From Dumaguete City, Negros Island, Philippines
Changing what we do in schools is uncomfortable, even hard sometimes, certainly complex. But as you ponder the “why, what, and how” of change at your school, in your district, or by your community, as you struggle with the inevitable discomfort and disruptions, take a look at what REALLY complex school change might be, and how those with the tiniest fraction of your resources are finding ways to succeed.
In 1981-82, as a recent Stanford graduate, I was invited to teach at Silliman University, a highly-respected English language university on Negros Island, about an hour flight south of Manila. Forward many years, and for the last decade I have partnered with Silliman, first leading the flagship annual experiential student trip for Francis Parker School, and carrying on with a number of small school and community development projects. So, it is with a great deal of interest that I have followed the path of a MAJOR disruption to the education system here in the Philippines.
About six years ago, the federal government, with input from educators around the country, including those at the Silliman College of Education, decided that the Philippines had to finally disrupt the historic system that ended in 10th grade, and shift to a K-12 system. Just think about that for a minute: in a nation of 90 million people, 5,000 islands, with huge modern cities and rural villages of subsistence fishermen and farmers, add two grades to every high school and take all graduates out of the college system for two years until the system normalizes. Oh yes, and at the same time, let’s rewrite standards for the entire system to focus on 21st Century skills, content, and pedagogy.
That, my friends, is a disruption.
I have had only a small window on this process; for example, I watched as my Silliman colleagues designed and facilitated a five-day workshop last year for 1,000 teachers from their region. They had a week to convey new content and pedagogy covering 10 months of school time to teachers who have been teaching in a rigid, static system for their entire careers. (They also had to kit out classrooms as sleeping quarters for those five days because there are not nearly enough hotel rooms for 1,000 visitors in the entire city of Dumaguete.) Talk about building a plane in flight! Did they get it all right the first time? Of course not. But they are iterating new workshops this year.
The results may already be remarkable to those of us who try to shift one school or district through much less daunting transformations. I chatted with the principal of the small high school on Apo Island, an idyllic islet off the coast of Negros that I have frequented over the years. Ten years ago, the high school was one classroom; today it has eight concrete classrooms; in two years, it will have at least twice that many. They have wooden desks, a few books, and meager supplies. They finally have internet access for the two or three working computers…when the computers are working. Teachers bunk together in a small one-room house, cooking on a gas ring and sharing one toilet and one shower.
The principal is 27 years old, and I would hire her in a second to teach at my school. In a system that five years ago was as tradition-bound and rigidly teacher-centric as you could imagine, she estimates that now, just two years into the real changes, in the average week “teachers are lecturing from the front of the classroom only about 25% of the time”. They have self-developed group collaborations and project-based learning; they have created a nascent STEM program; and she wants to build a maker-space-like “workshop”…if they can find a few square meters of build-able land in the village. They are worrying about post-traditional student assessments. They are asking “what parts of the Finland model will work here?” In other words, I had the exact same conversation with the principal of this high school on a tiny islet in the middle of the Visayan Sea that I frequently have at wealthy American private or public schools.
I asked her and the team from Silliman if the experience on Apo is typical or not. Their response: “it all depends on the principals”. Some are digging in their heals, and resisting the changes in program and pedagogy. Others are moving forward because they see the world changing so fast around them and they know what they have to do. On the whole, they are just six years in to a reconstruction of the entire system, and the needle has moved dramatically toward what we would call “deeper learning”.
And (here’s the kicker if you want to take the long view), the students and teachers in the Philippines have one HUGE advantage over American or school systems in the developed world. They are born tinkerers, makers, and fixers. Most have nothing growing up, so they create. There is no “sit and it will come to you” in their DNA. The teachers don’t yet know what the final product they are building will look like, but they are moving forward anyway. They are courageous innovators.
Would you and your team like to video chat with some really good educators in the Philippines who are crossing the same bridges as you are, with perhaps some very different insights into how they are doing? Might you like to share some of your own trials and successes? Might the students get some value out of that kind of interaction with peers a world apart? Let me know and I can set it up. (And if you want to spend some time on “my beach” per this photo, that can be arranged as well!) The stubborn rock of education is moving, and despite the seemingly complex path ahead of you, the lessons of success are all around us. Even on a small island with a poor, concrete school, but surrounded by one of the great coral reefs in the world!