Monday, October 18, 2010

Heroes

This was my column on the date indicated above.

Eleven years ago, a couple—each with a doctoral degree in physics —left very promising careers at the University of the Philippines to settle down at a fourth class municipality in the Province of Bohol to resuscitate an old, crumbling high school. They gave up their statures as eminent physicists in the National Institute of Physics so that they could teach students from remote barrios. They turned away from very high profile jobs as heads of the country’s foremost center of learning for physics to live in a town with no nightlife, or even a fast food restaurant.

At a time when a modicum of academic credentials and some teaching experience could be easily parlayed into a ticket to a very high-paying job abroad, the couple’s decision to not only stay in the country but worse, to relocate to an unheard of remote town in the middle of the one of the least developed provinces in the country struck many as foolhardy. I must hasten to add, though, that Bohol happens to be one of the most idyllic provinces in the country not to mention being home to probably the friendliest, most trustworthy people in the country.

But that was exactly what Christopher Bernido and his wife Maria Victoria Carpio Bernido did more than ten years ago. To the surprise of their friends, the couple packed their bags, left the modern-world comforts of Metro Manila, and relocated to the town of Jagna, Bohol to start all over again. Their initial challenge was to save the Central Visayan Institute Foundation, a school owned and managed at that time by Christopher’s aging mother. The school was a family enterprise founded by his grandfather. The Bernidos chose to ignore well-intentioned advice from relatives and friends for them to foreclose the struggling school. Instead, they transformed the school into a laboratory for ideas that would, in a few years’ time, make a major impact on the educational system of the country and win for them the coveted Magsaysay Awards.

The Bernidos were the keynote speakers of the annual conference of the People Management Association of the Philippines held last week in Cebu City. As chairperson of the conference, I had the wonderful opportunity of interacting with them first in a series of exchanges through email and by cellphone months prior to the conference, and in person last week.

This I can say with absolute faith and conviction: I don’t think I have ever met any other couple as admirable as the Bernidos. If only this country had more leaders in politics and in other fields possessed with just even half of the quiet brilliance, the vision, the humility, and more important of all, the passion and commitment to really do something for the country—then we definitely stand a very good chance of being a truly great nation once again. There is a part of me that wants to launch a campaign to make Christopher Bernido the next president of the Republic of the Philippines, but I know that politics corrupts even the most virtuous so I think it is best that the couple be allowed to do what they do best, which is revolutionize the educational system in the country. Besides, not everyone has to be a politician to make a difference although I must grant that politics offers a platform unparalleled in terms of mass impact.

According to Marivic, they were drawn to each other because of a common desire to contribute to nation building. Their decision to move to Jagna, Bohol, was also prompted by their desire to experience first-hand the problems of the Philippine educational system and be able to formulate solutions while immersed in the real world rather than while perched at some ivory tower. In short, they were thinking like physicists who draw conclusions only from facts and hard data.

The Bernidos did something, which many other people could hopefully learn from. Unlike others who attempt to propose grandiose solutions to complicated problems beyond their comprehension, the Bernidos chose to begin within their sphere of expertise: Physics and education. They noted that the problems of the educational system required systemic solutions rather than piece-meal efforts that were costly and produced dubious results. For instance, they lamented the fact that the system continued to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid on scholarships for science and math teachers most of whom ended up working in other countries eventually! The net result, they said, was that the country continued paying off the loans spent on developing skills that were already out of the country and being harnessed by other countries.

But surely we need qualified, topnotch teachers to teach physics, chemistry, etc? According to empirical data painstakingly put together by the Bernidos based on their experience at the CVIF and from the pilot runs of the dynamic learning program that they conceptualized, not necessarily so. In fact, it is their contention that even physical education teachers can teach physics provided they followed a methodology and a technology that essentially taught students how to learn. Of course, the strategy also allowed for parallel skills acquisition for the teacher.

The Bernidos shot to national prominence last August when they got chosen as recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, considered the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. They were also picked as recipients of the Gawad Haydee Yorac last year. Both prizes underscored a most significant point that the Bernidos have proved through their ingenuity, hard work and tenacity: Achieving quality education is possible even with lack of resources. This point is important to highlight because the general paradigm operating today, particularly among politicians, is that we need large amounts of money to revolutionize the educational system.

The Bernidos have shown that there is no substitute for thinking and for scientific rigor. They conceptualized a learning strategy that is based on what is generally referred to as “learner-centered” philosophy and developed workbooks and all kinds of materials to implement the strategy. Their learning strategy is anchored on the principle that learners are not “taught” but are enabled to learn. In short, the most important goal for teachers is to teach their learners how to learn on their own. This paradigm actually makes sense particularly when we realize that most teachers merely require students to function like automatons and regurgitate facts and data that students may not even understand at all.

At the CVIF, students spend 70 percent of their school time working on exercises and applications. Lectures by teachers comprise only 30 percent of the syllabus. Most of the exercises are writing activities, which sharpen communication skills, reasoning, and even conceptual thinking.

The best proof of success is the fact that the students at CVIF have been among the top performers in the country. The Bernidos have replicated their success in Bohol by designing Learning Physics as One Nation—a program that is now being piloted in 200 high schools around the country. The program is now yielding positive results. Hopefully, the learning strategy can also be replicated for other subjects.

I join the many, many people who salute the Bernidos for making a difference in this country. May their tribe increase!

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