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Safiya Olugbala: Taking Education Back to its Roots

Sunday, March 15, 2015

By Onika Nkrumah-Lakhan

WESTERN EDUCATION teaches us just enough to earn a paycheque, be a conforming citizen, and to function in a Eurocentric system. Remember your primary and secondary school education; you learnt all about Columbus, the European nobility, Great Britain and her colonies, but little to nothing about the history of any of the main cultures of Trinidad and Tobago. We were taught about slavery and indentureship, as if that were the sum history of its peoples. 

Fast forward to 2015, and the curriculum these days is little better … at least, that’s the conclusion of three educators, Safiya Olugbala, Shinelle Cross and Priya Padmanabhan. Out of the ethos “Educate to Liberate,” was founded the Lalibela Holistic Institute in 2009. Its mission: to afford every child a quality education, regardless of their social standing. The school, as its name suggests, looks at the whole individual, with a heavy emphasis on indigenous history, Earth sciences, sustainability and environmentalism. 

These educators are really thinking ‘outside of the classroom’; students don’t spend their days cooped up in dingy classrooms in desperate need of paint and a power wash. At Lalibela Holistic, the world is one big existential classroom. Physical education can come in the form of a vigorous nature walk to the nearby river for a swimming session. As Olugbala asserts, “chalk and a blackboard is not going to stimulate even the brightest of minds...” Experts agree that the most effective teaching occurs when students live and breathe their education, so when an applicable topic on the curriculum arises, perhaps about Arts or Culture, students visit an art exhibition or a museum, so they can get a real first-hand experience of what it means to be an artist. This allows for “real connections to be made with otherwise abstract content.” 

The veracity of this statement registers when I recall my own school days, how interesting the school trips were and how an innovative history teacher made us love the subject by re-enacting the stories. At Lalibela, traditional observances, although acknowledged, are not so heavily emphasized. “We find icons who make sense to us, and feature them prominently, so we celebrate Kwame Ture or Marcus Garvey Day. We are not teaching anything new, just what was forgotten...where the community comes together to remind a child who they are.” This ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ approach is paying off. The community “has shown up; our volunteers and parents are very generous...we have outgrown our current location and we’re looking for a new building,” enthuses Olugbala.

WOW — In 2015, African and East Indian history in our schools are limited to the teaching of slavery and indentureship; your thoughts?

Olugbala — We haven’t been searching for truth; we have been complying...our children deserve the truth, we have been so blindsided by colonialism...we should also be teaching Indigenous history, about the Amerindians that were here before us. Our curriculum needs modernization. At Lalibela Holistic, we are very future-driven... our emphasis is on innovation technology. If the education system makes improvements, it will see a marked difference — both for students and teachers. The system is designed for our students to fail, because they don’t see themselves. Parents are removing their children from the mainstream and opting for home-schooling because they are dissatisfied with the quality of education.

The educators at Lalibela are currently collaborating with University of Trinidad & Tobago (UTT) to tailor a curriculum that reflects their approach to education, while still covering the essentials as mandated by the Government. According to Olugbala, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and English Literature and a Masters in Educational Psychology, the collaboration is going “really well; we’re working on merging our ideas with the existing curriculum ... so that our students can be properly accredited. It’s a work in progress. We partnered with UTT because they are student-centred...we are a living model and we hope to share what we have done with the Government in future.” 

On whether the Ministry of Education is responsive to calls for a revised, modernised curriculum, Olugbala is optimistic, “I see their Continuous Assessment Component (CAC) as a step in the right direction...the Government is becoming more supple. I applaud the Ministry of Education’s stance in acknowledging that there are alternative ways of delivering the curriculum. I hope we can work together to tailor an inclusive national curriculum that is designed expressly for a child to succeed.”

WOW — Over six hundred teachers are under investigation for various allegations; do you think there has been a shift from past teachers, who were more dedicated, to a new type of teacher who is mainly concerned with a paycheque?

Olugbala — Teachers are also representative of the moral decay in society all around us.... The teachers of old were dedicated to a colonial system which appeared to function because it was designed to make us loyal to it. That in itself is now causing upheaval.... I am more satisfied with the quality of my life now, even though I make less money than when I was teaching in the mainstream system.”

Located in Diego Martin, Lalibela Holistic Institute— a Nature-based School — is a member of the Green School Alliance. Visit their Facebook page for more information.


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