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

Beginnings of Science and Mathematics Teachers’ Associations, by Curt

SESIM, the science and mathematics teacher organization I work with here in the capital, is engaged in projects to augment science and mathematics curriculum as well as give teachers training in these subjects, all based around hands-on, experiential activities that link the students’ experience to the content of the curriculum.  We get small grants to work toward these goals with various groups of teachers.

One of the more interesting things we’ve been able to do with these small grants is support the formation of local teachers’ associations.  Two reasonably strong ones existed already in the districts of Baucau and Manufahi, each having a small thread of support from abroad.  In other districts, handfuls of motivated teachers meet informally.  We’ve now given seminars to three different groups of teachers, including the group in Manufahi, and started monthly gatherings with interested teachers here in Dili.  In two weeks we plan to give another seminar to a group of teachers in Oecussi, the district of Timor-Leste isolated in West Timor due to colonial history.

At these seminars and gatherings, we’re able to step a bit away from the national curriculum (although the curriculum is so broad that nearly everything we do is linked in some way) and just choose activities that will turn the teachers on to the joys of tinkering around with science and mathematics.  This composed the majority of my work in the U.S., so it is great to be doing it here.

We encourage the participating teachers to meet regularly for fun and exploration, as well as to learn together and improve their teaching.  We don’t yet have the capacity to support them with materials or money, but we can answer some of their questions and, perhaps most important, if they come up with some good activity, we’re in a position to develop it and include it in future trainings.  This is the “science and mathematics education clearing house,” or “idea central” role that I take part in when working at the Exploratorium Teacher Institute.  Yes, we come up with lots of good ideas ourselves, but the reality is that we skim the best ideas off of all the teachers we meet, and then distribute them far and wide!  No guild secrets in the world of teaching; only wide, open-source sharing!

Junior-high teacher training -Curt

Earlier this month the teacher-trainer group I’m working with gave a training to junior-high science and mathematics teachers from around the nation, mostly from 7th grade.  The new national curriculum and textbooks for 7th grade were released last year, and most teachers in most schools are now following it.

The science in this curriculum is integrated among the science disciplines.  Each year 7th, 8th and 9th graders are to get a bit of more info and a bit more depth of understanding into astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry and biology (including human body, animals, plants and other life as well as environmental studies).  I think it’s not a bad system, but it’s totally new to Timor.  Teachers here are used to the Indonesian system which has life science and physical science offered separately in the junior-high years, taught by separate teachers.  In addition, the national university and all other universities with teacher preparation programs have only departments of biology, physics and chemistry; nothing at all to prepare teachers for teaching integrated science.

The result is a lot of teachers scared to teach and unsure of how to proceed, which results in many of them falling back even more firmly on the chalk-and-talk, lecture-and-listen system that is so ineffective.  Our group was asked to focus on this level for just this reason.  There are approximately 350 teachers at 220 schools at this level, with no other in-service resource to support them.

Mathematics continues to be an enormous challenge for most teachers at most levels; statistics and plenty of anecdotal evidence show that young and old alike are on the whole unable to apply mathematical tools to life’s problems.  Recently a story was told to me about Timorese doctors who had returned from abroad with a degree in hand and sat for a test with the following problem:  4% of births are assisted and 6% are cesarean at the local hospital.  If there were 100 births this month, how many were cesarean?  Thirty percent answered correctly.  Others have told me stories of upper level finance bureaucrats still unclear on the concept of percentage.  A recent study, unnecessary in my view, showed Timor-Leste’s elementary student levels in mathematics extremely low.

We received a small grant from UNESCO to carry out trainings for junior-high teachers, and we decided to use this as an opportunity to run a pilot program that we could show to donors interested in supporting a larger-scale program of the same sort.  We structured the pilot program as follows:

  • We invited the science and mathematics teachers from one school in each of the 13 districts of the nation to attend a week-long training.
  • During the week we taught them with hands-on, experiential pedagogy, and encouraged them to think about how they were learning themselves through this pedagogy.
  • We presented a dozen or so hands-on activities directly related to the curriculum, all using simple materials that the teachers would be able to access locally at their schools and which make links to their students’ daily lives.
  • We asked teachers to sign a “declaration” stating that they would return to their schools and teach three of these activities in the next three months.
  • We plan to visit as many of the schools as possible during that three-month period and work with the teachers as they teach these activities.
  • After three months, we’ll have them all back for another 3-day training during which they’ll report back on their experience teaching these activities and the students’ response.
  • We’ll then teach them 3 or 4 more activities and send them back again with similar expectations.
  • In October we’ll call them back for a final training with a few more activities.  By then we’ll hope to be planning the large-scale training taking into consideration all we’ve learned from the pilot.

The week-long first phase went great.  The vice-minister for basic education opened the training, imploring the teachers to look for more effective ways of teaching.  We witnessed the majority of them turn on to our “new” pedagogy (actually old as the hills), and most seemed very excited to try it out.

We have realized that nearly all the teachers like to learn this way themselves, but hesitate in applying it with their students.  It is a huge step up for them to make it happen in their schools.  Obstacles abound, and it is undeniable that doing good education is inevitably harder than mediocre education. Still we hold as our top priority that teachers see this hands-on, applied, real element of teaching not as special, or peripheral, or something to do as time or opportunity allow, but rather as absolutely essential to effective education.

If all goes well, we’ll get funding for a scaled-up version of this program by the next school year, which will begin in November.

Tara Bandu – a Broad-based Timorese Social Contract

(by Pam) I attended a Tara Bandu ceremony in Atsabe, Ermera District, a four-and-a-half hour, rough-and-tumble car ride from Dili. Until recently, Tara Bandu has been traditional law decided by local elders and passed on orally within a region to regulate relations between people and the environment, and between people and groups.  Drawing on strong animist beliefs, the consequences of breaking a Tara Bandu law, while often regulated and enforced by traditional leaders, could include terrible misfortune and acts of nature against the offending party.

While 98% of Timorese are Catholic, lulik  or traditional animist beliefs run deep.  Many Timorese view Tara Bandu as more meaningful and effective than the new formal written laws, many of which run quite counter to traditional practices. I have heard plenty of disconcerting stories about traditional leaders resolving cases of violence against women with no regard for current law, ie. a rape case resolved by having the family of the man pay a small fee to the woman’s family or the woman having to apologize publicly for not doing her wifely duties, provoking domestic abuse.

The Timorese organization Kdadalak Sulimutuk Institute (KSI) has been working with grassroots communities in Ermera district for more than a decade.  KSI staff  were key to organizing the current Tara Bandu, which brought together traditional leaders, government officials, church and community groups.  They identified a gap between the traditional and the modern that was working against each and increasing conflicts.  By working together to educate local and traditional leaders on current law, and find common ground between these leaders and civil society on matters that aren’t directly covered by national law, they built a social contract that strengthens national laws – such as the domestic violence law – while also acknowledging and empowering local traditions and traditional leaders.  The organizing committee for the Tara Bandu includes all 52 Village Chiefs in Ermera District, other traditional elders, local and regional church leaders, KSI and an Ermera-based human rights organization.

Ermera’s Tara Bandu forbids the cutting of trees or the burning of land without permission, forbids all forms of domestic violence, and puts monetary limits on local brideprices and funeral ceremonies. This last issue of financial limits is hotly contested by some Ermera residents as going against long-standing traditions, but local and national leaders alike consider these lavish expenses a major contributor to the poverty and annual hunger cycles in the district, one of the very poorest in Timor.

As the only foreigner at the event, I was given a front-row seat.  There as a witness and observer, I appreciated the opportunity to learn and was extremely impressed with the broad-based, grassroots organizing that KSI demonstrated.  The event reminded me of the critical importance of finding local solutions that take into consideration cultural traditions, beliefs and capabilities at the local level.  Over the past decade, so many new laws and initiatives have been shaped and driven by international agencies and foreigners.   Tara Bandu in Ermera is a home-grown initiative that has taken significant steps toward establishing common ground between imported and local wisdom.