Monday, February 21, 2011

Some Thoughts

Some Thoughts on Bilingual Education

I've been meaning to write down some observations and thoughts about my experiences as an auxiliary educator here in Madrid.  I recognize how limited my thoughts and observations are. Without accepting its non-solutions, I understand that we're living in a “post-modern” era—where affirmations tend to be negated from their inceptions as being “from a particular point of view” or originating in a “microcosm” of “civilization” which hasn't any validity outside the contexts from which your mental constructs originate.1 I haven't visited every bilingual school in Madrid, in Spain, nor in the world. I'm also not an expert in education, much less anything else—other than an interest and background in studies of social relations and power, and the fluidity with which these function, develop, and change.

Overall, I can't deny that the bilingual program works in creating bilingualism. The kids start out not knowing a single goddamn word of English (other than Toy Story and Hanna Montana). And by the 4th grade, a large percentage (note: not the vast majority) can understand, and can even string together some thoughts and/or expressions to get them by. And this is great for the kids who get it, who pick up language quick, and who are “good at school” like I was. It's also great for making “adaptable” cogs in the global economic machine—who are being told every day that to be useful is to adapt, and to adapt you need to speak English.

But the holes in the system make me itch. The kids who show up late to the bilingual program, or the kids who just don't get the whole language thing are just absolutely fucked over. It's not that they're getting bad grades in English class. That wouldn't be much of a problem, you can't expect everyone to be good at learning another language. The real trouble comes with the fact that they're teaching these kids “Science” in English. Essentially, many of the children are left out of learning about the world that surrounds them, and the ones that aren't, are taught that they must adapt to that world, not that they can do anything to change it. Moreover, their ability to contemplate the latter is stifled by the need to get through the book and memorize the next unit.

Lets look into the “Science” curriculum. “Science” in the schools is taught out of a little blue booklet, which combines the social and natural sciences into one subject. At first glance, one would think that this is a novel idea. After all, you can't separate society from nature, seeing as how the former is supported and sustained by the latter—often at its' expense. But then when you go into the text (which is dogmatically followed by the teachers)2 it can be absolutely frightening. It's essentially all a mile wide and an inch deep. Students are taught that energy makes things work, and that electricity is a form of energy...with little or no connection to what that actually means—that energy means converting matter into heat, and therefore waste (pollution). Instead they're given words to memorize and platitudes to regurgitate: “Pollution is bad, trees are good.” On top of this they're learning this trite view of their natural world in a language that isn't their own. The gasps, “ohhhhhhh's” and “So that's what we're talking about?” when you translate a paragraph out of the Science book are pretty astonishing, leading me to ask “how much have these kids missed?” Do they understand that glaciers carve valleys and mountains, and keep the world from flooding by holding so much water? Do they understand that they're melting because of us? Or do they just know that writing “glaciers are large moving masses of ice” on their exams will get them full credit.

The social part of the Science curriculum is (as someone whose studied social sciences in relative depth) down right scary. As I've mentioned before, they don't like making history a part of the curriculum. However, the Science book does have a history component. The last two chapters--at least of the 4th grade booklet. This is preceded by a chapter on government which says “the Constitution of Spain started in 1978 with King Juan Carlos I as head of State” without mentioning the meaning of “State” nor of what came before 1978 (I'll give you a hint, it starts with “d”, ends with -ictatorship). The history chapters begin with the cavemen, then skips to the middle ages where people “lived on manors where the nobles lived in castles and serfs tended the fields” followed by the “Age of Discoveries” where a dood name Columbus “discovered” America and Europeans started moving there.3 Followed by the “Industrial Revolution” where “Working conditions were hard.” The chapter on “professions” mentions work, earnings, full-time, part-time, factory, office, and so on, but forgets to mention the word “strike.”

What I'm getting at isn't simply that they're getting a vision of society or history that is politically incorrect or incomplete. But that they're getting a vision of the world that denies the connectedness of its aliquot parts. Why were working conditions hard in the industrial revolution? Why are they less hard today? Why did Columbus need to find a cheaper route to India? Why do mommy and daddy only need to work 40 hours a week? How come there is a distinction between full-time and part-time? Where did money come from? None of these questions are even thought about. And perhaps that kind of critical thinking is hampered by the fact that they're forced to learn, and then tested on, all of these concepts in English—a language they are not native to. What is ignored here is the process. The processes that are inherent between our natural environment, technology, processes of production, reproduction of daily life, social relations, mental concepts, and the contradictions within these processes. What is forgotten is that our social and economic world is not natural—they've developed, not through random events on a time line, but through the interplay of human decisions and nature—and that those human decisions can be rectified. The world in which we live in can be changed, and we can change it. And this is a consciousness that is necessary not just for human progress, but ultimately, for human survival. Some would dismiss this saying that children can't reason this way. I don't know, I'm not a child cognition expert. But I would venture to guess that children are probably more creative and critical thinkers than we would imagine. Their preconceptions aren't as firm as adults' notions of the world, and surely their curiosity can be fostered instead of ignored.

I don't think this is a shortcoming of only Spanish education, I've a feeling that this is the way it was for us as well, and for education in the industrialized world generally. Some students excel, while others are effectively shut-out, told their minds aren't capable of achievement, that they're of less worth than others. I also don't think it's a problem with the teachers. The teachers I meet here are incredibly well meaning, and some are quite critical, openly, of the bilingual program (both because it contributes less to a liberating education, and because it pushes out older—better paid—teachers since they don't know English). The problems of how to address these issues aren't easy to solve, but I think educators need to think about them if they want to be good teachers. I don't think the “teachers have families and are busy” excuse holds water—as the Ministry of Education guy said to dismiss my questions at our last auxiliares meeting—that's like saying the medical profession should ignore cancer or AIDS. Just because it's bigger than we can tackle individually, doesn't mean it's something we can forget about.

Here's to hoping that in this century, which has already begun to disprove the notion that revolutionary transformation is impossible, we see a revolutionary transformation in the way we educate and liberate our young people. 

1Often, in late night conversations (which broach the uncomfortable subject of the screwed up times we live in—a feat I find unfortunately rare these days, outside of academic or more robustly informed and radical settings) I hear this when you stop talking about what quick fix might solve problems of economic and social inequality, and start talking about the real crisis—that political economics itself is the problem, and something must be attempted to transform those arrangements themselves. As if getting to the root of problems is no solution, or too big to approach.
2There's a pressure to make sure that the work book is filled out—the excuse I hear is because this way the parents can see some progress—and also, it's easier to just test to the book than to create your own lessons or measures of learning.
3On this page, there is literally a picture of Western Europe, right next to North America. No mention that the “Age of Discoveries” meant the wholesale slaughter of indigenous communities in North/South America, and no mention of the millions kidnapped to go work for free and accumulate the profits that helped lead Western Europe into the next part of the history chapter: The Industrial Revolution.