Monday, February 21, 2005

Physics education the CVI way.

Does it really work? Yes, but with a very limited result, I guess.

'Learning by doing' could revolutionize RP education
Posted 02:52am (Mla time) Feb 20, 2005
By Raul V. Fabella, Cristina B. Fabella, Vigile Marie Fabella
Inquirer News Service

TOURISTS come to Bohol to be transported by its natural wonders. Of late, a new type of visitors (educators from across the country) has made Jagna, Bohol their destination. Their unusual query is: "Where is CVI?" CVI stands for Central Visayan Institute, a high school run by the Bernidos (Maria Victoria is principal and Christopher is director of studies), at the heart of Jagna, a port town 63 kilometers east of Tagbilaran.

The visitors are anxious about something they have heard, the Dynamic Learning Program (DLP) of CVI.

The rumor has been slowly spreading through the Bohol Association of Catholic Schools and Catholic Educators Association of the Philippines (CEAP) that concrete results are wrapped in CVI's student portfolios.

Is the pilgrimage justified?

The National Academy of Science and Technology, sensing success, made the Bernidos plenary speakers at its 26th Annual Scientific Conference in Manila last August. The CEAP National Convention did the same on Sept. 16 and the Fund for Assistance in Private Education (FAPE) has made the Bernidos a permanent fixture in all its regional fora. Wherever they speak, they light up the audience with excitement.

Classrooms at CVI reflect the school's severe financial straits. Tables and chairs have clearly seen better days, back when Jose Abueva, former University of the Philippines president and emeritus professor, was a student. The main building, a reincarnation of a 1930s movie house, is rickety. Nonetheless, the ravages of time cannot hide the aura of dignity. There are no signs of habitual neglect. Nor are there graffiti. But nobody comes to CVI for its physical appearance.

The shelves at the back of each room are nondescript, but few in Ateneo or Poveda bear as precious a cargo-stacks of color-coded plastic-covered portfolios of the students. The folios contain accomplished activity sheets of each student in each course. These include exercise, concept, laboratory and exam sheets, all neatly accomplished in the student's own handwriting or illustration. And all done within the school.

Short lectures

For homework is anathema at CVI. This is the first adjustment to kawad-on (abject poverty), which is a sibling to most CVI students. Most of them hail from far-flung homes neither provided with plumbing nor electricity. "Schoolwork you do in school. Homework is helping your parents," is the unsubtle advice.

Because "homework," so-called, is done in school, lectures have to be pithy, just the basic concepts and some examples-20 minutes at most. Prepared exercises or student activity sheets are handed out. Students then get busy-they discuss concepts and attempt to solve or build, confer, search singly at first and then together, and when stumped, address questions to the expert teacher. More discussion. Work sheets are evaluated and go into each student's portfolio for the course.

The DLP, in effect, de-emphasizes "learning by listening," and expands "learning by doing." The latter, done within a group, dons the mantle of "play," a pseudo-play, if you will. This turns the current pedagogy on its head where schoolwork is "learning by listening" and homework is "learning by doing"-both done in isolation. Learning becomes a lonely, artificial and eventually a disdained exercise. Children everywhere love play; play is mostly with peers, and learning in groups can be play. At CVI, it is.

This strategy hinges on trust. A short discussion of the concepts can motivate kids to take off and explore for the next 40 minutes. How about short attention span? How about the unruliness that follows? Only actual program runs can decide these issues. As the outcome shows, the trust appears well-placed. Students begin to view school learning as play and respond with the rapt attention of card players. Naturally, there are exceptions and those are dealt with first with remedial effort and, if it fails, a pink slip.

Another interesting advantage: DLP reduces the distinction between exam days and class days.

Optimizing the teacher

In every pedagogic program, the teacher is central. The current pedagogic practice confronts the teacher only with students, with the review process, if at all, coming few and far between. This structure easily succumbs to that sneaky classroom bargain: teacher does not teach, students do not learn, teacher gives high grades, students shut their mouths and move on. Worse, predatory and abusive behavior by teachers may thrive in non-transparent environments.

The DLP reduces such Faustian bargains. (1) All sections of a year take Mathematics simultaneously in one enlarged (dividers folded in) room. (2) The 20-minute or so initial lecture segment is not repeated three times. Instead, the math teacher spends 40 minutes more every day fielding questions. (3) The questions are also more profound because they derive from actual problem-solving instances. (4) The teachers of the other subjects become facilitators of the Mathematics course, imposing discipline and fielding no questions in Math.

Socratic method

The math teacher faces a mini-faculty meeting daily. The DLP is, by design, question-and-answer-intensive ("Socratic"). She cannot, as happens in too many classes across the nation, be absent while being present in front of peers. The best pedagogic practice easily spreads.

Other advantages: (1) It is much easier for the principal to monitor the proceedings as all subjects are in one enlarged room. (2) When teachers are poorly prepared, less is clearly better than abundant nonsense. (3) All the other teachers, say of English or History, hear and presumably absorb the big ideas of the other disciplines such as Einstein's theory of relativity in Physics or Darwin's natural selection in Biology. There is more to interact over in the faculty room than the identity of "Jose Pidal." Math and science mentors also learn John Donne's "Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

The DLP is a hot learning cauldron for both students and teachers.

Where's the beef?

Carol Porio, executive director of FAPE, has seen many pedagogical programs arrive with a bang and slink away with a whimper. She is a formidable skeptic. "Where's the result?" is her favorite rapier. Which is why she is profoundly intrigued by CVI. The results are plain to see. How do they come about? Enthused Eve Orbeta of the St. Bonaventure Center of Excellence, "The moment I walked into that school, I knew they had a different culture."

Just run through the stacks of student portfolios at the back of the room. Pick one up randomly from the Physics stack. Leaf through. One meets a neat, colored rendition of the Bohr atom and a brief essay on why electrons don't collapse into the nucleus. The romance with learning is palpable. The four graduates in 2003 and the five in 2004 who qualified for the University of the Philippines (UP) seem to suggest a program that works. These are not yet conclusive, according to the Bernidos. CVI's UP College Admission Test (UPCAT) performance will, however, only improve if UPCAT gives Mathematics and Science a higher weight than the puny 10 percent it gives today.

No report can convey the full compass and drama of the learning outcomes mirrored by the portfolios. Comparable outcomes from elite schools charging P80,000 in tuition a year have yet to be seen. CVI charges an all-inclusive P3,700 a year. Eager pilgrims of pedagogy leave enthusiastic about the DLP. How do the children of poor households learn to appreciate Fermat's Last Theorem?

Student response

The basic behavioral premise at CVI is that if you create a local environment that rewards enquiry and reflection, students will follow the cue. Each student is a pool of potentials (aggression, predation, reflection, etc.) and which gene becomes expressed depends on the payoffs in the environment.

The Philippine environment sadly punishes hard work and celebrates the "Eat Bulaga" chic; thus, the "Eat Bulaga" gene dominates and the smart gene recedes. By contrast, "Smart is cool" is idiomatic at CVI. This allows the "smart gene" to find expression.

Is it replicable?

To many, CVI appears in every respect a singularity. Where else do the principal and the director of studies appear as authors in the Journal of Mathematical Physics and other international journals? CVI has two PhDs with established international reputation in path integral method and white noise analysis, living like Trappist monks on a salary of P10,000 a month. Indeed, CVI faculty has a better international publications record than 90 percent of all science faculties in the Philippines, including UP where the Bernidos once taught with distinction.

CVI also co-hosts with its affiliated institution, the Research Center for Theoretical Physics, an international physics conference in Jagna every three to four years and whose past speakers included Frank Wilczek and Gerard 't Hooft, both Nobel Prize winners (2004 and 1999, respectively).

World science oasis

How the Bernidos made Jagna a world science oasis (the latest one held on Jan. 3-7 dealt with the exciting Hida-Connes calculus) with nary a government support is yet another miracle deserving a separate treatise.

And yet, CVI struggles with the most banal problems: it squats on land owned by others on whose kind sufferance depends its physical, though clearly not its intellectual position. Meeting weekly payroll is a regular challenge. Loss of faculty to public high schools (almost double entry pay) is a Poisson process.

The depth of absurdity was plumbed when the Department of Education (DepEd) banned the Bernidos from teaching high school Physics and Mathematics for lack of teaching licensure after teaching Quantum Mechanics at the UP National Institute of Physics. (Maria Victoria, initially stunned, dutifully took the minimum adequate education courses and ranked second in the national licensure exam.) CVI is nothing if not quintessentially abnormal.

That being said, the basic features of the DLP, the heavy emphasis on "learning by doing," the radical trust in the youth's capacity to learn, the learning as pseudo-play, and the unparalleled transparency through simultaneous instruction are all accessible without the idiosyncratic features of CVI. Great courage is still required to push DLP. The Bernidos made numerous enemies before being allowed to settle on the gentler side of fury. Theirs is an undeclared war against the Filipino disease of taking the path of least resistance. Can the entropic inertia be kept at bay elsewhere?

Can DLP produce its magic without the Bernidos? That experiment FAPE wants to run.

Empire strikes back

CVI represents a mutant subculture trying to find breathing space under an overarching dominant cultural milieu. That a discordant local steady state requires a counterforce provided by an outsider is demanded by the conservation principle. The Bernidos provide such counter-energy at CVI. They draw strength outside of the dominant culture. Will such rarity survive and replicate?

That the overarching ocean of entropy is itself under assault from forces it cannot control inspires hope. By every international comparative standard, the Philippines is falling behind (gross domestic product per capita growth, corruption indices, math and science standardized scores, and International Math Olympics).

The harvest is a massive "winter of our discontent," surfacing as a gnawing hunger for a way out of the morass. Some find solace in a US visa. Others prefer to stay and fight.

But the dominant ethos has automatic defense mechanisms. Does a CVI graduate's romance with the periodic table confer on him a superior advancement potential? As it stands, most CVI graduates are ending up in dead-end colleges. They join their parents in peddling RTWs or plowing the field. In 2004, only one of the five CVI graduates who passed the UPCAT enrolled at the state university because the package offered by the UP Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program was too puny for the poor. (UP should raise fees for wealthy entrants to adequately finance poor CVI and kindred hurdlers). For many, the romance will end in a bitter divorce. Creating scientific and technological smarts in the Philippines is a lonely Sisyphean labor.

Scaling up

Spreading the CVI virus is frustrating. There is reason enough to feed a proclivity for despair. But look closer. There are elements in society that already share the virus. In the business sector, global players like the Ayala Group and the Smart group embrace the ethos of precision and rules-based governance and chafe under the burden of the old ethos. Marching to a different drummer is a privilege they pay dearly for. Some local government units like Marikina are coming around. Scaling up these local successes, however, remains a daunting challenge.

Some suggestions may help. The chances of this type of graduates entering institutions that celebrate the kindred ethos must rise: (1) Make entrance exams heavily weighted for Math and Science, and (2) Offer adequate fellowships for poor hurdlers. CVI and kindred school graduates already have much higher math and science aptitude than a regular college graduate.


Second, DepEd should devise an accreditation exam for math and science teaching. The only requirement is a high school degree. Passing this exam is necessary but not a sufficient condition for teaching high school Math and Science. Those who pass the exam are required to finish only 18 additional education units to be fully accredited to teach Math and Science in high school.

This should reinforce the Makabayan Program, which the Bernidos consider a correct decision if still sorely inadequate. This was the path Marivic Bernido herself was forced to take. Was it so long ago when sixth-grade finishers taught grade school with distinction?

The private business sector can help by recruiting directly from the top echelon graduates of select high schools and providing them with work-study programs. Better attitudes and sturdier smarts are available here.

Linked up, they can make a tsunami of the lonely isolated ripples that will set Filipino smarts free.

(Dr. Raul V. Fabella is dean of the UP School of Economics and member of the National Academy of Science and Technology; Dr. Cristina B. Fabella, an obstetrician-gynecologist, is an active consultant at the Cardinal Santos Medical Center and Amang Rodriguez Medical Center; and, Vigile Marie Fabella is a freshman at the UP School of Economics. The paper was conceived while the Fabellas were on vacation in Jagna, Bohol.)

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