By Susy Villafañe

8 October 2019 14:35

Today’s Challenge: Educating Courageous, Optimistic, Entrepreneurial Young People

Every day our region faces increasingly difficult challenges: inequality, violence, discrimination, lack of opportunities. You may think that the future is bleak, but there are people working with children and youths to build a better tomorrow and produce change; these include teachers that motivate and professionals that inspire. 

Investing in Young People

Over 163 million young people live in Latin America and the Caribbean. For the UN’s ECLAC (what is this?), they represent the region’s future, the ability of these nations to develop more solid economies and better democracies. Although they’re young, their lives have not been easy; over half of them live in poverty-stricken regions, areas where violence is rampant; they come from vulnerable homes or lack the education to gain access to high-quality jobs. Nevertheless, they hold onto an optimistic vision of the future, they are courageous, entrepreneurial, and they know they are capable of changing the world.

In response to this, a series of programmes and projects have been developed in the region which aim to help young people between the ages of 4 and 30 to harness their talents and build networks to create their own roads to better lives. One of the ways in which they are doing this is improving the quality of the education they receive.

In Jamaica, for example, they are developing the “Boys in Education” project, which responds to a highly problematic issue in the country: very high numbers of children leaving or dropping out of school, especially boys, as a consequence of the violence and poverty that most young people grow up in. This situation has caused them to lose faith in their own abilities, in the capacity of school to transform their lives, and in the future of their own nation.

“Boys in Education” is a space in which parents, educators and business people can discuss the challenges, opportunities and ways to deal with the difficulties children face to learn, to stay motivated, to be committed to their education, and to improve academic achievement levels, as well as their levels of personal and socio-economic development. In addition, during the week the project takes place, students have the possibility of meeting and talking with successful people, who serve as positive role models, helping participants to develop their self-confidence and realising they do have a future.  

In Uruguay, there are 86,000 children from 550 primary schools located in hard-to-reach areas and are learning English through video-conferencing. There are over 3000 classes per week delivered remotely by teachers from facilities in Argentina, Uruguay, the UK and the Philippines. Without such technology, many of these children would never have the opportunity to learn the language. 

In Cuba, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed which decreed that all university students must be able to communicate fluently in English at B1 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. In order to achieve this, in 2018200 mentors and teachers received specialised training on the most effective methodologies for teaching English and take this knowledge back to their own universities.

Future Champions

Teachers in Latin America and the Caribbean have a huge responsibility when it comes to educating their citizens on how to make the world a more diverse and fairer place. This task requires constant dedication, on-going learning, and overcoming numerous challenges on a daily basis. Nevertheless, our educators do not give up as they have a ‘never say die’ mindset. 

To give them a helping hand, in 2013 the “Champion Teachers” project was born. This initiative trains public school teachers to understand and perform their jobs more effectively by reflecting on their work, identifying challenging problems, and developing solutions using Exploratory Action Research techniques. The project, born in Chile, has been so successful that it is currently being replicated in Peru and Colombia.

Creating Bridges to the World

In previous decades, according to Cristina Banfi of the University of Warwick, England, learning another language was perceived as an activity reserved exclusively for the elite and upper classes. But now, being bilingual is a pressing need for everyone. Latin American governments recognise that if they fail to promote English language learning at all social levels, they will be missing out on the economic opportunities afforded by globalisation.

In Colombia, the Mayor of Medellín is pushing this agenda in areas directly related to tourism. For three years the city has been developing the “English for Tourism” project. Over 800 people, including taxi drivers, hotel workers, tourist guides and artists have learned to speak and understand English, and they are better prepared to showcase their city to the world.

English builds bridges and allows exchanges, dialogue and negotiations between the locals and the visitors. In fact, every person who can speak English and validate their level can apply for jobs with international firms, obtain scholarships from internationally renowned universities, and even migrate to another country, just to name a few advantages.

To meet the goals of the “Colombia Bilingüe” programme in 2016, the education authorities in Bogotá launched a mentoring program in several public schools around the city. The programme includes activities such as teacher training, teacher and student certification via the British Council owned APTIS test, reviewing and strengthening school curriculums, and empowering teachers through leadership training.

This work has been very successful It helped public schools from the capital city to be competitive at national and international levels. In addition, it has benefited over 486 teachers, 200,000 students and 28 principals. 

In a changing world, teachers must keep learning and innovating in the way they teach. To support this, the “Best of Britain and ELT” (BBELT) project was born in Mexico in 1991. This programme provides teachers, experts and scholars the opportunity to meet, exchange experiences and reflect on the challenges they face every day in their profession. These spaces promote innovative English teaching practices.

This project has become one of the most prestigious conferences in Mexico, and almost 8000 participants have seen their teaching levels improve after applying the lessons learned from international experts at the event. In Colombia, the BBELT project began in 2017 at the University of Santo Tomás in Bogotá and has shown excellent results.

In 2016, an agreement of mutual recognition was signed which validates higher education titles obtained in the UK and Colombia, aiming to strengthen relations between the two countries as well as cooperation in education and academic mobility. With this agreement, Colombia became the third country in Latin America, after Chile and Mexico, to be recognised by the UK, thanks to the quality of its higher education sector. 

Better education means a better future for our countries and communities, a future of equality, inclusion and diversity. Reaching our goals is not easy and there are many challenges ahead, but each action in this article demonstrates that there are many people promoting better education at every level. And as long as these projects exist and grow, the future will be brighter for everyone.