In Person

Phaung Daw Oo Sayadaw: ‘The Current Education System Must Be Changed’

By Myat Pyae Phyo 8 June 2017

Phaung Daw Oo Monastic School in Mandalay, led by Buddhist monk Sayadaw U Nayaka, has been named this year’s recipient of the Citizen of Burma Award.

The award is given annually by members of the Burmese diaspora, as a way to honor those who work for the benefit of Burmese society.

The school principal and abbot of Phaung Daw Oo Monastery, Sayadaw U Nayaka, is known for developing a teaching method radically different from what is often encountered in Burma’s public education system.

Established in 1993, the school also serves as a boarding facility for novice monks, orphans and children of impoverished families.

U Nayaka recently discussed his school and Burma’s education system in an interview with The Irrawaddy’s Myat Pyae Phyo.

What were your intentions when you established Phaung Daw Oo Monastic School?

I established the school in 1993. While I was at a monastery in a small township, I saw a three-story Karen high school on a street. Later I learnt that it was founded by priests. I also wanted to establish a school like that, so, I felt the need to learn secular education. I stopped receiving religious education and arrived in Mandalay in 1971.

I stayed at Mattara Monastery in Mandalay and studied from the sixth grade. I graduated [with a degree] in chemistry in 1981-82 from Mandalay University. I founded Phaung Daw Oo Monastery in 1982 together with Sayadaw U Jotika. From then until 1993, I provided free tuition for sixth to tenth graders, particularly for children of impoverished families in the neighborhood.

In 1993, we were able to open a monastic primary school, and we expanded it for sixth to ninth graders the following year. In 2000, we could incorporate a high school.

Are the curriculum and teaching methods of Phaung Daw Oo the same as those of education ministry?

We use the same curriculum, but adopt different teaching methods. In 2002, we got a lot of international contacts. Later, with the help of teachers from the British Embassy, we introduced a child-centered approach. Even in kindergarten, we started to teach all the subjects in English, except Burmese. And for students above primary levels, we teach with the method of RWCT (Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking).

Until around ten years ago, we still used the conventional teaching methods [practiced in Burma]. But, I studied teaching methods in foreign countries and I also wanted change the teaching methods here. Currently, students in our country learn in “parrot fashion” which does not encourage critical thinking. Children are weak in critical thinking.

If [students who] learn by heart could spur national development, Myanmar should be the world’s number one country by now. Six-distinction winners can be only found in Myanmar, and not in other countries. In our country, if students can learn the text by heart and write all the text down on exam papers, they get high marks in exams and are recognized as outstanding students. So, it seems like the more they are being recognized as outstanding students, the more they copy.

The measuring stick [here] is different from other countries. So I gradually changed the teaching methods.

What do you to build the capacity of teachers at the school?

There are teachers who have been teaching at the school for ages. Those teachers train junior teachers who have less experience. I ask junior teachers to sit in on the classes of senior teachers and learn how they teach. And we have a teacher from England who provides teacher training and English language.

An American university also sends a teacher annually. We also hire two foreign teachers with the school budget. And there are also over ten foreign teachers who volunteer. They also provide necessary training for local teachers. In 2013, we established the New Teacher Training Center.

Could you tell about the newly opened Phaung Daw Oo University?

We made contact with the Australian Catholic University (ACU) in 2015. ACU will provide the curriculum and confer certificates. For an academic year, students will have to study here for six months and another six months at ACU. Every qualified student is eligible to enroll if they meet the English skill level set by the university. The course is free for the time being, but later student fees will be charged for those who can afford it.

How many teachers and students are there at the school?

There are over 8,000 students and over 400 teachers. And now we have received over 40 children who were displaced by clashes.

What has given you greatest satisfaction at the school over the past 20 years?

I’m satisfied that my students can attend foreign universities now. Now, there are 24 students who study abroad. Some have completed university education [abroad] and are teaching here. My school could turn out doctors, engineers and military officers. It is an exhausting job to turn out such students. But on the other hand, I’m satisfied and happy.

What is your view of the current education system in the country?

In other countries, there is no passing or failing the exam. There is only completion of study. Schools keep the records of the students’ achievements throughout the respective academic year and students can choose a university depending on those records. Likewise, universities choose students who are suitable for their courses.

In Myanmar, universities choose students according to their marks [in matriculation examinations]. So, our universities need autonomy.

What changes should be introduced?

I have presented recommendations to the Education Department. They are also planning to make reforms. If the exam system is to be changed, teaching methods must be also changed. The current exam system is more like a memory test. The teaching methods do not encourage them to read, but to learn by heart. For example, if a student is asked to write about Gen Aung San, he will write down what he has learnt by heart. But if he is asked to write what he thinks of Gen Aung San, he will have to write his views based on his study of him. So, he will have to go to a library or search online. This will encourage reading. The current system must therefore be changed.

What are the barriers in making these changes?

I talked about this when I met the education minister. He seems to be considering if people can accept [such changes]. A lot of effort needs to be put if we will make the change simultaneously. There are also entities, such as some private boarding schools, that do not want to change.

What are the major challenges for a monastic education school?

The major challenge concerns the budget. Monthly, it costs approximately between 50 and 60 million kyats to feed the students and pay the teachers and staff. Last month, the electricity bill alone cost 2.8 million kyats. We get some foreign assistance, but not a sufficient amount. There is a deficit every month.

Could the budget constraints force the closure of the school?

Things will be difficult in the long run if there is a deficit every month. But I believe that there will be a good return for doing good deeds. In the early days of the school, I even had to ask for donations [from passers-by] on the roadside.

Why did your school win the Citizen of Burma Award?

I changed the teaching method to encourage critical thinking rather than learning by heart. Again, there are over 1,200 students including novices and monks who board at the school. Another reason is we not only teach school education, but we also teach vocational education such as tailoring, and computer skills.

How can donors make donations to the school?

They can come directly to the school, and they can also make donations through their mobile phones. MPT subscribers can type 1000 and send it to ‘2801’. With one message, they can donate 1,000 kyat from their top-up. If 100,000 people can donate 1,000 kyats monthly, this school will exist for a long time. Telenor subscribers can also make donations to PDO Account 09771315038 with Wave Money. And donations can also be made with credit cards on the school’s website

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko