The Brazilian municipality Comodoro takes the idea of life-long learning seriously. Its schools don't just impart knowledge; lesson plans are designed to integrate with students' lives in and among agriculture.
When they see the little thicket of trees, the garden with 300 types of medicinal herbs, and the big vegetable patch behind the schools, visitors to the Brazilian municipality of Comodoro will notice right away that the children in this thinly populated tropical region learn differently.
"The school no longer limits itself to what's within its four walls," said Maria Jose Fernandes, a teacher at a school in Bom Jardim. Instead learning math, biology, geography and physics from their chairs, the students learn from nature. They analyze soil conditions, plan the reforestation of fallow fields, and harvest fruits and vegetables.
The project known as Educacao do Campo (Education in the Field) intends to support the land-dwelling population in the region near Brazil's border with Bolivia in the state of Mato Grosso. Problems faced by the local agrarian families in Comodoro have been integrated into the educational concept. The pupils deal with interdisciplinary projects involving soil erosion, dried up springs and self-sufficiency. The days are not divided into strict hour-long class sessions. Instead, the teachers have flexible lesson plans.
School reflects life
Schools in the Comodoro municipality worked together with educational consultants beginning in mid-2009 to reform their pedagogical concept so that it reflects the life situations of the pupils and their families.
"The kids now have fun again when they come to school, and that motivates the parents to get engaged with education," said Geraldo Magela de Paula, who teaches at a local school.
The experience of parents is used, and they are asked to help in schools. What the students learn in the projects that result from such collaboration helps them out later - as well as the community as a whole and the environment.
In this region, located far from Brazil's urban centers, there are large estate owners with cattle or soy farms that can be as massive as 40,000 hectares (ca. 100,000 acres). Alongside these huge properties, small-scale farmers and those formerly without land also have their own fields, thanks in part to a real estate reform in which they were promised 10-20 hectares each.
In order to survive, they have formed themselves into small collectives of farmers, called "glebas," and are trying to make the land arable.
Identifying with farm life
Ground erosion and dried-up water sources are the visible consequences of decades of monoculture practices that have made it difficult to cultivate crops in many places. Preserving natural resources like good soil, water and biodiversity preoccupies the small-scale farmers.
Beginning in the 1960s, citizen initiatives stemming chiefly from those without land, farmers, unions, left-leaning parties and followers of liberation theology have criticized developments in rural areas. They continue to demand wide-scale reforms that would help ease the social and ecological problems faced by rural residents.
Their movement inspired the Education in the Field concept, which draws on the work of Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire and has gained the support of the country's ministry of educational.
"We have seen that the students are more anchored in their reality by way of this project. They start to identify with their lives in the country, and their educational achievement is much better than before," said Joaquim Manoel da Silva, head of the Darcy Ribeiro public school.
Praise for a sustainable education model
Teacher Geraldo Magerio de Paula agrees. He radiates pride when he tells people that his school now belongs to the best in the district, which he attributes to the project. All of his pupils have passed their exams for continuing training programs.
"We don't have to be afraid of being compared with other schools in the country," he added.
Judite Goncalves de Albuquerque has worked with Education in the Field as a pedagogical consultant since the 1970s, and she would like to see the concept exported around the country.
"The staff trained in these techniques has a much deeper understanding of the problems in rural communities and can come up with better solutions for them," she said.
One former educational administrator in the district, Edilucia de Freitas, is convinced that the educational concept is the best alternative in order "to secure the survival of schools in rural areas," and that it leads to a long-term improvement in the quality of life of its residents.
And teacher Maria Jose Fernandes agrees, saying "there is no going back to the old school concept."
"That would be stagnation," she said, adding, "The new model is inspiring positive agitation in us and the desire to constantly keep learning, expanding our horizons, and giving our best."
Author: Julia Wegenast / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen