Relevant Learning for Indigenous Filipinos

Isobel Ranulfa S. Dolatre, Resource Development Officer
Maria Johanna Pia G. Ortiz-Luis, Executive Director
Cartwheel Foundation, Inc. (CFI)

Indigenous Filipinos are among the many indigenous peoples (IP) who have experienced devastating destruction of their homes, imposition of settlers in their ancestral domains, and retreats to areas far from basic social services. Approximately 110 ethnic tribes lives in the Philippines, most of whom fight for their way of life for themselves and future generations as they struggle to keep their lands (Abejuela, Ricarte B. III. (n.d.). Indigenous Education in the Philippines [Research Study].)

With regard to education, the IP are among those with the lowest literacy rates. It is a challenge to serve their needs in remote areas, and standard education programs fail to take into account their cultures, languages, and current realities.

In an attempt to respond to these challenges, the Department of Education in the Philippines has recently adopted the Indigenous Peoples Curriculum Education Framework (DepEd Order No. 32, s. 2015) as a guide for IP educators in developing “culturally appropriate and responsive” curricula, lesson plans, instructional materials, and teaching methods.

Classes in Bancas for Seafaring Bajau

The Angiskul ma Bangka (AmB) or “Classes in Bancas” is one example of an innovative program that helps indigenous young learners gain access to quality and culturally relevant education. The AmB initiative began in 2014 to serve the internally displaced indigenous Bajau children in Zamboanga City. It is spearheaded by Cartwheel Foundation, Inc. (CFI), a non-government organization that focuses on IP education as its main goal for advocacy, with Ateneo de Zamboanga University-Center for Community Extension Services (ADZU-CCES) as implementing partner and TELUS International Philippines, Inc., Karapatan sa Malikhaing Paraan Innovative Human Rights Initiative (KaSaMa),  Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), and Sun Life Financial Philippines Foundation, Inc. as funding partners.

Known as being among of the last seafaring peoples in the world, Bajau communities build their homes on stilts in coastal areas. An estimated 600 of their families were forced to evacuate from their original homes, many of which were burned in the prolonged armed conflict between the Moro National Liberation Front and government troops (referred to as the “Zamboanga Siege”) in 2013. Many of them remain in a post-conflict transitory site at Barangay Mampang in Zamboanga City, where they live in cramped bunk houses and lack access to basic services. Identified as both IPs and as internally displaced persons (IDPs), they represent some of the most vulnerable sectors in the Philippines today.

Context-based Instruction

Given their unique context, CFI, ADZU-CCES, and their local partners designed AmB to uphold both IP education and peace advocacy principles. It is based on modules that equip children with basic literacy and numeracy skills, while also fostering their cultural identity and psychosocial well-being. Classes are conducted for three hours a day by two trained para-teachers who are themselves members of the Bajau community, currently residing at the transitory site in Mampang.

Teacher Sariba Abdulbasit leads Bajau young learners and their parents in singing the national anthem at the launching of AmB’s floating classroom. (March 2016)

Teacher Sariba Abdulbasit leads Bajau young learners and their parents in singing the national anthem at the launching of AmB’s floating classroom. (March 2016)

At the onset of the program in November 2014, 48 learners were enrolled in AmB classes. When more members of the community learned about the initiative, they requested their children be allowed to take part, thus increasing the number of enrollees to 96 by December 2015. The age of the enrollees range from 3 to 11 years old; none of them have attended school before and did not know how to read nor write when they began attending classes. By June 2015, the program’s first cycle graduated 77 children, or 80% of the total enrollees. Of the total number of graduates, 52% (40 children) were ready and qualified to enroll in public schools as kindergarten pupils.

Even if the results do not reflect perfect readiness of all learners for entry into the next academic level, the progression from zero literacy to qualifying for the public schools in a span of seven months is no mean feat. The Bajau parents recognize this—on its third cycle in 2016-2017, AmB now has a total of 108 learners.

Community Ownership and Action

Throughout implementation of AmB, community members are engaged as partners and given opportunities to determine program directions. This is in line with the IP Rights Act (Republic Act No. 8371), which states that “free, prior, and informed consent” must be given by IPs regarding matters that directly involve them. From the beginning, the program was well-received by the parents and the wider community because they aspire for their children to be in school, which they thought would be an impossibility after the Siege of 2013.

To show their appreciation for the AmB initiative, parents actively participate in “counterpart” activities, such as the construction and maintenance of the temporary learning center; the design, construction, and maintenance of the floating classroom; the daily preparation of meals for the supplemental feeding; and attendance in regular community meetings and workshops conducted by stakeholders.

The constant involvement of community members eventually paved the way for the formation of their own peoples’ organization, locally known as Kahapan, Kasulutan, Kasanyangan Parimpunan or KKKP (Service, Peace and Progress Organization). One of the main roles of this organization is to ensure that AmB activities are implemented, and that more community members participate in them. In this way, the leadership potential of active members is harnessed and leveraged for building community ownership of the program.

Safe Space for Learning

Beyond helping the children build competencies in line with DepEd’s learning standards, AmB also provided them with a “safe space” for learning. The use of familiar cultural elements helps them gain a sense of normalcy and stability in the context of their displacement and poor living conditions. This is consistent with Article 39 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), which states that “recovery and reintegration takes place in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.”

Inside the boat classroom are indigenous instructional materials prepared by the teachers with the help of the parents, using resources from around their community. AmB learners have been using the boat school for their classes since March 2016. Although it is presently docked in an area near the mangroves of their transitory site, the boat classroom is intended to move with the children once they eventually relocate to their families’ more permanent coastal homes.

Al-Fatima Ahiyal, Local Project Coordinator from ADZU-CCES, summarized the significance of the floating classroom as both a learning space and a center of living heritage for the Bajau learners, parents, and community members with whom she closely works:

AmB floating classroom in use

AmB floating classroom in use

“For other Indigenous Peoples, land is life; for the Bajau, the sea is life. The boat has deep roots in the Bajau, as they are the same in often setting to sail at sea. They do not view the AmB boat only as their classroom. They also see it as a promotion of their culture. It is colorful not only because it was built as a daycare center for kids, but also to show the vibrance of Bajau culture.

“They take pride in the floating classroom as truly theirs. Not only does it show their desire to attend school, but it also reflects the importance they give to their culture. The current number of learners has ballooned; I think it is the boat that has helped in encouraging the children. It is where they feel at home. They understand that the boat represents their tribe.

“During the turn-over of the boat to the community, one of the parents said that begging is not the only thing that the Bajau know how to do. They also know how to educate themselves and enrich their own culture all the more.”

Learning From IPEd Program Implementation

IP education is unique in that it often takes approaches different from those used in traditional instruction. The importance of highlighting indigenous knowledge, skills, practices, and values is acknowledged and incorporated. To effectively teach IP learners, it is crucial to understand the world as perceived through their eyes. Only when connections are made between new information being presented and a child’s known way of life can learning be relevant and have life-long value. Even as changes through education are intended for the good of their community, all efforts must respect to their identity as IPs.

Openness is key in nurturing a dynamic where teachers and students learn from each other. Respect for the dignity of each community member is manifested in respect for their entire culture. Education programs for such communities bear good fruit when they are facilitated rather than forced. All key players need to recognize the abundance in both human and natural resources in the community as education harnesses the many strengths that had been theirs all along.