Listening added to reading materials

By: Johnny Baltzersen, CICED 

This is the first part of the story from an extended visit to our Mongolian partner this summer. Over the course of five weeks, we traveled almost 4300 km to attend three regional workshops with local departments, teachers, school leaders and parents. The story can start with the conclusion: The project is working well. There is room for improvement. We’ve addressed them.

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It’s early morning in Ulaanbaatar. Really early, in fact. The sun has just climbed over the hills to the east. The streets are wonderfully empty. In just an hour’s time, there will be traffic jams on every street. As far as the eye can see. Ulaanbaatar has grown from around 600,000 inhabitants in 1992 to around 1.7 million today. In the same period, the number of cars in the city has grown from a few thousand to around 400,000. It’s been a long time since people laughed at the joke: Do you want a ride? No, thanks, I’m busy.

Suukhbatar Square in front of the parliament building on the right of the image is the only major breathing space in Ulaanbaatar in 2023.

Attempts to limit traffic in Ulaanbaatar have so far failed. When the city government tried odd license plates on certain days and even on others, everyone who could afford it just bought two cars.

Our early departure this morning is the start of a longer journey west. Including a short trip to visit family, we need 1400 km of asphalt and dusty steppe roads under our wheels before we can roll in front of the school in Naranbulag soum in Uvs aimag in the western part of Mongolia.

Soum or sum is the Mongolian word for rural area, but when we roll up in front of the school in Naranbulag, it’s obviously not in the rural area as such. Each rural district has an administrative center, typically with a school, kindergarten, health clinic, public administration and various shops. Naranbulag soum center is no exception. With approximately 5,500 inhabitants spread over 4,400 km2, the rural district is close to the national average for population and size. In comparison, around 470,000 inhabitants of Funen spread over 3,099 km2.

Naranbulag is the setting for a three-day regional workshop focused on exchanging experiences and ideas for improving the project. At the end of the workshop, participants leave with an action plan for the coming year’s efforts. The regional workshops are intended to play a very central role in the project. Sure, experiences and ideas are exchanged in Facebook groups, monitored frequently via phone calls and online meetings, but none of that can match the benefits of meeting, working, talking, partying and laughing under the same roof for days on end.

Unfortunately, we are not as many people at the workshop in Naranbulag as we could be. Six of the possible participating rural districts have had to stay home to celebrate the district’s 100th anniversary. In total, there are (somewhat curiously) 100 districts around Mongolia celebrating their 100th anniversary. The Mongolian Revolution took place in 1921, and in 1923 the first major modern administrative division of the country was implemented. And, in Mongolia, (almost) everything else has to take a back seat when there are such local anniversaries. School, the institution everyone is or has been connected to, plays a crucial role. Despite cancellations, we are eight districts, a total of 42 participants from there plus us eight travelers from Ulaanbaatar.

Listening to the experiences and ideas of others. Classrooms are not boring in Naranbulag, although the benches are a bit too small.

The work plan for the coming year is taking shape.

Problematic or illiterate

The project has two focus areas. Firstly, the nomads’ 5-year-old children need to be better prepared for school. Secondly, the situation in school boarding schools needs to be improved, especially for children in the youngest classes. That’s why the project is titled: Better School Start-Better School Life.

The initiative comes in the wake of previous studies showing that the majority of children who drop out of school in the early years are children from nomadic families and typically children who have not attended kindergarten. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. Nomadic life is lived on the steppes, far from kindergarten and school.

The transition from the homely and isolated surroundings of a ger in the far reaches of the steppe or the Gobi Desert to school and boarding school is a big deal when you’re only six years old. School used to start at the age of eight, but the pressure from the international discourse on the benefits of early schooling has also hit Mongolia.

After three years of the project, we can see that despite the corona pandemic, the efforts are working as intended. There are no reports of dropouts so far, and teachers, children and parents report that they are happy and satisfied with the program. Of course, good stories are one thing, but it’s another if the good story can be backed up by facts. Are they learning anything, the children? And do nomadic children learn as well as non-nomadic children?

The latter have typically attended kindergarten before starting school. It is therefore obvious in 1st grade to compare former kindergarten children with the children who have followed the project’s home-based school preparation. So do tests and evaluations conducted by the Mongolian National Evaluation Institute. Result: ‘project children’ are on par with other children.

So we should just be happy, sit back and carry on without any significant adjustments. But the workshop in Naranbulag, and the two subsequent workshops in Chuluut for the central region and Asgat for the eastern region, revealed that there are ‘problematic parents’ that teachers can’t really get to support the children as well as they should. In most cases, parents just tell you they don’t have time.

Nomadic life is demanding. Teachers know this, but it doesn’t quite match up with the fact that most nomadic parents have time. So why are these parents portrayed as difficult with a hint of being a bit lazy?

I can’t help but wonder if there are parents who can’t read? Oddly enough, there are two different answers at first. The teachers who travel to the nomads to help say: yes, there are parents who can’t read or at least don’t read very well. Some in the Ulaanbaatar team are more skeptical about the assumption of illiteracy as a source of lack of help for the children.

National evaluation shows that children with home-based school preparation do just as well as children who have attended kindergarten.

My assumption is based on the fact that almost 24% of all school-age children had dropped out in 1992 when we started the DANIDA collaboration with the Mongolian Ministry of Education. It’s the drop-out generation from back then who are now parents, and if they haven’t had the chance to participate in reading courses or other education along the way, they may be illiterate or poor readers today.

And that, rather than laziness, could be the source of their lack of support for the variety of exercises that children have to do in home-based school preparation. Maybe they can’t even read the children’s exercises, let alone the accompanying parental guide.

There are no major studies on illiteracy in Mongolia. According to official statistics, almost 100% of Mongolia’s adult population can read and write. It’s painting a picture. Among education researchers and sociologists I’ve spoken to, it’s estimated that 5-7% of the adult population can’t read or are functionally illiterate.

Applied to our project with a target group of 2,500 parent couples, this means that in a worst-case scenario, there are between 250 and 350 adults who read too poorly to help their children with school preparation tasks.

And we need to do something about it. It’s not enough to improve written materials. You need sound. And more support for struggling readers among parents.

The debate about ‘problematic’ parents is repeated in the next two workshops, and everyone is now convinced that low literacy among parents is a real challenge that needs to be addressed.

Since 1992, the very purpose of our Danish-Mongolian collaboration has been to make a difference for those who are most in need. And that most others (donors) don’t want to play with. That’s why audio is now being added to exercise books and guides. Parents need to be able to listen if they can’t read.

Then we’ll see how many ‘problematic parents’ there are to report next year.

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