FUTURE MEMORY – Learning together

How do you make music with objects from your trash bin? Can you count your teeth with your tongue? How much math do you need to understand the recipe for a cake? What did you inherit and what did you learn from your family?

These are just some of the topics and exercises that aim to convince kids that learning can be fun. The Hungarian CO-MAP partner, Liget Műhely Alapítvány (LMA) has been working with socially disadvantaged Roma children for years designing workshops based on art, environmental and experiential educational methods. LMA co-operates with the experts of another CO-MAP partner, Stichting International Parents Alliance in designing the workshops.

The title of the project FUTURE MEMORY is based on neuroscience. Researchers have determined that many of the same brain structures are involved in both remembering and forecasting. They looked at activity in the brain’s default network, which includes the hippocampus as well as regions that involve processing personal information, spatial navigation, and sensory information. They found that activity in many of these regions was almost completely overlapping when people remembered and imagined future events.

In our western culture, the life script is something like: go to school, move out of your parents’ place, get one or more college degrees, find a job, fall in love, get married, buy a house, have kids, retire, have grandchildren, die. However, these milestones of life are not available for disadvantaged children, because there are no such life scripts in their environment that they could learn from and imitate. Therefore, when picturing their future life, these children revert to the failures of their parents and grandparents, re-enacting their wrong decisions (e.g. early pregnancy, dropping out of school). Research also shows that by simply talking about ideas and plans, the brain creates so-called “future memories”. These can be further strengthened by interactive drama games thus providing disadvantaged children with a pool of future memories and the possibility of imagining a different way of life.

The Future Memory project started in 2018 in two Hungarian schools: Salgótarjáni Általános Iskola Petőfi Sándor Tagiskolája and KLG Kossuth Lajos Általános Iskolája in Tiszafüred where we worked exclusively with Roma girls. The rationale behind this was the evidence-based fact that social projects targeting women are essential in breaking the circle of poverty. Our aim was to works with 11–14 years old Roma girls living in socially disadvantaged areas and to support them in achieving their academic and individual goals. Research shows that those who start secondary school have a higher standard of living and longer life expectancy, are less prone to be victimized or to be drawn into criminal activity. However, due to the still present practice of educational segregation, early pregnancy, repeated failures at school, severe social problems, and the lack of background help, disadvantaged Roma girls often drop out while struggling in primary school. The most sensitive age for these girls is 11–14 when due to the changes caused by adolescence they are most vulnerable and they have to face both physical and mental challenges. This can be an ordeal for anybody, but for disadvantaged children who, among other hardships, often have to face social exclusion and severe financial problems, this time can be extremely painful.

Our specific objectives were the prevention of victimization, academic support, and counselling not only for the girls but also providing counselling for their families about their roles in supporting the girls’ education. Once we realized that it would be useless to work only with the children, because most of their problems are rooted in their family background and the widespread social exclusion of the Roma, we organized monthly groups meetings that the students, their family members, teachers, social workers, and local administrators attended together. During the activities, family members did not necessarily join the same group but were asked to join different groups as we intended these meetings to help in building a strong community where adults feel responsible for all the children, not just their own. Stronger community bonds meant more practical support for the schools, as well as more commitment to the students’ academic achievements.

During the years, the communicational skills of the participants became significantly better, they felt more confident in school and had clearer ideas about their future. The families got to know each other better and learned to trust the teachers and the school administration more. This was especially significant when due to COVID restrictions, schools were closed and parents had to take a much more active role in the schooling of their children. The lack of IT tools meant that many of these children had difficulties accessing online lessons and materials. To alleviate this problem, LMA bought tablets for all the students who participated in the project and redesigned the workshops so that they could be done online. When the schools were opened and the workshops could be organized off-line again, LMA made a point of including the use of tablets and smartphones in most of the workshops, because while students were quite adept at using the IT tools for watching videos, they had difficulties when they were asked to send emails with attachments or to do searches.

In 2021 the project was accepted into the Transnational Education Mentoring Partnerships TEMP Programme under the Partnerships for pathways to higher education and science engagement in regional clusters of open schooling PHERECLOS project (HORIZON 2020, 824630). This resulted in various changes in the project. The focus of the workshops shifted to science engagements. The Serbian school of Petőfi Sándor Általános Iskola in the village of Gornji Breg has also become a locale of implementation. This is a school for the Hungarian minority. The school in Tiszafüred has included Roma boys, not just girls in the programme, while the school in Salgótarján decided to keep working only with Roma girls. Thus, the three participating schools now work with very different groups of students aged 10–14, providing an ideal opportunity for comparison.

The project has been shortlisted by HundrED, a global educational organization in its collection of best practices. So far, 14 workshop plans are freely downloadable in English. https://en.futurememory.eu