A talk with the author: "Bilingual education cannot be disconnected from intercultural education”

24 May 2021


Alexandre Laprise/Shutterstock
A teacher in Jesús de Machaca Municipality, Bolivia.

Enabling Latin America's indigenous populations to benefit from inclusive and quality education requires linguistically and culturally relevant educational provision – and enough qualified teachers. This goal is still far from being achieved, despite rather favourable educational policies. IIEP-UNESCO Buenos Aires recently published a comparative study on the training of indigenous teachers in four countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. Sylvia Schmelkes, co-author of the report, answers our questions. 

What trends do you observe in the field of indigenous teacher education policies? 

There are two very clear trends in Latin America. On the one hand, we see the integration of an intercultural approach in training programmes. This reflects a need to strengthen the local languages and cultures of indigenous communities. 

On the other hand, policies seek to improve the level of training of indigenous teachers. For a long time, many teachers improvised themselves, without any vocational or technical training, because they did not have the required level of education for the profession. Since the early 2000s, more indigenous students are completing secondary education and can therefore aspire to technical education courses and even higher education. These trends have been followed by public policy: the provision for indigenous teachers and the level required for entry have also gradually increased. 

What accounts for the shortage of trained indigenous teachers in Latin America?

With this trend towards higher educational attainment, there are few candidates for teaching careers. The outflow of indigenous teachers graduating from teacher training colleges, pedagogical institutes, or universities is insufficient for the needs of the labour markets. Because of the poor quality of education they themselves received in primary school, indigenous students’ progress more slowly, fail more exams, and are more likely to drop out. 

What strategies should be considered to bridge the gap?

There is no simple answer. The countries concerned need more comprehensive and implement long-term policies. On the one hand, primary education in indigenous communities needs to be strengthened. In-service teachers need to be provided with continuous training and professional development programmes.

Until we address the quality of primary education, we will continue to have a shortage of indigenous teachers. 

In addition, it is important to have language policies, linked to education policies. Many indigenous languages are not documented, or there is no consensus on alphabet or grammar. This is an obstacle for developing teaching materials or defining teacher training processes. Indigenous languages are not visible in the media or in public space. We believe that language policies should encourage the public use of these languages and promote written productions: books, technical and scientific texts, etc. If you are learning a language and there is nothing to read, that is obviously a problem. 

Policies should also prioritize the teaching of indigenous languages as a second language, as many indigenous communities already hardly speak their local language. Linguistic diversity is a richness for our continent: we need to preserve languages and strengthen them. To achieve this, bilingual education cannot be disconnected from intercultural education.

About the authors

Sylvia Schmelkes is a sociologist and educational researcher and is the academic vice-rector of the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, Mexico. She co-directed the comparative research on indigenous teacher training policies with Ana Daniela Ballesteros, also a researcher at the Ibero-American University.