Where the Priests Teach Evolution—the State of Education in Darwin's Lab


US teachers in the Galapagos classroom. Photo by Pete Oxford
The Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly one of the most unique ecological sites in the world—Darwin could've told you that. And he did. But the legacy he began in biological education has found a strange place in the land that first inspired him.

"The priests here teach evolution in church," our tour guide tells us at the visitor's center on San Cristobal, Galapagos' capitol island. And if that sounds like a bizarre and complex situation in itself, just wait until you hear about the state of general education on the Galapagos Islands.
Yesterday, 30 of the top secondary school teachers from the US met with the Galapagos Board of Education to discuss the future of education in Galapagos. They mostly discussed REIG—the Reforming Education in Galapagos effort. The event was put together as part of the Toyota International Teacher Program, and it fostered a curious exchange between the two foreign groups.

The Board outlined their initiatives in the reform program—they want to start teaching English in 1st Grade, work towards a higher quality of life for Galapagos residents, teach them about environmental stewardship, and find more progressive ways to present students with post high school-educations. The latter is a huge problem, since there are very few options for the students on Galapagos. There's no easy way to get them into colleges, since Galapagos only has one tiny university, the University of San Francisco-Quito. And there are extremely few options for students to enter a professional workforce—most of that revolves around tourism.

Survival of the Fittest Doesn't Apply
Tourism in Galapagos is by far the islands biggest industry—if it weren't for a few organic exports, it'd be the only industry. And yet, the Director of the Board of Education says that they see about "0.0 percent" of the money from tourism taxes and profits. Instead, they receive only the typical amount of funding for Ecuadorian public school systems, and subsist on charity from institutions like the Charles Darwin Foundation. Thus, they lack supplies, textbooks, and access to modern technology—the media lab I visited in one high school had a single computer with no internet, and the seats were plastic lawn chairs.

A quick recap: Tourism drives the economic world of Galapagos. No money from tourism goes to the education of Galapagos' youth. The Galapagos youth are then either unable to learn adequately about the vital ecology that not only sustains a vast amount of diverse life, but their own social and economic world.

A complex and bizarre situation indeed.

The Board was unable to offer specifics about their reform vision, or details on actual initiatives in support of it. According to a source close to the island's workings, English has not yet been implemented in 1st grade lesson plans.

Hope for Education in Galapagos
The next day, the teachers went to different secondary schools across the island, and each taught a class to the local Galapaguenos. The event seemed successful, and most of the teachers returned inspired to continue a dialogue with the classes and school districts once they return to the states. Tom Flanagan, a science teacher from Chicago, had already made arrangements and exchanged contact information with the school. He was genuinely enthused, and spoke vehemently about implementing a communication between the schools into an online ecological study programs.

Of course, that alone won't be enough. The islands are going to need an invigorated leadership, more general funding, and a defined, unified vision if standards are to improve in the Galapagos. And let's hope they do—without a base education of their pristine home, the next generation may grow up without the knowledge of how to protect it from further human threats. And that's knowledge they're going to need if Galapagos is going to survive intact as the natural wonder that it is.

30 of the top teachers in the US are making a trek from the Florida Everglades to the Galapagos Islands in order to engage a series of global conservation issues in the Toyota International Teacher Program. I'm traveling alongside the educators to report on what we discover about the threats and wonders of modern day Galapagos.

Tags: Conservation | Ecuador | Endangered Species | Galapagos | Tourism

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