Critical Thinking in Myanmar Education
Myanmar’s education system is a deep rooted part of its culture. Hundreds of years of Buddhist rote learning, a formal British colonial framework, and decades of direct military governmental management, have together stamped upon it the authority of teacher over student.
This authority brings with it principles including respect for elders, loyalty, and mental discipline.
But at the same time, a UNICEF study found it produced “little evidence of student questioning or opportunities to develop critical thinking or students taking responsibility for their own learning”. It found teachers spent three quarters of their time talking at their classes, which could number more than 100 pupils.
Rote learning, drilling, chanting, reading aloud and memorisation dominate the pedagogy. For example, Prospect Burma alumnus Saw Eh Gay Dah undertook his entire school education in Burmese purely through memorising the sounds, without understanding a word of it. This is not uncommon.
Myanmar’s 30 year education plan, published in 2002, recognised the need to expand critical thinking in curricula and proposed a move to a more Child Centred Approach (CCA) pedagogy. But this ambition did not translate to reality. 15 years and several policy and constitutional changes later, its National Strategic Education Plan 2016-21 (NSEP) put much of the blame on teachers, stating:
“Despite the historical practice of promoting a critical thinking-focused pedagogy in Myanmar, previous teaching reforms have struggled to make an impact on pedagogy due to weak communication among teachers, limited funding to entrench behaviour change, weak consultation with and ownership among teachers, and weak complementary reforms in curriculum and student assessment. As a result, most teaching still relies heavily on rote memorisation and didactic strategies that do not engage children, and therefore their learning outcomes are poor.”
Opinions on the National Strategic Education Plan
Susan Law taught first hand for the British Council in Yangon, and also worked on policy for training teachers and civil servants. She thinks it is unfair to blame the teachers for problems in the education system.
“It is quite a dichotomy because ultimately teachers are not questioned and their authority is absolute in the classroom; but at the same time they are completely marginalised from decision making in education.
“The typical teacher educator is female, single, between 40 and 55, and speaks Myanmar as their first language. But if you look at senior roles in education – it’s men. So there is a gender element as well in decision making.”
Swati Mehta is the Deputy Team Leader and Senior Adviser for MyJustice, an access to justice programme which, among other things, supports lawyers and law students, strengthening their capacities in Myanmar. MyJustice has studied the legal education system and Swati agrees that teachers have little scope to make changes themselves.
“Teachers are like any other civil servants and can be transferred on short notice. They have little control over their work, their classes, administrative tasks, promotion and transfer schedule. Even those who have been exposed to new teaching methodologies and want to use this are dependent on approvals by the head of the law department. Any research or writing could only typically be undertaken after work hours given their many department responsibilities. Notably, the Ministry of Education also recognises the need for change. In fact, the recent move of Ministry of Education to grant autonomy to 16 universities gives much hope.”