Burma School Offers Dose of Imagination

By Samantha Michaels 23 September 2013

RANGOON — The entrance hall to Lumbini Academy is not like that of a typical school in Burma. Just inside, behind a winding staircase that leads to classrooms upstairs, a few children run around an indoor playground, racing down yellow and red slides, while a boy sits on the ledge of a small indoor pool, watching a collection of fish swim by.

“We’re teaching the children the difference between living things and nonliving things,” says Khu Hse Phaw, a 32-year-old preschool teacher. “We go out and show them the fish, the plants and the turtles—we have those, too.”

Lumbini was co-founded in 2006 by a famous Burmese writer, Ko Tar, and is one of a growing number of private schools in Burma. In Rangoon, the country’s commercial and financial capital, dozens of private schools have received licenses to operate after the former military regime ceded power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.

Decades ago under the socialist regime of Gen Ne Win, private schools were nationalized, but under President Thein Sein’s government, a private school registration law passed in Parliament in 2011, allowing institutions to operate officially. For some time before that, private schools had operated in an unregulated environment.

While the government’s more than 40,000 basic education schools have a reputation for over-packed classrooms and rote learning, private schools in Burma are offering a more child-centered approach.

“I like playing games here. We didn’t have any chance to play games before,” says 9-year-old Nyein Win, who attended a state school in Rangoon before transferring to Lumbini as a third grader this year.

Her friend, 8-year-old Myaing Myaing, another former state school student, agrees. “It was a lot of writing before, one page after another,” she says, adding that her class at Lumbini recently learned about the different eating habits of animals through role playing.

“We made stories, pretending to be animals and acting out how they eat,” adds her classmate, 9-year-old Aye Thiri.

But the more child-centered approach comes at a price. While government schools do not charge annual tuition, it can cost $6,000 to attend some private schools in Rangoon. That kind of tuition is affordable only for the wealthiest families in Burma, the poorest country in Southeast Asia. Many school-aged children cannot even attend government schools because their parents do not have enough money for textbooks or other fees such as classroom renovations.

Ko Tar, who is known by his pen name, says his goal with Lumbini was to offer a better education for students from middle-class families. Annual tuition at his school in east Rangoon’s Thingangyun Township is $1,500.

“In our country, some private schools are only meant for the very rich,” he says. “Here, tuition is half to a third of the price compared to other private schools. It is necessary for the middle class.”

About 300 students attend Lumbini, which currently runs through eighth grade, although Ko Tar says the school will add a new grade level annually through twelfth grade. He also founded a separate preschool branch and is trying to develop a pre-collegiate program to help students prepare for university in Burma or abroad.

Phyo Htet Min, 25, is a computer science teacher who came to Lumbini three months ago after working at the high-end Horizon International School in Rangoon. “In Horizon’s computer rooms, there was air-conditioning, the chairs were perfect. Here it’s not like that,” he says.

But Lumbini does offer other perks. Unlike many international private schools, it puts equal weight on teaching English language as well as Burmese language, with an emphasis on local history and culture.

“The goal is to make students aware of their identity, where they come from,” says Htwe Htwe Than, a third grade teacher. “This school is not American, British or Singaporean—it is us.”

“Government schools are just transmitting knowledge, they don’t let students ask many questions,” she adds. “Here, we let it happen.”

Rather than rote learning, Lumbini promotes an inquiry method, encouraging students to investigate and solve problems by themselves. This approach, Ko Tar says, is especially useful in science teaching, for which the school has developed a reputation.

Ko Tar originally trained as an orthopedic surgeon before focusing his career on writing and social work, while the school’s other founder, Dr. Tin Hlaing (pen name Phoehlaing), earned a PhD in London and specializes in physics.

In the school’s science laboratory, a portrait of Albert Einstein hangs high on the wall, along with a chart of the periodic table of elements. Microscopes stand in a line on a table near a land terrain diorama and a rock garden. A professor from Carleton College in the United States has visited regularly to conduct science teaching workshops for the teachers.

“This week we learned about molecules,” says 10-year-old Min Zin, who hopes to become a professional scientist someday.

“I want to know about space, so I read about astronauts. But Myanmar [Burma] doesn’t have a space program,” he adds.

Burma’s government schools also prioritize science, but Ko Tar says memorizing facts to achieve good exam results is often seen as more important than fully understanding basic principles behind how the world works. “People are very much anxious to get good grades—they don’t give children the time and space they need,” he says.

As Burma reforms politically and economically, there is also a push to improve the education system, which was chronically underfunded during military rule. The Ministry of Education is currently undergoing a two-year review of the state school system, speaking with experts to identify priority areas for reform.

One key player in education reform is Dr. Thein Lwin from the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. He is a leader of the National Network for Education Reform, a civil society group that is conducting a parallel review of the school system and has submitted policy recommendations to Parliament.

“We want to change the teaching and learning system, not based on textbooks, but inquiry-based learning,” says the education expert, who trained some teachers at Lumbini.

One of his teaching students was San San Htwe, 30, who is now interning as an aide at Lumbini and will begin working as a kindergarten teacher there soon. As a child she attended a government school, which she says lacked a science laboratory or other resources available at private schools today. The Ministry of Education’s reforms could eventually help narrow the gap, she says, but for now she is pessimistic. “The [government’s] review is not inclusive enough,” she says. “They haven’t spoken to enough teachers. I don’t think anything will really change.”

Even in private schools, change takes time, Ko Tar says. “I am struggling because the mindset of parents is set, not just in our country but in other parts of Asia, to rote learning,” he says, amid preparations for parent-teacher conferences that he says will emphasize the importance of reading at home and journal writing.

“Children must have time and space,” he says. “We need to help them imagine and think.”

The names of children in this story have been changed for privacy.