Friday, March 23, 2012

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

When I was preparing to come to Mozambique, I knew that there would be obvious discrepancies between the culture in which I had lived for 22 years and between the new one that would ideally be my home for two and a half years. I figured there would be differences in the family make-up and dynamic, which is definitely true. Women are undoubtedly in charge of all work around the house and are at the whim of the man who ideally has some sort of job, but most commonly works in the machamba (family field) or lounges all day, with the woman and children often also pitching in at the machamba as well. “Man of the House” is to put it nicely. The man may or may not have other wives, children, houses, and lives in another part of town or even in another town. Women do not even refer to their husbands by their name, but rather as the father of their child: my friend Cristina refers to her husband not as Benvindo, his name, but as “pãe de Zuria” (father of Zuria, her daughter). I also figured that there would be a disparity among family planning practices, which couldn’t be more true. Women begin having children at unfathomably young ages, often with much older men, and continue to have children until they are biologically unable. Women have an average of like 7 kids and think I am crazy to be almost 24 and not have even one child. I figured there would be differences in food, which obviously there are. I figured there would be differences in what is considered acceptable conditions to live, which is needless to say, right on the money. And these examples are just a few of the things I predicted I would come across, and thus they have taken only minor effort to get the hang of and accept (not that I don’t try to talk young girls out of having children at the age of 13).

There have also, however, been a myriad of aspects of my life here that I didn’t anticipate. Some were very easy to get the hang of, like pretending that I take 3 baths a day to fit in, or hiring someone to sweep the dirt in my front yard everyday so my yard is as “bonito” as everyone else’s and to avoid suspicion or condescension. My shoes get scrubbed, as do my floors, and I now do not get as upset anymore when someone in the 2-hour ATM line has 7 cards, meaning he had been delegated by family and friends to take out money for all of them, slowing up the line. I now know that most Mozambicans are almost unsettlingly nice and it is culturally inappropriate to not do something for someone when asked, stranger or not. They help each other out, which can get annoying when they slow the bank lines and when their excuse for being late to class is that they were conversing with a friend they saw on the road, but it is also admirable. Whenever I am in a pinch, someone will help, which I cannot always say about the fast-paced, busy culture back home. But there are also many more unanticipated differences that have recently really gotten to me.

Prior to my time in Moz, I did not realize that logical reasoning and critical thinking skills are not innate human qualities. Somehow, my students are able to fix anything tangible with any materials they find randomly around them, which is indeed a form of problem solving, but they are unable to problem solve in the classroom when presented with more theoretical concepts. They will get every drop of ink out of a pen (and spend hours attempting to scavenge this last drop) but the concept of singular and plural nouns is lost on them. They can regurgitate that singular means “one” and plural means “many” as I have taught them, but when I say “Maria” or “Mozambique” and ask if it is singular or plural, I get 50 blank stares back at me. “How many people is Maria?” I ask, and again I am greeted with 50 looks of confusion. I anticipated that Mozambican students would not have the same skill set as someone of the same grade in America, but I did fully understand why that was. Yes, it is because these schools operate without proper materials and books. Yes, it is because these schools are understaffed and over-enrolled. Yes, it is because the teachers have minimal training. Yes, it is because school is cancelled whenever it rains because the noise the rain makes on the tin roofs makes it impossible to be heard throughout the classroom. These things I knew would be obstacles with which I would have to combat but I thought that would be it. I didn’t realize that the school system was so terrible for so many other reasons, and it has taken me almost 18 months to really grasp it all, most of which is not the fault of anyone or anything except probably a 20-year civil war of destruction. Education here is a passive experience. You show up and you disinterestedly listen to a teacher dictate something from a book and BAM, you are “learning.” Corruption is rampant, which goes beyond the expected grade changing and favoritism, which I had sort of expected to encounter and think I could deal with if it ended there. When a student has reached 11th grade by copying everything from other students and relying on teachers to arbitrarily hand out grades without really reading what the students write, all of which is corruption, the students have no incentive to turn in individual, creative work. I try to tell the students “Each one of us has our own, good, individual ideas! And I want to know what your ideas are, not the ideas of someone else! Not the ideas I wrote on the board as examples! I already know what I think! I want to know what you think!” But this concept means nothing to them. They have no experience with it. The boy that works for me once asked me for help with his Design/Art class homework, and one of the questions was something to the effect of “Why is art important?” We discussed it for a while until he had formulated his own, individual, and I think very inspired idea of the importance of art, which he then wrote down on the paper. When he got the homework back, he had received no credit for this response because it was different than what the book says. Our school library, mind you, has one copy of the 10th grade Design/Art book, which the 10th grade Art/Design teacher keeps in his house, meaning no student can access said book. So this kid is doomed if he thinks in an original or imaginative manner and doomed if he doesn’t because he has no means of getting to the book with the “right” answer. By the time the students reach my class, they have been conditioned that they don’t have to put any real effort or thought into school to get by, which is utterly demoralizing. I realize many American students have these same lazy, apathetic ideas regarding education, so for me the absolute devastation I feel upon entering the classroom everyday is that here I am, teaching students who don’t care, and don’t even know how to care, without any materials. And I often think, what is the point? 

Mozambicans also have what my old roommate used to call “chefe syndrome,” which is the complete and utter submission to the chefe (the boss or the person is power). Mozambique had a devastating civil war soon after gaining independence, which ended less than 20 years ago. Frelimo is the party that has been in power since then and because of the atrocities of the civil war, everyone is scared shitless of being seen as part of the opposition. Therefore, even if they disagree with the government, with their teacher, with their father, with their boss, with anyone in a position of authority, they applaud them. The other day I found out that the Ministry of Education is going to write and administer our final exams for the trimester. This is brand-new policy. I decided this year to change around the curriculum to a sequence that made more sense to me, which means I have already taught things at the end of the curriculum and have not yet gotten to things at the beginning, concomitantly meaning that all my students will inevitably fail the exam that the Ministry of Ed gives. And there is one week left in the trimester. When my colleague told me the news, his wife, my friend Cristina, who is in my 11th grade class, just sat there. I looked at her and said “Aren’t you upset?! You are going to fail the test and fail English for the trimester!” She just shrugged, “What am I supposed to do?” My thoughts: I don’t know! Get angry! Get passionate! This is your education, your key to a potentially better life for your daughter and sitting here passively is the worst thing you can do! But Mozambicans submit to authority at all costs. This is also why I can’t level with my students and hold an actual conversation about why being late to class is unacceptable, because they will inevitably stand there, head bowed, wholly silent and unresponsive, because I am the authority figure so what I say goes. Anyone who knows me knows that making your opinion heard is of utmost importance and so I hate when my students think I will get mad if they assert themselves in their interactions with me. If they only knew that I would actually just hug them and maybe make them cookies were they to do so. I had sort of figured before I arrived in Mozambique that corruption would be the norm in all aspects of life, and that the ruling power might be conceived as all-mighty, infallible, and frightening, but I didn’t understand what that really meant and how society is so affected by it in so many aspects until I began to experience it every day. I have been thinking recently about what I suppose that development programs here, like Peace Corps, USAID, etc, in Mozambique should do to help most effectively and I honestly don’t know. Did I think that my, personally, being here was going to bring dramatic change on a large scale? Absolutely not. And I don’t know anymore what I thought my being here would accomplish. But I am now of the mindset that critical thinking and logical reasoning skills being taught in school beginning from grade 1 could do absolute wonders. How should we do that you might ask? Your guess is as good as mine.

I apologize if this post is too negative. But after 18 months in Mozambique, hitting a wall is inevitable. Outside the classroom, life is good. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow Tiggs. That was a powerful post and very reflective. All I can say is keep doing your best, and hope that perhaps you can reach one or two students with this idea of critical thinking, questioning, and creativity. They might not even realize the impact you have until later in life...