A bit of background: While I was living in Papua New Guinea, the official education policy favored vernacular education while encouraging bridging into English in order to allow children the opportunity to engage in higher education which is primarily conducted in English. If that sentence is a bit hard to understand, it basically means that children should learn to read and begin school in the language they already know and then have English taught to them slowly in order to prepare them for future learning. This policy makes sense because with over 850 languages in PNG, there is a need for having a lingua franca but most children aren’t even exposed to English by the time they start school so elementary vernacular education is a necessity. With this policy, the government built their elementary education program which trained teacher to create and produce their own vernacular curriculum based on standardized outcomes. This was a good system in theory. It had some problems but at least the foundation of the policy was correct. However, materials and implementations are huge challenges because the teachers, who are only required to have a grade 10 education themselves, don’t have easy access to materials, resources and other basic necessities in order to facilitate the demands placed on them. Most of the teachers also have a poor level of English themselves so when it comes time to teach their students, they are already at a disadvantage. This was the situation that I was navigating and trying to help my co-workers thrive despite the roadblocks.
The Onobasulu situation and my work: Because of the challenges described above, I became a curriculum development facilitator for the Onobasulu elementary school teachers. Instead of everyone doing their own thing, we came together and created a unified curriculum for three years of Elementary. This curriculum included everything the government policy was asking for and more. It allowed the students to learn in Onobasulu but them slowly introduced English with lots of aids and materials to make it easier on the teacher as well. It was also created in such a way that it could hopefully be reproduced and tweaked to fit other language groups. They could gain the benefits of a unified curriculum with a bit less work. And although I did a lot of the computer, printing, organization and grunt work, the end result was something that had the Onobasulu, Papua New Guinean stamp. It was my co-workers and the Onobasulu Elementary school teachers who did the leg work. It was hard work but a huge step ahead for the Onobasulu community. A huge step ahead for all the Onobasulu kids!
The New Education Policy: Yesterday I received an email with the new Papua New Guinea education policy. You can click on the link to read it if you are interested but basically it says that as of this year, all Elementary education will be done in English and English will be taught as a subject. They are blaming vernacular for the poor standard of English in the country. And while there are clauses that give us hope, only allowing the use of vernacular in “exceptional cases” is a far cry from giving children and education in a language they understand. I admit producing English only materials, creating a unified curriculum and providing education in more urban areas are all simplified with the use of English. They also explicitly state that this is an English only policy and not to be confused with using Tok Pisin (an English based pigin which is widely spoken). This sounds good in theory but without teachers who really speak English well, pigin is inevitably going to be used.
My feelings on the subject: It’s a good thing I am writing this today and not yesterday. My first reaction was very angry because this was basically three years of my life and work that I was proud of that the government just told me was no longer valid. Then I was really sad for all my sweet Onobasulu kids who now have even less of a chance at succeeding in formal education because of this policy. And then I just kept running through my head all of the things wrong with the new policy. Like I said before, the vernacular education policy wasn’t perfect and there were huge hurdles to overcome. However, the science and research behind it was sound. Children who are educated in the language they know and understand best while learning another language as a subject, in the end end up with a better knowledge and grasp of both languages and they also retain more of the other subjects they learned because they could understand what the teacher was saying. And the teachers already have such poor level of English that they are also at a disadvantage. At this point I am just shaking my head.
Moving forward: SIL and Wycliffe are still committed to vernacular Education and hopefully the Onobasulu schools will be able to continue using the vernacular materiels. The idea is just to give the schools another name and keep teaching in vernacular until the policy changes again. There are enough people in PNG on the ground who realize the misguided nature of this new policy so hopefully it will swing back and change once again. But for me I will just sit back and watch from California and pray for the schools, the educators, the policy makers and the children. Please join me in praying for insight and change.