work to maintain it. It is manifested in attitudes, in conformity and a paradoxical combination of resentment and resignation. It is expressed in the status quo and far from motivating the search for alternatives out of poverty; it actually induces a strong resistance to change. In an uncertain, fearful world knowing your place and your role provides a sense of security, even when that place is last place. This is the current situation in northern Morazán, in north-east El Salvador.

The division of roles and full acceptance of them among all players is the determining factor in maintaining status quo. The automation of social processes results in the acceptance of always being the “beneficiary population” for entities of the Poverty Industry and a tacit understanding with regard to the distribution of the provided resources.

The intromission of elements, institutions or concepts foreign to the “understanding” is cause for great concern. Worse yet are those that focus on developing structural changes which could modify the perception or image of the “poor and dignified victims.”

In 2008 we started Amún Shéa, Center for Integrated Development, as an alternative educational system designed to address the socioeconomic needs of the area. As expected, the program immediately drew attention to itself, both from parents seeing it as a viable option for bettering their children’s future and by those who looked at it warily, fearing that it would disrupt the status quo. As one local council member expressed, “the fundraising capacity of this project, will absorb a disproportionate share of international cooperation designated for the area.”

New methodology which does not contain “the basics” of traditional education is automatically rejected, although it is generally accepted that the current educational system in Morazán is a failure. Even parents supportive of the program have difficulty measuring their child´s progress by traditional standards, until they learn new systems of evaluation. Experience shows that our program works, is effective and has tangible positive results. Assimilation within the community, nevertheless, is a process delayed by status quo.

The point is, for an educational program or any other program to be successful in creating real change; it must first overcome the inertia of status quo which permeates social strati, including those seemingly supportive of change and poverty eradication.

De la Realidad hacía lo Ideal

Boy with Pipe banner 44Es muy fácil clavarnos en un debate sin fin sobre la educación, si no nos ubicamos primero referente al ángulo o punto de vista representado. La brecha entre la realidad, más bien entre las variadas realidades según circunstancias y ubicación, y lo ideal se duplica muchas veces en la discusión.

Como me dijo un amigo, Menno, hace ya unos veinticinco años atrás, “todo plan es perfecto sobre papel; el problema es que depende del hombre para implementarlo.” Coincido totalmente con Menno, en que todos los proyectos y reformas educativos son perfectos, hasta son ideales, pero hasta el momento de su aplicación. He aquí la razón del enfoque e importancia que da el PNUD y otras instancias sobre el desarrollo humano, ya que es el elemento que determina el éxito o fracaso operativo de todo plan.

Si aceptamos la realidad de una brecha entre el programa educativo nacional y su aplicación, y si evaluamos que, lejos de mejorar, tiene una tendencia marcada de espiral descendente, entonces el debate debería centrar en las medidas a tomar para revertir el proceso hacia lo positivo.

Tenemos que aceptar además que todo programa nacional es centro-céntrico, valga la redundancia, y que las condiciones del centro difieren mucho del periférico. Así “las medidas a tomar” en toda probabilidad son reflejo de cada realidad actual, aunque tengamos un ideal o norte en común para guiarnos.

La ley de desarrollo desigual nos indica que entre más atrasada, más posibilidad de un salto de calidad, ya que difícilmente se abandona inversión de infraestructura y procesos que están todavía funcionando aún a medias. Donde tal inversión no existe y no hay necesidad de deshacer para construir, la acción de cambio tiene mayor libertad y menos ataduras.

Propongo que el norte de Morazán se encuentra en una posición de ventaja para poder realizar cambios radicales y tomar las medidas de corrección necesarias en materia educativa, ya que se encuentra firmemente en el último lugar de rendimiento académico y el primer lugar en la pobreza de la nación. Continuidad solo garantiza continuidad.

La opción de esperar que las reformas nuevas y los directrices operacionales filtran del centro hacía la periferia no es viable. Así como está la situación, cada región o realidad tendrá que proponerse a realizar los cambios necesarios para sacudir al fondo la inercia de un sistema estancado.

Mas sin embargo, estando en el piso sin más salida que para arriba, fácilmente se puede caer en un nivel de activismo o maquearismo que aparenta mejora en el corto plazo pero que carece de bases fundamentales sobre lo cual se puede continuar construyendo. Eso es el gran reto actual; hacer los cambios necesarios, radicales incluso, sin despegar de los cimientos fundamentales de la educación. Pues, es fácil hacer olas en un charco pacho.

Previo al debate de fondo sobre la educación viene el estire y coge de quien o que instancia es la que puede determinar cuáles son los fundamentos intocables académicos. ¿Quién es el dueño del circo? …..y ¿por qué?

Algunas preguntas para la discusión:

1. ¿Es un docente con escalafón la mejor opción para las responsabilidades de director, o estos se resuelvan mejor otro profesional?

2. ¿Con un profesional no-docente como director, podría haber otro nivel de aplicación de las reformas educativas?

3. ¿Se obtiene conocimiento con teoría o es necesario aplicación? ¿y si es posible enseñar un conocimiento no aplicado?

4. ¿Es el docente la única vía y realmente insustituible en la obtención de la educación?

5. ¿Podríamos diversificar el “programa” educativo, creando opciones de vías de aprendizaje en concordancia con los intereses, capacidades y expectativas de los “clientes?” ¿No llevan todos los caminos a Roma?

6. ¿Cómo se organice un programa “nacional” que no es marcado por centro y periférica?

7. ¿Cuál es el producto que buscamos con la educación, el tigre o el perico?