Friday, March 27, 2009

Cuban Education

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Cuban Education: 1 Che X 1 Fidel = 1 Revolution

The Cuban education system is deservedly world renowned. All Cuban kids go to school: education is free, and learning highly valued. Even the smallest and most remote villages have schools and teachers. Many Cuban youths go on to higher education in one of the island's many colleges, universities or technical schools.

Cuba boasts a 99% literacy rate. Given that 'literacy' may be defined simply by the ability to write one's name, it's difficult to know with certainty what this means. However when we were travelling in Cuba between 2003 and 2008 we saw many Cubans reading, and met lots of individuals with advanced degrees. (Unfortunately many of them were working at jobs that required little education – doctors driving taxis, architects working as prostitutes.)

On our trips we also met several school teachers and a few university professors. We peeked into a couple of schools. For us it was, like much of our Cuban experience, like stepping back in time – to 1950, or even before.

All grade school pupils in Cuba wear uniforms – white shirts with red bandanas and tan shorts, slacks or skirts. They look like Liliputian armies, especially when they're out in the local square, practicing their marching skills. Eagle-eyed sergeant-teachers bark out commands, and stern corrections to those pupils who aren't perfectly in time, aren't lifting their legs high or straight enough in the typical communist goose-step, swinging their arms in the prescribed manner, or holding their chins high enough. Marching is clearly serious business. Many of these children will go on to cadet schools and military service which, although not compulsory, is strongly recommended.

The regimental atmosphere is also evident in the classroom. Twenty to twenty-five students sit in desks arranged in straight rows, all facing the teacher and the chalk-board. The style of teaching is didactic – the teacher talks, the pupils listen. We saw none of the active, hands-on, group project kinds of activities that have come to characterize the western education system.

From what we saw, it appears that Cuban education relies on repetition, drill and memorization – writing the same words or phrases over and over, memorizing mathematical tables, poems, quotes by Cuban heroes, long lists of names and dates, countries and capital cities. Teachers teach according to a strictly proscribed curriculum, using standard government-issue texts.

The early reading books look much like the old 'Dick and Jane' books we learned from over 50 years ago. Other text-books we saw were very dry indeed – none of the colourful pictures, maps, or diagrams that enliven the pages of modern western text-books – just paragraph after paragraph and page after page of printed words. I can hear my kids' complaint – “it's so boring!”

We had an opportunity to look at the school note books of several different ages of kids. They all looked like something out of the 1950's.

Teresa was in kindergarten. Her writing book contained several pages of straight lines drawn between the lines on the page. From the first to the last, all of them were perfectly straight. It was hard to imagine what was gained through such tedious repetition. After the straight lines came pages of loops, such as l’s and e’s. Again, from first to last, all were carefully executed, their bottoms sitting on the line below them, the tops of the l's touching the upper line, the tops of the e's exactly half-way between the two lines. Then pages of o’s. It looked dreadfully tedious – hard to imagine a five-year-old with the patience to repeat something so basic – and something they had clearly mastered in the first line – over and over.

Teresa's parents showed us the educational materials that they are required to make at home. One of the items was a multi-pocketed piece of fabric which contained four basic shapes – a circle, a triangle, a square and an oval – in four or five different colours. These are apparently meant to help the child learn colours and shapes. But as Teresa's parents pointed out, Teresa and the other children knew their colours and shapes before they got to kindergarten.

Teresa's parents told us that the coloured shapes are also used in a new language program. The kids are supposed to break down all the words they learn into individual sounds, making the sound of each individual letter. So, the Spanish word “sol” becomes esse, oh, elle. As each letter is sounded, the kid pops one of the shapes into one of the pockets – presumably as a reward. We wondered how this approach helps with the acquisition of language. Perhaps it's a new approach to spelling.

Luis was in grade 4 or 5. He had several notebooks – for arithmetic, language, social studies and geography. His arithmetic book contained neat additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions of numbers up to 100. He could also recite his sums and times-tables. His parents drill him every evening. Although he was facile with the tables, it was not clear to me that Luis actually understood the concepts that underlay them – one of the problems of rote-learning.

All of Luis' notebooks contained endless political references – references to various heroes of the revolution and the greatness of Cuba. There was not one page that did not contain something about the political history of Cuba.

According to the teachers we talked to, there must be approved political content in every single class: 1 Che X 1 Fidel = 1 Revolution. Inspectors visit classrooms frequently, and unannounced, to make sure teachers not only abide by this 'golden rule,' but that they do so with the proper amount of zeal and fervor: 1 Patriot-Martyr Che X 1 Fearless Fidel = 1 Glorious Revolution! More than education, this is indoctrination.

The Cuban government is a great supporter of the arts. In one town the local cultural centre offers art lessons to school children. We visited the centre and saw a small group of children, all sitting at large tables, quietly – and carefully – painting. The instructor, a rather severe-looking older man who never once smiled, went round offering advice to each child. “Paint this part of the house a darker grey,” “put feet and shoes on this person,” “what are you going to put in this place?”

The children made no response, but dutifully followed his directions. Their paintings were very colourful, and filled the entire sheet of paper, which was good. But there was no spontaneity in them, and certainly there didn't seem to be much fun in doing them.

It is undoubtedly true that the Cuban education system turns out students who can read, do their maths, and spout all sorts of facts. But what about critical thinking? Indeed, what about independent thought at all? When we were in Cuba we only very rarely came across someone who demonstrated an ability to do anything other than follow the rules, no matter how nonsensical or down-right ridiculous they were. This is of course partly because Cubans are afraid to do or say anything they have not been told to do or say. In Cuba, independent-mindedness and action often attracts the wrong sort of attention.

Consider this: no foreign newspapers are available in Cuba, except perhaps at some of the most upscale hotels, although even there we did not see them. No magazines, except the few that are brought in by tourists, friends and family – generally magazines like 'People,' 'Chatelaine,' and 'Cosmo.'

All books must be approved by the Cuban government – any that contain content deemed critical of the country, or the revolution, are banned. Television and radio broadcasts from the USA and Europe are scrambled – we had difficulty getting any reception at all, even with our short-wave radio.

I talked to several doctors, and a few other professionals, who said that their biggest problem was getting information. They were taught using dated, and often shared, texts. They could not afford to subscribe to appropriate professional journals, and their internet access was severely restricted. We would likely not consider them properly trained, and they had no way to remain current.

How educated can a people be when they have almost no access to information? When there is only one government-controlled newspaper? When almost all of the 'news' is still about the revolution, some 50 years ago, but spoken of as if it were yesterday? When any news about the US or the western world is painted in the blackest possible terms, and all 'news' about Cuba glows with praise and pride?

How educated can a people be when they are afraid to really speak their minds? When they retreat inside their homes and turn the music up loud to mask 'subversive' conversations among themselves or, more dangerous yet, with foreigners?

How educated can a people be when they are not allowed to think? The Cuban people often reminded me of children: they have been told what to do for so long – 50 years, at least two generations – that many seem to have lost the ability or desire to think for themselves.

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