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Girls' education: Lessons from BRAC (Bangladesh)

Rosa María Torres

I learned about BRAC and got in contact with its education programme while working as a senior education adviser at UNICEF's Education Cluster in New York, in the early 1990s. From the start, I became fascinated with BRAC's 'non-formal primary school' concept. This programme, initiated in 1985 with 22 schools, attempted to address the needs of the poorest sectors in Bangladesh, especially in rural areas. The specific aim was to attract girls, who were mostly absent from schools.

I visited Bangladesh twice, in 1993 and in 1995, and had the opportunity to see BRAC's non-formal primary schools in action. Together with Manzoor Ahmed, UNICEF Programme Director at the time, we wrote a dossier called Reaching the Unreached: Non-formal approaches and universal primary education, (UNICEF, 1993). BRAC's non-formal education programme was one of the experiences included in the dossier. BRAC's programme was also included in Education for All: Making It Work - Innovation Series organized jointly by UNICEF and UNESCO right after the Jomtien Conference on Education for All (1990). Dieter Berstecher (UNESCO Paris) and I (UNICEF New York) coordinated the project. (In 2000, 10 years after the Jomtien conference, the series was transferred from UNESCO Headquarters to PROAP, in Bangkok. See issue No.14 dedicated to Lok Jumbish, in India).

One thing that astonished me was the basic and pragmatic wisdom with which BRAC was developing the programme. The first step was conducting a survey to find out why parents were not sending their daughters to school. Three major reasons came out: 1) the school journey was too long (they needed girls to help at home with domestic chores); 2) teachers were mostly men (parents expressed they would feel more comfortable if there were female teachers in the schools); and 3) the school - when available - was too distant from home.

Acknowledging parents' expressed needs, BRAC acted accordingly. The design of the programme adopted three key measures:

1) shortening the school journey (3 hours a day), rethinking the entire school calendar (more months in school, no long holidays), and adjusting the curriculum to fit those time arrangements (the idea is to complete the nation's five-year primary school cycle in four years);

2) identifying women in the local communities and providing them with some basic initial training so that they could act as teachers; and

3) building schools that were closer to home. 

BRAC's non-formal primary schools were the simplest and nicest schools I had seen in poor rural areas. One-room schools built with local materials, with the help of the community. Bright, clean, colorful. Small mats on the floor for the children, a medium-sized chalkboard, posters and visual aids all around.

Children walked shorter distances to school and remained there only for 3 hours a day, so they could continue to help at home.

There were few women in the communities with a teacher certificate, so BRAC selected in each community women with the highest school level (often primary education) and interested in teaching, and trained them. Initially with a 12-day course, later complemented with monthly refresher courses and yearly orientation courses.

This is how BRAC managed to include girls who would otherwise have never attended school. By the time I visited BRAC the NFE programme was already a 'success story' attracting attention not only in Bangladesh but worldwide. Since then BRAC has continued to grow - it is today "the worlds' largest development organization" - and its education programme became a full education system. It remains free of charge. It reached also urban slums, it incorporated e-learning and it includes now a university and a network of mobile libraries. In terms of learning results, BRAC's NFE schools do not lag behind government formal schools; on the contrary, their results are ahead of the country average.
Some data for BRAC's  non-formal primary schools (January 2017):
14,153 schools
389,910 students, of whom 62.17% are girls
5.3 million students completed courses, of which 60.43% are girls
5.55 million students transferred to formal schools to date, of which 60.12% are girls
14,153 teachers
BRAC's education programme has received numerous international awards, one of them the prestigious WISE Prize from the Qatar Foundation in 2011. I was happy to be in Doha, attending the WISE event, when Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, BRAC's founder and director, received the prize.

Girls' education remains a major issue worldwide, starting with early childhood and primary education. The problem continues to pose old and new challenges. Diagnoses and studies multiply, debates and fora repeat often what is already known, there is hunger for more data. In the middle of all that, I often remember BRAC's long and fruitful experience, its pragmatic wisdom, its short, medium and long-term vision, its consultation with families and communities, its permanent interest to connect with local needs and realities.

In times when everything seems to start from scratch and anything can be considered an innovation, it is essential to look back and learn from experience.

Related texts in this blog
» Aprender a lavarse las manos
» WISE Prize for Education Laureates: Bottom-up Innovators
» Kazi, the graceless | Kazi, el sin gracia

OTRA∃DUCACION - Texts in English

Poetic and Dreamlike Paper Cut Artworks - Fubiz

This is a bilingual blog. Most texts are published in Spanish. Here is a compilation of texts written in English (alphabetical order).

10 false ideas on education in Finland


12 Theses on Educational Change

1990-2015: Education for All Educación para Todos (compilation)

1990-2030: Global education goals

25 Years of Education for All

About 'good practice' in international co-operation in education

Adult Literacy in Latin America and the Caribbean: Plans and Goals 1980-2015

Basic learning needs: Different frameworks

Beautiful letters

Child learning and adult learning revisited

Children of the Basarwa (Botswana)

Children's right to basic education

Children's rights: A community learning experience in Senegal

Cuba and Finland

Ecuador's literacy fiasco

Education First

Ecuador: Good Bye to Community and Alternative Education

Education for adaptation?

Education for All 2000-2015 - How did Latin America and the Caribbean do? 

Education in the Information Society

Escuela Nueva: An innovation within formal education (Colombia)


Finland Study Visit

Finland's education compared

Formal, non-formal and informal learning

From literacy to lifelong learning: Trends, Issues and Challenges of Youth and Adult Education in Latin America and the Caribbean

From school community to learning community

Goal 4: Education - Sustainable Development Goals
- SDG: Translation issues

Girls' education: Lessons from BRAC (Bangladesh)

Giving up to a literate world?

GLEACE: Letter to UNESCO on the Literacy Decade (2003-2012)

Kazi, the Graceless

Knowledge-based international aid: Do we want it? Do we need it?

Latin America over-satisfied with public education

Latin America: Six decades of education goals

Lifelong Learning: moving beyond Education for All

Lifelong Learning for the North, Primary Education for the South?

Lifelong Learning in the South: Critical Issues and Opportunities for Adult Education, Sida Studies 11, Stockholm, 2004

Literacy and Lifelong Learning: The linkages

Literacy for All: A renewed vision

Literacy for All: A United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012): Base Document for the Literacy Decade (2000)

Military spending in education

Now comes PISA for 'developing countries'

On education in Finland
On innovation and change in education

On Learning Anytime, Anywhere (WISE 2011)

One child, one teacher, one book and one pen

One Decade of 'Education for All': The Challenge Ahead (IIEP-UNESCO Buenos Aires, 2000, PDF) 

Open letter to school children 

OTRA∃DUCACION: Lo más visitado ▸ Most visited

Public gym stations in Beijing and Quito

Reaching the Unreached: Non-Formal Approaches and Universal Primary Education

"Rethinking education" and adult education

Six 'Education for All' Goals

South Africa 1993: A moment with Mandela

Stop PISA!

The 4 As as criteria to identify 'good practices' in education 

The green, the blue, the red and the pink schools

There is no "education for the 21st century"

The million Paulo Freires

The oldest and the youngest

The virtuous C (Keys for a renewed learning culture)

The World Economic Forum and education quality

Transforming formal education from a lifelong learning perspective

We are Latin America

What did the MDGs achieve?

What Happened at the World Education Forum in Dakar (2000)?

What is 'basic education'?

What is youth and adult education - today?

WISE Prize for Education Laureates: Bottom-up Innovators

From School Community to Learning Community

It is important to differentiate school community, education community and learning community, and the corresponding differences between school/school system, education/education system, and learning/learning system.

Education is not limited to school education (schooling). Even if they are regularly used as equivalent, education system and school system are not the same thing. The school system is one, of many, education and learning systems, such as the family, the media, work, sports, etc.

Education is not necessarily equivalent to learning. Not all that we learn is a product of education (education involves teaching, someone occupying this role, in presence or at a distance).
- On one hand, much of what is taught in the school system is not learned.

- On the other hand, much of what we learn in life, from birth to death, takes place out of the school system. Nobody teaches it to us; we learn it informally while playing, talking, listening, doing, observing, reading, writing, working, watching TV, listening to the radio, navigating on the Internet, traveling, etc.  


The school community comprises those engaged in the school life, at local or national level: students, parents, teachers, administrators. 

Education community is a broader concept. It includes all those who are related to education in a broader sense, not restricted to the school system: the family, mass media, the workplace, sports, churches, etc. 

A learning community refers to a community of learners, people of all ages engaged in different types of learning activities and processes, in and out of the school system.
- A learning community can be a classroom or a school: learning is placed at the center rather than academic achievement as measured by tests; teachers and students learn together and from each other.

- A learning community can be a local community, a territory - urban or rural, small or large - that decides to motivate and engage everyone in learning - children, youth and adults. For that purpose, the community gets organized in order to identify,  activate, and co-ordinate the various learning spaces and resources available in that community, whatever they are: child care center,  school, university, library, park, plaza, market, atelier, health center, museum, sports yard, music club, movies, theater, local radio or newspaper, zoo, internet cafe, community house, etc.
The table below summarizes some important differences between a School Community and a Learning Community.


School Community

Learning Community

▸ Children and youn people learning 
▸ Children, young people and adults learning 
▸ Adults teaching children and youth 
▸ Inter-generational and peer-to-peer learning
▸ School education 
▸ School and out-of-school education
▸ Formal education
▸ Learning in formal, non-formal and informal environments
▸ School agents (headteachers, teachers, administrators)
▸ Education agents (school agents and other social agents assuming education roles)
▸ School agents as change agents 
▸ Education agents as change agents 
▸ Students as learning agents
▸ Students and teachers and learning agents 
▸ Fragmented vision of the school system (pre-school, primary or basic, high school, higher education)
▸ Systemic and unified vision of the school system (a continuum from initial to higher education) 
▸ Institutional plans
▸ Inter-institutional plans
▸ Isolated innovations
▸ Networked innovations
▸ Network of schools
▸ Network of education institutions
▸ School project
▸ Community education project. Each one is different, unique. It responds to the community's needs, desires, aspirations, and conditions.
▸ Sector approach to education  (education as a "sector")
ntra-school approach to education
▸ Inter-sectoral approach to education and learning
erritorial approach to education and learning (the territory as learning ecosystem)
▸ Ministry of Education in charge
▸ Various Ministries engaged
▸ State/government
▸ Local community, national community, State/government
Lifelong Learning 

Related texts in this blog  
- Comunidad de Aprendizaje
- Comunidad de Aprendizaje: Educación, territorio y aprendizaje comunitario
- Aprendizaje a lo Largo de la Vida
- Sobre Aprendizaje a lo Largo de la VidaOn Lifelong Learning
- Lifelong Learning in the South: Critical issues and opportunities for adult education
- Transforming formal education from a lifelong learning perspective
- Lifelong Learning: Moving Beyond Education for All (EFA)

There is no 'education for the 21st century'

Rosa María Torres

Everyone talks about 'Education for the 21st Century':

- 21st century knowledge
- 21st century competencies
- 21st century values
- 21st century students
- 21st century educators
- 21st century schools
- 21st century classrooms ...

Strictly speaking, however, there is no 'Education for the 21st Century'.

The century is just beginning

We can hardly visualize one or two decades ahead, at a high risk of failed predictions. Who can tell what the world will be like in 2050? Nobody can anticipate what can happen in 100 years, and in this century in particular, characterized as one of big uncertainties, rapid changes, major crises and catastrophes.

What '21st century'?

The 21st century does not look or feel the same for everyone. Millions of people throughout the world continue to lack food, running water, toilets, electricity, decent work and housing, transportation, reading and writing, good education opportunities, basic services and basic citizenship rights.

Inequalities - within each country, between countries, between the global North and the global South - tend to become structural: extreme poverty and extreme wealth, hyper-consumption for some and misery for many, overinformation on one side and zero information on the other, the illiterate and the overqualified, the connected and the unconnected.

The Internet - which so many in the 'developed world' seem to take for granted at this point - is still absent from the daily experience of nearly half of the world population.

Evidently, life in the 21st century feels very different for those living with less than 1 or 2 dollars a day (the millions defined as living in extreme poverty) and for those participating in the Information Society, the Knowledge Society, the Consumption Society, the Abundance Society.

What education?

There is no education in singular, as a universal fact and as a homogeneous experience. There are educations, in plural, of diverse natures, purposes and qualities, because realities, cultures, ideologies, aspirations and needs of concrete social groups are highly diverse. And because education is not confined to the education system; there is education in the family, in the community, at the workplace, through the media, participation, social service, etc.

Education and learning needs and experiences are shaped by specific economic, social and cultural contexts and conditions.

Internet-based education and learning continues to be a possibility for a minority. Getting a few computers in schools does not guarantee access to the Internet and basic conditions for teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, there are no one-size-fits-all education formulas for all.

Education for the 21st century?

Rather than education or learning for the 21st century, what we have is education and learning in the 21st century. Education and learning that are placed historically in this century and that do not necessarily correspond to the '21st century' utopia and to the '21st century learning needs' conceived in the 'developed world'.

Related texts in this blog (English)
» Basic Learning Needs: Different Frameworks


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