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COMMENTARY

Folk knowledge and MLE

UP HISTORIAN Dante L. Ambrosio recently passed away and left us a monumental study on Philippine ethno-astronomy—the knowledge, ideas, beliefs and lore of the country’s ethnic groups about the heavenly bodies.

In his book, “Balatik,” Ambrosio demonstrated the richness, breadth and depth of this traditional wisdom. He showed that not only the Tagalogs, Bisayans and Ilocanos contemplated about the sky and its meanings, but so did the Blaans, Maguindanaons, Ifugaos, Tedurays, Jama Mapuns, Kankanaeys, Bukidnons, Kalingas, Tagbanwas, Bontoc Igorots and other marginalized groups.

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Balatik (and its variants Baatik, Bayatik, Belatik, Blatik) is the indigenous term for the constellation Orion. It is the most prominent asterism or star group in the Philippines. While western tradition sees an agent (a hunter with a belt and a sword), our ancestors imagine a spear trap for catching wild pigs.

A nearby asterism consisting of six or seven bright stars is called Moroporo or Molopolo (Pleiades). To the Bukidnons, the star group is the hunting ground of mythical hero Magbangal. Out there lies the remains of the jawbone (Baka or Hyades) of the wild pig he just killed. To the Teduray, the hunter is known as Seretar (Orion), while the flies swarming over the pig’s remains are called Kufukufu (Pleiades). To the Palawanos, what they see is a pile of camote about to be snatched by the pig’s jaws (Sangat at bjak or Hyades).

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According to Ambrosio, Balatik and other projections played a very important role in traditional agriculture. Their appearance and location in the sky at various times of the year signaled when clearing, plowing, planting and other agricultural activities should be done.

It is this type of knowledge, its usefulness and correctness that continue to be invalidated by our schools, as the late Dr. Malou Doronila rightly observed. Her now classic example is the “adding on” method that characterizes transactions in the public market. She explained the method thus: If the cost of the item is P10.50 and the buyer gives a P20-bill, the seller hands the exact change by counting aloud, starting with the item’s cost—“ten-fifty”; the seller then gives 50 centavos and counts “eleven” and proceeds to give the bills [now one-peso coins) one by one—“twelve,” “thirteen,” up to 20.

Doronila said that school mathematics promotes the written method of computing (P20 minus P10.50 equals P9.50) as the only valid method, and disregards the oral adding-on method as an equally acceptable computational tool.

In a way, this reminds us that the new Department of Education policy of mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) means reinventing a curriculum that is not only cognitively challenging to learners but also culturally relevant and inclusive, one that can create a space for Western science and the community knowledge that we have been talking about.

Two weeks ago, I was invited by MTB-MLE national coordinator Rosalina Villaneza to speak in six different places throughout the country. The occasion was the regional training workshops for Grade 1 teachers who will be implementing MTB-MLE in their respective pioneer schools this school year. I spoke to them about the 21 reasons why children learn better using the mother tongue and how Philippine languages are similar and different from each other.

The remarkable thing about these training events was the overwhelming enthusiasm and dedication of the teachers, mostly in their 20s and early 30s, in producing primers, alphabet books, big books, small books and lesson exemplars in their own languages. Never before in our education history have I seen production of educational materials in native languages attempted in such a scale.

In one of the lectures, I had occasion to meet again Isidro Pandan, a Blaan I interviewed several years ago when I was doing research in South Cotabato for my doctoral dissertation. He is now an elementary school teacher in a far-flung barangay with no electricity.

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I still remember the story, “Why the Python Lost Its Poison,” he told me. Once upon a time, the python was the most poisonous of all the snakes, but he was also the vainest. One day, after biting a woman who was bathing by the river, the python told the crow to go to the woman’s house to make sure that she had indeed died. The crow saw a wake in her house but he reported to the python that the woman was alive and well. Upon hearing this, the python became so depressed that he decided to give out all his poison to the other animals in the forest. Those who arrived early (like the king cobra) were able to get the biggest share of the poison; those who came late (like the ant) was only got a small dose. That was how the python lost its poison.

As Ambrosio and Doronila advised us, there is much to learn about our past and our heritage from our country’s communities. In promoting such knowledge in formal education, we also uphold their right to exist, their right to reproduce their language, and their right to practice their own culture.

Ricardo Ma. Duran Nolasco, PhD (rnolasco_upmin @yahoo.com) is an associate professor in linguistics in UP Diliman and the MLE adviser for the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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