Education in the Developing world…

Quite recently I went to a public lecture organized by Insights at Newcastle University by Sir Michael Barber. It was candidly titled “Getting every child into school and learning; why wait?” and discussed exactly that question, using Punjab in Pakistan as a specific example.

While I agree with many of the things Sir Barber said in his speech regarding the importance of non-state schools, public private partnerships, and the importance of vouchers to allow parents, and ultimately students, to choose what school children go, there was one major aspect of his view on education that I did not agree with. It comes from a more pedagogical stand-point than an International Development context, but I still wonder why that is…

One man sort-of brought up my concern at the end of the lecture by asking about the definition of ‘education’. Throughout Barber’s talk, it seemed like he knew what ‘education’ was, and that he (and the local government) were ‘giving’ students what they thought was the best education. How do they go about finding out whether students were ‘learning’? They go and test the students on their native language, english and maths proficiency.

To me, that is not education.

To me, that is the ancient definition and understanding of education that has brought us into the twenty first century, and that is now the source of so many problems.

It is the 21st century! Computers are everywhere. Test answers are easily obtainable by a quick google search! There really is no more need for learning knowledge by heart…I do agree that there are basic things such as reading and writing that are absolutely necessary for learners to learn (that doesn’t mean they have to be taught that by teachers…but that’s a different debate), but testing maths, english, and native language proficiency is not the way of testing ‘learning’.

One statement that I felt was especially depricating to those out of the formal education systems was that ‘millions of children are not learning’ and we need to get them into school, so they can start learning. While Barber did say that getting them into schools was only the first step, and actually making sure they learnt at school was the second (more important) step, he does assume that school = learning.

I personally have a very big problem with a statement like that.

As was seen in my research regarding homelessness (here, here, here) or other looking at tumblr as a learning environment, it becomes very clear very quickly that learning doesn’t just happen at school! Are you not convinced? How did you LEARN to talk? communicate? social norms? Did you learn all that at school? Probably not…

A question I had for Sir Michael Barber, but sadly didn’t get the opportunity to ask him is the following:
If you say that the private sector is able to innovate, then why doesn’t it do so? Why does it advocate traditional rote learning in the 21st century, when you have the opportunity to leapfrog western educational history right into the 21st century reality of educational research from academics such as Sugata Mitra and Steve Wheeler? Why don’t you aid developing countries overtaking the west? Why don’t we allow them to compete on a global market? Make education skills rather thank knowledge based? We know that education in the west is outdated, so why are we introducing old methods into new systems?

School? Education? Not interested.

So far, I have conducted six interviews on schooling and homelessness. I do not want to go into too much detail on my questions, and just want to give some examples of the stories I have heard. I will give two examples that will show the complexity of the situation that homelessness is.

First, I would like to give an example that might be exactly what one thinks of when they hear the term of homeless and Bucharest, Romania in one sentence:

Man 1: 30 years old.
The first time he ran away from home, he was only 5 1/2 years old. He was moved between abusive child centres, his abusive home and the abusive streets. He started using Aurolac (car paint in a plastic bag-the drug of choice for the children of the streets of Bucharest) at a very early age and did not go to school. Living on the streets was like a game to him until he was 18 years old. It was only then that he realized that he was no longer a child, and that the state would no longer provide for him. He did not attend school, does not know how to read or write and lived day after day not moving around, stealing here and there, carrying boxes of beer or juice from vans into shops for a little bit of money every now and again. At age 30 he is mentally and physically ill and is attempting to get off the streets. Education is still of no interest to him.

Not everyone is like this. Just like everywhere else there are people who get to the streets because of mistakes they have made in their later lives.

Man 2: 30 years old
Moved on to the streets at age 28 after his girlfriend of 12 years broke up with him and he began using drugs. He did not want his family to know, so he moved to the streets to avoid them being ashamed of him. This man has completed high school, speaks English very well and enjoys reading. He enjoyed it so much that he would read with a flashlight in the abandoned building he was staying in despite the laughter coming from his street companions. After some time, the others became interested in reading and he began to teach them how to read and write. A year after moving onto the streets he heard about a certain social service centre that could help him get off the streets. He has been there and at home since December. His love for reading and his belief that education is important has turned him into a sort of teacher for 3 friends (2 on the street and one in the centre).

I wanted to give these two very different examples of homelessness to show the complexity of my study and to show that just like everybody else, there are those that enjoy and those that do not enjoy school and studying.

I will be conducting some focus groups to see where reading, writing, mathematics lie on the scale of importance for different people who have been involved with the streets as well as when the most educative phases of their time on the streets were.

smiling, hugging and singing with people who are homeless

Finally I had my meeting with Marius from the NGO I am working with for my dissertation.

I had my meeting at 9, and after the debacle that was last nights lack of internet, I actually found my way to the social centre without any problems. Well, any major problems. I couldn’t find the door and had to ask a neighbour where the entrance was…that was a little embarrassing seeing as I had actually walked past the entrance before…

I walk in, go to the office to speak to Marius who is quite happy to see me and show me around the entire centre.

I am left in a room half an hour later with 6 other men. One street and social worker and 5 beneficiaries of the centre. It was around 9:30 and everyone was getting ready for the daily meeting.

I found out that this atelier was a newly established programme of string-therapy (Creating of string art) for men who have lived on the streets and are HIV+. I spent my morning there and had some interesting talks with the men.

Lunchtime! I remember this kind of food…I gained quite a bit of weight in my 6 weeks of working in an orphanage in Moldova run by the same NGO…I’m glad I wont be eating at the centre every day. Not because the food is bad, but because it’s super fatty. Yea, there’s the me that cares a little about what she looks like…sorry.

I get introduced to the 50 or so people who are present at lunch and am asked to give a short introduction about what I want to talk about with the 18-35 year olds.

Of course, I begin by apologizing for the abysmal state my Romanian is in…having said that, I feel a LOT of it coming back already; and although I never learnt grammar, I understand quite a lot of it.

I gave a short introduction that was followed by some questions. YES. THANK YOU. That means some were at least a little interested in what I wanted to find out! YES. So learning/education/survival skills are an interesting topic not only for academic researchers like myself, but for the people that the questions are aimed towards as well.

Now there is an hour of break time without any activities. I go outside to try to have some informal chats with some people where I find out some very interesting and quite positive things.

A man, 28 years old:
Has spent a couple of days (at this point..has been there before, many times) as his ‘holiday’ from work. He is working in the kitchen of the most respected and high class hotel Bucharest has to offer.
I said this was a positive example, because this man has found a job through the NGO. From what he told me he enjoys the job but likes to spend time at the centre. The rest of the time he lives with family, or on the street.
This is just an example of how wages in Romania do not always allow for a decent standard of living. This man works in the kitchen (cutting fruit and vegetables. Yes, not a great job. But a job nonetheless) of the best hotel in town, and still cannot sustain his existence by it.

After singing some religious, romanian pop and gibberish renditions of english songs with him and a friend of his who quite skilfully accompanied us all on the guitar (learnt at the social centre) it is time for activities again.

I go back to my newly made friends of the string therapy room and continue to talk to them about all sorts of things. Among them, school.

Man A, 28 years old:
He was in school for 3 years and says he enjoyed it. He is able to write and read quite well. Not quite at the average adult level, but at a level where he can take notes and understand what he is reading. He said he enjoyed school quite a bit. He has been drawing and learning how to draw  at social service centres for the last 9 years.

Another man I talked to had been to school for 5 years and has been on and off the streets since he was a child. He did not enjoy school a whole lot.

These short, informal conversations made it very clear to me that there are several people who are willing to talk about this topic to me, and that there will be very many different stories to be heard. There will be many different opinions which will hopefully lead to great discussions and interviews.

My day today was very interesting and leaves me to wonder how my first research session tomorrow afternoon will go.

Graffiti-the symbol of a young and upset emerging middle class?

Today I had planned to visit the school I would do my placement research in before heading into town to get a sim card and unlock my phone.

I ended up spending a lot more time at the school than I had originally planned. The principal was not in because she’s at a conference, but will be back on monday. So I e-mailed her about a meeting as soon as possible.

Consequently I moved on to the middle and high school building to meet my old teachers which is always lovely. Back when I was in high school our class and many of the staff had quite a close relationship and keep in contact over facebook, e-mail and of course visiting.

While talking to the principal, an interesting idea came about. He mentioned seeing more Graffiti around Bucharest and he wondered out loud, and thus made me think about, whether graffiti could be seen as an indicator of a growing middle class. Seeing as graffiti is stereotypically drawn by revolting youths, it could make sense that an emerging graffiti scene could indicate the growing of a young middle class that is upset and isn’t afraid to show it.

Something else that’s quite unique about the Graffiti in Bucharest (or at least something I haven’t seen to the extent I can see it in Bucharest) is organized, commercial graffiti. Yes, there might be quite a bit of the colourful text and images on walls that can be seen in many places, but there is also a lot of commercial gain from graffiti, like advertising. I remember back before the Radiostation Radio Zu became a thing, the tag of “Who is Zu?” was all over the place. And I mean everywhere. Today while walking around I saw a lot of the same 100% tags or a certain website I don’t remember.

Is Bucharest a forerunner for guerilla marketing or are some companies simply avoiding the rising prices of advertising space by taking to the streets? Do they think they will reach a unique, new, different demographic with this kind of strategy?

Whatever the reason is, I like this trend.

Some may say that Graffiti is not beautiful, that it messes up buildings and makes cities ugly, but I disagree. Yes, the tagging isn’t always pretty, and often ruins some buildings…but when you can see that time was spent to create images the size of buildings, or even just tiny stencils on the sides of buildings, or on traffic light poles make me smile more often than not. Especially in grey towns like Bucharest, I welcome the colours of the graffiti artists.

This reminds me, I need to visit wallers wall again…
I am not actually sure what it’s called..but it’s a wall off of Mageru covered in spray paint murals that regularly change. My friends and I used to make it a regular part of our city tours back when I lived here…there was always something new and exciting. Sometimes we were even able to witness the artists go to work at occasions like the street festivals that used to block the entire street by putting up small stages, markets and living room furniture. 


I am working on organizing and establishing the library of Shree Ganganagar School with the help of FACE Nepal ( and am trying to compile a manual for the teachers who are in charge of the library for when I am gone. I want to make sure that I did everything I can do to enable the school to use the library!

Dear teachers, parents, librarians, school staff, development workers, authors or whoever is interested in books,

I’m writing a manual for libraries that contains different activities that can be conducted with children of all ages (or age specific activities) for the library that I painted and am organizing at the Ganganagar School. I would greatly appreciate any ideas anyone else has!

The activities should be reading, comprehension and student oriented. Also, since the manual is for a rural school in Nepal, no materials except for books should be needed (except maybe pen and paper).

libraries and me.

Yes, I like books…and I like to read…but this is a new trend that i’ve discovered.

Three summers ago I worked in an orphanage in Moldova, and out of my own doing ended up working in the library every day there for a month and a half. Two summers ago I worked in the primary school that is connected to the school where I graduated high school for a month and ended up organizing three or four classroom libraries. This year I am half way around the world in Nepal and again, out of my own doing, I end up working in a library.

Maybe I should give up my career (that hasn’t even started yet) as a teacher or development worker or whatever I’m going to do and just become a librarian…I seem to be getting quite a bit of experience in this field of work 😛

Wie ich zur Bibliothek kam:

Shreeram fuehrte Ruth (die andere Volontaerin) und mich durch die Schule und zeigte uns ein paar Klassenzimmer. Nebenbei erwaehnte er die Bibliothek. Sie wuerde nicht wirklich benutzt und gehoerte mal organisiert. Er redete nicht lange darueber.

Nach der Tour sassen wir im Lehrerzimmer und dann kamen meine Fragen. Daraufhin gingen wir in die Biliothek. Shreeram zeigte mir ein paar Buecher und ich entdeckte, dass einige von ‘Room to Read’ gesponsort wurden. Da ich es extrem bloed finde, dass eine so tolle NGO wie RTR Buecher gespendet hat die nicht verwendet werden, und da ich Biliotheken unheimlich schoen und sehr wichtig fuer Schulen finde entschloss ich mich in dem Moment dazu die Bibliothek aufzupaeppen!

Auf gings ins Farbengeschaeft und dann in den Raum.

Als erstes wurde mal alles durchgeputzt. Dann wurden die Waende bunt angemalt (noch immer nicht ganz fertig). Am naechsten Tag ging es an die Buecher. Zuerst wruden sie in drei Kategorien sortiert: Nepali, Englisch, Nepali und Englisch gemischt. Dann in weitere Unterkateogorien unterteilt und in die sauberen Regale gestellt (da sind wir grad dabei). Hoffentlich bleibt mir auch noch ein wenig Zeit um ein paar Bibliotheksaktivitaeten aufzuschreiben und dem verantwortlichen Lehrer zu geben, damit die Biliothek auch (hoffentlich) wirklich verwendet wird…und nicht nur als Ort wo Buecher stehen, sondern als Raum zum Lernen, Lesen und Spielen.

Quicktrip through Nepal

For the last week Ruth, the second volunteer, and I have been sight seeing around the country. Here’s a quick recap:

Day 1: Lumbini.
The birthplace of Lord Buddah. Personally, I was disappointed by this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yes, the temple that was built around the miraculous 7 steps Buddah supposedly took after he was born is nice, but the rest of the Stupa and Temple complex was disappointing. Everything seems to still be under construction, and the temples that are finished don’t seem to be in use. There is usually only one monk per temple..which doesn’t really give this site a very religious feel. Rather, I felt like I was walking through the tables at a cake decorating competition. The temples were beautiful, but they weren’t being used, just like the cakes at competitions are beautiful, but not made for eating…

Day 2: Tansen, Palpa.
I was thoroughly impressed by this small district capital. It is built on an extremely steep hill (which ensured the first use of my hiking boots). The handicraft capital of Nepal really is beautiful. The town is filled with fabric shops that sell not only the ususal (probably) Indian fabrics, but also the woven fabrics that are so common in the hills. Shoeshops are everywhere and there are even some yarn shops, as well as some shops that sell some yarn rovings. Something special about this place was definitely the fact that they had a tourist information office that even had a map of the town! So we walked up the Shreenagar hill and had a beautiful view of the countryside. We also walked South of the town where we found the District Jail. Surprised by its size (VERY small) and lack of security (there were children walking on the walls talking to the guards all the time…) we continued our short trek back up the hill to go back into town.

Day 3:Pokhara.
Just like every city in Nepal Pokhara seems to be extremely polluted, but that didn’t deter us! We found a hotel that gave us a great value for our price (we are off season after all). I had my first warm shower in a month…not too bad 😛 This day we only walked around Lakeside a little bit to see where we were exactly, and how we would get to the World Peace Stupa the next day.

Day 4: Pokhara.
Busy, busy day. We got up at 6 (which for me, is already like sleeping in) and walked off to the boat rental place. We got a young man to bring us across the lake (we were basically the only people on the lake!) and walked up the steep climb to the Shanti Stupa (World Peace Pagoda). It looked identical to the one in Lumbini, but was quite different. A small monestary/hostel was built up there, as well as some restaurants and cafes. We chose one and had some tea before we continued our trek to Devi’s fall, Gupteshwor Cave and Chorepatan. Another great site in this part of town was Tashiling, the Tibetan Refugee Camp. I was surprised to see a small, self sufficient, touristy village rather than a camp of tents. Since we had thought that all this sight seeing would take the whole day, we were a little lost for where to go next. We decided to ask our lovely tibetan lunch host of what else would be nice around here. That’s how we came to find the beautiful river side where children were bathing and cows were grazing. An unpolluted, perfectly clean river…a rare sight. Also, we decided to walk the 30 minutes or so to the International Mountaineering Museum, which was DEFINITELY worth a visit! We watched a short documentary on the Khumbu (Everest) Region  and filled our brains with mountaineering information. After that we were exhausted and took a bus back to Lakeside, where we looked in the little tourist shops (post cards, books, clothes, art work…very touristy stuff)

Day 5: Pokhara
Today was a day to calm down a little and walk less. We decided to see the city, but soon realized it was EXTREMELY polluted…so we went and got ourselves some masks. Before all of this though, we went to the Mahendra Cave and the Bat Cave where we got ourselves a private tour guide to show us the little baby bats. These experiences were terrifying…I didn’t know I was afraid of caves…but then again, I’ve never gone so deep into a cave before…Afterwards, we tried to find a museum that nobody seemed to know about, so we gave up. The second museum was nice though, the Pokhara regional museum. Small, a little old, but good information on some rural groups of Nepal. AFter that we walked through the old town of Pokhara (yes! Pokhara has an old town! Something special about this city) and to the Anapurna Regional Museum (Stuffed animals, wildlife information, information on the Anapurna Conservation Area and lots of butterflies)

From there we walked to the Baglung Bus Park to find a bus to Tashi Palkhel, yet another Tibetan Refugee Camp. This was more fascinating than the last one. Tsering, a Tibetan Refuge who came to Nepal as a baby was kind enough to show us around the village (the school, the multi purpose hall, the houses…) as well as her own house where she gave us some juice. Thanks to here we were also able to witness the monks doing their afternoon puja.

Day 6: Sarangkot.
After quite a long, very steep climb we finally made it to the extremely foggy town of Sarangkot. After finding a guest house we decided to attempt the final summit. At this point we saw nothing but a few paragliders (okay, a lot of paragliders) taking off…it was impossible to see the mountains. We decided we would come back in the morning anyway, so we should go explore Sarangkot and it’s surrounding villages. BEST DECISION EVER!

1. we saw a lot of nature

2. we met some wonderful people. Especially one family was very nice. We sat down with them had a small chat and bought a humongous cucumber (very tasty). We found out that the daughter of the elderly couple was a teacher, and that she would be going to school now. We were asked to tag along…being volunteers to teach (and especially me, being a teacher) we were interested in seeing this school. It was wonderful to see a classroom and a school that doesn’t get as much attention from NGOs as the Ganganagar school (although they HAVE seen 2 or 3 volunteers…). After talking to the principal, the students, and the staff, and after exchanging e-mail addresses we left to continue exploring.

Day 7: Paragliding and Gorkha.
Before I talk about Paragliding, I MUST mention the sunrise. We got up extra early (only by an hour) to see the sunrise from behind the highest peaks of the world. This morning there was not a single cloud in the sky and you could see everything. The Anapurna South, Anapurna I, Anapurna III, Delaughiri, Macha Puchre (Yes, I now know more himalayan mountains than I know Austrian mountains or any other mountain…) were only some of the mountains we saw that morning. PHENOMENAL!

The walk up the mountain was hard enough, and since I thought it would be cool to go paragliding it had now become the time. Flying. With the himalayan mountains in the background, the beautiful Phewa Tal under me and my breakfast in my stomach I did the impossible. I flew! Well, I didn’t really do much…my pilot did the flying (and even some stunts over the lake!). It was great! Definitely something I would love to do again…although I did feel a little sea sick..or I guess sky sick. But not too bad. AMAZING. Finding the bus wasn’t too hard, but because the company had forgotten our backpacks at the top of the hill we had to wait quite a while to get them. While waiting, we had some fruit (papaya, apple, banana). By the time we reached Gorkha, there really wasn’t much we could do, but look at the little town. (the main attractions are up the mountain)

Day 8: Gorkha.
Today, we walked up the 1500 Steps to the Former King’s Palace and the Kalika Mandir (Temple). Those were a lot of steps…especially since we had been walking up mountains for the last week. The view was bad again today (which made me extremely happy to see how lucky we were when we were in Sarangkot!), but the Palace and Temple were really beautiful! We even walked past some army camps (Gorkha was the town in which the King lived that attacked all of what is Nepal today to unify his Kingdom. It is also this army that defeated the British when they tried to invade Nepal after they conquered India–the British were defeated!).

This trip was really amazing. I saw so many new things, met so many great people, practiced and used some of my Nepali (and was actually understood!) It was truly amazing, and made me fall in love with this country even more…I don’t want to leave!