The government is spending more, but teachers and students are still unhappy
ON THE first floor of a crumbling colonial building in Yangon, a teacher taps the words written on the board with a bamboo rod. “Repeat after me so you will remember this by heart,” she instructs. The whole class chants back in unison. The children have been regurgitating sentences all morning. No hands are raised, no questions asked. To earn promotion to the next form, there is no need to gain a proper understanding of the subject; memorising textbooks is all that is required. For the 40 pupils, rote learning will continue for years to come, until they complete high school.
Only one in ten students remains in school that long and passes the final exams. Although the vast majority of children in Myanmar enroll in primary school, half of them drop out by the second year of secondary school. Some do so because their families need the income they could earn by working. But most cite boredom, not poverty, as the main reason.
Myanmar’s schools were not always so bad. A centuries-old tradition of monastic education gave Myanmar one of the highest literacy rates in South-East Asia at the time of independence, in 1948. The University of Rangoon (as Yangon was then known) was one of the most respected in the region. Under British rule, knowledge of English spread widely.
All this changed after the army seized power in 1962. It blew up the university’s student union building and launched a campaign against foreign influence. Schools were nationalised and spending on them plummeted. In 2007-10 the government spent less than 1% of GDP on education, not even a third of the regional average. A World Bank study conducted in 2014 found that young pupils in Yangon, a relatively rich and privileged part of the country, were less good at reading than their counterparts not only in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, but also in Guatemala and Nicaragua.
The military regime saw textbooks as a tool of indoctrination more than instruction. In class, children were taught never to question authority. Fear, says Ma Thida, a Burmese writer, is rooted in Burmese minds from a very young age. She believes the atrocious education system has led to a society that is “intellectually blind”.
The curriculum is a source of irritation to minorities. Although the country has been racked by insurgencies since independence, history books describe its 135 official ethnic groups as living in peace and harmony. “This is not the real history,” says Nang Lun Kham Synt, an ethnic Shan who has just graduated from a government school. In fact, ethnic militias run their own schools and print their own textbooks, which often look like photographic negatives of the government’s.
Businessmen, meanwhile, complain that rote learning does not give students the skills they need in the workplace. As one puts it, the more educated you are, the less employable you become. He retrains his employees with tutorials and online classes.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) took over from an army-backed government last year, says things will change. Education is one of the NLD’s priorities. A glossy booklet produced by the Ministry of Education promises to give Burmese children “21st-century skills”. The National Education Strategic Plan aims to develop vocational training and inject a dose of critical thinking into the classroom.
To turn this vision into a reality, the government is continuing with a vast increase in spending on education. This year it will stump up nearly four times more than in 2012. A new curriculum is being rolled out and teachers are being sent back to school.
But the process is chaotic and disjointed. At least nine foreign organisations are involved in fixing different parts of the system. Only kindergarten and first grade are using the new curriculum, with four conflicting schedules for when it will be introduced in other years. The final exams—the only thing students and parents really care about—are still untouched. “As it is, the curriculum seems like a bridge to nowhere,” says Rosalie Metro of the University of Missouri-Columbia.
According to Ms Metro, bureaucrats and foreign consultants have devised the reforms with little input from those with a direct stake in the system. Over noodle and fish soup, a group of teachers lament that they are never consulted about changes in the classroom. The National Network for Education Reform, an organisation of students, teachers and civil-society organisations, says the Ministry of Education does not listen. Thein Lwin, who is a member of the network, used to advise Ms Suu Kyi, but was sacked after helping students air their grievances during the passage of the education law. The new government may want more critical thinking in the classroom, but it does not seem to welcome it in public life.