A Creole Solution for Haiti’s Woes

The New York Times – The Opinion Pages

By Michel DeGraff and Molly Ruggles

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — IN a classroom in Port-au-Prince, Chantou, 9, sits silently at her desk. Nervously watching the teacher, she hopes to be invisible. Like most of her 60 classmates, she understands little of the French from the lecture. But if her memorized lesson is not recited with perfect pronunciation and grammar, she may be ridiculed or punished by her teacher.

In a classroom on La Gonâve island, two 9-year-olds, Kelson and Dieuricame, hover over a computer, excitedly playing a math game. Chatting away in their native Haitian Creole (spelled Kreyòl in Haiti), they experiment together and solve problems. When the teacher announces the end of class, they ask, “May we come back later for more?”

The contrast between these two learning environments illustrates a fundamental challenge in Haitian education, one that implicates language and pedagogy, and has contributed to Haiti’s extreme poverty: The authoritarian French model, which makes children struggle to learn in a language they do not speak, still prevails over an alternative model, in which children build skills through active learning in their native Creole.

Creole evolved in the 17th century out of contact among varieties of French and West African languages. Most Creole words have their origins in French, but the languages have distinct grammatical structures and sound patterns; even when their words sound alike, they often have different meanings. Using French to teach Creole speakers, in short, is like using Latin to teach French speakers.

Under the 1987 Constitution, adopted after the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship, Creole and French have been the two official languages. But at least 95 percent of the population speaks only Creole. For the past two centuries, most communications in government, white-collar business, media and education have been in French. The preference for French has been internalized even by those who have no opportunity to learn the language. Such attitudes have started to change, but too slowly.

When children start school, they are forced to study in French, although there is no pedagogical support for this abrupt transition. As documented in a 2012 government report, most students resort to memorizing letters and sounds without understanding, and end up with low levels of literacy.

Happily, the government of President Michel Martelly, who ran on a platform of universal, free, compulsory education and took office in 2011, has increased access to primary education to 88 percent — up from 47 percent in 1993 and ahead of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. The next hurdle is language. Study after study highlights the importance of using native language to establish the foundations of literacy, numeracy and basic scientific knowledge, with which other academic domains, including the study of French, can be pursued.

A collaborative initiative between M.I.T. and Haiti has produced a collection of Creole resources for science and math. In teacher-training workshops, one teacher told us, “When we teach in Creole, the students ask more questions.” And from a student, “The advantage of learning in Creole is that it is more explicit; it allows us to see more clearly.” At a June 2014 workshop, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, other officials and M.I.T. faculty members explored the challenges and opportunities facing Haiti with the sophistication and nuance that such a meeting demands: All of the materials were written in Creole.

Creole’s exile from Haitian education is tied to Haiti’s colonial past. Haiti won its independence from France in 1803 after a historic revolution, becoming the first republic governed by formerly enslaved people of African descent. Yet its European legacy is still valued more highly than the African and Creole ingredients of its culture. “What influence can Haiti ever have with its Creole?” the poet Carl Brouard once warned. “Parents, never speak Creole to your children.” The bias toward French keeps the elite’s interests well protected from the needs of the masses. Creole holds the potential to democratize knowledge, and thus liberate the masses from extreme poverty.

This proposed use of Creole in Haiti is akin to René Descartes’s elevation of French as a language for science in 17th-century France. Descartes switched from Latin to make science accessible to the French-speaking populace. French was considered vernacular and inferior, but he legitimized it as an academic language and thus cemented the establishment of the modern French nation. The “Francophonie” movement continues to be a mighty vehicle of French political and economic influence in the world.

A similar story happened in 17th-century Italy, where Galileo was among the first scientists to write in the vernacular instead of Latin. Creole in Haiti can similarly become an academic language, a tool for nation building and an instrument of political and economic progress.

Haiti’s government and civil society have started to come around, by supporting an expansion of the formal, written use of Creole in education and public administration and by legislating the creation of an academy for the promotion of Creole. They recognize that the language is a tool for economic empowerment.

Haitian elites need to catch up, and international aid agencies should support the process, so that Creole can acquire the cultural capital it needs to propel Haiti further along the path toward opportunity for all.


Michel DeGraff is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and directs its initiative to promote education in Creole in Haiti. Molly Ruggles is a senior educational technology consultant at M.I.T.

A version of this op-ed appeared online on August 1, 2014, at http://nyti.ms/1ohOBEe and in print on August 2, 2014, on page A17 of the New York edition.

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A New Leadership Model for a New Haiti

Prime minister and cabinet members attend leadership workshop with MIT professors.
MIT Sloan School of Management
August 4, 2014

Two MIT professors traveled to Haiti this summer to conduct an intensive leadership workshop with the country’s prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, and more than 50 Haitian government ministers and cabinet members.

MIT Sloan professor Deborah Ancona tailored her Transforming Your Leadership Strategy course from MIT Sloan Executive Education specifically to the needs of Haiti’s top government leaders. The workshop took place June 26-28 in Pétion-Ville, near Port-au-Prince.

“There was the goal of teaching a new language of leadership, the 4-CAP model, to the ministers,” Ancona said. “Another goal was to have people engage in exercises and become more comfortable working with each other. Participants also identified their own leadership signatures, learning their unique ways of leading. On the final day people shared their visions of an emerging Haiti and invented cross-ministry plans to make the visions a reality.”

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Leadership lessons in Haiti

In search of positive change: Deborah Ancona (left), Laurent Lamothe and Michel DeGraff
The poverty-stricken Caribbean country of Haiti faces intense challenges. A World Bank report in 2014 states that Haiti remains the poorest country in the Americas and one of the poorest in the world. Its problems were exacerbated by the devastating earthquake in 2010.

But the government appears to be making genuine efforts to bring about positive change and has even enlisted the help of a US business school. MIT Sloan has been working with the Haitian government and its educators as part of an initiative to tackle economic regeneration, poverty and the modernisation of education.

Deborah Ancona, professor of management at MIT Sloan and director of MIT’s leadership centre, recently ran a leadership workshop for more than 55 members of Haiti’s government, including Laurent Lamothe, the prime minister.

“I was extraordinarily impressed by the officials’ passion and dedication to Haiti,” says Prof Ancona, who ran the two-and-a-half day leadership training workshop in Port-au-Prince.

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MIT launching initiative to help Haiti

[NECN Business] It’s been four years since a devastating earthquake hit Haiti.

Now there’s an initiative at MIT to help the people of Haiti get their economy back on track and to create business and education opportunities.

Michel DeGraff and Deborah Ancona, professors at MIT, say they were inspired to help by helping the country develop a STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – curriculum.

“After the earthquake, the entire school system was destroyed, so we felt that MIT could help Haiti rebuild better by producing better curriculum in STEM,” DeGraff said about the initiative’s start in 2010.

So far, MIT’s initiative has hosted four workshops that have trained more than 100 teachers.

Ancona says there’s also a political leadership component the initiative recently launched.

Watch the video …

MIT Sloan Executive Education Creates Leadership Initiative for Haitian Cabinet

First-of-its-Kind Program Provides Haitian Leaders with Professional Training in U.S.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–MIT Sloan Executive Education, in partnership with the government of Haiti, has created a new educational initiative to provide management and leadership training to members of the Haitian cabinet for the first time. Haitian ministers and senior officials are invited to participate in executive education courses offered by the MIT School of Management, learning concepts and tools that can be applied to real-world challenges facing their ministries, such as poverty-alleviation, economic regeneration, and rebuilding Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

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MIT-Haiti Initiative Uses Haitian Creole to Make Learning Truly Active, Constructive, and Interactive

Chrisla Fleurant (left) and Dieuricarme Rivière (4th graders) enjoying technology-enhanced interactive learning of math in Kreyòl at Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa in La Gonave, Haiti. Credit: Michel DeGraff


Chrisla Fleurant (left) and Dieuricarme Rivière (4th graders) enjoying technology-enhanced interactive learning of math in Kreyòl at Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa in La Gonave, Haiti. Credit: Michel DeGraff



An MIT-Haiti Initiative to modernize and democratize education in Haiti.

Until today, quality education in Haiti has been available only to very few. This is due to brutal socio-economic impediments, including a well-entrenched language barrier: French, the primary language of instruction, is spoken by a tiny élite (no more than 10% and perhaps as low as 3%) whereas Haitian Creole aka “Kreyòl” is the one language spoken by all. In this article, I’d like to share a Haiti story to inspire current efforts to open access to quality education on a global scale.

Once upon a time, in 2010 actually, with the help of colleagues in Haiti and at MIT, we began an MIT-Haiti Initiative to modernize and democratize education in Haiti. Since then, we have been working on the creation, evaluation and dissemination of high-quality digital technologies that use Kreyòl as an indispensable tool for active learning—active learning that is both constructive and interactive. This is the first time that online resources in Kreyòl are being created for science and math at universities and high schools, and we are thankful to MIT, the Wade Fund, the Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty (“FOKAL”) in Port-au-Prince, the Open Society Foundations and the National Science Foundation for their support of this project.

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Go, Haiti, Go!

Credit: MIT-Haiti Initiative, Creative Commons By-NC-SA

This is a video album of the visit at MIT on April 17, 2013, of Haiti’s Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe and his delegation for the signing of an agreement between the MIT-Haiti Initiative (http://haiti.mit.edu) and Haiti’s Ministry of National Education and Professional Development (MENFP). The main purpose of this agreement is for the development of a plan whereby Kreyòl-based and technology-enhanced tools and methods can be integrated into the MENFP’s strategies for curriculum and faculty development. Since 2010, the MIT-Haiti Initiative is bolstering the capacity-building efforts of Haitian higher education through the creation, evaluation and dissemination of high-quality active-learning resources in Kreyòl for the teaching of science and math at universities and secondary schools. This is a collaborative effort among MIT and various institutions in Haiti, currently including: Université Caraïbe, Faculté des Sciences and École Normale Supérieure of the Université d’État d’Haiti, École Supérieure d’Infotronique d’Haiti, Université Quisqueya, NATCOM, MENFP, etc. The Initiative so far has received funding and support from the U.S. National Science Foundation (http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1248066) as well as the Foundation for Knowledge & Liberty (“FOKAL,” in Haiti) and Open Society Foundation, the Wade Fund and MIT (in the U.S.).

Physics resources (PhET) now available in Kreyòl

PhET provides fun, interactive, research-based simulations of physical phenomena for free. To help students visually comprehend concepts, PhET simulations animate what is invisible to the eye through the use of graphics and intuitive controls such as click-and-drag manipulation, sliders and radio buttons. In order to further encourage quantitative exploration, the simulations also offer measurement instruments including rulers, stop-watches, voltmeters and thermometers. As the user manipulates these interactive tools, responses are immediately animated thus effectively illustrating cause-and-effect relationships as well as multiple linked representations (motion of the objects, graphs, number readouts, etc.).

During the January 2013 workshop, the MIT team worked with Haitian faculty to translate a set of PhETs into Haitian Kreyòl. Translated PhETs can be run and downloaded from University of Colorado PhET website.

Ayiti Pare (Haiti is ready)

Credit: MIT-Haiti Initiative, Creative Commons By-NC-SA

Video by George Zaidan on the MIT-Haiti Initiative which aims to develop, evaluate and disseminate Open Educational Resources in Kreyòl in order to enhance the capacity for Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (“STEM”) teaching and learning in Haiti. This 6-minute video sketches the rationale, methods and aspirations of the Initiative, a project funded mainly by the U.S. National Science Foundation: INSPIRE: Kreyol-based Cyberlearning for a New Perspective on the Teaching of STEM in local Languages and also by MIT, the Wade Fund, the Open Society Foundations, and the Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty (FOKAL) in Haiti.

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