Bare to the calves with dirty knees, uncombed hair with its colour hardly natural, dirty nose that bubbled with mucus now and then, and with decaying teeth that needed the service of a dentist, life was harsh.
The school was not a homely place either. Knees were bent to serve as desk for slates that were mostly broken. Standing was sometimes, better than sitting on the cold broken floor. Quite often, bunking a class to escape slaps for losing a chalk was neither a better option nor affordable. Memorizing without understanding was norm of the day and failing in it entailed canning on the calves. One cannot simply imagine of a better quality of education in such an unfriendly atmosphere then.
The conditions of our schools those days are still etched in our memory. Houses built of thatched bamboo with banana leaves overhead were the hostels that let no sun in and no rain out. Food called ‘bongkharang’, was hard to digest and often oily and salty. With homegrown teachers scarce, teachers from outside dominated and corporal punishments in various forms bore no hesitation. Bringing firewood for teachers was a weekly norm accentuated by fetching water. Digging their vegetable gardens was not a source of joy either.
Today, fortunate ones are those who can start their education with good chairs to sit and desk to support, less distance to walk, highly qualified teachers to teach, good books to read, fancy notes and pens to write, computers and internet to supplement teaching and learning.
What is not there now that we could not have then? Why do people not agree that schools are far better and conducive to teaching and learning today? Why then people think that quality of education has gone down amidst culmination of such facilities? From dancing to playing variety of games, from giving speeches to writing poems, from making models to inventing, from values and attitudes to skills, from drama to acting, what cannot a child do today? Is the quality of education today not good?
Quality of education has never gone down compared to the past. It has been on the improving side. The history of modern education in Bhutan says that, “it started in 1960 with only11 schools and 440 students” (Gyamtsho, 2006) and 46 years later, “in 2005 there were 14,188 students studying in 458 schools around the country managed by 4604 teachers” (Penjor, 2006). “In fact, we can boast of achieving, in mere 46 years, what some other countries have taken hundreds of years.
Those who believe and debate that quality of our education has gone down must remember that “quality is a complex phenomenon and its definition is multi-dimensional” (karma, etal, 1985, in Dorji, 2005, p. 180), and “quality is, therefore, a relative term and depends upon the situation and time in which the education system occurs” (Dorji, 2003, p.180). Given the time and situation of our country, quality of education is comparatively high in our country. Gyamtsho, (2006), also agrees that “quality of Bhutanese education is already better than most of the government schools in the neighboring countries”.
The improvement in the quality of education is seen in the number of educated people in the job market, in the increased developmental activities of our nation, better information and communication technologies, better health facilities, high participation in the democratic process, more schools and more qualified teachers and so on. All these paint a successful picture of our education system.
We could not have brought our nation to this extent of prosperity had our present education system failed. We would not have somebody (- a product of Bhutanese education system) who studied and completed his higher secondary level in Bhutan ruling as the Fifth King of Bhutan had the quality of education been poor. Bhutanese students would not excel in their studies and bring home gold medals from outside universities if what they have learnt in Bhutan was below standard. There will not be any Bhutanese youth receiving gold medals in the international arenas such as Indra Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), New Delhi if what teachers teach is not of a good quality.
And of late, Thailand wanted more than 400 Bhutanese teachers to teach English in its various institutes. Had it doubted the quality of education provided in Bhutan it would not have invited us. The philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has become Bhutan’s most embraced ambassador across the globe. A country with poor quality of education will not qualify to envisage such a healing superior vision for the whole world. These are some reasons to feel that quality of education in Bhutan is not deteriorating.
Somebody has written that, “Some aspects of education have declined”. He wrote: “I can feel the decline in the inability of the students to read and write in both English and Dzongkha. Writing letter, application and articles in Dzongkha on their own has virtually diminished and neither can they write in English”. The term ‘virtually’ is not ‘reality’ and does not qualify to prove his statement nor can he generalize that few students’ inability in language means decline in the quality of education in the nation. A person with a broken arm does not mean that he does not qualify to be a complete human being.
Our schools today are safe and conducive to teaching and learning with all the basic resources adequately in place. With improved health facilities, the early childhood of our children is better than of the past. Children are strong and healthy due to better feeding programmes; they can attend classes regularly and attentively. They can also play games and participate in other co-curricular activities and attain wholesome education. With the implementation of disaster management programmes schools are becoming safer. With the concept of child friendly school, children need not worry to bunk classes to escape a slap for forgetting a pencil. Gone are the days of chalk and slates.
Curriculum is another. It refers to the intended and taught and practised content in the schools. Our curriculum is gender-sensitive and include all children with diverse abilities and backgrounds, and responsive to emerging issues. Over the years, curricula in almost all the subjects have undergone gradual intensive reforms for a better cause because “it has to be a system that not only reflects Bhutanese priorities and national goals, but blends modern education thinking and traditional education thinking and traditional practices to move forward” (Editorial, Kuensel, July 15, 2006). And our teachers are passionately attached to doing it.
Today, where our education has reached is all due to our teachers. They have produced what we might call ‘the software of development’- educated human resources. In the past, teachers were the most revered figures in the society, “but it is just that in the path of progress, we forgot that value” (Kuensel, July 26, 2006) and as we forget that value we make them appear secondary and are forced to take a back seat. Teaching has become a minimalist profession now. Phuntsok (2006) says that “once teachers were proud to reveal their identity as teachers, but now it has become a humiliation. The once elevated lopen (king of knowledge) has now fallen below the radar of societal respect, says Amina Gurung. Barzun says ‘Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition’. Now most parents, be they educated or not, discourage their children to become teachers. Such attitudes will impede the continuity of maintaining good quality of education. Yes! This area should be discussed.
We should not discuss the quality of education alone, but also discuss the conditions of our teachers because, as are the teachers, so will be the quality of education. Quality of education does not lie only in the glory of buildings, but also in the glory of our teachers. It is just time that we pick up our respect for teachers and offer them back their due former glory. On their part, they are doing their best.
Sometimes, we feel tempted to compare our education system with that of already developed countries. It may not be good to do so. We cannot be equal to well established missionary schools nearby, nor with ‘education tigers’ like Finland, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and many more whose education system dates back to as early as 15th century or even before. This much our people should understand. We should not lose our self-esteem and make our own education system take a back seat by our own people.
Looking back at the education road that we have traveled thus far, we have not made mistakes. We have traveled each step with increased level of improvement. Bhutan must deliberately slow down the speed of education because education in other countries has rather empowered people to invent technologies that can destroy the earth within seconds just by pressing a button wherein Bhutan’s education system, deeply rooted in Buddhism has helped shape hearts that can save the world. In that case, Bhutan’s quality of education has been the best indeed!
Almost, everything that a school needs to impart good quality education is in place. Therefore, the outcry that the quality of education has declined is simply not true. Let us ask ourselves. “Is there anything wrong in the present system? If so, Where?
Contributed by Dungsampa Sonam Wangdi, Dy. Chief DEO, Panbang