Education in the land of ‘forests that fill up the sky’


The writer says an ability to converse in English is a necessity to get decent and sustainable jobs; and yet, this remains a problem among large populations of some countries

‘FORESTS that fill up the sky’ is how my grandmother used to describe Burma (Myanmar). She called it[’s former capital] Rangoon (Yangon), as she narrated the story of her two ‘elephant taming’ brothers. My grandmother was over six feet tall, lanky and a beautiful woman – towering over my poor grandfather who was all of five feet in height. I didn’t expect her brothers to be any shorter.

My grandmother was also powerfully built. She had a reputation of beating the strong, hubristic men, in lifting the huge brass pots that were used to boil rice, in our small village, near Bhubaneswar in the state of Odisha in India. In my imagination, her brothers were colossal. Their arms were like a python, and they had legs like tree trunks. The ground would shake as they walked. I would imagine these brothers could grab an elephant by the trunk and smash him on rocks – like the village washerman with my grandmother’s parrot-colored saree. These were my imaginations, fuelled by my grandmother’s lofty descriptions.

However, the deed that made them super human in my eyes as I grew up, was the fact that they walked all the way from Odisha to Burma (Myanmar). They trekked thousands of miles through deep tropical forests, rivers and villages in search of employment. It was during the time of the British Raj, and there were no roads or any other modes of transportation. As a child, I was not well conversant with the distance or the geography of the region. But my grandmother’s expression conveyed, in no uncertain terms, that the journey to Rangoon (Yangon) was long, arduous and interlaced with hardships of disease, wild animals, dacoits, hunger and fatigue.

It had been 28 years since I first heard this story that I had to make a trip to Yangon. Yes, grandmother’s Rangoon is now Yangon. Needless to say, my journey from the airport in New Delhi to the hotel in Yangon was barely adventurous. My biggest adversary was boredom, and I had to only deal with curious passport officers, bored security officers, enthusiastic salespersons, irritated air-hostesses, beetle-nut-chewing taxi-drivers and hotel staff who seemed to have come from France!

Chatting with university students in English

Like the brothers, I too had gone for a similar reason — work and love — as an International Education Consultant. I don’t know whether the brothers had any luck in Yangon; but I was lucky. The Yangon University of Education was right opposite the hotel I was staying in. Inside one of the many street-food vendors selling local delicacies outside the university, I sat down with a bowl of traditional fried rice, and tried my hand at chatting with some of the students in English. It wasn’t very easy.

To my surprise, most of the students were training to become teachers and some were going to become English teachers in a short while. I reflected back on my interactions with teachers across India, Bangladesh and other erstwhile British colonies. Ability to converse in English is a necessity to get decent and sustainable jobs (as the UN will tell you); and yet, this remains a problem among large populations of these countries. It would be useful if the youth be helped to pick up essential words, phrases and techniques – enough for them to get decent jobs and get by.

With a little help from a couple of students aspiring to become English teachers, we moved on to reflect on how their school was and what they liked and did not like about their schools. Some talked about the ridiculously early hours when the school started; some spoke about the old, small, dark and smelly classrooms where they could not even stand properly; some talked about the student-teacher relationship – “if I answer a question correctly, then I am trying to be ‘smart’, if I don’t, then I am showing disrespect.”

Many complained of the distances they had to travel to reach their schools, which points to issues of access and almost everyone pointed out to ‘private tuitions’ as the biggest issue with respect to teaching and learning in classrooms. “Teachers do not teach well because students are being tutored outside and the students also do not find it necessary to study in the class,” said one girl. Yet another added: “If you do not get your teacher as a tutor, you might be discriminated in the class.” But everyone had good memories and, not surprisingly, it was often about a teacher.

A Physics teacher who had the patience to make the students understand difficult concepts, the English teacher who read out poems evocatively, the Mathematics teacher who did not ‘teach too fast’ — “She is very patient and waits till every student understands”.

When I politely asked them, whether they intended to indulge in the culture of tuition classes once they become teachers, their answers were divided. The ones who said ‘No’ were determined to end the culture of tuitions and the ones who said ‘Yes’ pointed out the low salaries and huge workload for a teacher. After some probing, they confessed that most of them were at the university because of parents’ and peer pressure, and to earn a living.

Too much focus on final examinations and less on practical work

On asking them about their college and their preparations for becoming a teacher, they said that they liked their teachers here and the small class sizes, which allowed them to have the attention and discussions they wanted. They were still not happy with the pattern of evaluation though — too much focus and weightage (around 70 percent) on final examinations and less on practical work and assignments. “This forces us to memorize. We don’t like that,” said one girl emphatically. I could empathize and nodded in agreement. They liked the group works and projects they were given at the university and wished the same was done at schools as it would prepare them for universities and colleges better.

I asked about Information Communication Technology (ICT) — computers, internet and videos. Their blank faces answered my question. How can we expect teachers to teach and practice what they have never experienced themselves? My work with secondary school teachers in India reminded me of ‘experiential learning model,’ which was piloted by fellow education experts and had worked well in preparing teachers to use ‘reflective engagement’ pedagogy and ICT tools such as computers, videos, animations and open resources (such as the NROER, the National Repository of Open Educational Resources, India) for effective teaching-learning in classrooms.

To return to my grandmother’s story, her two ‘elephant-taming’ brothers never came back to India. They died with their hope of earning riches and returning to alleviate poverty in their village. I only wish that the hope of the young student who wanted to become a science teacher and then an education officer doesn’t die. Her reason for joining the university was her dream of ‘changing the education system in Myanmar.’

The author is an International Education, and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) expert and works in India and South Asia; views expressed are personal.

Source: Myanmar Times