Corrected: The headline of this story incorrectly states the frequency of the International Pedagogy Conference in Cuba. The conference is held every two years.
The themes discussed at Cuba’s eighth International Pedagogy Conference were almost as varied as the 40 countries that sent participants to this popular event.
Teachers from Chile to China talked about the influences of the mass media and pop culture on students. Participants debated the impact of an increasingly globalized economy on education. Others discussed literacy. Cubans touted their schools, and international accords were struck.
But, most of all, the 4,000 educators who attended the conference at the Havana International Conference Center last month came to share ideas about educating students in a rapidly changing world. And when they weren’t talking globally, they were encouraged to shop locally at a number of stands selling posters and shirts featuring Cuban political icons: the 20th-century guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara and the 19th-century writer- activist José Martí.
Though most of the attendees came from Latin America—including more than 1,000 educators from Mexico—about two dozen showed up from the United States, and others traveled from European countries, including France.
“Our people receive you with an open heart,” declared Cuba’s education minister, Luis I. Gómez Gutiérrez, in a speech kicking off the Feb. 3-7 event. He went on to invite conference-goers to visit Cuban schools and talk with children. “You here in Cuba are not strangers, but brothers in ideas.”
Seeking to reinforce its historical contacts with educators from other Latin American and Caribbean nations, Cuba convened the first congress on pedagogy in 1986, according to Margarita Quintero López, the secretary of this year’s conference-organizing committee.
“We were very pleased,” she said, noting that the attendance of roughly 3,000 educators at that first gathering was higher than organizers had expected.
Attendance peaked in 1993, at around 6,000, and the severe economic conditions in Argentina, Venezuela, and other Latin countries kept some participants away this year, she added.
Ms. López, a veteran teacher, also pointed out that, despite the U.S. trade and travel embargo against Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba, participants from the country’s neighbor to the north, mostly from universities, traditionally have attended. “They come, and we receive them with the same familiarity and solidarity that we receive educators from the rest of the world,” she said.
Although U.S. law permits American citizens to travel to Cuba for professional events, such as meetings, Ms. López suggested that if the travel laws were clearer, the United States might send more participants than any other nation.
Maybe. Then again, maybe not, said David Dorn, the director of international affairs for the American Federation of Teachers.
Although he acknowledges that the conference is one of the largest of its kind in Latin America and probably offers some sound content, he does not endorse a visit by anyone on behalf of the 1.2 million-member AFT.
“I do not see a benefit. Our reluctance is related to teacher unions. There are not trade-union rights [in Cuba],” he explained. “In the classic Communist society, they don’t allow anyone to organize unions.”
His own experience in Cuba is telling. On his second trip here five years ago, Mr. Dorn visited with political dissidents. He was subsequently detained for two days by government security personnel before being escorted to his departing flight.
Mr. Dorn, who hopes to return to Cuba one day, said he has encouraged teachers to visit the country and attend the international conference as tourists, rather than as union members.
The union official also attributes the popularity of the event, in part, to “political tourism” generated by the mystique of the Castro-led revolution.
But Andres Guerrero, an education program officer with UNICEF, which co-sponsored the event, says this particular conference, more than any other in Latin America, is geared toward teachers rather than policymakers.
Mr. Guerrero, who has attended two of the conferences, said they provide good opportunities to share, for example, the experiences of a Cuban health and school-readiness program for parents of young children.
“This is one of the top programs in Latin America,” he said. “It covers children’s families where there are no schools or nurseries.”
One of the reasons that Cuba is able to attract such a large gathering is that its schools enjoy a strong reputation regionally—and internationally. A 2001 report based on UNESCO data noted that Cuba’s 3rd and 4th graders outperformed their peers in the rest of the region in reading and mathematics. (HEADLINE, March 5, 2003.)
Indeed, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization chose Havana to host last year’s reunion of Latin American education secretaries to kick off a regional campaign to raise educational quality.
Cuban officials eagerly promote their country’s education record, and the importance Cuba places on learning. “We will never have too many teachers. None will be unemployed,” declared Minister Gutiérrez in his speech. “All are necessary in our society.”
Though there was general interest in visiting schools in Havana during last month’s conference, not everyone was impressed with some of the country’s latest school improvement strategies.
For instance, Cuba is preparing a new generation of teachers at the 7th, 8th, and 9th grade levels who will not teach specific subjects, but will be prepared as “integrated” teachers who can deliver instruction in several core subjects, beginning next fall. The purported advantage is that students will spend more time with fewer teachers.
“This would be a problem,” said Remedios Isabel Espejo, a secondary school teacher from Bolivia who shakes her head as she discusses the idea.
“We don’t all learn the same subjects. We are stronger at some subjects than others,” she said.
Taking a break after a busy day at the conference, a group of teachers from Mexico agreed that the hardest part about the conference was deciding which of the dozens of sessions to attend.
Options included sessions on re-establishing books and libraries in general culture, family outreach, teacher preparation, and indigenous cultures.
But the Mexican teachers also agreed that the theme of greatest interest to them was the development of students who are more disciplined and better school and community citizens.
“We want to know about teaching values, love, and how students should act outside of school,” one woman said. “There’s been a complete change since I was a student. We would say, ‘Good day’ to our teachers. Now, students say nothing.”
A frustrated friend chimed in: “We have seen this as a universal problem, from Brazil to China. Some blame the access to outside cultures.”
View From Within
Though he had announced that the conference was not about politics, Minister Gutiérrez used his speech to lambaste “neoliberalism,” a term used broadly to describe global free-trade policies, which he blamed for the growing debt of many Latin American countries and growing gaps between rich and poor children.
He also contended that such global economic forces as the United States are to blame for using the mass media to force their values on the rest of the world. “This all forms part of a strategy of domination and recolonialization of a new type and more dangerous,” he asserted.
Mr. Guerrero of UNICEF doubts that view of neoliberalism was widely shared by conference-goers. “I’m not sure if it is the same in the rest of the nations,” he said, “as it is in Cuba.”
Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.