Bernard van Leer study highlights educational improvements for indigenous children in Guatemala


Alliance magazine


Over the past 50 years, The Bernard van Leer Foundation has invested over half a billion dollars to benefit early childhood development around the world. Bernard van Leer commissioned journalists to write a series of six case studies discussing the organisation’s impact. Each article focuses on a country where the Foundation was once active, but no longer has a strong presence in, highlighting the work of funded partner organisations.

Small but mighty: The incredible story of the women who made sure Guatemala’s educational system didn’t leave the nation’s indigenous children behind by Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is among the articles in this series. ‘This case looks back at the [Bernard van Leer] Foundation’s funding for APPEDIBIMI (the Association for Holistic and Multidisciplinary Development) between 1990 and 2008, and its work to improve the prospects of children from highly marginalised indigenous communities in Guatemala through a child-centred, play-based pedagogy.’

Language acts as a crucial component of educational prosperity. Utilising a child’s home language in his or her first formal educational environment plays an important role in priming successful learning. For indigenous children, this mismatch of language spoken in their home and school environments can cause difficult barriers to overcome. Margarita de Paz, a bilingual early educator for APPEDIBIMI, reflects on her experience as an indigenous student:  ‘In those days, despite the fact that Guatemala’s various indigenous people comprised half of the population, teachers were mainly of mestizo (mixed) heritage, raised and educated in cities, and then assigned posts in the country’s rural areas without any training or preparation for the local customs, language or traditions they would encounter.’

‘De Paz and 40 other indigenous Ixil and K’iche people were trained to be bilingual early educators with a child-centred, play-based pedagogical approach. The effort was led by a group of Ixil who today comprise the organisation APPEDIBIMI,’ Friedman-Rudovsky reports. ‘APPEDIBIMI also started two pre-kindergarten educational centres based on these models of child development. On the day de Paz and I met, I watched her lead a class of a dozen Ixil 4 and 5 year olds over the course of one morning… When de Paz gave them instructions, she spoke in their shared native tongue; the part of the class during which she used Spanish was a call and response exercise that felt like a learning opportunity in and of itself. Throughout the morning, she would also initiate short, one-on-one casual conversations with her students in Spanish to encourage them to start using the language for conversation as well.’

On top of APPEDIBIMI’s direct influence teaching indigenous students, the organisation has played a pivotal role in Guatemalan policy change. As a part of Guatemala’s Educational Reform package, the National Basic Curriculum now includes some of APPEDIBIMI’s teaching methods. A bilingual training regimen for teachers has been established, and ‘full-salaried teaching posts’ for the 40 teachers have been identified by the Ministry of Education. Author Friendman-Rudovsky reflects, ‘Their impressive impact came from a unique combination of humility, tenacity and a deep commitment to a set of principles – and, perhaps most importantly, from their strategic vision and the awareness that they needed to pursue more than one path to reach their end goals.’

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