Early Learning Years in Rural and Urban Schools

Duncan Gabi comes from Sivitatana Village in the Rigo District, Central Province.  He is an aspiring blogger and free-thinker.

His work relating to education, politics and development can be found on his wordpress blog –  aunamelo.

PNG Insight is glad to have published Duncan’s work. If you wish to participate in the Writers-Earners initiative, click here.

early learning years in PNG

Editor’s note

Duncan Gabi started the early learning years back in the village elementary school, under the Outcome-based Curriculum (OBE). His parents thought it was best for him to stay with his aunt in the city (Port Moresby) and do Grade 1.

He soon realised that he was behind in English and Maths as compared to the other children who did elementary schooling in the city.

The story is about how Duncan got through the challenges of a young village boy moving to the city school at the tender age of 6 years old. He hired a ‘private tutor’ who was also his close bubby. And, learned to read in the first term at his new school.

A remarkable and fun read…

Village early learning years (OBE curriculum)

Transferring from an early learning school in a rural area to a school in the urban area has its fair share of challenges. The transition is difficult for many students. It takes a whole term for a new student to adjust and fit in with the other students, new surrounding and learning environment.

I was 6 years old when I started my elementary education in the year 2002 in my father’s village Sivitatana in Rigo District, Central Province. I attended a community school funded by the AusAid and ChildFund.

However, I didn’t complete my early learning prep 1 (also called Grade 1 in elementary school), the following year. I was sent to live and attend a community school in my mother’s village, Kubuna in the Kairuku-Hiri District.

I lived with my maternal aunt, my mom’s younger sister and did my early learning schooling in the year 2003.

City early learners in Grades 1 and 2

In 2004, I was again sent to live with my other aunt, this time my dad’s younger sister in Port Moresby where I was taken to be enrolled in Coronation Elementary School at 4-mile.

Instead of enrolling in Grade 1, I enrolled in Grade 2 (also called prep 2, then). This happened because according to the Elementary headteacher, there were no spaces in any of the Grade 1 classes.

My aunt knew there was no chance of me getting into any other schools closer to home. We had already tried them all from Ted Diro to Bavaroko Elementary schools. She went ahead and enrolled me in Grade 2 in Coronation Elementary School.

Upon registering me at the new school, I was shown to my classroom where my aunt said go-on, go to your class because she had to go home to my baby cousin sister whom she left at home with my grandmother.

I was a shy child back then. Instead of knocking on the door, I stood outside the classroom and looked in through the classroom window to see what the classroom was like and what the students were doing.

Meeting new school teacher

I spied the class teacher who was busy writing on the board. His name was Mr Solimi, a rather slim and tall fellow from Koiari. I was busy looking at the blackboard through the window when he turned and spotted me.

Before I had the chance to duck and hide behind the sky blue wall, he was already at the door. Left-arm on his hip while resting the other above his head on the door frame eyeing me suspiciously. After a minute he asked if I was looking for someone, I pointed into his class and said they sent me to this class.

Sat on the floor on the first day

Mr Solimi was a very stern man. He said well then come in, why are you spying through the window like a “lonlon”. I just smiled and made my way into the classroom, introduced myself to the whole class.

I proceeded to secure a space on the floor since we didn’t have desks as the students giggled to themselves and were later silenced by the teacher. Well, I thought to myself, this isn’t so bad.

Initially, I thought it would be much different from the early learning years at the village schools, except our school in the village was made from bush materials. I had made myself comfortable when the daymare started. I looked at the blackboard and couldn’t understand a thing, except for math.

The students were being taught in English, they wrote and learned in English and at times spoke in English. Everything was in English, unlike the village schools I’ve attended before moving to the city school.

Outcome-based early learning years

It was frightening for me starting the early learning year in a city elementary school. Oh… how I wish I was back in the village with the village kids learning in our sago thatched roof and bamboo walled classroom where we were taught in our local language.

During the early learning years back in the village, the students were taught in “Tok Ples. I was lost, everything was new to me except Maths. I would not say my early foundation was not set right. 

Understandably, the teachers back in the village were just following the elementary curriculum to educate us in our mother tongue.

It was under the Outcome Base Education (OBE) system which allowed educators to teach students in “Tok Ples” and “Tok Pisin”.

And so, for the next following days, I prayed silently that the teacher wouldn’t pick me to answer a question or read a sentence written on the board or even make a correction on the blackboard.

I was terrified but what could I do, I could not walk up to my aunt and tell her I didn’t like the school. I was terrified, I hid everything inside and it killed me.

Worst nightmare in class

The teacher, of course, was a jolly good fellow and didn’t pick me to do or answer anything until that one terrifying day, I had settled in and but was still keeping to myself, I had made little friends so far, this was term one of the early learning year.

Our teacher was getting students to read off the blackboard when he lifted his head and glanced across the room for me, Duncan! He said, read this sentence loud and clear pointing to a written sentence on the board.

My throat went dry, my fingers went numb, my heart was beating so loud that if the classroom was so quiet, you could hear it going boom, boom. I tried opening my mouth to speak but nothing came out, my tongue betrayed me that day.

I put my head down trying to hide the tears streaming down my face, nobody saw except my buddy beside me, a boy from Goilala, my wantok as we shared the same highway to our villages.

He poked me in my rib and said read, don’t make the teacher mad, he’ll make you stand outside. I couldn’t, not because I didn’t want to but because I didn’t know how to.

So that was how that day went, I was called a dummy and made to stand outside until the class was over.

Sought learning support early

As I was standing outside the classroom, I realized something. I brought this upon myself. For nearly 3 weeks, I sat in that classroom pretending everything was okay. That I didn’t need help, even though I could not understand what was being taught in English.

The teacher didn’t have time to go around and help the students individually and understand their problems as there were many students in the classroom.

I don’t blame anyone I said to myself, I blame myself, I’m going to change everything, and I am going to do it my way.

These people do not know me, they don’t know my struggles and they do not need to. I will find someone to help, not my aunt (who was a former teacher, she left her teaching job to raise my baby cousin sister), not my class teacher, but who?

Buddying support

I asked myself, who will I turn to for help. Just then someone crossed my mind, it was my Goilala friend. Yes, that is the guy who will help me I said as I tried to find comfort in my plan. So I hoped and prayed earnestly that my plan works out.

My buddy was a few years older than me and lived at Sabama while I lived at 3-mile. For the past 3 weeks since joining the class, we would walk together to Manu where he got on the bus and went home and I walked home to 3-mile. 

That afternoon while walking home, I gathered my courage and asked him to help me out in English and Maths.

I expected him to laugh or make fun of me like the other students but he didn’t. He was an easy-going and humble kid. He smiled and said sure I will help you but you’re going to pay me. You should’ve asked a long time ago as he chuckled and knocked me from the sidewalk onto the road.

Paying for English and Maths tuitions

After all, it was a day of reckoning. My friend and I decided it was time to go swing on the monkey bars at Lahara Park as we laughed and ran toward the park.

We took a break to catch our breath. I thought to myself, I can’t let him teach me for me free. I am going to pay for his help but with what? And so, I struck a deal which I knew he would never refuse. I was going to pay him with doughnuts and K1.

My aunt used to bake me doughnuts every morning for my recess morning break and gave me K2 for my lunch break. I told my Goilala friend that he would get a lunch box full of doughnuts and K1 every day for the next coming weeks until I was as good as he was in my English and Maths.

He agreed, so for the next couple of weeks, I only ate a 70t Wopa biscuit and drank 20t ice block while he treated himself to mouth-watering delicious doughnuts.

My Buddy, Mentor and Tutor

While other students in the early learning years were out playing during recess and lunch, we were under the tree learning, he became my mentor and tutor. After school, we would go to Lahara park or sometimes to Apex park where he would test my English and Maths.

Weeks passed, I got better and better, my teacher started realizing it and thus engaged me in the class activities, for he never picked me to answer a question or read off the board after what happened the last time.

One day at home, I picked up my uncle’s medical encyclopaedia and read aloud some difficult medical terms. Uncle was on the couch watching rugby when he heard me read. He turned down the volume and said read it again, this time with confidence, I read the words out aloud.

My friend-tutor was pleased with the progress I had made. In fact, I was more pleased with myself and we were still in Term One of the early learning year.

I couldn’t stop reading. I read everything and anything I could get my hands on. My maths improved too.

I still paid my Goilala friend doughnut and K1. Nobody knew of our deal or what we’re up to. It was just between us.

As much as I enjoyed being his student, he also enjoyed teaching me. In his mind, he was my true teacher.

Reading in the early learning years

I developed a passion for books and reading. We would walk into a shop, pick up comic books and read from page to page; walk into second-hand shops read magazines and books with pictures in them that we found appealing.

I asked my aunt to dig through her old books and teaching materials. I read during the term break. After the term break, I returned to school a different kid. I wasn’t the same kid who walked into the classroom almost 10 weeks ago without any knowledge of English.

Looking back at the early learning years at school, it didn’t take me a whole year as expected to learn to read. It was less than 8 weeks.

I came into the city classroom in term one without the skill to read in English. In term two I could already read books. Of course, nobody knew how I did it or realized the improvement. Only my teacher, guardians and best buddy tutor knew after seeing improvements in my English and Maths work.

A wonderful ending

Private tutorials from my buddy came to an end a few weeks into the second term. I stopped paying him for the lessons and started sharing with him my lunch. We would still visit comic book shops and read until the guards came and chased us out. We would look for another shop that had books to read.

And that is the end of our story, how I paid for a private tutor during the early learning years, who was also my classmate to teach me how to read.

Writer’s reflection on the recent curriculum change (OBE – SBE)

I recently read on news about the Education Minster Joseph Yopiyopi’s announcement to do away with the Outcome Base Education (OBE). And, reintroduce the Standard Based Curriculum (SBC).

The statistics from the Department of Education have shown that the education system in PNG has dropped dramatically in the past decade or so.

Minister Yopiyopi raised the concern that I totally and wholeheartedly agree with. His concern was that students cannot speak or write proper English. Thus, the results are showing reflected in the ability of students to read, write and do maths in the Tertiary institutions.

The Education Department is looking to do away with the elementary school system. The new Early Childhood education will start students with English and Mathematics from level one upwards.

English Skills at Elementary Schools

The National Department of Education aims to bring back the Standard Based Education (SBC) system. And do away with Outcome-Based Education (OBE) system. The change allows teachers to use English as the main learning instruction in rural and urban elementary schools.

The Minister further stated that “students find it difficult in primary and high schools. He attributed it to the difficulty in understating the English Language. And, some students find it hard to catch up when they move up to secondary schools and tertiary institutions”.

Importance of English

And that was the problem I was facing. I was the product of the OBE education system. A system fell-short to teach the younger children the foundational English and Maths skills. The skills that we need to develop at an early age to speak, read, write in English and do maths are vital.

Today, many who went to school back then can only spell their names but can’t speak nor write proper English. English is a universal language. It could enable us to communicate both in oral and written forms. But, I believe, many students missed the chance to learn English in the early years of schooling.

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