Primary education

Iskay Yachay – two kinds of knowledge

In the Andes of Peru, village communities are making sure children do not only learn about urban norms and cultures in primary school, but also about their own rural environment and traditions. By promoting this approach, PRATEC, a non-governmental organisation, is helping to improve educational results.

[ By Grimaldo Rengifo ]

For years, Amerindian farmers in Peru would send their children to school “so they do not end up like us”. A common saying went: “If you don’t get math, you will wind up standing in the field with a hoe and machete.” For decades, official proponents of “development” linked education in the Andes to cultural homogeneity. They promised that school would allow people to climb to a higher rung on the social ladder – and migrate to cities. Village schools played a crucial role in disseminating this ideology, with teachers often considered “agents of progress”.

But in the 1980s, hopes were dashed. A vicious circle of economic, ecological and societal crises set in. Only very few people made the rags-to-riches dream come true. Instead, economic exclusion and a loss of cultural identity made themselves felt in everyday rural life.

By the end of the 1990s, rural people and independent organisations based in the countryside began to reconsider things. Development was understood in terms of subsistence agriculture, with an emphasis on community forms of mutual assistance. Local knowledge and expertise were appreciated once more. Protective community networks, in this view, matter more than vague promises of progress.

What parents want

As a result, ideas about what basic education should provide began to change too. Research in the past ten years has shown that a majority of pupils in the Andes leave elementary school without a minimum of cognitive and non-cognitive abilities. In general, Peruvian children finish elementary school without really understanding the texts that they can read letter for letter. The reasons include monocultural textbooks, poorly trained teachers and curricula that are disconnected from the local culture and Andean peoples’ languages.

Surveys conducted by PRATEC (Proyecto Andino de Tecnologias Campesinas, the Andean Project for Peasant Technologies), a non-governmental organisation, have revealed what parents think about village schools. Typical statements are:
– “Our children finish school without really being able to read and write Spanish.”
– “They lose respect for our culture.”
– “They will never find a job that will put food on the table.”
– “Instead of learning something useful, our children have forgotten many important things, such as respect for the elderly and their connection to Mother Earth.”
– “They are ashamed of speaking their mother tongue and taking part in community activities.”

This is where PRATEC’s approach fits in. Its work in six Peruvian regions in the Andes is based on support to and from local NGOs. In a first phase, from 2000 to 2004, a campaign was launched at 30 village schools to promote agrobiological diversity and ensure that communities can feed themselves.

Thanks to a reform in 2002, each school in Peru can incorporate local knowledge in 30 % of the subjects it teaches locally. Schools are using this leeway, and some have started creating their own teaching materials. Guided by PRATEC and, to some extent, in cooperation with educational authorities, discussion groups were established at a number of schools to systematically share and assess experience.

Even teachers who initially were sceptical about PRATEC’s approach soon recognised the benefits of school gardens, fairs devoted to seeds and herbal medicine, weaving or pottery courses. The pupils felt they were being taken seriously – and, in turn, began taking their courses more seriously too. Relations between teachers and pupils improved, as did the overall teaching atmosphere – not to mention performance.

At the end of the first project phase, a new concept had taken shape: Iskay Yachay, which means “two kinds of knowledge” in Quechua. The Aymara term Paya Yatiwi is also used. “Two kinds of knowledge” is about switching from monocultural to multicultural education. In school classes, local knowledge is considered equivalent to Western knowledge; the one does not discriminate against or substitute for the other.

Iskay Yachay goes far beyond mere bilingual approaches, such as Peru’s well-known Educación Bilingüe Intercultural. Such programmes basically instrumentalise local cultures in order to teach “modern” subjects more effectively. The village elders criticise such approaches for failing to respect the values and mores of indigenous traditions.

The new concept not only aims to teach two languages, but also the philosophies and lifestyles behind them. The guiding principle is that schools should provide children with an understanding of their immediate environment as well as means to earn a living. Three aspects, in particular, matter to parents:
– respect for older people,
– literacy as well as numeracy and
– the ability to perform practical tasks of village life.

In the long term, even more is at stake: reconciliation between schools and communities. Education can help solve three conflicts that regularly occur:
– tensions between generations,
– the loss of biodiversity and communities’ ability to feed themselves and
– “religious” tensions between evangelical sects and Andean cosmovision.

These issues were addressed in a second project phase from 2005 to 2007. This time, 49 village schools with more than 1,400 pupils and 150 teachers were involved.

Biological diversity

Traditional survival strategies are based on cultivating a great diversity of plants. The “green revolution”, however, led to a dramatic reduction of diversity among Andean food crops: potatoes, corn, quinoa, kiwicha, oca, olluco, and tarwi. In this mountainous region, with many different climates and topographies, farmers traditionally used a great variety of every species. If the harvest from one type failed, that shortfall was compensated for from the harvest of other types.

This principle is now once again being applied in school and family gardens. This goes along with greater appreciation of traditional rituals intended to ensure a good harvest and instil a sense of respect for Mother Earth in young people. Each locally defined school curriculum takes account of local cooking and eating habits. Increasingly, products provided through state programmes – such as lard, powdered milk, and wheat flour – are done without.

Input from elderly, knowledgeable men and women who are familiar with nature (herbs, for instance) has improved respect between generations. Children are no longer ashamed to wear traditional clothes and speak their mother tongue. And they happily and respectfully greet the elderly again.

Reading and writing

Parents also place great store on modern cultural abilities like reading and writing. They know that their children will need to read and write Spanish if they want to take part in modern urban society. Moreover, literacy in Spanish is necessary to cope with other school subjects.
One reason why many Peruvian children do not learn better Spanish is that the schoolbooks do not relate to the world they live in. Textbooks normally have nothing to do with rural affairs. Moreover, teachers often lack the competence to design their own teaching materials and thus do not make full use of the liberty granted to schools in the reform of 2002. Many village schools need multilingual, better-trained teachers.

In cooperation with the Tingo Maria A&M University, PRATEC therefore started a graduate studies one-year programme called Intercultural Education and Sustainable Development. Ten teachers from each district PRATEC is active in took part in the first round. They then created study groups at home with colleagues who wished to pay more attention to local culture. Today, six local study groups have a total of more than 100 members. These people constitute an important foundation for future work. Some of the teachers got state fellowships.

A valuable item that resulted from the dialogue between villagers and schools is the “cultural agrofestive calendar”. It brings the curriculum in line with
– astronomical-climatic events,
– the main agricultural activities, and
– related village festivals.

This calendar fosters a greater sense of community. Today, no child has to miss school anymore in order to help its parents cope with the harvest. Evaluations and assessments conducted by PRATEC and terre des homes, a charity based in Germany that supports the initiative, show that children who receive Iskay Yachay teaching understand all issues better – and get better grades.

Useful skills

The third thing that parents want is for the subjects taught in class to be practical. They complain that conventional schools overemphasise cognitive abilities. In villagers’ experience, knowledge does not only reside in heads, but also in hands. Elderly men and women can generally perform several crafts. In addition to agricultural or household tasks, their traditional skills include weaving, pottery, dyeing et cetera. In addition, almost all of them can play an instrument, dance and sing.

For young people, that no longer holds true, even if they graduate from elementary school. Iskay Yachay addresses this issue. In the last project year, diversified local curricula were drawn up for all 49 elementary schools. Grandparents, parents and teachers created 127 leaflets explaining and documenting traditional skills and crafts.

Iskay Yachay boosts the confidence of communities, children and teachers. The acceptance and even the appreciation of school have grown. Multilingual materials are useful, and their high quality and originality are recognised (two videos have won international prizes). State authorities and other NGOs specialising in intercultural education in the central Andean area, including Ecuador and Bolivia, have taken note and are showing a growing interest in the concept of “two kinds of knowledge” and PRATEC’s experience.

Involving regional representatives of the Education Ministry (PER), some regions (San Martín, Ayacucho, Cusco and Puno) have launched curricula reforms. In the long run, the goal is to have inclusive, pluralistic education and a participatory curriculum adapted to multifarious local needs. Schoolbooks designed and printed in Peru are to become the rule, and teachers are to receive better advanced training.

The Iskay Yachay concept is also drawing interest and support from the neighbouring countries Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and northern Argentina via regional networks, publications, and training sessions. UNESCO's Local and Indigenous Knowledge System ( is also disseminating PRATEC's concepts and project experience beyond the Spanish-speaking world.

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