Lessons from the Ground

In July of 2012, I wrote the following:

"The first stark contrast between the two education reforms (Philippines versus Finland): The president of the Philippines assumes he has the knowhow to fix the basic education system and enumerates specific actions to be taken. On the other hand, the Finnish approach begins with principles to guide the reform. The second glaring difference is the lack of acknowledgement of the role of teachers in reforming education. It is therefore not surprising that present efforts in the Philippines only involve dictating to teachers what they should teach and how they should teach. After all, everything has been laid out already by the president, there is no longer any input needed from the teachers. Finnish education reform involves a much deeper conversion. It includes a paradigm shift in which all sectors of society begin to see what basic education really is. Hence, the Finnish reform is characterized by elements, not specific steps or actions. These elements are essentially the values on which education policies in Finland were built."

The elements are Depth, Length, Breadth, Justice, Diversity, Resourcefulness and Conservation. These are not simple sound bites. These all encompass a set of guiding principles that Finland used in drawing and implementing its education reforms. Closely examining each of these elements especially focusing on how Finland arrived at these guidelines reveals that much of these came from lessons from the ground. In fact, the elements themselves highlight the fact that this approach is not top-down. There are important lessons to be learned from the ground. We need to open our eyes, be informed, so that our plans and actions do match reality. The photograph below is one sad example of a wake-up call:

Students lit candles to show their solidarity with UP student Kristel Tejada
Photo downloaded from Mon Ramirez Facebook page
The recent suicide of a promising psychology student in the University of the Philippines should profoundly push us to reflect on the problems and challenges the educational system in the Philippines is currently facing. It is impossible to pinpoint exactly the cause behind a young girl's suicide, but the fact is clear that a young soul found no hope and no more reason to live. This is what suicide is. Looking at all the circumstances may not bring us a "magic bullet" explanation, but in this particular case, only someone who refuses to see would miss that the elements of hardship, poverty and dashed dreams are so much present. Hopelessness springs from a perceived lack of support and insurmountable challenges. It happens when a person finds no other option as the system has defined what is and what is not, clear as "black versus white". There is no room to wiggle when a system has found a life on its own, void of empathy and compassion. 

Lessons are to be learned from times like these. We may come up with demands, with recommended actions or responses. But more importantly, before we even begin bringing forward answers, we must try our best to understand the problem. The ground is where things happen. This is where problems are no longer theoretical but real. Poverty is not an imagined situation. It means something to be poor, dramatically different from what wealthy people experience. Denied access to education and placing great emphasis on a degree as a way out of poverty could only be fully described by those who in fact experience these challenges. There is a limit to which imagination could take us. Lessons from the ground come from experience, not imagination.

One of the questions I believe is important to reflect upon is whether we are expecting too much from an education system. This question takes us to a realization that problems in society go beyond basic education. There is poverty. To illustrate this, I would like to cite a feature film produced and directed by Jacquie Jones. It is called "180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School" The following is a trailer:

Jacquie Jones herself wrote the following in the Huffington Post to describe what this feature film is about:
"...my honest answer on whether or not you should watch really depends on how interested you are in the top-down, mostly privately-funded school reform "movement" currently shaping our national education policy and the impact it's having on black and brown and, most especially, poor children. From a purely civic discourse perspective, I find that we hear a lot from "experts" who have very little direct experience with what goes on in a public school and seem not to understand that children, like adults, bring long histories with them that impact everything they do -- from forming relationships to mastering complicated physics principles. 
These experts also seem to be strangely unaware of the disparities that go hand-in-hand with the grinding poverty that nearly one in four American children -- and 40 percent of children in DC -- are born into. As the principal of the school once said to me, "If a kid is hiding from the police tonight, trust me, he's not thinking about his Algebra II quiz tomorrow." 
I have been to several conferences lately where attendees seem to believe that some magical combination of "accountability," volunteer mentors, longer school days and adaptive learning technology are all that's needed to reverse several generations of ingrained disenfranchisement, chronic displacement, food and housing insecurity and more. It seems to be quite literally a different world to the one in which children are parents, parents are absent and schools are expected to solve not just the problems of "reading, writing and arithmetic," but all of the problems of society as well...."

We need not wait for lessons from the ground such as the tragedy of a student committing suicide. There are already numerous lessons before us.

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