Saturday 18 June 2011

Participation and Education in the Landless People’s Movement of Brazil (THIRD PART)

by Tristan McCowan

Laboratory of Public Policy, University of Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil








Participation within the MST education system

As with all aspects of MST organization, the education system has an elaborate series of structures designed to ensure the participation of all. This occurs at the level of the individual community as well as in terms of the decisions made by the movement at the regional or national level.

The following entities are found in the communities:

The general assembly is composed of all the members of the community, meets once or twice a year and discusses and approves the overall plan for the school as well as other significant or controversial matters.

The education team is composed of a representative number of teachers, pupils and community members and meets monthly. Here the details and implementation of the overall plan are discussed. Like all MST nuclei, the community representatives are chosen by direct vote by the community as a whole and are accountable to the general assembly. The pupils are generally chosen by their classmates, and all the teachers are normally represented.

The teachers’ collective involves all the teachers, and customarily meets once a week to organise the day-to-day running of the school, including lesson-planning, special activities and the ‘generative themes’ (cross-curricular topics of study).

The pupils’ collective organizes those tasks for which the pupils have responsibility, such as the school pharmacy, meals or assemblies. It also provides suggestions on the general plan of the school as it affects the students. The age of the representatives and the selection procedure depend on the individual community.

These bodies are intended to give all those with a stake in education the chance to contribute and have their voice heard. There are efforts to make the national co-ordination equally participative. Teachers from the different regions and states meet periodically to exchange ideas and to train; co-ordinators also meet to discuss progress and problems. The National Education Sector is comprised of representatives from each of the states, and elected by the co-ordinators, who pass on the experiences of the individual schools in their area. In this way decision-making at the national level is intended to emerge form the experiences on the ground.

i) Community

In educational work worldwide there is little argument that the involvement of parents and the local community in the schooling of children is beneficial to the general efficiency of the school and to pupil’s learning (Hawes and Stephens 1990). The MST shares this view, but extends it in significant ways.

Community members are seen to be able to participate in the following ways:

  1. Being part of school council or educational team
  2. Working on projects for school improvements
  3. Helping to maintain the memory of the struggle
  4. Inviting teachers to take part in community events
  5. Giving technical help to the school
  6. Contributing their skills to the learning in school
  7. Using the school space for meetings and courses
  8. Adopting the school as part of the community
There is therefore a two way process: involving the community in the activities of the school and giving the school a more active role in the community.

Parents were seen to be closely involved:

Whenever a decision needs to be made about the school, it’s always parents, pupils and teachers together: in all the schools there’s this concept.
To organise you have to evaluate. The parents come in every month and say what was good, what helped and what didn’t help.
This shows how community participation is dependent not only on concern for children’s schooling but also on an identification with the body running the school.

In contrast to the community consultations of many development programmes, members of the MST communities are seen to have a real influence on the running of the school, particularly since in most cases it was they who built it, set it in motion and fought for state funding. The extent of involvement in day-to-day management and curriculum decisions, however, will always depend on the capacities and inclination of the individual community members.

ii) Students

We understand by self-organization the right of pupils to organise themselves into collectives, with their own space and time, to analyse and discuss their own issues, to elaborate proposals and make their own decisions with a view to participating as subjects in the democratic management of the educative process, and of the school as a whole.
In addition to community members, students are also intended to participate in the development of their own education and the running of the school in general. ‘Student self-organization’ is one of the thirteen pedagogical principles of the MST, intended to help young people develop skills in leadership, co-operation, problem solving and critical thinking.

The teachers decide the themes, but it is the children who elaborate, fill out the content.

Researcher: Do pupils also have involvement?
Renata: Yes, they do in the making of the rules: there are rules, duties and rights that the pupils have in the school….
Alexandre: We normally put them in groups and they debate problems and proposals. This can change things in the school.
Evaluation is an important area for participation:

Together with them we evaluate the work, through dialogue. In this evaluation everyone gives their opinion, teachers, pupils, other staff, some people from the community. Everyone can get involved in order to improve things.
There are also efforts to increase participation within the classroom itself, by encouraging students to express themselves and organizing seating arrangements to encourage contributions from all. The classes observed during this research generally had the chairs arranged in semi-circles rather than the traditional rows.

Good examples of student participation in the MST are the teacher training courses, described in detail by Caldart (1997), where course management and organization are the responsibility of the students and not the trainers.

Efforts to encourage student participation in the MST are clearly oriented towards the conscientization of the individuals and community. These types of involvement are seen to enhance the school learning of the pupil, as well as provide opportunities for learning not normally present in school. The participation of children in decision-making will always be limited to a certain extent by their age: however, a genuine commitment to listening to and acting on their views can be seen.

iii) Teachers

Thirdly, it is necessary to assess the organization of the teachers themselves. The Principles of Education in the MST goes as far as to say that:

Without a teachers’ collective there is no real educative process.
These relations between teachers are encouraged to ensure that all have a stake in the management and success of the school. Assentamento Chico Mendes did not have a headteacher at all: the staff organised themselves in an entirely horizontal manner, supported by MST co-ordinators. During the time I spent at the school they were discussing plans to create the position of organizer to co-ordinate school activities, rotating between the different members of staff.

Teachers frequently emphasised the involvement they themselves had in the community, particularly in contrast to those in government schools.

There’s a huge difference. Teachers outside [in non-MST schools] are just worried about their salary: they teach their lesson and then off they go. They don’t worry about what the child is doing at home, what he or she ate. The link with the family isn’t there. At least we are trying to do it. We have a great concern for these things.
Here we’re always involved in the community. We know everyone, we know all the parents. When we have parents’ evenings we send out invitations and everyone comes.

It must be noted that this level of involvement is present in those teachers that are part of, or sympathetic to, the movement; there are some teachers in MST schools that have simply been allocated by the state and do not have a strong connection to the community.

Teacher participation seems to have a dual function in the MST: firstly the ‘organizational’ aspect, creating a co-operative and efficient body of workers, and secondly to increase their identification with and commitment to the community and the movement. Although the fundamental orientations are formulated by the National Education Sector and enforced by the co-ordinators, teachers do have influence on pedagogical and organizational decision-making in schools.


iv) Gender

Finally, there is the question of the extent to which other factors affect an individual’s participation in the education system, most importantly that of gender.

This kind of exclusion exists in Brazil. Recently in the movement it is getting better, but it still exists. Now you see a group of boys playing football, but there is a girl with them, or girls playing in a ring but with a boy. We have our Gender Sector and women’s groups to debate all of this.
Why should men’s work be valued more? There’s a great difference in the job market…. So we work with these issues in the camp, women and men being valued equally for going out to the fields. So this way we break what the media has been giving us since the time of our ancestors.
It is clear that there are efforts to change the arenas of participation of both genders, and to change attitudes. However, despite the positive impressions, the official rhetoric and the prominent role of some women in the movement, there is undoubtedly survival of traditional machista attitudes and exclusion of women. Further research would be necessary to determine the exact extent of women’s participation in the movement.

Some mention was also made of racial discrimination:

Despite the ending of slavery years ago, Black people are still the objects of prejudice. So this is brought out in the classroom and the camp in general.
There is also some concern for other types of exclusion:

We need, as educators, to keep an eye on each child, since in the games, an overweight girl couldn’t participate in the race and gave up. That is to say, she was excluded. We really have to work with this.
However, there is not as yet any significant provision for students with disabilities or special educational needs. These elements of exclusion that occur within a system of full enrolment have yet to receive full attention in the MST, which, for obvious reasons, is still primarily concerned with the extension of schooling to all.


Participation in society

These, therefore, are the ways in which the MST perceives and practices participation within the movement and its schools. However, the influence is not mono-directional: the movement creates the schools in its image, but the schools in turn create the movement of the future. The effect of education on the ability to participate in the movement and the wider society will now be considered.

It can be seen that there are two processes necessary to enable participation: firstly the transformation of external factors - such as discriminatory legislation - and secondly that of internal factors - such as literacy, self-confidence and other personal qualities needed to be able to take advantage of opportunities.

In terms of the former, the MST organises a range of mobilisations to pressurize the government into fulfilling its constitutional duties. The most prominent of these are the land occupations, but there are many concerning education.

This school is the product of the struggle. It’s not here because the government wanted it here; it’s here because the families marched in Salvador and struggled and finally got it. Everything you see in the settlement is the product of the struggle.
For Sem Terras, political participation is a part of everyday life from the time they enter the movement. The MST aims to enable people to participate more effectively in elections - by having a more critical perspective on candidates - and by taking direct political action through mobilizations and occupations. The participatory democratic structures of the schools - described above - while valid in themselves, are also a preparation for political participation in the wider society.

The MST is trying to transform the whole of society and not create an isolated enclosed world of its own. The concern with citizenship seen above also seems to show a commitment to integration into society. Yet, some people might question the degree to which the MST is really preparing people for participation outside the movement. The residents of camps and settlements are not restricted in their activities, nevertheless the vast majority of arenas in which members participate are mediated by the movement, and the education is intended to prepare for participation in society via the movement.

However, the movement as whole is becoming progressively less insular and increasingly linked to the larger movement for social justice. Caldart (2000) describes the stages of historical development, from a local to a national movement for land reform, and gradually towards incorporation in a wider project for popular national development and social justice. Events such as the World Social Forum, and the anti-capitalist/globalization movement in general, have introduced the MST to an even larger world platform.
Participation in the MST is based on direct and not representative democracy, and is empowering rather than instrumental, in that it leads to an increase in control over decision-making rather than more efficient implementation of externally-formulated policies.

The act of participation itself is seen to lead to further conscientization, leading to a cyclical process of development. This process is described in the context of children in the acampamentos:

With time these children gain a greater consciousness of the struggle: this happens…where they have the right to speak, to sing. They have a strong desire to participate, they have pleasure in contributing to the assemblies, meetings, celebrations, building toys and the school tent…. It is this space for participation that makes the children critical, so they don’t accept things as they are….
One of the central aims of the MST is to enable its members to become subjects and not objects of historical events (the fundamental base of conscientization as described by Freire). The end of the process - becoming a subject of history - is nothing more than participation itself, in its truest sense. This is not just appearing in consultation groups, or even deciding how an international agency’s money will be spent in the village, but the ability to have a deep and lasting influence on society and history.

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