During my 10-days stay in April 2016, I had the Chance to visit various institutions and could get a concrete idea of Timor-Leste’s educational system.
The most striking characteristic of the local staff was its strong commitment and ambition in the classrooms to foster the children in the best way possible, although average class-sizes were enormous (roughly 50). The times when in Europe and especially in Switzerland demographic conditions forced the classes to be similarly big, have gone long ago, but in Timor-Leste 65% of the population are less than 25 years old. Moreover, due to the ongoing individualization of society, teaching 50 students in one class would in our country simply be unthinkable.
Timor-Leste’s eventful past of fighting for independence have significantly shaped the country’s educational system. 25 years of Indonesian occupation have suppressed the people’s original languages Tetum and Portuguese while heavily promoting Indonesian as the only language in schools. The severe consequences of this policy can still be experienced today: A generation of oblivion, a generation who cannot speak a word Portuguese.
Thus, today teachers struggle to give lessons in the official language, Portuguese. Additionally, responsible staff, which has predominantly only completed basic training, usually lacks proper material and fully equipped classrooms.
Nonetheless, both teachers and pupils are eager to educate and get educated. In nearly all schools I have visited, teacher-centered teaching was common practice. While tutors wrote on the blackboard, students would make notes in their booklets. Particularly impressive are sessions, when students study from books written in Portuguese while classes are hold in Tetum.
It proved to be equally difficult to train the children in IT, especially in „Excel“. Since there is hardly any public school in Timor who is provided with computers, kids have to get to know „Excel“ entirely theoretically, an unimaginable idea for Westerners. The ability to actually apply their knowledge, „learning by doing“, is unfortunately missed out.
Hence, there is an urgent need for action, in order to be able to connect theoretical knowledge with practical experience.
However, we could also find highly convincing and structured educational institutions in Timor-Leste. The Don Bosco schools and the Canossa Institute in Dili resemble the Swiss dual-training system, where the application of knowhow into real action is taught in an appropriate way on a daily basis.
Another remarkable characteristic are the predominant teacher-centered classes. Since the learning rate gets determined in advance, comprehensive individualization is inhibited. In order to establish modern teaching practices, which focus on students’ heterogeneity, big steps must be taken which require courage and the will for change.
Our exclusively for Oe-cusse tailored concept “Teach-the-Teacher”, which will start this summer, initiates a development that aims to target the previously mentioned points. Graduates have to be able to apply joined-up thinking, act independently and be responsible for life long learning in order to make their way in an internationally competitive environment.
I am personally very motivated and see despite the challenges great opportunities. A fascinating country, people who even in hard times show positive attitude and the staff’s impressive ambition and commitment are ideal conditions for starting an entirely new process.
World’s youngest democracy can take its chance. Timor-Leste: fascinating, unparalleled, challenging and beautiful. We stay tuned!
By Manfred Pfiffner
- Professor of pedagogy in vocational educational and training at the Zurich University of Teacher Education (PH Zurich)
- Expert for general education and Federal Vocational Baccalaureate, job-specific learning models and qualification procedures
- Partner at SCOPE ASIA AG