Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Time for a paradigm shift in education?

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)


  1. I believe we do have many dedicated and competent teachers, but adequate support from the system is necessary to motivate them to do their best. I believe intelligent, dynamic and forward looking people at the apex of the education system can make the required support happen. I believe the Education Bureaucrats and Politicians that can think education quite 'naturally' and understand what support our children and teachers need and know how that might be extended can add value to the system. 'Education' is a social service, therefore, certainly different from other sectors. We must realize this first, I feel. It is my opinion that only those with 'passion' for social service, besides competence, can lead education the right way. And, a system that understands the value of 'social service' and the sacrifices that go with it can motivate our teachers with deserved compensation for their services. The allowance for teachers is good news. But, the fact that no teacher received any national award this time, while others did, either shows that none of our teachers deserved it or we failed to recognize them. We have already begun our new era of a trasformed Bhutan by demotivating our teachers. Need we say more?

    No amount of curriculum change in the name of relevance will make a difference if our teachers' morale is not boosted; and if their professional development is not given due share.

  2. You have some interesting write-ups.

    The fundamental problem of Bhutanese education system is that in Bhutan all the unsuccessful students become teachers. This is in sharp contrast to other prosperous countries (say US, Japan, etc.) where usually the top students become teachers and professors.

  3. When you select your teachers from a pool of poor students, what do you expect? Most of our teachers are those who couldn't qualify for anything else. They didn't become teachers out of their conviction and interest in teaching - rather it was an easy fallback option. If they could they would have been something else. But that is not to say that we don't have bright dedicated teachers as well - only few and far between.

    First of all we need to change the way teachers are selected. It has to be converted into a profession that is competitive and attractive. Teachers should be proud of their profession. But this will take time. In the meantime our children will suffer - I see no way out if we continue the status quo.

  4. If the selection of teachers must change, the system must change first. Like I mentioned in my earlier posted comment, we need intelligent, dynamic and forward looking people at the apex of the education system. It is only such people who will understand what 'change' is required in the system for long term positive impact on the quality of education.

    Perhaps, why we don't get the best achievers into teaching is because the teaching profession is not as attractive (although the pay is equivalent to any other civil service job that people opt for). It involves hard work, sacrifices, role modelling, discipline, etc, therefore highly demanding of duty, responsibilities, ethics and commitment. You cannot afford to be absent at work, otherwise children will lose out. Whereas, in administrative type of civil service work people can get away with not attending office or not working despite being in office, as the effect is not so visible. If you have an output to deliver on a set deadline, you could still deliver it by finding time after office hours or during the weekend. A teacher has to follow the routine rigidly. S/he cannot habitually organize class after school hours because of his or her own carelessness. S/he has parents to answer for keeping their children back in school.

    So, let's say we made the profession attractive by hiking the salary and adding allowances, incentives, awards. I would still say we cannot guarantee that the top achievers will make good or the best teachers. Like I mentioned in my earlier posted comment, you need 'passion' for the profession. You need to internalize the fact that it is a form of social service. You need to accept that you might have to make sacrifices. You need to be a disciplined worker. You need to be a role model. You need to maintain strong work ethics. Your performance as a teacher is in a way shown by the achievement of your students. Their good achievement means your good performance. Their failure means your failure. How many of us are prepared for all that?

    My dear fellow citizens, taking up the teaching profession despite many other opportunities requires 'courage' more than money. Whereas, retention of good teachers requires support from the system. The teachers are not meant to be dumped in the schools to be left on their own to survive. That would be unfair.

    I agree absolutely that we don't get top achievers as teachers but if we keep pointing fingers at the existing teachers, who are actually trying their best despite the odds, then how do we even make the most of what we already have? We are sometimes carried away by 'fad' and forget that we are a developing nation, by virtue of which we have certain realities that we must deal with first (while at the same time working towards the big future dream). Our current reality is that we have teachers who need support in the development of their capacity to teach efficiently and effectively. I see that as one of the priorities at the moment. No individual can rest assured of being competent for all times and at all places. Not even the top achievers. We all must continue to learn, even unlearn and also relearn. This is how literacy in the 21st century and beyond is defined by Alvin Toffler. And, of course, on the other end of the continuum of development for education would be 'reform of the system', whereby selection of teachers would also be taken care of.

    But seriously, how are we even sure that teachers are to be blamed for the poor quality of education? It could be curriculum. Imagine doing ‘the ineffective’ efficiently. What would the result be? As Peter Drucker has said, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” Our teachers could be teaching that which is not relevant at all. Who knows? Or, it could even be lack of resources. Inadequate facilities. Poor school environment. Weak school leadership. Lack of supportive policy.

    Whatever, I think as a system we’ve got to steer away from ‘business as usual’ and get down to charting activities only after we’ve identified the desired results (impact-effect-outcome-output). We cannot only think of the activities ‘we would like to do’ (the comfort zone) and then proudly report on the carried out activities as achievement, leaving nothing really to assess or evaluate. How can we then be in a position to explain why the quality of education is being questioned? We can only resort to being ‘defensive’ or accepting defeat and feeling frustrated.

  5. So everything is boiling down to simple issues like motivation and incentives which would not be possible if Education remains within the bureaucracy.

    Being defensive is a natural human reaction to external forces. In case of us Bhutanese we are even more. No wonder certain things are forced upon us. Things like democracy.

    Honestly I have high hopes in the current secretary and minister who are not only dyanamic in their own ways but are also receptive of ideas and views of others. I only there are people feeding them with right ideas and not proposing "comfort zones" again.

  6. Yes, I agree that we have a dynamic secretary and, of course, a minister who understands the passion and pain of teaching. I am quite confident that they will not be fooled by people who love to seek 'comfort zones.'

  7. I think a teacher here has raised some good points. One another thing that could help to improve our education is show due regard/ respect (beyond our cultural etiquette) for our teachers/ professors. That is to make use of their expertise. In Bhutan we hardly see any lecturer/ professor of Sherubtse/ RBIT being interview by our media with regard to economics, politics, history, etc. Instead, advices of older persons or some senior civil servants (who are not the experts) are usually sought and reported. Thus, the professional status of the teachers in Bhutan remains high only in our books but not in everyday life.

  8. Dear Dorji-san,
    Isn't it time to update your personal profile?

  9. Noooooo. There is no need. This is my personal blog where I just write my thoughts. It is different from my official or corporate functions

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