Outside Perspective From a Peace Corps Volunteer Overseas

May 9, 2011

The following is an experience written by Christopher, a newly returned Peace Corps Volunteer in Guyana specializing in Education. I thought it would be cool thing to see how education is perceived in another country. Enjoy!

Teaching in Guyana was an experience I couldn’t have anticipated.  Of course there are certain universal characteristics to teaching no matter where you are in the world, nevertheless it was the unexpected challenges I faced in a particular culture I was exposed to that made teaching overseas such a fascinating and unique experience.

We know that students all over the world love affection and at a young age, children soak up education and affection at a seemingly endless rate. In Guyana, I was exposed to such an appetite for learning at the primary school level that every time I returned to a classroom, the students were out of their seats with eagerness to learn something new.  It did not matter whether a teacher was teaching or sitting idle, students wanted to learn.  If I visited a classroom where the teacher did no work at all, the students would be wide-eyed and ready to experience something new: anything different from the memorization schemes they repeat every day.  Comparatively, if I visited a very skilled teacher who used a variety of teaching methods, her children would still be jumping up and down in anticipation.  So what is the big deal?

The difference I learned between these two types of classrooms was the speed and depth at which I could move through my teaching.  For example: in the idle classroom, the mere execution of a group game or interactive lesson was painstakingly slow and difficult to explain as neither the students nor the teacher was prepared for something that required organization and team building.  Conversely, in the classroom where learning was consistently taking place, students picked up games and concepts much quicker.  This, I attributed to the simple fact that students who are exposed to a regular and healthy learning environment will learn new things easier and faster and retain information better and longer.

Unfortunately a healthy learning environment is rare in Guyana.  In the classrooms one can see this characteristic of rote learning embedded in the gene-pool of Guyanese education.  The rote method dominates classroom learning from nursery school all the way to 5th form secondary education (many times on into the tertiary levels as well).  Teachers have their students repeat information over and over again until it is memorized verbatim for the testing period.  What is neglected, then, is the development of independent thinking.  The expansion in the mind that is needed for thinking critically, forming opinions, as well as the general fueling for individuality is rarely focused on.  As a consequence, the majority of students in Guyana are left with heads full of factual information without many abilities, if one at all, to synthesize their knowledge of information into something lasting and useful.  Furthermore, it goes without saying that by the time students reach their teenage years, the appreciation for questioning the world around them begins to deteriorate or atrophy.

In the two weeks that have past since my return to America, I have already seen the advantages that the American education system gives to its students.  It is true: the quality of education in America is in decline.  As a student of education, I believe that the best students are the ones who learn how to adapt and how to self-teach by asking questions.  If we agree that the world is changing faster and faster, then adapting to these changes is what Americans need to do in order to maintain their quality of life.  To do this, we should compare our education system to others and change.  We should look at how bad children’s education is in a developing country like Guyana and observe how their system adversely affects their citizens’ quality of life.  We should look at quality of life in a country where the education system is the top priority.  We should find out what makes that system beneficial to its citizens.  We should look at mediocre education systems in wealthy countries and find out why standards are set to allow for mediocrity to exist in a developed society.  Finally, we should listen to teachers in our country to learn about what works and what doesn’t, what is new and what is obsolete, what is worth investing in and what should be thrown away.

Teaching in Guyana was an important learning experience for me as an individual and as an American.  I am grateful for the quality of education I received as a US citizen.  Yet, with this education I also take on the responsibility of making sure this system continues to do its job at the standard I grew up with – and one might argue that it behooves us to improve it.  After all, the one institution that is most important to the future of our country is the education of our children.

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