Ken Pitsapheng’s original dream was to be a doctor. Growing up in the countryside, he understood painfully well what happens to people who can’t get medical care. Most suffer and many die and usually from conditions that can easily be treated. His dream was to set things right since he had lost his own mother to malaria.
His dream didn’t become real. He didn’t have the money. He couldn’t be a doctor, but he was the first from his village to go to Luang Prabang, learn English and get a degree. There weren’t others to follow. For the time being, he was the first and the last. When he goes back, he sees that all his friends are married and with children. Many girls get married as young teenagers. He sees that the villagers’ lives are poor and they aren’t educated in the options they could have.
To help educate rural students, he opened a community reading room in 2010. At that time, he was studying in Luang Prabang but he went every weekend to teach the children. After two years, he decided that bringing kids to Luang Prabang would give them better opportunities, widen their worlds and expand their knowledge. He set up a group-housing facility for six young people ranging from ages 10 to 15, each from one village in his area. At the House of Dreams, they can have a safe place to live and a supportive learning environment.
When he goes back to his village, adults ask him if their child will be the next to have a chance to study. Running the operation by himself, he can’t meet everyone’s request, but Ken has set up a system in which graduating students under his tutelage will give back to society by establishing their own education centers. They will also be asked to give 10% of their salaries to support education. If the plan goes smoothly, it should engender a continuing expansion of satellite centers, all managed by young people who have experienced themselves what a quality education is.
I asked if he had a role model or some source of inspiration. I asked him to tell me about an influential teacher. He says that at the tertiary level, teachers leave the students to study on their own so nobody has had an impact on him. He does, however, remember a certain secondary school teacher who taught him when he was a novice. The teacher was still a layman, but taught the dharma and its applications to everyday life. He taught mental discipline and how to control the emotions. Apparently, this teacher later became a monk himself.
Ken entered the temple when he was 11. He said he was a lazy boy and when everyone else went to the field to work, he stayed at home. His father told him he had a choice in life. He could either stay on the farm or go to school so that someday he could work in a comfortable office. At 11, Ken said he wanted the comfortable life so his father sent him to a temple. He father told him, “I have nothing to teach you except that there is good and there is bad and you choose which one you will follow.
His father knew because he had been a monk himself from age eight. Then, at 21, he left the monkhood and was married within a week. The women he married gave alms to him every morning. When Ken’s father was posted 15 km away from the village, she walked the whole distance to fill his bowl. This is the same woman who died of Malaria and inspired her son to do the right thing. He still has a dream. (www.communityreadingroom.weebly.com). He says he’s doing something small. For a 22 year old, I think it is very, very big.
If someone were to do a background check on me, I wouldn’t qualify to be a teacher. I was a bad student. At 13, I had no idea why I was studying German and was making no effort to learn. I used multiple-choice tests to make artistic patterns and randomly passed. One day, something piqued my interest and I dared to ask a question. “So, um, where does the verb go?” This is what our German teacher had been trying to teach us for the entire year and my question proved that I hadn’t been listening at all. He simply lost it at that point, enraged at the futility of his teaching.
I watched him lose it dispassionately. All I thought was, “Geez, all I did was ask a question.” For my teacher, my question was the last straw. For me, my stupid question was a feeble sign that I was ready to learn something. That tiny flame was snuffed out instantly and marked my last question. The biggest irony is that so many education systems claim to teach students while discouraging them from asking questions. This manufactured consent is a product of our cultural norms.
Questioning is not encouraged in Japan, neither to one’s father nor to one’s teacher and I found this even at the corporate level among businesspeople learning English. Critical thinking is not something to just pay lip service to, but is something needed to survive at the negotiating table. In an attempt to foster critical questioning, I conducted a simple debate, but as questions soon became insults, I realized that there was no fine line between “debate” and “argue”. The reaction to insult was fueled by TV shows that marketed fiery exchanges as entertainment. At that time, it was considered provocatively daring and “Western.”
Though it is simplistic to say that questions are not encouraged in a certain culture. It is less of a gross generalization to say that students don’t know how to ask questions in many schools. A researcher might try to correlate inquiry in education systems to economic competitiveness. They might find that 2013 results refute the fleeting theory of “Asian Values” in the late 90s in which economic success was suspected to be the result of paternalistic systems.
A more current answer could be found in someone who is bilingual and bi-cultural from an overseas education. I met someone who had spent nine years overseas from age 16. The biggest cultural shock was learning how to live and think independently. He had grown up asking permission before doing anything. In Australia, he found that questions aren’t only for asking permission. Questions keep us informed so that we can make the right choice, do the right thing and shoulder the consequences.
Used to asking questions, he then faced reverse culture shock on his return, but contrary to common expectations, he didn’t come home as some kind of alien renegade. In fact, his ability to balance a respect for authority while taking initiative enabled him to become a skillful general manager.
When students begin asking more questions in school, they are one more step closer to some day becoming general managers. Presently, successful businesses are often run by imported talent, despite the glut of graduating local students. In the end, a good education will determine who works for whom and it’s not a bad thing to be the boss. A good boss, that is. One that can accept questions.
In project management-speak, “implementation” is the Normandy of intervention. Needs assessments have been made, goals have been distinguished from objectives and anticipated outcomes have been translated into numbers. Most important, budgets have been procured and everyone is assured that the benefits will be sustainable forever. Pick the date and count to three.
Etymologists trace the word “implement” to its Latin roots and the meaning of “filling up”. Evidence from the 1530s show the word drifted from the filling to the tools to do so. So commonly used in development work, the present use of “implementation” beautiful describes institutional mechanisms of using tools to fill something up.
Maybe it refers to the tired axiom of handing out fishing rods rather than serving the fish. Don’t create dependence. Create instead the means for an independent livelihood. If you really want to effectively implement, you need something to fill and you need some tools because procurement comes in hard numbers and creates deals with fishing rod vendors.
If our underlying concerns are not about budget procurement and the use of them, we could pay more attention to check if the recipients want our methods of fishing and if they actually use them after we leave. Rather than implementing, the proper word might be “adoption”. Parents have to like the new children and have to be committed for more than the length of a budget. Adoption by force is illegal. It requires consent and commitment. Sustainability is a given because the opposite is abandonment and child abuse. Good intentions don’t always translate into happy endings, so we need miles of red tape and piles of documents to keep adopters in check. Be reminded that the children don’t really have a choice.
Children, like developing countries, shouldn’t be choosy. They shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them. To be wily, it might work to play the field and be adopted by several parents at the same time. The trick is to use dependence to one’s advantage. It’s kind of like borrowing dad’s car while not filling the tank, or more accurately, to not get a job.
If implementation or adoption doesn’t really work, maybe we should look at agreements between consenting parties as something more comparable to marriage. After all, both contracts begin with the letter “M”. A memorandum of understanding sounds rather weak as we’re rarely held accountable for what we’re supposed to understand. It’s always easy enough to say, “I didn’t know”. Neither is a legal marriage very legal though it’s culturally, socially and religiously sanctified in ways that still attract true believers. Imagine if a marriage approval process included background checks on past behavior, letters of reference from all past trysts and testimonies from siblings. In many ways, Marriages Of Understandings are less about what we’re bound to but more at what we promise to overlook.
Development parlance beautifully reflects its deeper nature, from Memorandums of Convenience, to unspoken adoptions. From interventions to implements for filling up. But in all fairness, these are only words.
When preparing to checkout of a guesthouse on a recent trip, I wanted to pay for the beer I had had the night before. The receptionist took so much time, I thought I’d miss my bus. He was calling his boss and trying to resolve some confusion. “You’ve already paid your bill,” he told me. Sure enough, bill and beer to him sounded like the same thing.
There is agreement that we should respect different variations of English throughout the world. It’s not fair to say that one is more correct than another. On the other hand, we could also argue that just because certain sounds aren’t differentiated in someone’s first language doesn’t mean the effort shouldn’t be taken to distinguish them. Lumping together beer and bill as the same word seems to be stretching the comprehensibility of a language that’s supposed to be international. Granted, it’s difficult. Especially when written English doesn’t give us many hints on how it’s supposed to be pronounced.
When we think of pronunciation, we often think of those cut away diagrams of the inside of a mouth. It helps to know where to position the tongue or teeth to make proper sounds, but this still doesn’t help when it comes to reading text and decoding pronunciation. Bill can still come out as beer.
Using IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is used by linguists to transcribe sounds, but with so many symbols and tiny differentiations in sound, it’s not the easiest tool for the average student. Another choice is the system of learning sounds and associated letters through phonics, but even after all the rules are memorized, it ends up being a guessing game for those who don’t hear English spoken every day. What if we could use some kind of coding that would help students to read and pronounce any text?
An elegant system would use the fewest possible number of symbols possible. Of course that means that some sounds won’t be perfectly accurate, but it will definitely cover the differences between words like beer and bill. I think this can be done with just five short vowels and five long vowels: ă (mat) ĕ (met) ĭ (mit) ŏ (mop) ŭ (mutt) ā (make) ē (meet) ī (mine) ō (more) and ū (muse). That’s just ten symbols. So for example, this sentence, “I can pay for the beer, but I’ve already paid the room bill.” is written as, “Ī kăn pā fōr thŭ bīŭr bŭt īv ŏl rĕdē pād thŭ rūm bĭl.” Yes, not perfect, but not bad and with practice, it’s not that hard to read.
If these cues are added to any text, students can read them on their own. There’s no need for endless repeat-after-my-own-mistake drills. There’s no need to collect IPA lists in the back of reports, which nobody seems to be able to pronounce anyway. Students would simply read and speak in comprehensible ways. The idea is to use something simple, easy and as effective as possible.
Testing this out, I’ve found students able to conquer the problems of the missing “s” and the dropping of last sounds. Most remarkably, “vegetable” sounded like “vĕgtŭbŭl” rather than “wĕjĕtŭbŭn”.
This means even a beginning student should be able to read the Vientiane Times. Try this excerpt: “Whīl lăōs hăs mād stĕdē prŏgrĕs ĭn ĕjūkāshŭn rēfōrm, yūnĭvŭrsŭl prīmărē ĕjūkāshŭn mā nŏt bē rēchd bī tū thăōsŭnd fĭftēn ăz tŏr gĕtĕd dū tū thŭ hī drŏ păōt rāt. Ŭkōrdēng tū ŭ rēsĕnt jōēnt rŭpōrt bī the gŭvŭrnmĕnt ănd the yūnītĕd nāshŭnz, lăōs ĭz klōs tū ŭchēvēng the tŏr gĕtĕd nīntē āt pŭrsĕnt nĕt ĕnrōlmĕnt rāt fōr gŭrlz ănd bōēz bŭt the ōvŭrŏl ēfĭshĭnsē ŭv thŭ ĕjūkāshŭn sǐstĕm rēmāīns lō.”