Embarking on Fieldwork Round 2

As I embark on our second fieldwork trip (I am currently writing this en route to Delhi), I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the beginning of this project, and also look forward to this and future work.

When we first proposed the project to the Toyota Foundation, there was still some uncertainly as to exactly what we were looking for. We knew, of course, that we wanted to explore what schools in Bhutan teach and how they teach it. Particularly, we wanted to see how curriculum and pedagogy were balanced – especially between what Bhutanese policy says it wants versus what actually happens in schools. However, we didn’t just want this to be yet another study on the policy-to-practice gap. That research is, to be frank … boring. It is a well-trodden trope, and in a rut.

We wanted to go beyond simply the policy gap and propose how we can view schools through a lens of four H’s: head, hands, heart, and happiness. How do these dimensions play out in schools? In what ways can policy reach into practice to promote the four H’s? In part, this lens is, itself, informed by Bhutanese education policy at its most ideal and aspirational (I have a chapter on this in this book). Indeed, Bhutanese educational policy proposes something different and something progressive. However, the practice and culture within schools remain stubbornly regressive. There’s that policy-to-practice trope again…There is a risk, of course, of agenda pushing through research. I am wary of this to be sure. What this project is transforming into, though, is something much more emergent. Part of the vagueness at the start of the project was intentional to have a more grounded approach to the research.

From our first fieldwork trip, it became very clear that we were getting very rich data regarding educational narratives from both students and teachers. The questions in our fieldwork became more attuned to asking about educational aspirations, utility, values, and experiences. To be short, we became interested in the educational ‘scripts’ in Bhutan from the perspective of those ‘on the ground’ (e.g. ’in the classroom’). This is somewhat of a natural extension of our previous work, respectively. Dr Sherab had previously explored the ‘hidden curriculum’ of teachers in the classroom, and the values that they represented (or didn’t). In his doctoral thesis, he also explored what Educating for Gross National Happiness meant to teachers (or didn’t) and where it was located in the culture and practices of the school. Both Dr Sherab and myself – along with co-investigator Tsering Y. Nidup – previously investigated the narrative of non-cognitive skills and values education in Bhutanese schools through our British Academy project. (Article here) Dr Ueda did her doctoral thesis in the 1990s on modernity narratives and Bhutanese youth – particularly in rural areas and which also involved schools somewhat. My doctoral thesis work on inclusive education in Bhutan involved a substantial amount of exploration around narratives of educational ability and dis/ability in schools from the students and teachers’ perspective.

It is apparent that one of the major outcomes of our Toyota Foundation project will be a piece of written work that explores educational narratives. I am not going to lay it all out right now and in this blog post – since the data analysis is not complete – but we have encountered some very interesting discussions pertaining to the grand question of ‘Why School?’ (One of my all-time favorites to ruminate and consider.) We think that this is inherently linked to the kinds of values that school systems perpetuate and promote. (Or, to use educational anthropological parlance: recruit and maintain.)

Another major outcome of this project will revolve around the 4 H’s and a framework for investigating educational values in a school system. This still needs some thinking and development, however. We are starting to turn our attention towards some older ideas in progressive education that came from Dewey, Steiner, Pestalozzi, and Montessori that may have resonance for us now. We also intend to further explore more contemporary notions as well.

And so for fieldwork number two these two strains will be our guide: educational narratives and a 4H educational framework. We will be conducting focus groups of students and of teachers just as we did in the first round, but will be focusing on several southern Dzongkhags [districts] this time. I’ve never been to most of these Dzongkhags before, and am quite interested to see something new in Bhutan. My understanding of these Dzongkhags is that they are quite rural and somewhat isolated. I will write my impressions in future blog posts.