A Broader Vision of Education for Burma

By Khin Hnin Soe 1 July 2014

One of my relatives recently held a couple of grand celebrations to congratulate her daughter for obtaining all distinctions in her matriculation exam this year. Hundreds of guests were invited, and events were held at a well-known restaurant in Rangoon. In addition, she honored all her daughter’s teachers with gifts.

Since her daughter started going to school, her main concern has always been that her daughter remains among the top three students on every exam. In order to achieve this goal, she filled her daughter’s days with tutoring sessions after school hours. To her, the quality of her daughter’s education could be judged by what was written on report cards.

Many parents in Burma tend to fret about how well their children score on exams; it is a reason for them to boast or to feel ashamed. Rather than giving their children a chance to express their personal interests, many parents push them along paths which they feel are best. However, what parents feel is best may not always be so for their children. Many parents want their children to become doctors or engineers, which are considered top professions in Burma, without giving much thought about whether their children are really interested in these fields. It makes me wonder how parents measure the success of their children’s education. What do they think is the purpose of education?

Since becoming an educator, I have always been interested in how people perceive the purpose of education. Now, as Burma struggles to reform a school system that deteriorated over decades of military rule, almost everyone is talking about the importance of education. But only by knowing the purpose of education can we ascertain the level of its importance. It is time for stakeholders—parents, teachers, students and policy makers—to seriously consider the answer to that question.

Randall V. Bass, the assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Mississippi, once wrote that “any system of education, if it is to fulfill its purpose, clearly has two functions: to preserve and to provide for change.”

We definitely need an education system that preserves our traditions, culture and sense of identity in order to continue our society and to withstand the effects of globalization. On the other hand, we must be ready to embrace change, especially when it comes to the ways in which we educate future generations.

In Burma, exam scores should not be seen as the be-all and end-all of schooling. As the country embarks on a path for change, it is essential that we all contribute, especially the younger generations who will eventually become leaders in politics, business and civil society. And for that, it is important that we teach our students to be knowledgeable and critical thinkers, and to possess an open worldview.

I currently teach a class of students who are attending an international program at the college level, and I always encourage them to enjoy the learning process and to try their best, rather than worrying about how well they will score. I encourage them to assert their ideas and reflect on their responsibilities. The aim is to make them see that there is more to education than grades. I want them to see that their voices matter, and I want them to develop into independent and responsible adults.

When they first joined the program, whenever a question was raised in the classroom, many of them kept quiet—a result of having been through many years of Burmese public schools, where only the teacher speaks while the students listen. But after a couple weeks, more hands shot up in the air during discussions. Even after 11 years in the traditional learning system, they were able to change with enough encouragement and a conducive learning environment.

In Singapore, where I used to work as a lecturer at a polytechnic, youths have always been given the opportunity to participate in discussions at the national level, concerning topics such as politics, social issues, education and health. That’s why I am happy to read in the Burmese media about an upcoming youth conference organized by the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The conference, scheduled for later this month, has been organized for youth members of the NLD, but I think it would be great if we could also organize a nationwide conference welcoming youths from all walks of life. You will be surprised what today’s youths have to say if given a chance.

Burma’s education system has been based on “parrot learning,” focused on the ability to reproduce facts that have been taught. Students are not encouraged to read non-academic but related materials. Instead, they are told to spend time memorizing exactly what is stated in textbooks. But we don’t need students who can simply reproduce. We need students who can think, reflect and apply; who can be lifelong and self-directed learners; who have confidence in their own work; and who know what they want in life. Thus, it is important for them to gain not only subject knowledge, but also general knowledge that will widen their worldview and turn them into critical thinkers.

Many people may believe that education only occurs in schools. In reality, schooling is just a subset of education; we all learn from the moment we are born until the day we die. We learn from all sources, including our surroundings, our parents and our peers. We learn by observing others, listening to teachers, reading books and discussing with others. As such, adults are especially important role models for youths and need to be mindful of their actions.

In Burma, one common problem that I always see is the habit of people cutting in line without any misgivings. What kind of educational message are those people giving to their children? That it is acceptable to “cheat” to get ahead of others? It is time for everyone to realize that education is broader in nature and happens throughout life, not only in schools.

My relative and many other parents like her may only wish to see their children become doctors or engineers. However, regardless of profession, people will excel if they are passionate and interested in what they are doing. Any society needs all kinds of professionals, not only doctors or engineers. The essence of education is to nurture new generations who will contribute to the good of the country by playing their respective roles well. And in order for them to do that, we need to trust our youths and give them their due respect and opportunities.

Khin Hnin Soe is the principal of the Myanmar Metropolitan College. She can be reached at [email protected] .