Fishing, Cycling and Functional Education

By Dr Neil Parker

You’ve heard the saying, “Give a person a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” Desmond Tutu is quoted as adding to the saying, “Teach a man to cycle and he will realize fishing is stupid and boring.”  Which is quite beside the point I want to make.  That is, teaching a person to fish doesn’t go far enough.  The process of enquiry, of learning, of learning to learn, of problem solving, is much more important than teaching a single skill.  

When people learn to learn, they can master the art of bicycle riding as well as the skill of fishing.  This is the basis of Symbiosis’ passion for Functional Education.  Sure reading, writing and numeracy are included, which in themselves help people problem solve. But beyond this, the discussions included in the group sessions help people explore their place in society, the issues that confront them, and ways they can address these issues.  People become aware of the structures that oppress them.  The relationships built through the group process empowers members to problem solve ways to address the oppression and disadvantage they face.

Another twist on the fishing quote is:

‘ “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” ‘  (Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood) 

Functional Education groups graduate to become savings groups.  Group members take loans so they can buy the ‘rod’, or whatever is needed for income generation.  Income not only feeds the family but enables children to continue in education. We are passionate about Functional Education because it empowers.

About the Author: Dr Neil Parker is currently Chair of the Symbiosis Board and has supported Symbiosis since it began in 1993.  He spent 13 years living in Bangladesh with his family.  He worked as a clinician in a village hospital and then established a primary health care program which included functional education and agriculture extension alongside village health work.

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