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The call is on an overhaul – from teaching to teachers to curriculum

Yangchen C Rinzin 

Following His Majesty The King’s National Day address, on December 17, calling on systemic reforms in the education system, the education ministry has been working on to create an education reform team.

Sherig lyonpo (education minister) Jai Bir Rai said that plans to unfold activities, and strategic documents are ready to start looking at reforming education. But he said it is a collective responsibility. The ministry is taking in all feedback and suggestions through different platforms.

Feedback is what is not lacking. Kuensel talked to a range of people- teachers, former ministers, experts and school proprietors to see what went wrong in the sector that needed a Royal Kasho calling for reforms.

 

The fault lines

Many said that there was too much bureaucracy in the education system, which clogs up, impedes and discourages innovation, experimentation and a sense of professionalism among teachers.

“Education was looked at, defined by and decided by a small group of participants,” a teacher said. “The process of doing things or bringing change didn’t involve the main players—teachers.”    

Some education experts said the teaching approach is too text-book-based, constraining teachers’ imagination and personal interests and enthusiasm. “Some textbooks are too thick that teachers struggle to finish the syllabus and have no time for other than teaching only the content,” a teacher said.  “We either lack ideas, or we’re too scared to adopt the new system because the bureaucracy doesn’t welcome new ideas,” another teacher from Punakha commented.

A retired educationist said it is a verified fact that teachers teach similarly to how they were taught. “This is a big problem when you want to change the system teachers are understandably nervous about teaching subjects they are not accustomed to.”

Teachers were often confused with introducing the Individual Work Plan (IWP) and its implementation process, he said. Teachers lost their focus and concentrated more on just “passing” students because it guaranteed teachers good marks for IWP.

The general secretary of private schools’ association (PSA), Tshering Dorji, said that teacher attrition rate is still a concern but these problems were ignored by filling the gaps by graduates without training on contract systems. “Teacher preparation is not at all adequate.”

He added that teachers spoon-fed students and spent less on providing students sense of direction, skills that they needed for future, leadership, creativity, critical thinking, and social skills.

Many said that in the current system, the teaching approach is too geared to “passing the exams” and rarely inculcates knowledge of “how to learn” and value of learning for its own sake.

 

Assessment

The real purpose of education could have shifted because of too much emphasis on marks and school grading from students’ marks, said others. In the 1970s, said one, there were just hundreds of children in schools and the curriculum was modelled on the Indian curriculum, which itself was modelled on the British curriculum of the 1940s. Today, we have almost 180,000 students; yet, the school curriculum and system have changed a little.

“The system, syllabuses, curriculum and methodology, are still biased to the academic. Most students/parents’ main aim is to pass schools and go to college,” an experienced education commentator said. “It has become deeply ingrained in society that if your child doesn’t get college, you have failed as parents.”

He added that the current school system and curriculum are perfectly designed to create unemployment as a result of these attitudes.

A former educationist and a private school proprietor said it is a primary failure where the system of assessment is too complicated and dishonest. “Parents and the system itself do not get accurate feedback.”

Tshering Dorji said the focus over the years has been to chase for academic performance, which is a small portion of education’s purpose. “This is often thrown against mindless academic assessment systems.

 

Leadership 

Many shared that one critical driving factor of education quality is in leadership (mainly principals), but principals are hardly given space to make their own decision because the system does not allow or is too rigid.

An educationist said that principals should be permitted to make their schools independent, identifiable, different, and innovative decisions involving all staff of a particular school.

A teacher in Thimphu said no matter the curriculum, teachers or other components, if there is a right educational leader, he/she can fix the education quality. “They can either make or break the school system. So, strategising the selection process of school leaders needs to be fixed.”

An educationist said that instead of teachers being posted to schools, often against their will, teachers should be able to ‘apply’ to a school for an advertised vacancy, be interviewed and appointed by the principal and the senior management team. “This will encourage them to see the school as theirs,” he said. “Maybe, it’s time a significant salary incentive is provided to attract teachers to apply for a post in less desirable schools.”

 

Separate education from politics

Many in the education field feel that the education system is being put at the disposal of tests and trials by political parties coming into government. They said it was time to either take politics out of education or take education out of politics.

Some said that this was probably why the education system did not have an education policy for the last 50 years. “Because having a policy would mean the government cannot fulfil their pledges where it was often played through the education system,” a teacher said.

General secretary of PSA, Tshering Dorji said that there is often a short policy life span where the government’s objective is to see the result in five years. “Many educational initiatives have been very experimental in nature.”

An education expert said education is not a suitable area for politics in a small country like Bhutan because it can take a decade or more for the effect of a change in education policy. “The political thinking will not extend beyond the next election. If education is in the political arena it can result in frequent changes in policy and resultant instability.”

Another added it was clear from the last three governments how each education minister has implemented policy changes, which have not been fully continued by a new government.

“If education becomes part of political party wrangling, this often results in policies which have more of an eye to electoral or political advantage than to educational improvement.”

Former education minister Thakur Singh Powdyel said; “The neatly crystallised, well-accepted national vision for education adopted by the education ministry was altered beyond recognition when the government changed. Democracy, for all its excitement, is fraught with many challenges.”

The former minister added this is why the Royal concern of His Majesty has shared the need to provide children with the best education possible through effective measures and concerted action.

 

What can be done?

Many said there should not be any further doubt that it is time to admit there is a problem and seriously undertake the reforms. “But the threat is the system might adopt quick fixes without a proper assessment. Perhaps we suffer from too many good ideas, but the problem is we fail in implementation,” said one.

Many were of the view that there is the need to relook into the teacher recruitment process while expressing the need of a robust and practical based teacher development programme in colleges of education, and less of theory class and more of apprenticeship.

“However, teachers themselves should be a long-life learner, as many practising teachers seemed too complacent and scared of learning new knowledge,” a teacher in Thimphu said. ‘Teachers should be explorers themselves.”

Some suggested getting at the roots – the need to revise the B.Ed course in education colleges.

Former education minister Norbu Wangchuk said that classrooms, schools, and education systems are designed for the “ordinary child, the common child.”

“There is no space for extraordinary students. This is why we’ve one size fits all curriculum,” he said.

The former minister said it’s an opportunity to create a special school that focuses on academic fields including liberal arts, performing arts, and sports.

There is, some said, also the need for an independent and apolitical National Education Council to shoulder the responsibilities for every educational policy aspect and its implementation. “Who knows doing away the education ministry with a politician as a leader might give the reform that we’re looking for.”

However, many said that the reform in the education system would now depend on the education reform team and policymakers’ commitment to take bold steps.

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