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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Challenges for Myanmar Schools

Aiko Doden

Feb. 13, 2017

Officials from Myanmar recently visited an elementary school in Japan to learn new teaching methods, as the Southeast Asian country moves to reform its education system.

It’s been almost a year since a Myanmar's new government took power. One of the country’s most pressing needs is to inspire a new generation to proceed with democratic reforms after a long period under military rule.

Changes are being made to the education system, including revising school textbooks, but many educators navigating this landscape do not have experience with the newer methods, and are teaching by trial and error.

NHK senior commentator Aiko Doden joins anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: You just came back from Myanmar. I'm very eager to learn what you saw. But first, what's the goal of the education reforms?

Doden:In essence, the reforms aim to transform schools into places where students have free and democratic discussions -- something that was discouraged under the over half-century of military rule. International donors and expert organizations are also coming on board to help change the system. And a delegation of teachers and officials from Myanmar recently visited Japan.

Shibuya: Why did they come here?

Doden: In Myanmar, Japan is known as a country in Asia that transitioned from being under strong military influence, to being a developed democracy, and one with a highly educated population following WW2. The delegation came to take a close look at Japan's elementary schools.

Fourteen education officials from Myanmar came to Japan, with support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. The officials are responsible for curriculum reform, including revising textbooks. That process started after the country shifted to civilian rule in 2011.

"In Myanmar, classrooms are centered around the teacher, but in Japan and other countries, children solve problems by themselves with assistance from the teacher, in a way that deepens their knowledge. We want to take a student-centered approach in our country, too," said Myint Swe, chairperson of the National Curriculum Committee, who led the delegation.

Until recently, students in Myanmar were mainly taught to memorize and repeat lessons. Even the library is usually locked, and it cannot be used it freely. Students are often discouraged from taking an interest in specific topics, and from doing their own research.

But to promote democracy, the officials say students need to learn to think on their own, have free discussions and to work on problem-solving. So, now they are shifting away from rote memorization, and instead emphasizing critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Members of the education reform team visited a Japanese school. Among them is Nyo Nyo, who also teaches at the University of Mandalay. She said she had doubts about the teacher-centered system but that's all she knew, and she's eager to find out how things are done in Japan.

“In Myanmar, sometimes it occurs like this; even if a lesson has wonderful content, it might be difficult for children to understand," she says. "I want to see how the teacher urges the children to think on their own.”

In a fourth-grade class, the students are discussing "the value of life" and officials pay close attention to the students' answers. The teacher divides the students into groups, allowing them to express their opinions with ease. Then the teacher has the children to reflect on the topic under discussion and to write down what they think.

Nyo Nyo says that in Myanmar, it has not been possible for the students to express their opinions freely and spontaneously like this.

"I am so impressed that the children in Japan can voice their opinions openly, without being afraid. That’s still difficult for children in Myanmar,” she says.

After the classroom visit, there was a Q&A session and the officials asked a lot of questions, especially about how to get children to be inquisitive and to speak their minds.

“How do you encourage children to express their opinions?" one member of the Myanmar delegation asks.

“I think it’s important to always create opportunities for them to explain or question things in class,” replies Masanao Takahashi, a professor at Kamakura Women's University.

“For the future of a nation that's in the process of democracy, children need to be able to understand and develop ideas on their own. They shouldn't only be bound to the past or to the government,” Nyo Nyo says.

Shibuya: The pictures of the library were quite shocking.

Doden: And quite painful, too. During the military regime, raising questions or even critical thinking itself was categorically discouraged. Authorities feared that libraries would become secret meeting places for political activists.

Shibuya: What is the current state of the schools and education in the country?

Doden: In Burmese, the word for “study” is "saa-tan-dee," which means “to memorize.” This gives an idea of Myanmar's learning style, which has produced a high literacy rate, over 95 percent, according to UNESCO. But it has not always translated into strong critical thinking skills. So you can see that education needs changes beyond textbooks. It's a process that takes time, because peoples’ mindsets need to change as well.

Shibuya: When you were in Myanmar, did you notice any positive changes?

Doden: Yes I did, actually. I recall how children's faces lit up when a mobile library arrived. It's a van full of books that comes to the school every 2 weeks. The service was provided by the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, founded by Aung San Suu Kyi, and it uses funds and donations from Myanmar and abroad. The van carries about 1,000 books. It arrived during lunch time but none of the children seemed to care about their food. You could see that their main appetite was for learning.

Shibuya: That's quite amazing and kind of inspiring. But it must be difficult for teachers, who have been teaching this way for years. Are they having trouble adapting to the changes?

Doden: Yes, teachers and officials in their 40’s and 50’s grew up under military rule, and so these ideas are new to them. That's partly why the textbook revisions are getting help from organizations like JICA, ADB and UNICEF. Their contributions have paid off, and officials hope to have the new texts in 1st Grade classrooms next June, when the academic year starts.

Next month will mark a year since the National League for Democracy government was sworn in. The de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been stressing that education is a pillar of the country which must be reformed. Transforming the schooling system may take significant time and effort. But empowering children through education is key to the inclusive and sustainable development of Myanmar.