We need to remember that real learning happens in the brain, not necessarily in an institution. Schools have walls, but the brain has no limits. A school is a social construction while our master organ is a work of nature. If this spongy pink mass is likened to a verdant cornucopia of thoughts and ideas, schools determine how we cook it. The problem is that developed education systems can either offer the best in exquisite culinary mastery or can be as cold as canned soup. Some will even argue that cold canned soup is good because it can be eaten during power shortages and can be mass-produced in the millions.
Selling canned soup requires factories, production lines, management and distribution systems and sophisticated advertising. A good cook on the other hand can be found anywhere. The most talented by far is the one who can whip up a feast with just a handful of bamboo shoots and a wood fire. I’d like to see that happen in the country schools of Laos. A shack will do. The students will come if the teacher can inspire. Their desire to learn is natural. They’re too young to give lip service to the merits of schools degrees or to even justify education as an exit from poverty. They haven’t pegged their future dreams as a waiter or a guide. There is something else that compels them to learn.
In the countryside, they don’t get much intellectual stimulation. There is nothing really to read and the wider world on the news doesn’t make much sense. But yes, they will jump up and down in delight if they learn how to spell a word correctly. They’ll recite English phrases like they’re nursery rhymes or fun songs. Once students experience learning with their own brain, they say they don’t want to stop. They want to continue the lesson even though it’s already been two hours without a break. Students visit us early in the morning and late at night and if I ask them to get a notebook and pencil, they’ll run home and be back in a flash. Learning is exciting for them.
They don’t know how to make excuses yet. They’re not telling us they can only learn if they have their own tablet or ask for funds for a library. Learning is not about external objects, but about the fizzy feeling inside the brain as it shifts into gear. What I believe they’re inspired by is the sincerity of a devoted teacher. They know a teacher’s intentions and express their gratitude with small but meaningful gestures like a bag of hot sticky rice in the morning.
Teachers don’t want to teach here in this remote village. It’s inconvenient, it’s dusty and there are no food choices. Maybe they haven’t seen the star studded sky at night. You wouldn’t suspect such a dramatic show since mornings are shrouded in mist, but at night, the dome above becomes a live planetarium where giant constellations swing in tremendous arcs.
People in this remote village see the universe above their heads every night and understand that it’s just a bit of gravity that keeps them glued to their mountaintop as the earth continues to spin.
If we could just make education work here. Keep students rooted to where they are; where they can refer to the starry night above them if they need to be reminded that the universe is within their reach. I want to track these students and these schools. I want to prove some day with hard numbers that their performance can be stellar and not outdone by anyone else.