stories from our lives in Timor-Leste


New blog

I have continued blogging about my work with SESIM in science and mathematics education here:

Curt Gabrielson



Curriculum project

by Curt

I’ve criticized official curricula for as long as I can remember.  I scorned silly memorization in my high school chemistry class.  I raised my eyebrows at the esoteric content of required mathematics courses in college.  And ever since I began teaching science and mathematics in California, I decried the over-stuffed, disconnected, arbitrary nature of the State Content Standards, as well as the collection-of-factoids fashion in which it’s written.

Then, earlier this year, Pam and I were asked to be part of the k-6 curriculum reform team in the Timor-Leste Ministry of Education, she under social science and humanities, me in science and mathematics.  Meant to be a year-long effort, it will result in a new, required syllabus for public schools, as well as unit-organized lesson plans for each week of each year in each of five main disciplines: Tetun and Portuguese (Timor-Leste’s two official languages), social science, mathematics and natural science.  When I took the position, I knew my easy days of off-hand criticism were over.

Here the Minister of Education officially launches the project.

Here the Minister of Education officially launches the project.

We’re heading into our third month at this work and it still seems quite daunting.  It’s a great opportunity to make positive change, change that I’ve dreamed of many times in the past few years of teacher training, when weaknesses in the current curriculum limited the effect of the training.    But to put together the set of concepts that will become required learning for the kids of an entire nation is a serious task.

Naturally, our team is not the first to take a stab at it.  Here’s a brief timeline of the curriculum in Timor-Leste.

  • pre-1975:  The Portuguese colonial administration opened only a few elite schools for upper-class Timorese to receive an education in Portuguese.  Many of today’s leaders spent time in these schools.
  • 1975-1999:  Indonesian occupation.  Schools were built throughout the districts; the Indonesian national curriculum was used.  Due to widespread military terror campaigns, many Timorese had major gaps in their schooling. Most teachers were Indonesian.
  • 1999:  Referendum on Independence.  In post-referendum violence, most schools were destroyed by Indonesian military and pro-Jakarta militias.  Many teachers returned to Indonesia; limited numbers of Timorese teachers remained, largely lacking content knowledge or teacher training.  43% of population were literate.

    Unfortunately, this is not a very photogenic topic. We meet with reference groups, discuss things among ourselves, research various topics and write. This is the science team.

    Unfortunately, this is not a very photogenic project. We meet with reference groups, discuss things among ourselves, research various topics and write. This is the science team.

  • 2000-2002:  A transitional curriculum was introduced with an Indonesian base; Portuguese was introduced as official medium of instruction in years 1 and 2; UN Transitional Administration in East Timor and the World Bank led reconstruction and prioritized infrastructure over quality of education.  In 2001 the rate of school enrollment in the 1st through 6th grades was around 17%.
  • May 20, 2002:  Timor became an independent nation.
  • Oct. 2004:  National primary school curriculum plan, which included a new curriculum was approved. While an improvement, the new curriculum was written outside of Timor by non-Timorese and thus has limited relevance to Timor’s context.
  • 2006-2008: Timor-Leste began implementation of the new curriculum for 1st through 6th grade. Bilingual (Portuguese and Tetum) teachers’ guides and Portuguese language student/teacher books were distributed to schools.
  • 2011-2012:  Despite construction and rehabilitation of more than 570 school buildings, a significant shortage of school buildings remained; most of education budget was still spent on infrastructure. Literacy rate now stands at around 80%.

    Language team is here.

    Language team is here.

The current 1st to 6th  grade curriculum is widely agreed to have serious gaps, both in content and in links to local culture and reality.  In addition, teachers report difficulty understanding it and following the teacher guides.  Textbooks, produced in Portugal, are of reasonable quality, though again the links to life and language in Timor are not as strong as they should be.  (For example, sample mathematics problems count popular flavors of ice-cream, or how to divide up a pizza, two things that most Timorese kids have never seen.)

Our goal is to make Timor-Leste’s curriculum a truly indigenous one, approaching all concepts from a local perspective while at the same time giving access to a global viewpoint.  We also have a goal of making it something that will genuinely support and inspire teachers and students alike.  We’re around 30 people, mostly Timorese together with 8 international specialists.  Each discipline team has reference groups both of local experts and local teachers that meet occasionally to give feedback according to the realities in schools, as well as suggestions and requests.

Here members of several teams work together.

Here members of several teams work together.

We’ve more or less drafted a syllabus of concepts and outcomes we think are important to achieve by grade 6, and now we’re working on a standard model of a lesson plan that will work across disciplines.  We’re working hard to make the curriculum “child-centered”, based on “active learning” and principles of inclusion and positive discipline. We want to give teachers all the resources and information they need to carry out effective education in classrooms throughout this nation.

Education is a basic human right, included in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.   As has been laid bare many times in the painful history of Timor-Leste, human rights rely on people demanding, defending and funding them.  We hope this curriculum will facilitate all teachers to provide great education in a sustainable way, and make good on the promise of that right.   We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

Peanut Butter

We eat a lot of peanut butter here, and most of it is an off brand from Singapore that makes use of US peanuts.  Meanwhile, there are plenty of peanuts grown right here in Timor, but with no local peanut butter processing facilities.

For years we’ve speculated about how hard it would be to smash our own peanut butter.  Then a few weeks ago I found someone selling, from a pole over his shoulder, the large wooden mortar and pestle I thought might work.  I bought one and we went to work.   We only saved ourselves maybe $5 with 2 hours of work, but enjoyed good work together as a family, now have local organic peanut butter as opposed to the highly processed imported kind, and it tastes great!  We’ll do this again for sure!

Update and a few changes after a year in Timor-Leste

We arrived in Timor a year ago this month.  As we wrote at the time, we had a few short-term contracts lined up, and just enough money in savings to get us established in Timor.  We also had the good support of IF, a non-profit group in our hometown of Watsonville.  IF’s commitment to supporting us in transitioning our family to Timor and beginning our work here was instrumental in us making the decision to come.  If you were among those who donated, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

In the last two months we have both finished up other work and taken contracts with the Timor-Leste Ministry of Education to work with a team that’s revising the curriculum for primary school, Pam in the area of humanities, Curt in science and mathematics.   Curt will continue working part-time with the group of science and mathematics teachers (SESIM) in their work training teachers and creating hands-on curriculum, and Pam will continue working to support local organizations.

We came to Timor-Leste to do work supporting social justice and education, not to make money, though we do need to earn a living.  Our current contracts provide steady and secure salaries as well as the flexibility to continue with other commitments.  For this reason, we’ve informed IF that we no longer need their financial support.

We do, however, hope to continue the relationship of solidarity between Timor-Leste and IF, an organization that has a great deal of experience offering international solidarity.  We encourage you to check out their website and  the projects they continue to support in Mexico and elsewhere. We’ve been honored to be connected with this small, local group and their humble and yet powerful international vision.

We’ll be returning for a month’s visit in December and January, our first trip outside Timor since we arrived.   We are all looking forward to seeing family and friends.

Pam and Curt

PS. Curt has a new book coming out soon: Tinkering:  Kids Learning By Making Stuff

School Kitchens and the School Lunch Program

by Curt

I’ve been busy visiting over 20 schools out in the districts for more than two months.  I was monitoring the school-based trainings on the material I presented in the Training of Trainers for the science phase of the Eskola Foun (New School) program through the Ministry of Education.  As usual, I learned many things and saw many things that made me hopeful for the future of education in Timor-Leste.

One thing I was meant to be observing was the process of the school lunch program, now mandatory at all schools grades k-9.  The goal of this program, just as those I’m familiar with in California, is to provide a free, nutritious meal to all kids so that food shortages and hunger will not be an obstacle to learning.  This has been a huge push by the Ministry and international partners, and was indeed happening, with considerable success, at each of the schools I visited.  The gallery below shows some of the realities of that program.

Primary Science Training

I was asked again to help with the joint UNICEF and Ministry of Education program “Eskola Foun,” which means “New School.”  I helped with the mathematics Training-of-Trainers last year (check out that blog here), and now they asked me to help with the science TOT.

This program is now in its fourth year and has just added on a new group of schools.  It continues to be one of the most effective programs here for affecting change in the classrooms.  The training I gave was to the 69 school coordinators as well as around 50 trainers, all Timorese, who will go out to the schools and live in the community for a week carrying out the school-based training.  This makes great sense, and is supported by research as well:  apparently only 20% of training that happens in the capital gets applied back at schools, whereas 80% of the training received in a given school gets applied.

The coordinators and trainers were a pleasure to work with.  They are already familiar with active learning, hands-on activities, child-centered pedagogy, and a host of other effective techniques.  Even though they had no science background at all, they were all ready to go with deep inquisitiveness accompanied by healthy skepticism; in short, they were all budding scientists.

At the EF schools, students sit in groups and do plenty of hands-on work.  Their work is on the walls and on counters around the edge of the room. Teachers focus on students’ whole life experience and include families and communities in their lessons.  Most fundamentally, teachers don’t just stand in front and talk, as is the case in most of the other schools of the nation.

I tried to focus as much as possible on the areas of health and agriculture, since these are the areas of science that affect nearly everyone here on a day-to-day basis. Though they’re not my strongest areas, it has been exciting to learn enough to generate high-interest activities based on local reality and pass them along to teachers in a fun way.  My colleagues from SESIM have been invaluable with this aspect.

After the TOT, I was sent to visit schools in the districts.  I’m still in the process, but I’ve visited several already and have seen them putting into action the activities I showed them in the TOT.  It’s great to see, and also quite apparent that this is a long, long road for teachers to learn a completely different pedagogy, one that they’ve never seen in use, never personally been on the learning end of, until my training.  But the only reasonable response to seeing a long road before you is to start walking down it.  Most EF teachers know this and have begun the journey.

May 20th – Restoration of Independence Day

Timor Leste's first Independence Ceremony in 1975

East Timor’s first Independence Ceremony 1975

Today marks the 11th anniversary of the Restoration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. “Restoration” because Independence was declared on 28 November 1975, nine days before Indonesia, with U.S. weapons and U.S. approval, invaded and then brutally occupied the country for nearly 25 years.  There will be independence ceremonies happening around the country today, and flags are raised on houses everywhere.

Sitting behind our dear friend Florentina on May 20, 2002, watching Kofi Annan on the screen in the background

Sitting behind our dear friend Florentina on May 20, 2002, watching Kofi Annan on the screen in the background

Eleven years ago, we watched the ceremonies live on a massive screen in the central plaza in Baucau.  We considered getting a closer view in Dili, but Curt is no fan of large crowds and we were happy to share the experience with our closest friends outside of the capital.  Together, the nation watched the lowering of the UN flag, the raising of the Timor-Leste flag, and the official declaration of the restoration of independence at midnight with high hopes and great emotion.

So, where is Timor-Leste now, eleven years on?  Here are some statistics from recent years:  Timor-Leste has the highest fertility rate in all of Asia.  Approximately 80% of all Timorese live in rural areas, mostly surviving by traditional agriculture and fishing.  Close to 50% of Timorese live below the national poverty line ($0.88 per day).  About 1,500 children under the age of five die each year from preventable illness and most Timorese children are stunted due to poor diet and nutrition.  More children die from diarrhea than malaria, though Timor’s malaria rate is among the highest in the world.  Around 60% of all adults are literate, a figure up from less than 40% at independence. Elementary school enrollment has steadily gone up (currently 83% for elementary aged kids but only half that for high school).  Something like 60% of the nation has been electrified, including many places that never received electricity under Portugal or Indonesia.

The government slogan for several years now has been “Goodbye Conflict; Hello Development” and in fact, Timor-Leste is one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  Due to its perceived stability, UN Peacekeepers finally left at the end of last year.  We can attest to the current stability in the country, as well as to massive unmet needs.

The reportedly booming economy is almost entirely due to off-shore oil and gas development.  Well over half of the national budget for the past few years has come from petroleum revenues.  Unfortunately, jobs for Timorese in the petroleum sector are few and far between – the unemployment rate in urban areas runs around 25% – and as noted in a past blog, Timor-Leste’s oil reserves will likely run out within a few decades.  And alongside this oil dependency, Timor-Leste has just signed up to receive its first international loans, $480 million to be borrowed over the next five years (to date, all international funding to the county has been grants or aid, albeit often with some serious strings attached).  Oil and coffee are the only real exports from Timor-Leste whereas just about everything you can think of is being imported.  There is clear reason for concern, as expressed by many organizations, local and international alike, that the current stability is fragile and unsustainable.

Now, while much of this may sound quite bleak, we still have great hope for Timor’s future because we are involved in working together with the Timorese to address these huge challenges.  Our contributions here are tiny; what we have learned and continue to learn from Timor-Leste is tremendous.  We feel privileged to be here working alongside amazing people, learning and contributing what we can to address the roots of these challenges.

Happy Restoration of Independence Day, Timor-Leste! Viva Timor-Leste!

A Timorese friend now studying in Wellington, New Zealand, sent this photo of a cake presented at a small independence celebration there.

A Timorese friend now studying in Wellington, New Zealand, sent this photo of a cake presented at a small independence celebration there.

The flag of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste

The flag of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste