Quality of education has been debated ad nauseum for years now but the recent article by the education minister and the debate in the parliament have made me interested on the issue again. Simply because it is a subject that concerns us all. I must admit that I am not an educationist but I feel obliged to join and contribute to the discussion. Quality of education stirs such a lively debate that even my uneducated father has strong views on the issue.
But what does 'quality of education' really mean? I think the debate starts from trying to give a definition. Is it the ability to read, write and speak English correctly? Or can it be equated to quality of teachers, school infrastructure or pass-percentages of board exams? Or is it simply the employability factor? Unless we know what we are debating, unless we define the problem, I am afraid we may never find the solution.
The first task, therefore, is to define what quality of education is. We should also be mindful that quality of education does not just depend on teachers, schools, students or the ministry. It is the result of active partnership between all those plus parents, the community and the whole government. We should also be careful to distinguish quality of 'teachers' and quality of 'teaching'. One does not necessarily imply the other. Awaiting the definition of quality of education, one could say that through good education, the citizenry will be able to lead a healthy and productive life and contribute to nation-building. And hence the second question – how can our education system enable students to lead an active, dignified and contented life in this fast-changing and ever more competitive world?
While the general perception is that the quality of education has declined in Bhutan, my own view is that it is the level of competition that has gone up drastically. The net effect is of course the same. Our youngsters today are unprepared to face new realities. And where we might have certainly failed is perhaps in recognising years ago that there was the need to balance the traditional system of learning, the new requirements of the labour market and the much wider range of pupils entering the system. This would have meant restructuring and redirecting our secondary and tertiary education, introducing flexible and varied curricula, enhancing teacher’s knowledge and skills, updating learning materials and introducing modern information and communication technology. But we continued, and continue, to be generic while at the same time talking about mismatch between demand and supply.
There is no doubt that our education system worked perfectly for my generation and for the ones before because we were fast-forwarded to quickly fill-up the Civil Service. However, the curriculum that was relevant then may not be relevant today. Our examination system continue to decimate students and create more “dropouts” than successful ones (refer to an earlier article I wrote on this). Hence, to say that we were better than today’s students is totally misplaced because no one actually checked our overall competence when we were drafted into our jobs. There was such a shortage of qualified Bhutanese that heads of departments would be present in the RCSC office to grab us like how we grab gas cylinders during monsoon months. But as the civil service got saturated and the private and corporate sectors demanded specialised skills, high motivational level, good working attitude, communication skills and hard work, our education system was then caught off-guard.
Education goes way beyond simple “reading, writing and speaking”. These constitute what we call “qualification” and not “education” as such. Education comes from the Latin “educare” which means “to lead out or to bring out” the inner potential of pupils. An educated person is not simply a person with class XII or a university degree. It is a person with knowledge, and with the ability to apply that knowledge thoughtfully and wisely. Does our present education system prepare our youth with these skills? I don't think so. Because let’s face it. Our education system is largely drawn from the British Raj which was designed to produce clerks and administrators for the British Empire. But while even the Indian education system has evolved, ours has remained virtually static. Our children continue to learn everything by 'rote' without understanding its application in the real World; questions remain the prerogative of teachers, and curiosity, critical thinking and inquisitiveness are slammed as being a nuisance. Of course then our children will not have the zeal to learn nor do our youngsters the zeal to succeed. “I don’t want anyone working for me for more than ten years.” I keep telling my young colleagues, “You will have to run your own company by then.” I am afraid they don’t understand what I am talking about.
The education minister has rightly stated that the quality of education cannot be any better or worse than quality of teachers. But in my opinion it can be both better and worse, depending on the structure in which the teacher works. Where exactly is the problem then? In two areas. First, in the bureaucratization of the education system. Education is a specialised field and our current bureaucratic structure no longer works today because, many a times, critical decisions are being made somewhere and by someone totally extraneous to ground realities. Not to talk about good educationists leaving for other attractive positions in the Civil Service. A paradigm shift with the education system that is independent and less hierarchical, organised into multi-disciplinary groups may perhaps launch Bhutan into a better future. The role of the government should then be to set the standards, monitor the quality and provide continuous dialogue between the society and the education system so that there is no more that infamous “mismatch”.
Second, the motivation level of the teachers is at an all-time low. In my extensive travels around our beautiful country, I have met many who are committed but are demoralised, overworked and forgotten. My documentary “School Among Glaciers” was in fact dedicated to them. What happens then is that we may have "good" teachers but "poor" quality of teaching. Teachers are no longer even respected by the society – a stark contradiction for a Mahayana Buddhist country which has thrived on the lama-loma (master-disciple) tradition. The paradigm shift could address this problem because issues like incentives, professional enhancements and support materials can be tackled within the system and not by an external body or individual that is oblivious to the needs and problems facing the teaching cadre. A teacher will then be a teacher who can say with pride “I am a teacher” and not an ordinary grade 8 or 9 officer in the Civil Service.
Generally in Bhutan, I realise that it is not that we don’t know what to do. It is more often that we don’t do what needs to be done. I am sure many solutions would have been thrown and paradigms shifts proposed in plenty. To raise the quality of our education system requires action, not complacency. I may be forgiven for saying this - but if our education system fails; we will fail as a nation. The good news is that we have recognised as a problem. The bad news is - we have along way to go. But this a country where everything is possible, if we want to.
(also published in Bhutan Times, 27 Jan issue, under the Opinion page)