Myanmar education – rapidly emerging in critical analysis, global understanding and compassion for others

BY: Michael Magone

Myanmar education programs, whether traditional or progressive, are eager to move forward with Myanmar’s rapidly emerging culture. Last spring, through the University of Montana Mansfield Center’s YSEALI Fellows Program, I had the great fortune to team with two educators from SE Asia: Jua Yang of Luang Prabang, Laos, representing Pencils of Promise (see earlier blog), and Win Naing of Mandalay, Myanmar’s Phaung Daw Oo Monastic School System. This fall, I returned the visit favor, including spending part of a week in Myanmar with Win in Mandalay, Myanmar. For my four days, I toured urban and rural monastic schools, visited with teachers, students and principals, inspected student projects and school facilities, and discussed increasingly progressive approaches to providing quality education to our students. What struck me first and foremost was the excitement and love for learning in students of all ages! The students came from varied backgrounds, ethnically, economically, and some without living parents. Many lived at the school. Operating on a shoestring budget, the school amazingly provided basic food, shelter, and educational support, medical/health support, and continual love, encouragement and expectation for helping students enrich their current and future worlds with learning! Turn one direction or another and students were there to greet you, eager to practice their English, anxious to hear about whence you come. The monastic schools are places of learning, constantly in motion, with a fiercely and understandably loyal staff and student body for the amazing advances they are making in teaching and learning.

Part of the days were spent observing and listening to the impressively progressive instructional approaches. Inquiry based learning permeates each classroom, whether the normal classes, advance classes or bridging classes. English enters the curriculum at varied grade levels but catches on quickly. Problem solving, critical thinking and a further understanding of the global world start early and become norms of analysis. With over 8000 students in the elementary and high school system, and returning students to help teach others within the school system, it is clearly a positive and amazing movement that will undoubtedly work to the overall advantage of Myanmar as a developing country! Whether students with challenging special needs or gifted in learning, all have their eyes on how to succeed in the world, how to contribute to their culture. Those in the upper grades are eager to pursue higher education – to the extent that the monastic system is eyeing the creation of a college or university within the system so as to better serve the up and coming student population regardless of their economic challenges.

I appreciated the many curious conversations with students about the US and Montana, as well as the thoughtful, deeper conversations with staff about instructional strategies, formative and summative assessment styles, curriculum alignment, and professional development. Whether students, staff or administration, when questions were asked, they were questions of depth and substance for which I refreshingly had to analyze the rationale of why we do what we do in the United States and whether it is effective or not. Four days was not nearly enough time for the topics and conversations we wanted to pursue!

Numerous times during my stay and tour I had the honor of visiting with the school founder, principal and highly recognized educator, U Nayaka. Like his students and staff, his insights were enriching and his questions with obvious purpose and conviction. Repeatedly we discussed how a partnership could develop between Montana schools and the monastic schools of Myanmar, whether elementary, secondary or higher education. I am hopeful that such discussions will lead to continued chapters in this developing relationship.

Also of note, I was so very impressed by the ongoing attention to keeping a clean learning and working environment in spite of the continual sand and dust of the area. Everyone pitches in to keep the place clean, orderly and working. They take great pride in it – something the rest of the world could learn much from as well. Hand washing opportunities are prevalent throughout the schools and communities – it’s just a part of the culture! That’s no small task for those of us who work in public schools and continually preach the importance of hand washing to our students, especially through cold and flu season.

Distance learning and training opportunities are up and running within the school system – reaching out to the rural schools for more effective teacher training and to countries around the world for pursuit of broader global learning at all education levels. Again, we are hopeful partnerships can be developed via such technology.

My final work afternoon in Myanmar was spent visiting with professors of the Yangon Education Institute – presenting on how Montana teachers teacher, students learn, and administrators operate their schools in team-work, collaborative fashion. Two hours wasn’t long enough to have a decent conversation, but once again, the questions asked, stories shared certainly opened the door to the fascination of what works and doesn’t work in each of our education systems and how we can learn from each other to improve student learning. Thank you for that opportunity!

In some ways it seems like forever and a world ago I toured through the buildings, court yards and classrooms of Mandalay schools, learning and sharing throughout each moment of my day. But it was only less than a week ago. While the memories and excitement imbed themselves deeper into my mind, I know the initiated relationships have great potential for future shared learning and purpose as we all, as educators, work to provide future education opportunities for each and all of our students as befits their styles and interests of learning.

Well done Myanmar! The world is watching to see where you fly- especially those of us in Western Montana who now have vested friendship and interest in how our Myanmar colleagues, peers and fellow students light the world on fire with learning! Thank you again for your kindness, time and enrichment of both professional and personal purpose and meaning!

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