This project will create a seminar for students at the University of the New Grand Anse (UNOGA) in Jeremie, Haiti. The University is four years old and will graduate its first class in the spring of this year (2014). It currently offers two majors – business management and agronomy. Classes are taught in 3-week sessions, 3 or 4 hours/day, Monday through Friday. This makes it possible for the UNOGA to recruit faculty from institutions of higher education in the U.S. and other countries, as well as a small number from Haiti. The Haitian educational system is very weak and not capable of producing sufficient faculty of the desired caliber.
UNOGA students must pass an entrance exam and all possess a high-school credential, The credential is of limited value due to lack of standards and wide variability in the quality of the schools. They range in age from about 19 to the middle thirties. Haitian students often finish high school at a later age than in the U.S. – often well into their twenties.
The following is a reflection on my experience of teaching a math course (roughly Intermediate Algebra). It provides a description of some of the significant things I learned about the students and I hope will help to develop the motivation for creating this seminar.
Observations Drawn from my experience teaching in Haiti
Robert M. Boeke
Education in Haiti still involves primarily rote learning. My students came to me with the ability to memorize well. As I was trying to get some idea of their mathematics skills, I found that they could manipulate equations and compute numbers, like mean values. After having the students compute the mean of a list of prices of motorcycles ( familiar to them as a primary means of transportation in Haiti), I asked what that number, the mean, meant. Their faces went blank and they guessed: “a number”, “a statistic”, “a mean”. With some questioning I discerned that their mathematics training included only the manipulation of equations and numbers, but problems were never presented in a context in which numbers had a meaning related to something else. In other words they saw no connection between the mean of a list of motorcycle prices and the prices of motorcycles. To my students the mean was just a number.
During the 3 weeks of the course we spent a lot of time working with problems involving data sets representing the real world. We never completed a problem without a discussion of the meanings of the data, and of the numbers generated in the solution of the problem. I had some initial concern about their ability to learn the concepts involved, but by the end of the course most were becoming comfortable with the connections between data sets and the numbers generated in the solution of problems.
There were two other major concerns that became evident during the course. They affected students’ ability to proceed with math but I was able to make some progress in working with both of them. Both concerns affect the student’s lives in ways that go beyond learning math and appear to require additional education. We hope to address these issues in this seminar.
Major concern #1 going forward: The problem of the “if” statement.
On the first day of the math class at UNOGA I was looking for an example of a set of numbers that we could use to look at a mean value. I used the following: If we were to count the number of students in each class going on this morning at the university, we could create a table of numbers and compute the mean of that set of numbers. The interpreter stopped translating and look puzzled. I repeated the question. Then he told me that he didn’t know how to translate it from English into Creole. As I tried to work around that, I found that the students as a group didn’t understand the statement.
On the last day of the class I gave a final exam which included a problem that started with a table of data. Students were required to process the data set to determine whether it could be represented by one of three forms of equation: linear, quadratic or exponential. They were then asked to respond to the appropriate one of the following three directives:
1. If the equation is linear, write its slope.
2. If the equation is quadratic, write the coefficient of the x2 term.
3. If the equation is exponential, write the base of the function.
The test had been translated from English into French, but the translator curiously left these three statements only in English.
During the exam many students asked what they were supposed to do with those statements. I attempted to give them some clues, but about half of the class indicated that they had no idea what the statements were asking of them, indicated by leaving that part of the problem blank or writing responses that were irrelevant to the problem. Many of these students had successfully generated the correct equation.
Since I was leaving Haiti the morning after the exam and have not been back, I have had no opportunity to determine whether this issue has manifested itself in other courses or in other subjects.
Since I have been home I have acquired copies of the final exam papers. I have reread them and inspected the answers in some detail. I have also shared the results with Dr. Mercedes McGowen, a former colleague whose degree is in mathematics education. We agree that these results could point toward a difficulty in looking into the future and working with possible outcomes and open-ended questions. Conditional statements, such as these “if” statements, are inherently future-oriented.
Difficulty looking to the future.
Rita (my wife) taught English to the students. They indicated to her that they wished to have practice writing and speaking English, not just vocabulary and grammar. For the most advanced group she created an exercise that involved planning a trip to one of three destinations. They were to make of list of things that would be necessary to prepare for the trip, e.g. buy tickets, get a passport, and decide what clothes to pack. Her students found this exercise very difficult. This was a group exercise and the groups didn’t get beyond getting a passport and packing a suitcase. None got so far as to make a list of items to pack before she abandoned the exercise as unproductive.
Rita also asked the group to make a “bucket list” of things that they wanted to do in their lives, but found that the students could not grasp the concept. Looking into the future in that way, seemed to be incomprehensible.
Both of us discovered that the answer to a question about what a student wanted to do after graduation was usually: “Get a job.” When questioned further, most could not be any more specific.
I have discussed these observations with several people, including Rita and Dr. McGowen. We speculate that we are observing a cultural phenomenon associated with poverty. When poverty has been the norm for an entire community for multiple generations and people are necessarily focused on obtaining their next meal, there may be little time or incentive to dream about or plan for the future.
Implications for the future.
These observations are anecdotal and brief, but if they prove to be correct, they have serious implications for the future of the students who are approaching graduation, and the future of UNOGA. Graduates without dreams and a vision for the future may become employed by an NGO and make a good salary, but will never see the possibilities for future businesses and the impact a solid, sustainable business can ultimately have on Haiti.
Students who cannot look to the future cannot create a viable business plan.
It takes people with dreams and drive, fire in their belly, to inspire others and convince them that what looks impossible is possible.
To make the UNOGA a driving force for change, it must find a way to take students who have grown up in the poverty of the Haitian culture and provide deliberate opportunities to develop the ability to dream and plan.
Dr. McGowen and I believe that it is possible provide students with educational experiences which could greatly improve their critical thinking skills. We are working to produce educational materials for this purpose. We have some ideas, not yet well developed, that I will hold for later.
Since returning home, Bob has found a small amount of evidence and concern that this issue is common to poor cultures, including in the U.S. We speculate that, in poor cultures life is more focused on survival and seldom involves future planning – in very poor cultures possibly even seeing beyond the end of the day.
The first UNOGA class will graduate from programs in business management and agronomy this coming spring, 2014. We, Robert Boeke and Mercedes McGowen are concerned that these students are not well prepared to start and build businesses or manage farming operations. We are also convinced that problem-solving skills, planning and creativity can be taught. We have spent the past year exploring the possibilities and are ready to begin creating content and planning for a seminar to be offered to a group of the UNOGA graduates during the summer of 2014.
The remainder of this document is currently a very sketchy outline of work to be done in planning and executing the seminar. It will be filled in and expanded as work proceeds. We will use it as a working document and make it available to others who might be interested in assisting us.
We do need assistance. The following sections of this document may help you to understand the scope of this project, it’s current status, and areas in which we need or may need assistance, both financially and with personnel. Please let us know if you can assist us in any way.
April 30, 2014
We have been searching for programs and materials that might be adapted to a seminar in Haiti. We have discovered that there are some programs that attempt to help students learn more abstractly, sometimes referred to as “divergent thinking”. We found one program in a Chicago area high school. It is gaining considerable attention for use in U.S. high schools. Unfortunately, the program is suitable for honors students and not adaptable to the Haitian situation. Another program, for middle school students in inner city Chicago, is just getting started. When I contacted the director, they were hoping that we would have materials for them.
Through her background and internet searches, Dr. McGowen found Dr. Henry Markovits, a psychologist and research at the University of Quebec at Montreal, who has been researching human learning for more than 30 years and who is in the early stages of research in the areas that interest us. Dr. Markovitz is very interested in this project and has volunteered to consult with us in developing curricular materials.
Copyright 2014, Robert M. Boeke