A Monk with a Vision Puts School Within Reach

By Zarni Mann 21 July 2015

MANDALAY — About 25 young schoolchildren in white and green uniforms stand face to face in the classroom. They point at each other enthusiastically as they practice the personal pronouns “You” and “I” while their teacher patiently provides corrections and encouragement.

In another classroom for third-graders, some 20 students practice math, brainstorming in English with their teacher. In another, children in small groups are playing a game with cards bearing pictures of animals, fruits, vegetables and colors.

These are everyday classroom scenes at the Phaung Daw Oo Monastic School, located east of Myanmar’s second-biggest city of Mandalay, where in some classes, young Buddhist novices, nuns and other children all learn together.

The school began with a simple idea—“a free education for everyone”— and each year, students from near and far enroll, from kindergarten to high school level, learning the same curriculum as other local government and private schools.

One of the defining features of the Phaung Daw Oo school is its “child centered approach” to education, led by school principal and the Abbot of Phaung Daw Oo Monastery, Sayadaw U Nayaka, who has also sought to deemphasize traditional practices of rote learning.

“It was around 1967, when I was about 20, that my younger brother Zawtika and I saw a huge Christian missionary school in Hinthada, Ayeyarwady Region, which was then a government school,” U Nayaka said. “We later found out about missionary schools and their idea of free education inspired me to run a monastic school.”

For centuries, monastic schools were the only source of education for Myanmar’s youth until missionary and private schools were established during the British colonial period. Following the military coup in 1962, the popularity of monastic education dropped significantly in cities and towns across the country.

In order to achieve his dream of educating others, U Nayaka first had to educate himself. At the age of 24, he left the monastery in Mandalay to pursue a secondary education in a government school in Pyaw Bwe, Mandalay Region.

“To teach others, I had to learn the modern education [system]. I was the oldest person in the class. However, I was never disappointed to learn,” he said.

He remained in the monkhood throughout his secondary schooling and went on to study chemistry at Mandalay University, graduating in 1981.

‘The Idea is to Learn’

In the early 1990s monastic schools regained popularity, particularly among children whose families could not afford regular school fees.

After being appointed as an abbot at Phaung Daw Oo monastery, U Nayaka and his brother U Zawtika established the free monastic school for primary school children in 1993, registered under the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

In the beginning, teaching methods at the new school mirrored those of other government-run schools.

“As the years went by, I felt like something was still missing,” U Nayaka said. “Around the year 2000, when I learned about the child centered approach, I decided to change the teaching methods in my school.”

With the help of donors, U Nayaka sought foreign educators to help train local teachers. His emphasis on a child centered approach was quickly embraced by students, while parents initially remained skeptical.

“We received several complaints from parents that their children were getting very inquisitive, did no homework, [and that there were] fewer lessons in their notebooks than [students] in government schools,” U Nayaka said.

“We had to explain the child centered approach to them, which is not a ‘parrot learning’ method, and that the idea is to learn, not just writing notes.”

The school later expanded to incorporate a high school and in recent years has had around 6,000 to 7,000 students enrolled each year, including orphans, ethnic children and children affected by Cyclone Nargis.

Around 300 local volunteer teachers are on hand each year, including foreign teachers from countries including Germany, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.

But it has not always been smooth sailing for Phaung Daw Oo’s students, some of whom have found their exam results don’t always stack up against students in government schools.

Jasmine, who attended the Phaung Daw Oo school since kindergarten, recently received the results of her matriculation exams.

“I received no distinctions and was quite disappointed. From a young age, what we learn here is based on creative thinking and critical thinking. We never learn the lessons by heart; we rewrite it or present it in our own words,” she told The Irrawaddy.

“But for matriculation exams, we can’t do that. We have to learn everything from A to Z, by heart, and have to write it down [exactly] as it is,” she added.

U Nayaka said a government-led focus on rigid examinations discourages many students like Jasmine who are not familiar with the rote learning system—or, memorization based on repetition.

Only 30 percent of students from the monastic school passed the matriculation exams in the 2014-15 academic year, and only 185 students obtained distinctions.

Looking Ahead

After passing their final exams, students still face an uphill battle to gain entry into university, with places usually awarded according to examination marks.

“Since the total scores of our students are not comparable to the students who passed under the [rote learning] approach, most of them can’t usually study [subjects] like medicine, engineering or IT which require very high total scores,” a teacher at the school explained.

U Nayaka has his own possible solution: He dreams of opening a private, international-standard university offering free education.

“I think: What will these students do after they graduate from our high school? Most of them came here because they can’t afford tuition fees. Some of them can’t go to those universities because of their marks, but they are smart enough to become professionals,” he said.

U Nayaka’s plans stalled however, after the female donor of 400 acres of land for the site of the planned university in Mandalay Region’s Patheingyi Township was jailed in relation to the donation.

The Abbot’s vision has shifted slightly to other forms of higher education.

“Currently, we are planning to open a pre-college class for the students and teachers who will go abroad for further study. Now we are testing the class, first with the students who graduate from our high school, and then we will allow outsiders later,” he said.

In Myanmar, monastic schools are the most popular option for poor or disadvantaged students. According to official figures for 2014, there are an estimated 7,000 teachers and more than 260,000 students enrolled in some 1,579 monastic schools nationwide.

The Phaung Daw Oo Monastic school motto is clear and simple: “Free and better education for everyone.” It takes pride in an inclusive approach, without prejudice based on gender, race or religion.

“Education is just education. We can’t mix it up with religion. In our school, we teach no students to be racists,” U Nayaka said.

“Our education system has been spoiled for many years so that our children can’t catch up to international levels. My belief is that with better education, with smart and well-educated people, we can create a better community, a better country.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.