Thursday, December 3, 2009

39 Closing the Year

One of my education gurus, Professor Sugata Mitra, whose experiments I wish to realize in Aguablanca one day, appeared in Gulf Times with this article.

Thursday19/11/2009November, 2009
Expert lists novel ways of teaching kids
By Bonnie James

Professor Sugata Mitra at WISE yesterday. Pictures: Ehab Suliaman
As many as 1bn children could be educated in 10 years by spending $180bn, acclaimed educational technologist professor Sugata Mitra told Qatar Foundation’s first World Innovation Summit in Education (WISE), which concluded yesterday.
“This could be achieved through 10mn Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLES) and 100mn moderators,” stated the expert, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, UK, in an address replete with examples of his novel experiments.
Professor Mitra, whose work on teaching children in Indian slums inspired compatriot diplomat Vikas Swarup to write the book “Q&A,” which became the multi-Oscar winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, was speaking at a plenary session on innovation.
Active in the areas of cognitive science, information science, physics and energy for over three decades, the PhD holder in Theoretical Solid State Physics from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, has contributed a number of inventions and first-time applications.
His ‘hole in the wall’ experiments with the Internet and children have been reported worldwide since 1999. One of the best known aspects of professor Mitra’s work is his discovery that the Internet, computers and children are literally “made for each other” with cognitive processes so similar that children need little or no instruction to master computing at the basic level.
“I left a computer connected to broadband in an Indian village and when I went back after two months, an eight-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, who did not have any prior knowledge of English or technology, told me that they need a faster processor and a mouse,” professor Mitra recalled to a round of rousing applause from the audience.
By citing other examples of his pioneering work in this regard, the speaker substantiated that groups of children in SOLES can learn to use computers and Internet on their own, apart from reaping benefits, including picking up functional English and improving pronunciation.
One of his experiments involving Tamil- (a south Indian regional language) speaking children and biotechnology materials in English, provided in a computer, showed that after two months the target group scored 30% in a test.
“When I took on board a local girl, who did not know any biotechnology, just to encourage the children for another two months, their score went up to 55%,” he said.
In an experiment carried out at a school in Gateshead, England, professor Mitra took a group of 10-year-olds, divided them into eight groups of four each, gave one laptop and six GCSE questions to each group, in an open-source test environment.
The best group finished in 20 minutes and the worst group in 45 minutes and professor Mitra had teachers asking him what was so great as the children ‘just copied’ the answers from Internet and books.
“When I gave them a test with no reference materials after two months, the children scored as much as 77%,” he pointed out.
Another of professor Mitra’s experiment features volunteer grandmothers, from Newcastle in England, reading to children in Hyderabad, 5,000 miles apart, through the Internet.
“For the future of learning, we need subsidised broadband and electricity in all schools, self-organised fault tolerant technology, and SOLES,” he suggested.
Professor Mitra, who believes that it is attitude that matters and not technology, also disclosed that he spoke to Google recently and they were ‘excited’ about his work and current research leading towards an alternative primary education which uses self-organised learning, mediation and assessment environments.

Source: http://www.gulf-times.com/site/topics/article.asp?cu_no=2&item_no=327152&version=1&template_id=36&parent_id=16#

Sunday, September 20, 2009

38 Free education???

About a month ago the mayor of Bogotá announced that starting already in 2010 education will be completely free in all State schools, from preschool to grade 11. This is supposed to benefit more than a million students who won't have to pay a peso for their education in a few months. Today 650 thousand students until grade six are covered by this free system. A goal is also to fight against the dropout rate of 5%.

An article in the weekly magazine "Semana" discusses the quality implications of this decision.

The big question is, why can't they just give vouchers to the poor parents so they can decide in which school to put their children

Saturday, June 20, 2009

37 Alliance Launch

Last Sunday, June 14, was the official launch of the Alliance for Coexistence and Social Development in the district of Aguablanca in Cali, Colombia. With various speeches, initiated by Dr. Roberto Navarro, the Secretary General of Autónoma University and one of the great spirits and co-founders of the FundAutonoma Foundation, and followed by among others a local priest, a couple of other dedicated PhD:s and the principal Victor Hugo of Santa Rosa, the large public school of the area. Having witnessed Hugo's dedication on a number of occasions (especially memorably in his own school where I was invited to speak before almost 300 parents) it was still striking to hear his account of the local statistics concerning homicides among minors. Copying from Michael's earlier account:

"According to UN statistics (2003), the average number of urban homicides (globally) stood at 7 per 100,000 inhabitants. Colombia I'm afraid to say, is at the top of the list with a shocking 80 homicides/100,000. Now before you dispatch the marines, these figures must be placed in some kind of context. There is no doubt that compared to the average Colombia is a dangerous place, however these dangers are localised to very specific areas and invariably involve gang/drug related incidents. Beyond these neighbourhoods, people are getting on with their lives as they do everywhere else, in fact one of the principle local complaints is the absence of any good news stories from the international headlines."

The fact that the violence is located to these specific areas increases of course the statistics here, especially since Cali shows the highest numbers of homicides in Colombia with its local top in the Poblado 2 neighborhood, the area of this very alliance launch and where the Fundautonoma Foundation works. Victor Hugo's speech counted to 57 killings among minors in the first quarter this year in the area, implying a higher number than ever. A homage for the dead youths was made with everyone present being given a white flower by Dr. Leonor Navarro - the even greater spirit and co-founder of the Fundautonoma Foundation - to be put in a specially designed wooden cross full of wholes. The local priest Freddy asked everyone to join and Dr. Roberto Navarro continued expressing the great need for an alliance working against these statistics.

The event was finished with performances by local youths, a couple of musical acts and a dramatization of the hard life in Aguablanca. A boy is born. He grows up to school age and gets drawn to the gang life. The father gets ill and dies and while the mother is still in mourning, the son gets into deeper problems and in his first teenage years he ends up shot and killed.

To prevent this from continue happening to the innocent kids like the one on the picture everyone present was invited to join the struggle of the alliance by committing to help in any way possible, through ones organization or individually.

This day I signed as an individual, but hope I can create or become part of an organization that can do great things to provide opportunities of a rich and happy life for these children, to prevent them from growing up just to end up with problems and like the one dramatized - shot and killed.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hasta Luego Michael

In times of parting, I dedicate this space to Michael's last blog post from Colombia:

03/06/09
Permalink
Posted by Michael John Burgess, 1184 words English (UK)

Hasta Luego (Until Later)

And so we come to the end of our show. Its been an extremely intense experience, a combination of hard graft and an unfamiliar environment but one that carves an indelible mark into your being and is often referred to as life changing (though only time will tell). Thanks to the unyielding support of Joni and Gerardo, I have exceeded even my wildest expectations in terms of exposure to real life conditions in Aguablanca and quantity of data collected. I am extremely grateful to them both.

When you visit a unfamiliar country you want to understand what makes the place tick, what are principle symbols that unite the nation. In terms of providing a context for a scientific investigation, this level of understanding becomes even more significant. Armando (in Medellin) felt that Colombia represented a particularly difficult case as they are a disparate race (Indigenous, Spanish, Afro Caribbean, Mestiza, Coastal, Urban, Rural, Rich, Poor) and each province has a unique character. The issue of nationality is further undermined by the absence of a defining myth i.e royality in the UK. The myth that most Colombians identify with is that of South American hero Simon Bolivar who liberated the continent from the Spanish at the beginning of the 19th century. Unfortunately for us, Bolivar was Venezuelan and his heroine lover Manuela was Equadorean, squeezed between the two Colombia has the unedifying role of the conjugal bed, hardly an epic symbol of national unity. As the foundations of the Colombian psyche are obscure, all you can do sit back, observe life as it passes by and draw some general conclusions.

Firstly and most obviously, life in Colombia is defined by violence or at the very least, the fear of violence. Everywhere you go from the slums of Aguablanca to the smarter suburbs of the north, the doors and windows are barred. Even the gated communities, surrounded by high fencing and private security dont escape the collective neurosis. Statistically speaking this condition is not without foundation, in Aguablanca you are 10 times more likely to be killed than the global average. However most people dont live in the slum, instead they drive their cars to one of the numerous smart shopping centres and enjoy the abundance of products available to any western consumer and here in lies the clue to the second symbol of Colombia; inequality. This country has an abundance of natural wealth but it seems the rich and the powerful are unwilling to share in the good fortune. Colombians have been dogged by conflict, slavery and exploitation throughout history and this is reflected in the daily life of Aguablanca, dominated as it is by displaced decendants of African slaves forced from their homes by right wing paramilitaries or left wing guerilla movements who fight for control over the lucrative narco-trafficking business. As the latest group of migrants descend on the slum, conflict arises with those that resent the intrusion. The irony of course is that Aguablanca didnt even exist 25 years ago, so all but the youngest of its residents understand the trauma of displacement. In the absence of any political will to truly address these issues, the poor and the displaced are left to fight amongst themselves. The wealthy meanwhile enjoy their swanky spaces and imported luxuries though most dare not walks the streets after nightfall.

If there is indeed any truth to this existential state of suspended animation, it became no more apparent to me than when I visited Medellin. The locals (paisas) are known for their diligence, their hard work and their regional pride, they have also built for themselves an attractive, organised and relaxed city albeit compressed on all sides by large slum districts (similar to the favellas in Rio de Janiero). By comparison Cali is clammy, chaotic, loud and ugly but unlike Las Paises, Los Calenos are cosmopolitan and exude an honest warmth and friendliness that is very compelling. I was less than impressed with Cali when I arrived but steadily the place has grown on me and I'm gonna miss it.

On the lighter side, there are a number of other behavioural patterns I have noted regarding life in Cali. The sun rises early here and it seems most people are up well before 6am with school starting an hour later. Whilst the defining Colombian myth may be related to the bed, they dont appear to spend too much time enjoying it.

Colombians also have an obsession with asthetic appearance, the popularity of cosmetic surgery seeming to be the manifestation of a deeper physical insecurity. This is deeply puzzling to me as Colombian women must be amongst the most attractive you will ever see, a characteristic probably related to the diversity of races that live here. Whilst I have already referenced the bizarre phenomena of bottom implants for the women, the men have also succumbed to their inner narcissus as many take time out to have manicures and facials. For a short while, the metrosexual raised his head in Britain but having had it slapped, it seems he emigrated to Colombia.

Finally impotence, not something a macho latino is gonna admit to readily. Whilst we all feel a degree of fear and helplessness in front of powers (natural and manmade) over which we have no control or influence, we all have different ways of dealing with the resultant angst or frustration. For many Colombians it seems, one of the best ways to reassert your masculine authority is to get behind the wheel. I've been driving for 20 years both home and abroad but only on rare occasions (Indonesia being one of them) would I decline the invitation to take to the roads. Cali fits into this category. Road discipline simply doesn't exist here, attention to signs and road markings is arbitrary and if you're on 2 wheels you'll be lucky to get home at all. If driving says anything about the local psyche, a shrink would have a field day in this city.

Having established some kind of basic context the results of the research acquire a greater significance. A superficial glance at the results suggests a number of principle concerns regarding state education: (1) public schools appear to be less secure, attracting problems associated with drugs and violence (2) public schools lack discipline and too much time is wasted (3) public schools lack resources. Violence, Chaos, Inequality. To paraphrase some clever dick (whose name escapes me), it would indeed appear that conditions within society are reflected and perpetuated within parts of the school environment.

Before I sign off, I would like to acknowledge the generosity of the Calenos and in particularly the Directors, Teachers and Parents that took part in the study. We covered 18 schools in total, visiting each on numerous occasions and at no time were we greeted with anything less than courtesy, kindness and enthusiasm. I go home having had the privilege to meet and work with many dedicated and selfless people who have not only helped me with my research but have also granted me one of the most profound experiences of my life. To all I am be eternally grateful.


Sunday, May 31, 2009

36 Parents' Meeting at Richard Bach

Michael, being a step ahead of me writes:

"Friday morning and were back in Poblado2 for a parents meeting at Colegio Richard Bach. The director Diana greeted us warmly and introduced us to the parents whilst promoting the aims of educational research. We got an excellent return of nearly 30 parental and 6 teacher completions although ironically, we will have to return later to pick up Diana's own response."

Saturday, May 30, 2009

35 Liceo los Triunfos

Another school with a most helpful principal is the Liceo los Triunfos, where we had another successful meeting with parents. Michael gives an insightful account:

"Friday once again and Joni and myself are in Poblado1 for a parents meeting at a small, private primary school; Los Triunfos. We arrived on schedule at 8.00am however the meeting was delayed until 9.30 so we made ourselves comfortable in the cafeteria opposite and watched the world go by or more accurately, watched the world watching us. Whilst neither the Director of Studies nor the teachers have completely their own questionnaires in the period since our last visit, that didnt stop them being extremely helpful and supportive. Having introduced the subject matter, the Director of Studies asked a couple of questions, promoted the role of educational research and encouraged the parents to get involved themselves. We collected a grand total of 17 questionnaires from Los Triunfos which is a very good return for a relatively small institution. As we were preparing to leave we got chatting to one of the mothers about the significance and causes of violence in Aguablanca and its relationship to the education system. She indicated that public schools are at a significant disadvantage, their size tends to attract the attention of the gangs leading to increased problems of drug trafficking and violence. In addition our interviewee believed that the public institutions didn't give enough homework, consequently the children didnt have enough to occupy themselves and out of boredom would go looking for trouble. Her reasoning may or may not provide an accurate reflection of reality but parental concern for security in local schools is undeniable."

34 English Class at Richard Bach

On our first visit to Richard Bach we were invited to the canteen/playground for a snack. At once a crowd of kids approached and started asking the usual questions where we were from etc. Michael improvised a quick English class for the kids while I chatted with another groups of kids trying to catch the moment in a couple of pictures. Great to see is that Pauline Dixon is showing this very same picture on her university's homepage at http://www.ncl.ac.uk/egwest/postgraduates.html for anyone interested in a Masters in Education and Development.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

33 Sustainable Formation

Strolling around in Aguablanca, or rather walking from a bakery to a school we were about to visit, I ran into Maicol, one of the very helpful guys who had accompanied me and Patrik on several occasions (and thus mentioned on our thesis' acknowledgment page, which I could show him). He's one of the kids with a tough background now enjoying life as a painter and break dancer working with formation processes of kids with a present similar to his past for the Corporación Juan Bosco (the Corporation).

I presented him to Michael and, as I copied his cell phone number, showed him the difference in spelling of their otherwise equal name. Yes, Maicol is a common Colombian spelling of Michael. I promised to give him a ring before Michael leaves (on June 4) with the hopes of having a small reunion with the people who helped me with my thesis and present them to Michael for future reference.

On the picture we have from left to right, Adela, who in an equal fashion as Dora and Gerardo was a rock and great-humoured spirit during my visits to schools with Patrik. On my other side is Jennifer, a seemingly timid young woman with great aspirations of one day actually being the director of the Corporation. She's also a result of great formation by the people at the Corporation. Next to her is Leidy, who also accompanied us once and finally of course we have my thesis partner Patrik.

Friday, May 15, 2009

32 Beautiful Picture - Beautiful Book

My picture of the month (the 5th in the slideshow): http://www.ncl.ac.uk/egwest/colombiapictures.html

I would like to recommend a book by quoting a piece of news from the EG West Center's website that Dr Pauline Dixon is keeping up to date, to my very dedicated interest.

"James Tooley's new book "The Beautiful Tree" was launched at CATO, Washington DC in April. The book is a personal account of his journey and research looking at education for the poor around the world. According to Publishers Weekly the book is "Surprising...engaging...a moving account of how poor parents struggle against great odds to provide a rich educational experience to their children." —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. James also appeared on ABC News and gave several interviews on the East Coast. James is also this year's speaker at the IEA for the Hayek Memorial Lecture on 11th June 2009, where he will be signing copies of his book. Extracts from Tooley's book have been published on the Globalist website." (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/egwest/news.html)

Having just received a couple of emails from a German publisher of academic research claiming that it "would be especially interested in publishing your [my] dissertation in the form of a printed book", I cannot but feel excited about possibly becoming a published author myself in a near future.

Equally exciting was it to find one of my very own favourite pictures among the plenty of impressive ones on EG West Center's website. If you've read the earlier posts (especially number 27) you might recognise it from the slideshow on this website (same as above): http://www.ncl.ac.uk/egwest/colombiapictures.html

Thursday, May 14, 2009

31 Arts Preventing Violence

One remarkable arts teacher approached us at leaving one of the public schools. The coordinator who had seemed so helpful at the first visit turned out to be a disappointment. We had returned to the school to pick up a bunch of questionnaires that he had promised to have ready for us already the previous week (when he very kindly had helped introducing us to all the visiting parents). He had asked me to call him back around two today but instead we showed up unannounced, which probably disturbed him. He asked us to personally pass by all the class rooms and ask the teachers for the questionnaires since he hadn't received but two and the one he was supposed to fill out was also elsewhere.

Leaving pretty much empty handed the arts teacher approached us and asked what our visit was about wondering why he hadn't received a questionnaire. Hearing that the coordinator and even the principal as well as the afternoon teachers (who had received the questionnaire) were pretty much ignoring and trying to paint a beautiful picture of the school covering its many problems concerning drugs and weapons used among the children, we realized his views would be of great importance. We handed over a few questionnaires for him and his colleagues working in the morning, thus giving a more dispersed picture of the opinions of the school.

The remarkable thing about this teacher has to do with his amazing work with the children, teaching them most of all real painting techniques that has been the rescue for many of the complicated kids. According to this teacher, learning to paint for real is possible already at a young age as long as you get the tools to do it. Michael and I got to see the amazing results in a presentation the teacher had held a few weeks ago. Starting with no resources he had managed to receive enough funding to create the largest parade project the city of Cali has ever seen. With hundreds of children having made their own native-American-inspired costumes an impressive act followed as the children, accompanied by some teachers, paraded the city to native-American rhythms.

Even more impressive was to see how some kids had been able to finance their university studies by selling their own paintings thanks to the techniques taught by the arts teacher. Especially two testimonies were presented, one with a kid now owning two successful companies and another one with a soon to be medical doctor, having grown up as a poor child in Aguablanca to having received the skills to paint professionally.

This and similar work has already won several national art competitions and the dream is to receive enough funding to do this full-time for more children to "save" their future and even give them the opportunity to do presentations internationally.

(http://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/m.j.burgess1 13/05/09 Reality Check)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

30 Peace Park and Aliance Foundation

With a budget of 400 000 Euros the Fundautonoma foundation - with headquarters just next to the public school Santa Rosa pictured below - is hoping to change things for good around the most violent area in Aguablanca, El Poblado II, a neighbourhood with gangs to blame for the majority of Aguablanca's 56 youths killed the first quarter alone this year. TO BE CONTINUED...

Thursday, April 30, 2009

29 Risky but Successful

Another successful day thanks to a dedicated and welcoming principal of this public school, Santa Rosa. Having met at an earlier occasion further explanation of our intentions with the visit was not necessary as he invited us to sit down in his office. In Michael's words (just having blogged about the event at blogs.ncl.ac.uk/m.j.burgess1 30/04/09 Poblado 2):

"As luck would have it, our host and director of studies was Victor who we met at the Community Violence debate a few weeks previously. It was Victor who so candidly contextualised dry politics in terms of the daily tragedies on the Aguablanca streets. Fortunately, he is by no means all talk and received us efficiently and courteously despite the stress of the meeting. We quickly briefed him on the scope of our research ... before he disappeared to greet his audience. Joni, Geraldo and myself had been chatting for about 20 mins when we suddenly became aware that Victor was introducing us to the crowd and what a crowd it had become.

As we stepped beyond the office threshold it became apparent that over 200 parents had come to the meeting, obliged as they are to attend. Victor invited me to speak and whilst I feel my Spanish has improved I'm no Miguel Cervantes, so I put in a sidestep and threw a languid hospital pass to my partner. Fortunately, Joni is a true trooper, not to mention an outrageous linguistic (5 languages at the last count) carrying it off with great aplomb and receiving a big round of applause for this troubles. We asked the parents to spare a little time after their teachers meeting to complete the questionnaires and it just remained for us to organise an appropriate situ. At this moment, we all paused to consider the full breadth of opportunity. With Luz Haydee (another public school) just around the corner, we could drop off the teacher and director of study questionnaires and complete that set having already carried out the parents' session. Whilst I remained at Santa Rosa (this public school) to greet the parents post-teacher meeting, it was agreed that Joni and Gerardo would head off to Luz Haydee with the requisite documents and return asap. It so happened that minutes after their departure, numerous parents and their children were already departing requiring it seems little teacher reassurance. In the absence of any official recognition I grabbed a table and a few available chaires, offering them to a number of willing interviewees and quite a few unwilling ones."

At the other public school, Luz Haydee, I (Joni) was invited by the coordinater Hector to introduce our work again for the 12 teachers present. These were also the once we chose to hand out the questionnaires to. Hector being specially interested in our work, after having helped us with the parents' questionnaires the week before, asked me present myself further and the reasons for our choice of Colombia etc.

I gave them the summary, from my time as a teacher in the wealthier side of Cali in 2003-2004, having heard a lot about Aguablanca without having taken the opportunity to visit it, to my interest in coming back for my own thesis field work a couple of years later (in 2007), being interested in education and seeing great opportunities for a great learning experience in Aguablanca to finally my presentation in England where I gained Michael's and reconfirmed his teacher Pauline's confidence in assisting with his field research. To my great surprise I received another round of applause this day. Gerardo distributed the questionnaires and before leaving one of the teachers approached to ask me more. He told me he was impressed to find someone from a country so good, developed and safe as mine here in this most complicated part of the country. He said they would need a thousand of my kind. Reflecting on this, I'm sure I could start a chain of people coming here to find at least two reasons to stay: 1) the possibility to enjoy the richness of one of the earth's paradise-like countries 2) satisfactory work that makes sense and fulfills a human need to do something genuinely appreciated.

Getting back to Santa Rosa where we left Michael it was already getting dark. Gerardo had commented on the complicated issue of getting out from the school as he had noted some gang people watching the neighbourhood. I knew it was time to wrap up.

Michael writes: "Forty minutes into the process and things were turning a little chaotic, whilst I had 5 or 6 parents safety seated I had found myself tied to a semi-literate woman who obviously needed plenty of assistance. However, whilst I was so occupied I wasn't able to give the essential prompt to other parents who were drifting closer to exit. Just as I was preparing to cut the ambilical, Joni and Gerardo came to the rescue once again. In total we snared 29 parents and could have had many more had I not run out of questionnaires. One notable individual was a tiny, displaced indigenous woman with the worries of the world on her shoulders. She was so intent on understanding the scope of our work in Aguablanca and how it might help her community. It's clear that displacement as well as violence are significant inter-related factors that affect society and consequently education in this area."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

28 More Reencounters

Just passed this intersection today and I remembered having posed with a cow last time I walked here. This time, however, no cow.

Funnier though was to see the dog on the other picture below again. A small, old dog without teeth that Gerardo scared Patrik with a year and a half ago. Hopefully I can get a picture of him next week when we're returning to the private school, Santa Rosa, where he spends his days in mummy's office.

Another flashback appeared at the visit of this public school, where I jumped jump rope with the kids last time according to the other picture to the left. On the visit today there were barely no kids in the school since there was a parents'-teachers' meeting this day that we had come to to distribute Michael's question-naires. As opposed to in other schools, where I usually get to make a short speach before the 200 or so parents before distributing the questionnaires, in this school a very helpful teacher helped us with distributing the questionnaires as if it were a mandatory part of the meeting.

We got to the school at 8 o'clock and finished around 9:40. Some children that were present were especially curious about our visit and asked us many questions about our countries, if they were "cool", and if we were coming back after finishing our work, what their names were in English.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

27 Beautiful Re-encounter

A year and a half ago, on the stairs in the private school Voluntad de Dios in the middle of one of the absolute poorest areas in Aguablanca, I saw this cute little girl who was waiting for her mother to come and pick her up. She had waited roughly an hour by the time Patrik and I arrived with Gerardo to visit the school. After my almost 1 hour meeting with the principal, Rigoberto, I got out to meet this cute girl and hear the story from Patrik and Gerardo. She had not been able to pay the 100-pesos-lunch that the school provided and was sitting hungry waiting for her mother. Adding to this sad story, with a funny twist, is that she had asked Gerardo if Patrik was ill or something since he spoke so strangely. She never understood we were foreigners and did not have Spanish as our first and only language.

The above image has traveled around with me to numerous presentations as my favourite picture to show from our field work in 2007. (Thanks Patrik for having taken the picture!) Now I have a new favourite picture.

Only yesterday did I find out that the girl's name is Vanesa. She's now 7 years old, with her birthday someday this very month. I was lucky enough to recognise her suddenly on the visit to the school yesterday, when together with Gerardo we wanted Michael to get to know La Florida, the poor invasion I hope to show more pictures from. She was playing in the stairs with her friends before she got down and passed me.

I caught her attention with an "hola señorita" noting that she didn't recognise me at first, which was of course to expect. I probably only remembered her so well because of the situation with the picture and the fact that I've seen the picture in my Aguablanca tribute video so many times. I continued saying that I have a picture of her and me together, and in just a moment she remembered me. I asked if she remembered that we had taken the picture over there in the stairs and if she remembered my tall friend who spoke strangely. With a timid smile she nodded her head saying softly: "my mother wanted to see the picture". I didn't hear her at first but she repeated that her mother had wanted to see the picture we had taken a year and a half ago. Obviously she had told her mother about us that day. I told her I still had the picture and that I would bring a copy of it to her. "When?" she asked. Thinking fast and realizing that we would actually come back the very next day to pick up some questionnaires that Michael was to leave I said that we'd come back tomorrow. I asked what her name was. "Vanesa" she said. I introduced myself as Joni. She was satisfied and suddenly said she had to go to her class that had just started.

While waiting for Michael to finish his meeting with Rigoberto, joining them back and forth, I could see Vanesa smiling and waving from her class room as I waved to her. The re-encounter really made my day. She had been smiling already when I saw her playing in the stairs. A much more happy image than the one of our first encounter. Only that was pleasing enough to see. Something to tell Patrik. Now, I was looking forward to print the picture for her for the next day.

This is my new favourite picture from my time in Aguablanca. Taken about 8 hours ago. I can't but feel happy about this great opportunity to reconnect with the people who helped realizing my own field work by now helping Michael with his. It's of course part of the purpose of my thesis work to present our findings and start realizing projects accordingly, so to actually find myself useful in the field again really feels amazing. Thanks to my fiancée I thought of bringing a bunch of different sweets together with the picture to Vanesa. I saw her happily enjoy them right after our re-encounter. A very special encounter for me making me determined to follow and help Vanesa's and her likes' progress towards a good future. With a friend like Michael, if he returns after finishing his Master's, I'm sure we can achieve something, hopefully together with our friends and connections in Europe.

(A link to Michael's blog might be in order: blogs.ncl.ac.uk/m.j.burgess1.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

26 New Shortcuts back to the Field

A year and a half ago, we got into the network of contacts, including vital permission and authority from the 3 local heads of municipal department of education in Aguablanca, thanks to the following chain of contacts: Principal of the school I worked with for a year -> Principal of the school's educational branch in Aguablanca -> Heads of municipal department of education in Aguablanca.

The phone number I was given a year and a half ago that we now needed didn't work. However, it was still enough to pick up the phone yesterday and call another friend who could set up the wanted meeting already for today. A very quick and friendly meeting with almost as much friendly conversation about personal matters as the strategy for Michael's work. We were fortunate enough to hear that already this Friday the head of education will hold a meeting with the principals in the area where we'll get enough space and time to motivate Michael's presence. A brief discussion concluded that this area will more than suffice for Michael's work, as it is more in-deapth than broad-scaled.

The field study of 2007 was also much facilitated by similar meetings held by the heads of education for the principals of all the schools in the area. Patrik and I could thereby properly present ourselves and our intention to visit all the schools and the purpose for doing so. To make more efficient the investigation we handed out the questionnaires for the principals to have finished filling in for us at the time of our visit. Many principals started filling them out already during the meetings and we could collect several finished ones already by the end of the meeting. I'm sure this was one of the key factors helping us achieve the amount of visits as we did.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

25 Important Arrival - Important Presentation

Crossing the Atlantic twice within 3 weeks might be something you'd do either for business or for pleasure. Embarrassingly enough I had to do it for studies, having had a left-behind exam spooking since the autumn of 2002 that I finally had to deal with, gratefully enough cashing out two Master's Degrees as a result.

Now, back in Cali since 2 weeks, things are seeming to turn around quite well. Michael has arrived, Dr. Pauline Dixon's student who seems very keen on playing a role in the research and improvement of Colombian education. His thesis is about education climate in private and public schools, and most likely from next week he'll start visiting Aguablanca and some of the schools that my thesis surveyed. I'm most happy to have been able to receive him here and having spent almost a week and a half already as his host I've been able to confirm my first very positive impressions of his interest and dedication that he showed in Newcastle, where my thesis partner Patrik and I were invited by Pauline to present some of our thesis results. That was on October 6, 2008, so merely 6 months later our work in Aguablanca continues. Still, only academically, but thanks to this, soon also practically I hope.

Last Friday, April 3, I had a presentation of my Master's thesis in the Autónoma University in front of a group of around 12 local researchers + Michael and my good neighbour Rodrigo. It went quite well, considering my first attempt in giving a semi-structured, semi-formal, slightly Colombian-improvisation-style-kind-of presentation in Spanish. The topic Private Schools in the Slums (showing better results than the public ones) in itself being highly controversial, the interest from the researcher audience was very high with some tough questions but easy crowd understanding the picture completely after having explained a few of the thesis' important figures. As Michael said, it was a very significant moment, especially for us, to have had the topic exposed in this setting for the first time. Very significant that Michael got to be there to represent his work and continue the thoughts with Rodrigo and some of the key players at the University of inviting Pauline, James Tooley and also Michael's mentor Sugata Mitra to Colombia one day. Pauline seems very anxious to get things going here and we're feeling very enthusiastic about having her behind us. Can't wait to get news about her bidding process about realizing her next big project about talented children from the slums in Colombia. First things first though, and assisting Michael in finding his way trough his field study is on the top of my agenda for the weeks to come.

A first step is to introduce Michael to the principals of the schools he'll study. First meeting will be with one of the heads of education in Aguablanca to get authorization to realize his work.

Similarly, my field study required this authorization to easily get to visit all principals without problems. They were all happy to assist, showing great dedication to their work with the children. Of course, many were hoping to establish good connections someone linked to an international organization that might result in investment in the shools. Something clearly needed is investment in material inputs for the children, higher salaries to the dedicated private school teachers and in general more attention to the desperate and violent kids who make life so sad and difficult for the majority of hard working poor people.

Friday, February 27, 2009

24 Important Gathering Today

I was once again reminded of the great spirits at work in this difficult District in a meeting today where many important institutions of the city were gathered. I was impressed to know about the foundation Give to Colombia (www.givetocolombia.org) where an important contact might result in great future cooperation. I will write more about all of this shortly. For now let me post a video of a typical school visit from the field work.

video

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

23 Large Public Schools


Day 15 (28)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Large public (government) schools were easily distinguished from the large private ones. Even though the public ones usually have larger spaces available, such as playground, few spaces facilitating studies were found. Libraries were often closed or under construction leaving the children with a desire to do homework etc .during breaks forced to use the floor as working area.

Note: we use the term public school when referring to government owned schools. "Public" as "accessible to the public" would be more correctly connected to the private schools, as they are more spread out and numerous, with more seats available (and affordable) for the children without forcing them to cross dangerous neighborhoods just to get to school.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

22 Some Shortage


Day 12 (6)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Chemical labs or workshop spaces were also asked for in our study and although this is a relatively nice one it certainly lacks some more material. Creativity however has great space to flourish in these areas where activities are carried out as much as possible.

21 One Cooking Lady


Day 13 (14)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
The cooking lady preparing the school lunch - alone and in a very simple kind of kitchen. What matters the most though is that some small bellies are made very happy and satisfied every day in this little school.

20 Great Passion


Day 12 (8)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
What truly makes small private initiatives grow into great schools serving many children is the passion of special individuals who take on the responsibility and go entrepreneurial. This woman, principal of the school, is a typical example of the many success stories we encountered.

19 Great Interest - Great Support


Day 11 (25)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Many were the interesting faces that followed our every move as we talked to the teachers about our work. Here accompanied also by Adela, a great spirit and also fundamental for our success in visiting as many schools as we did.

18 Amazed


Day 12 (37)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
My tall companion Patrik had many young eyes turning upwards with amazement as we got to know the children.

17 Beautiful Encounters


Day 12 (35)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
A small girl in a small school leaving a great impression with only a quick look into the camera.

Monday, February 23, 2009

16 Great Gerardo


Day 11 (33)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Gerardo as much as Dora deserves great attention and greatest of thanks for his marvelous work in accompanying and leading us from school to school. His friendly and charming manners opens up doors in many places.

Only months after our field work he initiated his own foundation and has at several occasions asked me to give him contact information to any organization I might know about that could help funding his initiatives. I so wish this blog could be a start towards continued cooperation with and success for our Great Gerardo.

15 A Tough Area


Day 7 (29)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
The view from a roof of a school that after a few years have managed to build a wall around it as isolation from a violent area almost in ruins.

Just today (not counting the fact it's past midnight) I was called from the University where I wish to get connected to facilitate continued research (together with Pauline Dixon from Newcastle who actually has a bid proposed for an investigation including a project under me on Aguablanca and talented children in slums. The phone call today was from the Foundation of the University that wanted my confirmation for a reunion in the neighborhood Poblado II this Friday. The topic is on how to reintegrate complicated and extremely violent children into the community as a part of a civilized society. Formal education has not really worked too well around there and the Foundation is having an interesting project working since 23 years with positive results.

The model at the moment is a very informal such where a group of 60 youths are trained to be "maestro leaders" and as such lead work shops with the 300 children included in the program. A kind of a coaching program that has very appealing aspects to it that are worth elaborating.

Together with my neighbor and educator friend Rodrigo and thanks to Pauline and Prof Sugata Mitra, we're working on an idea of including the "whole in the wall" model into this environment. Hopefully we can achieve the attention needed to fund the idea. At the moment the University Foundation has a bid on a major project consisting of a recreational park, which with a properly described educational element added might receive a large financial contribution from the European Union. The funding is looking for a project for children in areas of conflict. This can definitely be found here.

14 Some Impressive Schools


Day 6 (29)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Once on the inside, schools that from outside were hardly visible, could be immense, with relatively much space and many rooms. This one had a quite impressive computer lab and a second floor (from where the picture is taken) where a small soccer field was being build.

13 100 pesos too much


Day 15 (91)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
A very cute but sad picture. As it turned out, this little girl was waiting for her mother to come and pick her up, a couple of hours late at the time of the picture. It's two o'clock and the girl has still not had lunch after having been in the school since early morning. 100 pesos, around 3 cents of a Euro, had been needed but unfortunately her mother had not left her with anything. So here she was sitting alone on the stairs, waiting.

12 Mothers and Families


Day 15 (87)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
In general, more profoundly studied by James Tooley and Pauline Dixon, any parent wants their children to educate themselves and do anything they can to put their children in as good schools as they possibly can. When the schools are private, the parents have great indirect influence in the teachers' work. As the private school teachers are hired by the school owner, bad work leads to replacement by a more dedicated teacher. In government schools on the other hand, there is no direct link between teachers' work dedication and their risk of being replaced, since parents non-payment lead to little incentive to question the quality of the education.

Here, met by three mothers in "La Florida", where only one school could be found, private and in great condition opposed to what one would believe. Thanks to a Dutch organization the school could be built. Minor fees are charged and for school lunch only 100 Colombian pesos (almost 3 cents of a Euro) - even this too much at times. See following post with me sitting in the school stairs next to a small girl.

11 Small Spaces - Dedicated Pupils


Day 11 (12)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Not only are the spaces incredibly small but with many parts of the schools still being built a general impression many times is the one of having arrived to a construction site. Several class rooms lack both electric light and ventilation. With walls as the one on the picture the pupils definitely lack color in their educational environment.

10 Libraries


Day 16 (4)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Although not at all very fancy or even very updated, the small libraries in the private schools have more book meters per child (a very useful measurement my Thesis Partner Patrik came up with). As one of many material inputs this is a key indicator of the pupils facility to learn, as book are usually very expensive for the poor families to purchase.

09 Material Input and Class Size


Day 16 (6)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Of the key indicators studied and assumed as important for the educational outputs (that I hope to be able to evaluate during this year to complete the work of the Master's Thesis) were the material inputs of the schools. Here data on inputs such as blackboards, desks and chairs, electric light, drinking water, separate toilets for boys and girls, library, computers, audio equipment and access to playground were gathered. Although the results were mixed, a conclusion was that the large government schools had better access to playgrounds and toilets, but the private ones better access to library and computers. Concerning blackboards and desks and chairs, almost all schools visited had full availability.

Class size was another key factor studied. The picture shows a small private school with relatively few pupils in the class. This image was the same for most private schools that work with less physical resources but with more teachers available for the pupils. It's thus easy to already with this information speculate in the higher degree of dedication to the pupils in private schools and with this information continue to arguing in favor of more attention to these in stead of all kinds of aid to government school bureaucracy.

08 Primary but also Preschool


Day 7 (10)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Our objective was to focus on Primary School, and especially observe the conditions facing the 4th grade pupils, but most schools are initiated with Preschool until they have earned enough to start the 1st grade and onwards. Most schools therefore also had the 3 preschool grades attended for which of course was very amusing to see.

Necessary to say is that public (government) preschools are basically non-existing in entire Cali. Of the 130 schools completely surveyed and observed, only 19 were government schools, providing education for only 35 % of the poor children in the District. Additionally, their large size doesn't help their provision of quality education much as the number of children per teacher is too high and the teachers with safe (government) salaries less dedicated than their private school colleagues.

07 Visiting the Children


Day 16 (36)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Even more rewarding was of course seeing all the wonderful children, receiving us with their big smiles, amazed about seeing a couple foreigners for the first time in their lives.

Having set out the investigation as a part of an interesting piece of work for our Master's Thesis, which we both were and still are very passionate about, the actual reality we're touching with the field work is indescribable, touching on so many levels and to an extent that made me, Joni, define a big part of my professional desires for my future.

Now, a year and a half later, I'm finally reaching the availabilities to not just continuing the academical research but more importantly to really being able to make a difference, although for only a tiny fraction of the children in need on the short run, but by developing a practical-academical model that really helps the children develop their potential and find aspirations in life great things can be achieved. I'm not only blindly believing in that, but actually feel that I've found the intellectual and practical connections needed to come a long way during a visible amount of time.

06 Meeting with the Principals


Day 6 (14)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Meeting principals and head teachers was most rewarding as we could observe and hear about their dedicated work to the children. Many of the principals are naturally mothers to the children in the District with a great sense of responsibility in the community and thus with great enthusiasm and passion create these small schools which they have to fight hard for to get recognition from the State, something that is questionable if they really should need.

05 Planning and Mapping


Day 7 (2)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Planning and mapping the routes were a key part in the execution of the entire field work. Having got official information of addresses to all registered schools in the district Aguablanca and its 3 communities, 13, 14 and 15, together with maps, the daily routine consisted in planning which schools to visit depending on their location and our access and escort there.

In the background - my hammock, lent to me by my house mate Ivan.

04 Corporación Juan Bosco


Day 13 (43)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
At the head office of the NGO whose people were key in the success of our data gathering.

From left to right: me (Joni), Gerardo (our second guide and escort in community 14 - amazing person and friend), Dora (in the front - another amazing person who got robbed twice in one weekend and a year later sadly lost a child), Angela (psychologist working with disarmed guerrilla youths) and Patrik (my Master's Thesis Partner and intellectual inspiration during the entire Thesis work).

03 Dora - our first Guide


Day 9 (6)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
For the field work, the idea was to recruit university students to carry out the school visits for us, since Aguablanca is a very complicated district to work in. At least that was what we had been told and following the advice from James Tooley and Pauline Dixon, doing all the work ourselves would have been very time consuming. And so it was, as it turned out, as we were lucky enough to find Dora and her NGO, Corporación Juan Bosco, who started accompanying us to some initial schools, while we were still in the plan to visit her university where she studied pupular education to recruit some of her fellow students. Dora and her colleagues from Juan Bosco were such good escorts, knowing all the corners of all the communities and knowing how to move around them without stepping on anyone's toes, that we in the end managed to personally work the entire District with their help only. This of course incurred very long days but ensured our entire data to be coherently gathered and safe from any other errors than our own.

How we found Dora:
  • Informal contact Karol, who presented me to:
  • her teacher Fernando Urrea, who we had mailed from Sweden long ago because of his publications of the ethical situation in Aguablanca and who we finally could meet in his house to present our mission, a meeting in which he called and presented us as his friends from Stockholm to a "black community leader":
  • Don Jamie Perrea, who very interested met us and took us to his friend:
  • William Rodriguez, professor at the Valle University and teacher of:
  • Dora's, who he recommended to us as our first guide.
On the picture we're in the Youth House of community 15, preparing to set out for our 9th day of school visits.

02 ReCapturing the Field Work


Day 15 (86)
Originally uploaded by unitedwinds
Too many exciting events have occurred since the field work for it not to be presented thoroughly for the public. And even more exciting events are likely to take place this year requiring a complete recapturing of the field work, if not for anyone else, at least for me to be able to present the results of the Master's Thesis for the University here in Cali and 25 of its investigating teachers. Thanks to my neighbor and friend Rodrigo, this is planned for next Friday.

Just days ago my Thesis Partner Patrik updated me on his achievements back in Stockholm with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, and their interest in finally follow-up on the results that their funding helped finding.

On this picture, Patrik (the tall one) and me in one of the poorest areas of the district investigated, Aguablanca in Cali, Colombia.

Monday, January 12, 2009

01 New Year - New Projects

Although the year started very slowly, I'm still very content about the opportunities that have presented themselves so far. I've been very anxious about getting started with the projects of the year and finally I'm sensing a thrilling excitement about the ideas and initiatives from last year now starting to develop and grow into possible and amazing success stories. 3 key words:

1) Research
2) Technology
3) Education

1) Research - my Thesis results (successfully found and analysed with my Master Thesis partner Patrik), together with my persistence to continue researching and working here in Cali and the major slum area Aguablanca, have resulted in major opportunities for an interesting future. I've been asked to potentially lead a research project for a well renown Doctor of (Austrian) Education Economics in New Castle, England, Pauline Dixon, under whom I could start my PhD already next year, from 2010 to 2012. Wonderful opportunity and immensely motivating to feel the support from one of the great researchers and her Research Center EG West Center, with such great interest in my area of specialisation.

Also one of the great universities here, Universidad Autónoma de Occidente, has been showing its interest in my research and in including me in its present and future projects, much thanks to a personal contact, Rodrigo, who works at the university and has many years of education in his professional experience, including a couple of very interesting years for the Government. A major research project that the university is proposing before the European Union might result in a major cash inflow for one of the communities here, with the highlight on Conflict Reduction and Prevention among Children in Areas of Conflict. This could include an educational element that I would be responsible for.

2) Technology - 10 years of incredible research in India and elsewhere by the great Professor Sugata Mitra might be a key part of the educational element for the project described above. Having met Prof Mitra and been presented his research personally at the EG West Center after an invitation from amazing Pauline Dixon, the possibilities of realising similar work here in Aguablanca (Cali, Colombia) are very realistic. (See the picture of Mitra's "Whole in the Wall" experiment.) The recipe for success is in my hands. I really hope the permission of planting the seeds will reach me.

3) Education - This year will be challenging. With so beautiful promises for next year and already from next semester, when a likely Education Faculty will be initiated at the Autonoma University, I have to succeed in getting started with indepth research in Aguablanca - no matter the financial difficulties. I have my great partner Rodrigo who his highly motivating and supportive. We're planning to start a Foundation this year, which this blog hopes to evoke reason and motivation for and I would hereby like to welcome all kinds of support.

In summary my friends, amazing prospects with major challenges integrating education for the poor with latest technology and research.