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Prioritizing Basic Education and Global Competence: Papua New Guinea

 Before heading to Papua New Guinea to speak at the APEC High Level Policy Dialogue on Human Resource Development in the capital Port Moresby last month, my American peers asked me many things: Will you see natives with faces painted like skulls? Did you know they have the world's largest species of rat?  Isn't it one of the poorest countries in the world?


What I found is a country that, yes, is very poor and facing what may seem to be overwhelming challenges. But, despite these, Papua New Guinea is taking positive steps to address them, including a budget that is focused on the pillars of health, education, infrastructure development, and increased funding direct to the provinces.

And while the vision of dancing natives is what the country is known for, it should also be known for the fact that it is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with more than 800 languages spoken within its borders. It is also one of the most rural countries in world, separating people by vast mountains and water—there are over 600 outlying islands. As someone said to me, "it's like 800 countries in one." This is an asset that the government has recognized. Despite facing the huge challenge of providing education for all students, they are prioritizing an education infused with global competence. 

For many education systems, there is a common perception that a basic education must be offered first, before they can even begin thinking about integrating 21st century skills. Yet, making a quality 21st century education a pillar of an expanding system provides opportunities to leapfrog those that are still focused on outdated models (such as a narrow focus on academic knowledge and rote memorization) which result in limited dividends for their students and future workforce.

A Complex Set of Challenges
Now, I am by no means an expert on Papua New Guinea (PNG) after my short visit, but I did do some background research and had the chance to talk with people representing all walks of life: bus drivers, government officials, a lawyer who handles domestic abuse cases (a rampant issue in the country), a recently graduated university student, an expat business owner, and people who had moved from the provinces to the city looking for a job and a better way to live.

One recurring theme of these conversations is that jobs and government services—including education and health care—are in short supply and in some rural areas, extremely limited. Many people live in extreme poverty and the word corruption came up on more than one occasion. Yet Papua New Guinea is also a land rich in natural resources; development is improving the economy and leading to some infrastructure development, such as new roads around the capital. 

However, there has not been much investment in human resources, a challenge the government is looking to address through new education initiatives including an expansion of vocational education and training (VET—which I will cover in my next post). 

Educating for Global Competence
With development comes an increased interest in putting Papua New Guinea onto the world stage. In addition to the APEC dialogue on human resource development, which functioned as a practice run for 2018 when Papua New Guinea will be hosting numerous annual APEC meetings and the APEC ministerial convening, PNG is hosting the Pan Pacific Games this summer. In an era of globalization, the government is promoting some progressive ideas including global education and frameworks for responsible, sustainable development.

Nowhere is there a better argument for teaching global competency than Papua New Guinea due to the diversity within its borders and its aspirations to emerge on the world stage. Global competency has been recognized by the government and was clearly reflected in the priorities of the previous National Curriculum: culture and community, language, mathematics, personal development, and science. It stated, in part:

"The curriculum will prepare students who are more flexible for a changing world.... (its) principles are based on significant cultural, social, and educational values and beliefs such as: (i) bilingual education: education in vernaculars and English; (ii) citizenship: roles, rights, and responsibilities in society; (iii) law and order: good governance; and (iv) lifelong learning: applied learning. The National Curriculum is inclusive and designed to meet the needs of all students irrespective of their abilities, gender, geographic locations, cultural and language backgrounds, or their socio-economic backgrounds."

School in Papua New Guinea is not compulsory, but it is free. According to an interview with Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, published in the local paper, Post-Courier, while I was there, one of his proudest achievements is abolishing the school fees that were such a burden on his family when he was growing up. One effect of eliminating these fees is that more children, especially girls, are now able to go to school.

But it has also led to a huge shortage of teachers, lack of school buildings, and shortages of curricular resources. To his credit, the Prime Minister has acknowledged that the policy was not going as planned because the government was not delivering public services effectively and on time.

There were also issues with implementing the curriculum due to the difficulty of switching to an outcome-based approach with limited teacher training and resources (challenges also faced by Australia in trying to implement a similar pedagogy). However, the current curriculum maintains an emphasis on global education—for example elementary education has three focus areas: language, culture and community, and cultural mathematics.

As Papua New Guinea demonstrates, global competence is relevant to developing and developed countries alike. In recognition of this, the global education community has recently come together around a single set of goals that aim to accelerate progress in delivering quality education for all of the world's children and youth. Organizations such as A World at School, the Global Business Coalition for Education, and Business Backs Education are supporting universal access to a quality education that provides 21st century skills for employability and global citizenship.

Learn more about how to be involved in the #UpForSchools campaign.

Come back on Thursday to learn about the vocational education system in Papua New Guinea.

Follow Heather on Twitter.

Photo courtesy APEC.

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