Learning how to think

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Teresa S. Abesamis-125

Grassroots & Governance

One of my first jobs right after college was teaching in a Franciscan missionary school in Baybay, Leyte. All of my schooling was done in private schools run by foreign missionaries; and since English was also a prime lingua franca within my family, it seems to me that I not only spoke in English, I thought in English.

It was, of course, a shock to discover that English was in fact, a foreign language among most of my students. Hardly any home in Baybay had an English-language newspaper, if any newspaper at all, and so the most powerful medium of public information was radio, which in general broadcast in Cebuano except for some soap operas which were broadcast in their original Tagalog. Besides, newspapers came too late in the afternoon, and so to get the news, people in Baybay tended to depend on radio. Television at the time had not yet reached the place.

Since I was primarily an English grammar and literature specialist, I decided to give my high school students special reading programs of magazines (e.g., Reader’s Digest, Time, and Newsweek magazines which I took to Baybay from my parents’ home in Cebu City). I also conducted Saturday morning classes on a voluntary basis. And amazingly, the few students who were able to take the time to attend the special English language reading and conversation exercises really did make progress in their English language skills. I even drilled them on diction, using the International Phonetic Alphabet which my teacher in Maryknoll had taught us. I noticed how much more self-confident the kids became as they became more skilled in the international language. Besides, it made it easier for them to study their textbooks which were in English.

In fact, we were able to put up a school paper in English; plus, eventually, a dramatics club. The kids won declamation and spelling contests conducted at a provincial level. And these victories motivated them even more to excel in their English language skill. From these high school kids, one became a university president and a Philippine expert on indigenous trees, and another won “The Most Outstanding Carolinian” award when she went to college in Cebu City.

Although I was not a “licensed” teacher since it was not required in private schools, I realized how much dedication and commitment to the students’ learning can help to enhance learning. Fortunately, I did not have to spend on board and lodging since I stayed with an aunt in Baybay, and my mother supplemented my meagre income whenever I came home to Cebu. Also, at the time, I had lots of energy to spare.

But I also learned a lot from my students. First of all, I learned to think and speak in Cebuano, which had not been my mother tongue since my migratory family was a mixture of Tagalog, Waray, and Chinese. As I learned to think and speak in Cebuano, it seems to me, I interacted more effectively with my teenage students, and we learned more from one another.

Certainly, The Teacher is one of the key factors in enhancing our educational system, in addition to infrastructure. Ensuring that we get the best and the brightest to be teachers even if just during their younger years will, it seems to me, help a lot. Of course, that also means teachers should get as much as, or more than we pay our cops and soldiers.

I guess one of the reasons for the resiliency of the Filipinos, and why we adapt so easily to other cultures when we are overseas, is that we really are multi-lingual from childhood. We learn our tribal language at home, Filipino from mass media, English from textbooks and some mass media. It makes me think of our culture as The Tinikling dance, for which we have become renowned.

I guess it will help if we recognize this from the outset in our educational system as a reality. Language goes with a culture; and so it takes more than grammar lessons to learn it.

When I was teaching at AIM, an international graduate school of business and management where the language of instruction is English, the Filipinos tended to outdo their foreign counterparts who struggled with the language, especially spoken English, for a trimester or two. However, once they had caught up and become confident enough to participate in class debates, the highly disciplined foreigners often outdid the locals. The Indonesians, Koreans, Thais, and even the Singaporeans and Malaysians at the time were determined to master the English language which had become the international language, especially of business.

One of the realizations for me as a teacher is that one has to think about education in terms of a Learning Methodology, not a teaching methodology. We have to be learner centered. Second, especially in this day of the internet and Google, what is important is thinking skills, rather than knowledge which is constantly evolving and can be independently acquired.

We need to simplify and to focus on what Education Secretary Leonor Briones refers to as “curricula.” Perhaps in the earlier years of elementary education we should focus on sharpening learners’ basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic plus how to independently obtain and understand knowledge. Studying and thinking skills are key to human development. And the reality is that English has become the international language.

We have to do all these while being self-aware that we are not native English speakers, but it will be to our advantage to become skillful in reading, writing, and speaking this international language. Being conscious that it is a foreign language and culture, we are less likely to be confused as to who we are today.


Teresa S. AbesamiS was professor at the Asian Institute of Management and a Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.