Quality education thanks to intercultural dialogue and new technologies

Education represents a fundamental right: no one must be left behind. How can we transform these words into realities? Especially when it comes to remote places and indigenous groups, how can education be provided in fair terms? Every individual has the right to education, however it is also essential to preserve and respect one’s intangible cultural heritage. Therefore, education must take into account the person’s cultural background in order to provide learnings that will not step over one’s identity and values. Professor Andrés Villalba takes us on a journey in Misiones, Argentina, where he works to support education in the Mbya Guarani indigenous community, thanks to intercultural dialogue and technologies.

 

My name is Andrés Villalba, coordinator of a technology-based rural secondary school in Argentina, and this year we will have the first 50 indigenous graduates in Misiones, a small province of the country.

In 2009, I had started working for the Ministry of Education of Misiones, in charge of linguistic and intercultural policies in the province. It was only in 2016 that I was asked to coordinate a rural school for indigenous populations, with two main goals: first of all, the inclusion of those students who were left out of the formal education system, and second, the integration of technology as means of communication, transmission, and provision of quality & equitable education. 

A bit of context regarding education and indigenous groups, with the example of Mbya Guarani community. During the past decade, the community has been receiving lot of support in education from the national government, from preschool to primary school. However, secondary level of education (students from 13 to 18 years old ), compulsory since Federal Law 26.206/10, has seen a large number of students from rural areas who did not have the opportunity to move further with their studies. Two main reasons why: on one hand, the closest secondary school was located 80 kilometers away from the community, with the added constraint of going through rushing streams in a dense vegetation, and frequently coming across some Yararas (the most poisonous snake in South America); on the other hand, no secondary school was built in the remote areas. The situation changed in 2014, thanks to an agreement between the Ministry of Education in Misiones and UNICEF Argentina: a new innovative project was developed, using new technologies to provide a formal educational framework for the rural populations, especially indigenous students.

One major part of the project is supported by UNICEF Argentina. The Organization provides technical support (internet connection, devices – including laptops, projectors, printers, memory sticks etc.), pedagogical material (for example, design of the curricula content, upload of online educational activities) and counselling services (addressing the most vulnerable minorities to help them reintegrate the schooling system). Students log on an e-Platform where they can download, complete and upload activities. The e-Platform also offers online spaces where to connect with the teachers and to exchange opinions and ideas. Students are also taught how to use Internet in a critical and responsible way, especially when it comes to online search.

The other key strengths of the programme definitely lie in the work of the indigenous educator and intercultural dialogue. Indeed, the curricula’s content is not only designed by local teachers and UNICEF education specialists: it also goes into the hands of a tutor-teacher and an indigenous educator, who also helps to organize, administer and manage the groups on the ground. The indigenous educator is approved by the community leaders and families according to ritual proceedings. The Mbya Guarani people can only make decisions when all the members of the community, leaders, men, women and children, gather in an assembly. These meetings may last days because they pray and wait for a spiritual answer, which only the Opygua (chaman) can understand and communicate. The role of this educator is essential it represents the guarantee of the safeguard of the community’s values and traditions within the formal education curricula. Indeed, in addition to the content demanded by law for all secondary schools in Argentina, this curricula has the distinctive characteristic to include classes related to the cultural traditions of the indigenous community: songs, rites, storytelling, oral transmission and other tribal fundamental elements. Such inclusion would have never been possible if it was not thanks to the intercultural dialogue initiated with Caciques, Mbya community chiefs, and the coordination team including UNICEF team and educators from the National Department of Education.

To facilitate this intercultural dialogue, to ensure a better understanding of the different themes of study, and to strengthen cooperation between teachers and the community, I schedule trips to visit the classrooms twice or three times a year. This gives the opportunity to interact with students, to share points of view and learnings, to make agreements to improve the participation of parents and other members of the community etc. It also give the chance for teachers to learn from students' expectations, needs and dreams.

As coordinator of this project, one of the most rewarding moments is to hear parents stating their pride and emotion about their children, who represent the first generation in their families to conclude formal education, having the opportunity to pursue higher education and the chance, later on, to apply for 'honorable jobs just like any other citizen of the country'. The fact that the curricula also includes learning about traditional cultural background is very important for them, as the traditions are also promoted outside of the private family circle. Indeed, this educational programme acknowledges the close relationship between the Mbya people and nature, as well as the necessity to compensate them for centuries of undermining this culture. 

This only secondary school for indigenous students, based on technology and intercultural dialogue, made me experience the importance of inclusion of minorities in education, that incorporates a deep cultural awareness of the Mbya lifestyle. In our programme, technology has bridged the ancient cultural knowledge with contemporary scientific methods, equipping students with key competences to build their future in the world. I believe that the 50 indigenous graduates represent living proof that we have found a successful inclusive educational model, that can be replicated in other parts of the globe.

Minorities (indigenous communities) / Latin America