Education, and the role of charities and other organisations in trying to provide education in poorer countries, has been in focus lately because of the Three Cups of Tea scandal. Schooling the World has a fascinating post asking some difficult questions as to the benefits and dangers of bringing education (if by education we mean a traditional western-style schooling) to indigenous communities around the world.

The reality is that there are few better ways to condemn a child to a life of poverty than to confine her in a bad school, and a very high percentage of schools in low-income areas are and will remain bad schools.  Many NGO’s as well as international programs like “Education for All” are focused on the body count, on getting more and more children into classrooms.  What happens to those kids in those classrooms is harder to quantify or to track.  One thing that seems clear is that an awful lot of them learn very little. …

The bottom line is that the modern school is no silver bullet, but an extremely problematic institution which has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform, and there is very little objective research on its impact on traditional societies. When we intervene to radically alter the way another culture raises and educates its children, we trigger a complex cascade of changes that will completely reshape that culture in a single generation.  To assume that those changes will all be good is to adopt a blind cultural superiority that we can ill afford.  A clearer view of the real impacts of school projects would require well-funded and well-executed research which looks objectively at both positive and negative effects, not reports which mine the data to bolster an a priori assumption that the impact of schooling is always good.   And until we have a clearer view, we should all – NGO’s, development agencies, rock stars, corporate billionaires and bestselling authors included – think long and hard about the principle, “First, do no harm.” Read more

I believe that education is an important part of development work and coming alongside people who are struggling to escape poverty. But we must be very careful not to confuse education with a one-size-fits-all Western schooling system, counting bodies through the conveyor belt as an indicator of success and progress.

I firmly believe that education must be done in culturally appropriate ways, with input from community leaders as well as from outside educators, and vitally that it must be done at least initially in the mother-tongue of the child. This is why one of the focuses of SIL International, a partner organisation of Wycliffe who we are working with, is to come alongside communities and governments to help them develop multilingual education programs that are appropriate for minority language communities.

The above post finishes with the example of the Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan, for whom a school building was built but is not being used. Rather than decrying the fact that children are not in school, the author points out that in fact Kyrgyz children are being educated, but not in a traditional school.

Greg Mortenson’s second book, Stones Into Schools, revolves around his efforts to build a school for Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan.  He built the school, and it stands empty, never having been used.   Many development people, including Mortenson, would tut about this, and try to find ways to convince the Kyrgyz people of the importance of education for their children’s futures.  But to me, this empty school is a small sign of hope.  I mean, Greg.  Hello.  They’re nomads. Should they give up their horses and their high mountain valleys and their yurts and sit in a classroom for years so at the end they can look for work hauling bricks or driving trucks in Kandahar or Kabul? As it turns out, the New York Times reports that Kyrgyz parents want their children to learn to read and write; it’s just that they also want them to herd sheep.  Mortenson’s representative in the region was frustrated by this: “The Kyrgyz only care about sheep and yaks…They say if we have sheep and yaks, we have success in life.”  Hmm.  Perhaps the Kyrgyz don’t understand the value of education.  Or perhaps they still have a sense of what’s real and what’s not in this world.  Sheep are definitely real; “big dreams” may not be.  The Afghan government, to its credit, seemed to recognize this, and sent teachers to teach the children at home in their yurts.  Apparently it’s working out quite well.  I just hope the Kyrgyz remain unschooled enough to continue to be able to tell fact from fiction. Read more

You can find out more about SIL’s work in literacy and education on their website, and also take a look at a blog of Matt and Liz, friends of ours who are preparing to work with the Ugandan government, helping them to develop education programs in appropriate languages and cultural settings for minority language communities in Uganda.

Hand writing

  1. Zaman Sagar says:

    We are running several schools in Northern areas of Pakistan, where in neighborhood Greg Mortenson built his schools, but one question what I was thinking always about those schools was that; are they teaching mother-tongue to the children in those far flung areas? because I know in those areas children can and their mothers can only speak and understand their own language (L1). Then how these kids can understand the concept taught to them in a foreign language (Urdu the national language of Pakistan is also a foreign language for them)? What kind of materials are there? are these materials made according to the kid’s own culture? are these materials and concepts familiar with the day to day life of that kid? i am still wondering and waiting for the day to hear about my question and my fear.


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