Important education lessons from Havana

Cuban educationalist Tania Morales de la Cruz, professor of education at the University of Matanzas, understands how the chasms between South Africa’s poor and rich have contributed to the educational crisis in this country.

What are some of your overall impressions of South Africa?

Let me start by saying that being to South Africa — my very first visit here — was an incredible experience. It’s an amazingly beautiful country with abundant resources and richness.

Everybody I came into contact with — officials, lecturers, scholars, school principals and teachers — was extremely hospitable, friendly, helpful, considerate and, of course, very interested in my country and its educational system and achievements.

But I could also see the deep contrasts that exist between natural need and poverty, on the one hand, and, on the other, those who were and are born into affluent lifestyles.

Rural education is a challenge in the world. But Cuba seems to have flourished where many others have faltered. Why?

Cuba has paid a special interest to rural education since the beginning of the 1960s, due to the special set of circumstances generally characterising this domain of erudition.

Communities and teachers work together to fulfil the objective of bringing good, quality education to all. The national aim is to provide all schoolchildren with the same possibilities: to attain a high cultural level and contribute to social development and social integration.

Fully trained teachers, student teachers, retired teachers as well as skilled assistants are all indispensable to the smooth functioning and success of our many far-flung, rurally based schools.

Mostly rooted in the rural terrain, and fairly invisible to the public eye, are thousands of small, forlorn, often underdeveloped multigrade schools. As my own visits to Cuba have shown, the island was not spared this predicament, but sought to address it in meaningful, productive ways.

The multigrade classroom — where one teacher instructs two, three or more grades at the same time — has effectively become a valuable stepping stone in our rural communities.

The preparation of teachers for multigrade schooling has been planned with significant dedication, with the purpose of promoting a rounded education, including to those who live in remote, historically underdeveloped territory. Teacher development in this specialised, though often overlooked area, remains imperative.

In Cuba’s rural districts, multigrade classes have attained high levels of achievement in delivering high-quality education to a wide age range, because the curriculums have been customised. Adaptation of instructional materials with relevant, updated content, are rolled out in cost-effective ways.

In our country, teachers are equipped to teach multigrade, whether they end up working in this area or not.

Emphasis is also placed on TV lessons, which are used both at school and at home. The use of approaches aimed at the classroom as a whole, and not the individual grade, has been very fruitful.

Reports indicate high levels of apathy and boredom among rural students, given the frequent lack of cultural and social amenities. Indications are that Cuba places high value on “culture” in terms of disabling this state of affairs. Your comment?

Towards overcoming this historical gridlock, conditions have been created that are interesting, appealing and educational. Being rural doesn’t mean schools cannot carry out projects with parents and children, such as holding regional song, dance and poetry festivals, thereby giving exposure to what they produce in their respective regions and communities.

Dramatic enactments of challenging literary works, film shows and debates about topics crucial to the curriculum have raised the cultural level and, at the same time, the educational experience of Cuban schoolchildren, including those situated in far-off, isolated regions.

Book fairs, together with school and community libraries, as well as basic things such as poetry readings, have all promoted literacy and, in the end, the broadening of consciousness.

In our rural districts, as elsewhere, cultural events are regularly organised aimed at “celebrating excellence”.

But note, emphasis here isn’t so much on “competition” but on “emulation”, that is matching or going beyond “striking” and “remarkable”.

How is this cultural developmental process manifested at basic school level?

Cultural development as part of the daily curriculum is extensive in our rural schools. All of our schools have a cultural enrichment period in the morning and again in the afternoon.

The school assembly is a very important moment to raise the flag, to sing the national anthem and to highlight important commemorative aspects of the country’s history.

Sciences are very important, but they are worthless without a humanistic point of view.

Communities and parents remain deeply involved as it is understood one cannot separate culture from education, or education from culture. Here parents play a key role: they are empowered, encouraged and resourced to do early childhood development with their children, before they start school.

But we also have specialised schools for gifted children — from anywhere — to receive expert tuition in music, drama, ballet, contemporary dance, the plastic arts, film production, essay, prose and poetry writing …

What basic lessons are there for improving the provision of education in our rural hinterlands?

In my visit to your rural areas, I could appreciate that what you really need is more commitment to secluded teachers and the special conditions they face. More pronounced methodological guidance can certainly be beneficial as well.

Perhaps more organised supervision, coupled with the sharing of experiences and the design of lessons, can all contribute to raising results and standards.

How can we begin to overcome our seriously impaired education system? In previous talks you have highlighted the importance of    “values” in advancing the educational process.

First of all, it was through the unity of our nation that we could work together as one, to attain this high standard in education, but also in culture, in the arts, in health, in ecological protection … The promotion of a shared, universal values system — human dignity, equality and a collective solidarity — was not only considered crucial to the formation of a new, integrated nation.

Conceived of and elevated by our national hero, José Martí (1853-1895), and taken up by our leadership, such processes were pivotal in the educational advancement of our children in the 20th century and beyond. Without a good, universal values system, our educational project would not have reached the heights it currently commands.

Are you suggesting a “moral imperative” is lacking here?

I cannot be prescriptive but it all starts with the economy, which should be deeply linked to the social development and upliftment of the population as a whole.

The huge differentiation between rural and urban centres remains troublesome almost right across the globe, and certainly calls for urgent attention.

Hence the empowerment of everyone to have the same resources is and remains valid. More and more groups across the world are opposing social systems that are reactionary in nature, by standing up for real, progressive change. This could be advanced by focusing even more on the effect of culture on youth.

Your leadership is well noted for stressing the important role of culture in forging meaningful social change. If I understand you correctly, you are saying profound and productive social/cultural change is key to overcoming our struggling public education system?

Contemplate committing to the holistic development of all children in their respective abilities. This should include forming a cohesive social identity, without fastidious focus on individualism, particularism and, above all, materialism.

As our own experience shows, this should be prioritised on all levels of social life. Here our educational policy is closely linked to our cultural policy, where the cultural triumphs of other nations and societies are fully incorporated into our national programmes.

At the same time, we place high premium on our national traditions, of which, as you know, the African and Spanish are prominent.

But our major quest has been not so much to purely isolate or elevate and revere in individual cultures, but also to seek for and build on common premises.

And the end result?

In the process, we have achieved a fair measure of success in bringing different cultures and, by implication, “different peoples”, “different groups”, “different traditions”, and the like, together under a fully co-operative nationhood. The triumphs of our education system depended to a large degree on building a real, socially interconnected community of citizens, working together, for the common good of all.

Dr Clive Kronenberg is senior researcher at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s education faculty, and lead co-ordinator of the South-South Education Collaboration and Knowledge Interchange initiative. The National Research Foundation funding awarded to this author for hosting Professor Tania Morales de la Cruz is appreciatively acknowledged.

A shorter version of this article was first published by

The Conversation

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