Bottom up, top down, or upside down?

Given the proper conditions, all may blossom.

How can we expect to change education when the people in charge don’t really feel like doing much about it? Besides doing something to ease the criticism, and maybe to appease the harsher critics, why would the government want to make things really work in education? It’s a known fact that the less educated you are, the easier it is for you to be manipulated. Sure, your brain may also play tricks on us when we are educated, and some might even be stubborn and refuse to change their minds. Nevertheless, we’ve got to admit that education is the only one thing that can open doors. It is the only one thing that can’t be taken away from you. Cliché?! It’s been said so often, that, yes, this might come across as cliché. But isn’t it true?

Real change in education, or in any other industry, has got to come from the ideas of those who are involved in it. Yet, most people in charge of public education are not teachers. This goes way beyond principals, I’m talking about those who are responsible for letting principals and teachers work. Politicians who should be working to make it happen, are actually getting in the way of change. In Brazil, to be more specific, in Brasília, the capital of Brazil, there’s always news about public schools that are about to be shut down simply because the building can’t welcome students any longer. Whenever you turn on the TV, there are stories of schools whose windows don’t open nor close – the ones which are open can’t be closed when it rains, and the ones that are closed can’t be opened when it’s hot. Not to mention worse problems yet – bathrooms that don’t work, schools with no food to serve to the kids, no water in the water fountains… and to think that those who went to public schools in Brazil 40 years ago (yes, a very long time ago), say that public education was actually better than the kind of education you could get in private schools.

Nowadays, if you’d like to give your children a chance in an educational system that puts kids through gruelling exams in order to have a chance to study at university, you’re likely to do whatever it takes to send your student to private schools. One would think kids would be treated differently there. I once had the opportunity to meet a principal from a school in Australia when he came to talk at our language institute. When we were talking about how schools were in Brasília, he was shocked to hear that most private schools put about 50 students in a class. When he said that most of his teachers would refuse to teach if there were more than 20 students in a class, I was aghast at such thought. Having studied and taught in a school with 50 students per class myself, I couldn’t believe it when I heard that teachers could have such a reaction. But it only makes sense.

Even though there might be fewer students per group in some public schools, teachers sometimes haven’t got chalk to write on the board, and kids haven’t been given a copy of the coursebook to work with in class. To make matters worse, there’s absolutely no security in most of such schools, which leads to plenty of other problems such as drug trafficking, bullying, fights and others. When a principal finally gets the money to buy the computers and create a computer lab, more often than not the computers are stolen within a month. Now, how could we change such a chaotic situation?

I believe real change will only happen when teachers are really heard about their needs. They are the ones who are really there. They know the real deal. They know what it takes to start making changes, but… how would we expect anyone to really hear their complaints if those who are responsible for funding, and who should be working for the people, are oblivious to such a reality. What sickens me the most is seeing an interview on TV when they say that they’re going to create a commission to investigate what needs to be done and that people shouldn’t worry, that next year every thing is going to be fixed. And we all know, I guess, how the story ends. Year after year schools are shut down, and politicians say they’ll build new ones. And that they do, but at what cost? The money that should be used to maintain schools goes straight to their pockets, and they make even more money when building new ones. They aren’t concerned about education, they’re concerned about the construction of more and more schools, as it’s much easier to embezzle when they have these public constructions.

But then again, why would they want to promote any real change? Most of them send their kids to the best private schools in the country, and some even send their kids abroad. Of course they’re going to say that everything is just fine in public schools. They don’t depend on it. So, change that should be bottom up can’t happen because those at the top don’t know and refuse to see that lots of things have to be done. And change that could be top down also doesn’t happen because… well, because they really don’t want it to happen for many different reasons.

Isaac Asimov created the three rules for robots. Perhaps we should come up with three rules for politicians as well. I have a suggestion for such rules:

1. All politicians must have a university degree – Let’s face it, there are pre-requirements for anything we want to do in life. You want to be a doctor, you’ve got to go through med school. You want to be a lawyer, law school it is. If you want to be an accountant, well, you have to study for that too. However, at least in Brazil, you can be a politician just by not being illiterate. I concede that having a degree isn’t a guarantee of anything in terms of integrity and morals, but let’s look at it from the following perspective: a legislator’s job is to create laws, and laws can’t be written or read and interpreted and then voted on if you can’t really read AND understand what you’ve read.

2. All politicians must have their bank accounts public – If you’ve chosen to work in politics, you’re supposed to have made this choice because you want to make things work for your country. You’re paid by the people and you work for the people, and as a citizen I’d love to know exactly how much money I’m paying you.

3. All politicians must use public services – Schools, hospitals, and even public transport. Being a politician in charge of public education and sending your students to private schools is just like being the owner of a restaurant but never having your meals there. It’s like being the owner of a school, but sending your kids to study in a different school. Well, if you don’t trust your school enough to send your kids there, why would I send mine? Yet, this is what happens. It’s only when politicians are forced to send their kids and family to public schools, to use public hospitals and to use public transport that they might start thinking about making real changes. Other than that, they’ll just close their eyes to all problems.

If you ask me, I’d say that it’s not bottom up nor top down. The whole system is upside down.

15 thoughts on “Bottom up, top down, or upside down?

  1. Brilliant suggestions at the end, Henrik… I couldn’t agree more!

    All this is so sad… yet so true!

    Another absurdity that foreigners have trouble understanding when I tell them is that the FREE high-quality university education is mostly accessed by those who have enough money to go to private schools and prevestibular courses…

    This way… the taxpayer subsidises those who don’t need subsidising… and those who have only had access to public secondary education… are generally left with no option but to pay for lower-quality PRIVATE universities.

    Of course.. there are exceptions to every rule.

    So what can be done? Investment in teacher-training, infrastructure and extending class hours at public schools, on which 85% of Brazil’s student population depends for a better future.

    1. Hi Graeme,

      That’s yet another absurdity we face in our educational system in Brazil – those who might be able to afford to pay for college tuition get to go to a free university, but those who would need the state to pay for their education, can’t make it on account of the poor education they’re given in public schools. Really contradictory!

      I guess you got it right, but I’m afraid there’s also the need for investment in other areas as well – security, for instance. How often have we seen people breaking in public schools, or drug trafficking inside the school walls… but, yes, teacher training and a much more careful look at public schools would be an excellent start.

      Many thanks for your comments! 🙂

  2. Good suggestions. The cynic in me thinks that politicians have no idea how to go about improving the quality of education so they invest in time wasting techniques like commisioning mindless reports and throw money without any idea how that money will end up eventuating in real change.

    1. And the people who might have an idea of useful suggestions to change things are not given the power to implement such changes. That’s, to me, the worst problem we have.

      Many thanks for your words, Michael. 🙂

  3. Hi Henrick, it’s very true, and very sad. One thing I think I’ll disagree with: politicians having to have a degree. As an extreme example, Mother Teresa didn’t have one, not that she was a politician. I think this belief is a trap we can fall into where education is seen as a qualification and nothing more which, of course we all know, you don’t agree with. But what you say is true: those who succeed in the system don’t want it changed, and those who don’t, can’t change it.

    1. Hi David,

      I must say I totally see your point when you talk about the degree. I really don’t think this alone would make any kind of change. Real change will only happen when those who succeed in the system want to see it changed. Let’s hope this happens anytime soon.

      Cheers! 🙂

  4. Hi Henrick,

    I hear you! We have damp on the walls and children without books in English class but we have shiny new laptops sitting in a cupboard that are never used and interactive whiteboards still in the packaging because nobody knows how to use them or can be bothered to learn. It’s a frustrating system… and you’re right about politicians and their children. All over the world they’re the ones whose children go to private schools. Sure things would be different if their kids had to go to public schools.


    1. Hi Leahn,

      I sure hope things would be different if politicians had to send their kids and grandchildren to public schools. I can’t help but thinking that the main reason this doesn’t happen is that they don’t trust in the very education they’re in charge of.

      And it’s just a shame to hear about those IWBs and lack of books for children.

      Thanks a lot for adding to the post! 🙂


  5. Hi Henrick:
    In the U.S.–in most of the better public schools– there is a growing trend towards the diffusion of leadership roles in schools (see Dufour, R., Dufour, R., Eaker, R., (2008) Revisiting Professional Communities at Work; New Insights for Improving Schools).
    Right now I’m teaching abroad in Taiwan, and I’ve never seen such hierarchical ways of doing things. I cannot get a rodent infestation problem fixed because if I jump ahead in the chain of command to complain, somebody gets in trouble. They’re using textbooks rife with errors, but when I offered to call the publisher to explain the mistakes, all the teachers became terrified and insisted that I not do this from a school phone. They prefer that I do it after my contract is over, when I’m not at their school.
    I have groups of over 50 student in a class. With mixed ability level classes, I find 50 is far too big a number.
    Your post is about change from the bottom up as opposed to top-down. Eschewing politicians for a moment and focusing just on the schools themselves, I’ve got to ask you: In Brazil, do teachers and the people they work closely with (i.e. principals) have the power and autonomy to make real change? Are people so afraid of losing their jobs that they surrender their voices (as I’m observing here in Taiwan)?

    1. Hello Miah,

      Thanks for the reference. I’ll try to look into it soon.

      50 students in a class is not uncommon in most regular school classes in Brazil, so I can say from my very own experience that I also find it quite hard to do a good job in such a classroom. Add to that that each teacher might even have up to 15 groups of 50 students each, and there you go.

      In an attempt to answer your question, I believe that it is possible for teachers to make real change. It’s not that easy, though. I’ve seen many different stories on TV of teachers who have started something different in their schools, and were now being praised for the results they got. This doesn’t mean there’s no hierarchy and people in charge who are afraid of letting those below them do good things. I think this exists everywhere in the world – I just think that people in Brazil, to a certain extent, have got a certain degree of autonomy to make some changes. For instance, I don’t see teachers who are aware of mistakes in the coursebook simply going with the mistake for fear of losing their jobs or any other kind of punishment. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if you actually found teachers who wouldn’t know there was a mistake.

      One of the things I’ve noticed is that many people are afraid of letting their opinion out in the open because they can’t bear the thought of being wrong. As I see it, we all miss a great opportunity to grow and learn some more. But then, teachers are people whose egos are just gigantic, and making mistakes and admitting you’re wrong is at least frowned upon by few (some??). Making mistakes is OK, and if we don’t discuss things, how do we expect to learn?

      I hope I could answer your question, and I’m willing to carry on this conversation if you’d like to.

      Cheers! 🙂

  6. Hi Henrick,

    What a wonderful post! So much to be said on this topic! And don´t get me started on the issue of free University education for the middle class whilst those students who actually need to work (and can´t get a place at university due to lack of schooling or the fact that university hours cater for those who don´t need to work…) end up paying to attend private universities and obtain degrees which sometimes aren´t even propoerly recognised. (Agree 100% with Graeme – after being here for 20 years this is the one thing which still really upsets me…this is certainly upside down!)

    But I have had the tremendous opportunity over the last year to work very closely with the local Rio education authority (Municipal) in oder to provide materials and teacher training for YL teachers in the Municipal schools. It has been the best thing that´s happened to me this year – I have seen a bunch of highly committed and devoted professionals (all of them teachers who now work in admin functions) coordinating the programme in the schools.

    These teachers are genuinely interested in promoting the education of these children and spare no effort to ensure the kids get the best possible. It´s a moment of change and it´s given me great hope in the possibilities of our education system.

    But I think the point is – we have teachers working in key postions – so we all speak the same language, and we all share the same ideals. There is still a long way to go: so much these schools need in terms of equipment, materials, and they still need more teachers…

    But, let´s be honest – how many young people you know want to be teachers today?

    1. Hello Valéria,

      Phew! It’s just so good to be able to read such stories of people who are actually trying to make a difference. It also gives me great hopes!

      Now, the problem is exactly getting more teachers. In answer to your question, I’d say very few people want to be teachers these days. If this is the case, it means teachers will be less qualified than the previous generation, which will lead to less qualified professionals in all areas, and it all snowballs. That’s the upside-down part… 😦

      Many thanks for such a great comment with a story that shows us that there is hope! 🙂


  7. I feel like I just got a whole education reading that post. What is sad to me is that schools are failing in such incredible ways around the world. When we hear about successful schools, they really do seem to be the minority and not the norm. It is upside down.

    1. And not only that, but many of the successful schools end up being closed by those who are not interested in real change. To be honest, I guess what still gives me hope is the huge amount of people I’ve met lately on the blogophere and Twitter who are interested in making things happen and who are working with their learners best interest at heart!

      We’ll get there, no matter how long it takes! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s