Rote Haitian Education – Not Necessarily As Bad As Thought

By Dr. Diane Hoffman, edited by Jim Luce

Leogane, Haiti. As the renowned anthropologist Melville Herskovits observed long ago, in Haiti, nothing is what it seems.  My most recent visit to the country proved, once again, how true that observation was.  I had the extraordinary opportunity to spend a few days in Haiti with a small team of International University Center Haiti Global Advisors, a group deeply committed to supporting the ongoing recovery efforts in post-earthquake Haiti.

An elementary student from Ecole la Rédemption in Léogâne, Haiti.


Thanks to the efforts of Jim Luce and his associate Evens Anozine, and the generosity of Headmaster M. Philippe Beauliere, following our group Trip #25, I had the good fortune to spend a few days observing our partner institution at Ecole la Rédemption, in Léogâne.  Rédemption instructs 600 children in grades one through ten.

Partly destroyed by the earthquake of January 12, 2010, it is amazing the school is mostly still standing.  Unlike many other structures in Haiti, It had been designed with such catastrophe in mind-and built with imported special-strength rebar and built to crack in the middle in the event of a quake, which it did – precluding collapse.

La Rédemption was the perfect place for me to try to put my anthropological training to good use.  Over two days, I was able to move freely around the school, observe classes, speak with Philippe as well as another teacher.

Headmaster Philippe Beauliere of Ecole la Rédemption orients me in Léogâne.

Philippe also took me to visit another school, a secondary school – a word with varying meanings in Haiti – where I also had the opportunity to sit in the open air yard, moving from class to class to observe students and teachers.

The mainstream critique of Haitian education is often repeated: authoritarian, teacher-centered classrooms, long on rote and short on critical thinking, dominated by harsh discipline that creates a passive mentality unaccustomed to debate, civil discourse, and democratic process.  Classrooms where the whip is as important as the chalkboard.  Classrooms where children’s humiliation by teachers is an ordinary event.

Although the school survived the quale, it was damaged. Classes continue in tents.

Entire aid industries—in Haiti and elsewhere—have been built on the premise that a primary reason nations such as Haiti remain “backward” is  because their educational systems are based on rote learning,  outdated methodologies that inhibit creativity and critical thinking, and dehumanizing practices that undermine respect and individual autonomy.

Yet, as I watched the classrooms in Léogâne, I began to question these assumptions.  I certainly can’t make any definitive claims based on a just a few days of observation in only two schools, so what I’m reporting is completely impressionistic.  Things of course vary considerably depending on the kind of school and its quality, and no doubt having an American observer around also probably had an effect.

The ubiquitous white shirts and blouses of Haitian students – despite the mud.

Nevertheless, my observations resonate with some of the more recent ethnographic research on schooling in other parts of the world.  What I’m going to do is suggest we take a step back from our received ideas about the “poverty” of education in Haiti.

This is not to say that there are not a lot of problems (there are, as I’ll indicate below), but to argue that we need to pay careful attention to the cultural environment  that shapes  teaching and learning before we jump to conclusions about the merit or value of particular approaches to education.

The majority of Rédemption students now live in refugee camps like this one next door.

Entering into the tree-shaded schoolyard where, since the quake, many of the lower-grade classrooms are still being conducted under tents and tarps, one is struck immediately by the noise level: from every direction children are engaged in some form of energetic oral recitation, often musical, that alternates with the equally energetic voices of teachers, who lead the students in these oral exercises.

Not only are the students actively engaged in reciting, they are physically engaged as well.  They sway or lean into each other as they sit on crowded benches; in one class I saw, the children stood, jutting their hips left, right, front, back, along with their teacher, as they all recited together.

The teachers, too, were constantly moving: they moved up and down the rows of students on benches, sometimes they sat on the benches next to students, and they often moved among the students to give students immediate one-on-one assistance with solving problems or with correcting their written expression.

The beauty of Haiti and its people, despite everything, never ceases to amaze me.

In another class I saw, students were called one by one to come up in front of the class to face the teacher directly while responding to the teacher’s questions; students had to perform not only for the teacher but in front of the whole class. (Nowadays, the only place in the U.S. that I can think of that places a similar emphasis on student oral performance is Law or Business School).

In fact, I had a hard time trying to reconcile the critique of Haitian education as a dully rote, teacher-centered enterprise lacking attention to the individual learner, with the high levels of energy and the focused, individualized attention teachers gave to students in these classes, as they moved around and through the children’s spaces modeling and offering correction.

Some might say that this corporeality characterizes education in the lower grades, but disappears as children enter secondary school, but in fact I noticed that the same corporeality infused the secondary classes as well, where there was still some choral recitation (albeit to a lesser degree), an a similar bodily based pedagogy.

School yard of Ecole la Rédemption, partner to International University Center Haiti.

What this did was challenge the assumed opposition between “teacher centered”/”didactic” and child-centered/individualized- a tension of almost biblical proportions that underlies much of the progressive critique of education in the third world by those  educated in the first.

It also reflects uncannily on some of the more “cutting edge” ideas percolating in the educational world–one of which is the importance of attention to embodiment as a core dimension of learning– an idea  pushed aside by the overly cognitive bias of modern Western psychology that has for so long dominated the field of professional education.  It seems that the Haitians (along with many of their “resource poor” peers in other parts of the world) knew this all along.

It is true that students’ attention was focused on the teacher and that exchanges were larger between teachers and students, with little student to student interaction.  I didn’t see teachers putting students into groups, or asking them to engage in discussions where they had to respond to each other.


Philippe, talking to me afterward about a class he had taught that I had observed that morning, mentioned as much to me, saying ideally he would have liked to get them to engage with each other. Still, his focus was on how asking questions can help one to understand and summarize a text.

I had a chance to talk with another teacher at the school who taught an “Arts and Culture” class.  Not required by the national course of study set by the Ministry of Education – which all schools in Haiti, public or private, must follow – it was an innovation introduced to La Rédemption by M. Philippe.  He saw this class as a way to strengthen the minds of students – to encourage problem solving and higher order thinking.

At present this particular teacher, a chess and calligraphy expert, moves among three different schools to offer his classes.  Prior to the quake, he informed me, he used to teach at five different schools.  He also has a thriving chess club that has travelled to the Dominican Republic for competitions, and won a number of prizes.


While thinking about these conversations, I wandered up to the second floor of the building, through classrooms now largely empty, save for their green chalkboards still covered with lessons and a few pieces of dust-covered broken furniture lying here and there.  In one classroom,  I noticed a faded, hand-written sign still clinging to a wall:

On ne peut faire boire un ane qui n’a pas soif.

Enseigner, c’est aimer.  Tout le monde enseigne–les parents qui elevent leurs enfants.  Les employers qui forment leurs employes. Les moniteurs qui entrainent une equipe. Les epoux qui s’enrichissent mutuellement, et bien sur les enseignants, tous communiquent des connaissances.

Rough translation: You can lead a donkey to a well but you can’t make it drink (literally, “One can’t make a donkey drink if it isn’t thirsty”).

To teach is to love.  Everyone teaches: Parents who raise their children.  Employers who train their employees.  Coaches who train their teams. Spouses who mutually enrich each other, and of course, teachers.  All share knowledge.

There was such truth there, a truth that meshed well with the high level of enthusiasm among all the students I saw.  The students were definitely thirsty.  The girls with their improbably spotless white blouses, which, given the mud that is everywhere in Haiti when it rains, must be read as a definitive statement of the intensity of effort and dedication that going to school entails.  I wondered, how much effort must it take, daily, to keep them looking so perfectly white?

The author with a few of her new friends in Léogâne, epicenter of Haiti’s earthquake.

The white shirts and blouses also symbolize, perhaps, the elevating power of education itself, the faith that through education one can escape the downward pull of poverty, the grit and grime of the ordinary world, and reach a higher level.

More than that, this sign evoked a vision of education as broad and deep as any I’ve encountered elsewhere.  If Haitian education is so narrow and limiting, how is it that, at least at Rédemption, there are teachers whose vision of education is so all encompassing?  If one looks, indeed, one can see a lot more to Haiti and its schools than meets the eye.

Photos by Mike Davis, Jim Luce and Cenat Esperandieu.

Diane M. Hoffman, Ph.D.  

Diane M. Hoffman, Ph.D. Diane is an associate professor of anthropology of education and international comparative education at the University of Virginia, Curry School of Education.  Trained as an anthropologist at Stanford University, with a Bachelor’s degree in French from Brown University and a Master’s degree in Teaching from Brown, she has published widely in the academic field on topics related to cultural identity in schooling, immigrant educational experience and multiculturalism, cultural contexts of early childhood teaching and learning, cultures of parenting, and globalization of educational ideologies.  She studied and taught English in France, wrote her dissertation on Iranian immigrants in the United States, and did post-doctoral research in Japan and Korea.  Since 2007, she has been doing research on Haitian education, families, and children, and has been traveling to Haiti to try to gain a better understanding of the culture and to find new ways to understand the experiences of Haitian children, especially street-children and working children, who have little access to formal education.  Most recently she has published two scholarly articles focusing on how children and Haitian culture are represented in the international media and advocacy literature.  She is currently working on an ethnographic project focusing specifically on the perspectives of working children and youth, and how their experiences are shaped by kinship patterns, culturally situated understandings of education and childrearing, and religion/spirituality.  She hopes through this research to contribute to the great educational needs of the country, including improved teacher training, as well as to developing innovative ways to address the educational needs of orphans, restavek, and street children.  She is Global Advisor to the International University Center Haiti in Léogâne.

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