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Graduate students explore education in Cuba

School of Education students take a break from walking to reflect on how their perspectives have changed with their new experiences in Cuba. Pictured here are, left to right: Arah Parker '21, Patricia Castro '15, '20, Camille Dang '20, Miranda Angeles '21, Paulo (a translator), Nader Karimi '19, Daniel Moya '19, Tanisha Romero '19, Professor Mikela Bjork, Daisy (the group's host), and Professor Brian Charest.

What can we learn from the Cuban educational system? A group of students from the University of Redlands School of Education recently spent two weeks probing this question during a study away trip to Cuba.

The School of Education hosts an array of international study away trips each year. Groups have traveled to China and Scotland to investigate clinical mental health counseling and New Zealand to learn about approaches to curricula by indigenous people, such as the Maori; the next trip will to the University of Redlands’ international campus in Salzburg, Austria.

These trips are an extension of the School of Education’s commitment to educational justice, according to Associate Dean Hideko Sera. “A proposal process relates each location to the School’s mission,” she says. “Our trips provide students and faculty with different perspectives on how social and educational justice are discussed outside of our comfort zones.”

The group visited the University of Havana to learn about academic life and see buildings that date back to the 1700s.

Over the course of this trip, graduate students examined culture and globalization through the lens of curriculum instruction and assessment, recognizing substantial differences between the U.S. and Cuban systems.

“I think educators in the U.S. stand to learn quite a bit from the way that Cubans approach schooling,” says Professor Brian Charest. “While there is a sense of competition within the Cuban education system, there’s far more emphasis placed on collaboration and support for all students.”

Students spent time talking about the assumptions they had before they arrived and how their perspectives changed with their new experiences, which, in addition to exploring schools and museums, included living with Cuban families. Students and faculty members alike were surprised to find that some of their assumptions had been incorrect.

One student, Tracee Auville-Parks ’21 was particularly intrigued by the sense of solidarity among Cubans. “Seeing people who don’t have many resources come together and work to help their community was incredible,” she says.

For Auville-Parks the biggest draw of the trip was the National Museum of the Literacy Campaign, which aims to educate visitors about Che Guevara’s efforts to spread literacy throughout the country. “As part of this campaign, volunteers were taught how to read and write and then were sent into villages and rural parts of the country,” she says. “In one year, over 700,000 people learned how to read. Since then, other countries have implemented such campaigns. It was amazing.”

In addition to visiting museums and government buildings, the group spent time in elementary school classrooms learning about student teachers in Cuba.

The group also spent time seeing the country’s teacher education system in action. Auville-Parks noticed that, unlike the system in the United States, student teachers in Cuba follow students from class to class. She hopes to implement a similar holistic approach in her work as a high school and college composition teacher.

“I’ve gotten to know a number of underserved students, so mentorship has become a large part of my job,” she says. “Some research shows that the relationships teachers build with students are often more important than the subject they’re teaching. Once students feel comfortable in the classroom, they can learn and grow more easily.”

For his part, Charest spent a large portion of the trip thinking about the challenges of education in Cuba. While all levels of school, including university, are free and open to everyone, he noticed that not everyone seemed to want to take advantage of the educational opportunities. Although there was no shortage of people seeking advanced degrees, those in Cuba’s rural farming communities were less convinced that higher education would do much for them.

This, he thinks, is in part due to the planned economy and the limits on private enterprise. Charest recalls that it seemed that many people did not want education for the sake of education—they wanted real economic opportunities. While he admires the idea of free education for all, Charest thinks that, without some kind of financial incentive, many people in Cuba did not take advantage of the education that was available.

Still, he found their approach to everyday life enlightening: “While everyone was poor compared to the standard in Western developed nations, everyone had access to food, housing, and healthcare,” he says. “When you compare Cuba to other developing countries, it seems to be doing quite well on many of the metrics related to health and well-being.”

Learn more about University of Redlands School of Education programs.