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.”

Didactic teaching in a Myanmar state education classroom

The NESP’s solution is summed up in a Ministry of Education policy statement:

“The MOE is committed to improving the basic education curriculum to make it more relevant to the lives of students by focusing on 21st century skills, soft skills (including personal development and employability skills) and higher-order thinking skills” (i.e. critical thinking skills).

It further commits to work with three other ministries to develop teachers’ abilities to deliver these “21st Century Skills” which it clarifies thus:

“According to the vision for 21st century learning developed by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009), student outcomes are defined in terms of mastery of core academic subjects, combined with 21st century skills covering learning and innovation skills, information, media and technology skills, and life and career skills.”

It’s clear the NLD government are listening very closely to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (PS21), which is a US based partnership of education policy makers and private business including Microsoft, Apple, SAP and Ford. It works worldwide to encourage learning of skills transferable to the workplace.

Susan Law welcomes the move but is concerned PS21 could be misinterpreted as an out-of-the-box solution, rather than a bespoke process to meet Myanmar’s needs.

“It’s this buzzword. There’s quite a bit in educational reform, in the sense that, this is good so we must have it, and it’s that automatic ‘well let’s go for that, let’s go for critical thinking’, without actually a detailed examination of what that is and how that fits into the context. There’s really no agreed way to measure critical thinking as well. So how do you demonstrate progress in a meaningful fashion and actually what is it?”

The NESP’s answer to measurement is a threefold measure purely by volume number: of curriculum standards developed, of textbooks and teachers’ guides produced; and number of staff able to develop those standards and materials.

Writing for the Oxford University Tea Circle, Monash University researcher Claire Allen is concerned that this feels like the government is missing the point. She writes:

“Whilst the NLD acknowledged the importance of transitioning away from a rote-learning based syllabus they did not illustrate any concrete policies, other than the textbooks, that would be implemented to change these existing examination methods”.

Dr Thein Lwin, in his 2017 response to the NESP, noted this numerical approach to measurement also bleeds through to how students are assessed purely through final exams:

“Summative assessment is to know how much a student has obtained (remembered), which is simply ‘assessment of learning’. This type of system should be replaced with ‘assessment for learning’ that encourages students learning and ‘assessment as learning’ that helps students to take more responsibility for their own learning.”

Critical thinking for employability

PS21 promotes critical thinking as a skill valued by business who want new employees to innovate rather than just do things ‘how they’ve always been done’. Swati Mehta welcomes this:

“Most people are learning on the job. And if you are learning from a senior who has also learned from his senior, often there is no challenge to the status quo. For example, defence lawyers often do not ask the prosecution for the case files against their clients [because this is not how things are done]. For lawyers who come from other common law countries like me, we are struggling with this practice and cannot understand how you even begin to defend your client; how do you prepare your defence, if you don’t even know what the prosecution’s case/evidence is? But we all need to understand the context and remember how recent is the ‘right to defence’ in Myanmar.”

The cycle continues where students are learning from teachers who also learned on the job from their seniors. In her work with Myanmar university teachers, Susan Law found there is still some way to go to equip teachers with critical thinking skills:

“I found teachers themselves were extremely passionate about this idea of critical thinking and the educational system. They could talk at length about the various instances where they felt their students were not demonstrating critical thinking in the classroom. But interestingly when you started to do some tasks where the teachers needed to use these skills, they often performed in the same way as they told me their students did.”

British Council teaching in Yangon. The classroom is set out in tables for discussion, rather than lecture style.

Susan’s area of expertise is teaching English as a second language. In training teachers, she recognises it’s a subject which lends itself well to critical-thinking-style discussion of real life issues which are relevant to students:

“There are a lot of topics that will present themselves in class. And certainly you’d want, from a teaching point of view, to have some level of preparation, maybe language that’s going to pop up or things like that. But you can be brave and let it go off in a direction. I think sometimes the English language classroom can be a safe space. Students coming to the British Council I think sometimes felt comfortable talking about things in a class that they might not have been able to broach in other places.”

“We ask the students themselves to show where they use that language or task outside the classroom as well, to show that they are already critical thinkers, maybe make that wall between the classroom and real life come down a little bit more.”

Critical thinking in a societal framework

Swati Mehta agrees that it’s not that people in Myanmar don’t have good innate critical thinking skills, it’s more that they forego those skills when put in a formal position in front of someone in authority.

“People read between lines very well. But when it comes to applying these skills in your daily jobs and daily lives, people find it very challenging.

“For example, everyone interprets the criminal procedure code provisions on bail to imply that you cannot get bail in non-bailable cases. But when you look at old cases or from other comparable contexts, you can see that law permits bail to be argued in these cases. Some of our partner lawyers do make such applications for bails but many have been mocked in the court, sometimes by judges or prosecutors, and it becomes a personal thing. Challenging the norm can lead to complaints or even to your licence being revoked. With the recent Bar Council elections, there is hope that things will change for the better”.

Significantly, critical thinking is not just a matter for the education sector. In any democracy – and especially a fledgling democracy like Myanmar – it goes right to the heart of creating fundamental checks and balances. Swati Mehta says:

“A democracy clearly depends on the ability of people to hold governments to account. How do you hold governments to account? It’s primarily through elections and other institutions such as the legislature and judiciary.

“If lawyers or judges are coming from a system which has not encouraged you to think critically – i.e. if the government interpretation of the law defines the scope of the law without any critical thinking on the part of lawyers and judges who can challenge that interpretation – then laws can be used as tools of social control. In such cases, you will find it very difficult to hold government to account.”

Despite the challenges, the Ministry of Education’s policy direction at least is set, and it is supported by economic pressure and the lure of foreign business investment: There is general agreement that a higher level of critical thinking in education would generally be desirous. The last word from both our interviewees is one of optimism.

Susan Law says:

“Given the history and lack of access to everything for years, I am amazed at the level of grit and the huge lengths people have gone to get their hands on information and to develop their skills”.

Swati Mehta agrees:

“The good thing is that people want to change. Things are changing. And people are really, really hopeful and wanting to do things.”

Critical thinking in action: Prospect Burma alumnus and former refugee Hsar Doe Doh Moo Htoo (left) now uses his skills in his work at Salween Peace Park

Article by Peter Morris, Prospect Burma. Reproduced from Prospect Burma autumn 2020 newsletter which contains several further articles looking at the history of critical thinking and its application in Prospect Burma education projects.