One week into Fieldwork 2: Students, Schools, Culture, and Focus Groups

We have completed nearly a weeks’ worth of data collection for this round of fieldwork. I won’t divulge the exact schools that we visited, but they were all in the southern part of Bhutan. 

This is my first time in this particular area of Bhutan, and it is very interesting to be in the lowlands. For those of you unfamiliar with the topography of Bhutan, the southern border with India starts at around sea level and then is essentially a steep staircase up to the northern border with Tibet ending at the tallest point, Gangkhar Puensum, at 24,840 feet (7,570m). My experiences in Bhutan have been all in higher elevations – for example, when I worked at Royal Thimphu College, I lived at about 9,000 feet (2,700m). Down here close to sea level, the entire landscape is different. The air is warm and heavy and the vegetation is tropical. 

A school in southern Bhutan

A school in southern Bhutan

Visiting schools for our fieldwork involves several activities. We conduct two focus group sessions with students and teachers, respectively, as well as conduct classroom observations. I’ve become quite keen on focus groups as a data collection method, because I like the conversation it produces. Focus groups allow participants to listen to each other, try out ideas, and agree/disagree. When it works well, the data is so much richer than individual interviews. However, there is always the danger of participants either dominating the group and/or other participants remaining silent the entire session. The more focus groups I run, the better I become at facilitating these issues – although never perfectly. Running a good focus group is certainly a skill for continuous improvement that involves planning and experience. 

Regarding focus groups, we have run into an interesting and challenging phenomenon that may be particular to Bhutan. A handful of our focus groups with students have been very difficult: students are silent, reluctant, and very shy. They agree with everything, never daring to offer a dissenting opinion. Some of this may have to do with language, of course. We conduct our focus groups in English, which is the language of instruction in Bhutanese schools. Despite that, many students are hesitant to use English to express themselves. We have a translator in Dr Kezang Sherab – who can speak Dzongkha (national language), Sarchop (eastern language), and Nepali – but despite all of our prompting the students rarely take advantage of translation. It is our feeling that the students’ reluctance and compliance has much to do with culture. Bhutanese schools, and indeed Bhutanese society in general, is very much a culture of deference. Children rarely feel comfortable to express dissent or disagreement with those perceived to be elders or authority figures (such as teachers). As much as we tell students that we are not teachers or authorities in any way, we still become perceived that way (particularly the foreigners). Bhutanese students often strive for the ‘right’ answers to questions, which sometimes makes focus groups exceedingly difficult when we are trying to get at their opinions and experiences. For example, when we ask students about taking examinations, it is clear that they are searching for the answer they think we want to hear. They all agree that examinations are great and that they are happy to take them. School is wonderful. Teachers never yell or hit. We implore them, re-ask them, and then several awkward silences later one of them finally breaks and says that examinations are very stressful and makes them feel sad, that teachers do indeed hit, that there is bullying occurring at the school. Of course, then we have to wonder whether or not these are also constructed answers meant to appease us. In a sense, we will never know for sure – although our longitudinal experiences in schools in Bhutan informs how we can interpolate student answers somewhat.

Thankfully, this has been the minority of focus groups with students. In general, we have had fascinating conversations with the children of Bhutan. We are learning much about how children see the purpose of school, their place in society, and their futures. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, one of the big outcomes of this research will be a book exploring the educational narratives that we are getting from the students. Many children speak of the disconnect between what they are learning in school, and what their parents know (many of whom are illiterate farmers); the disjuncture between their ‘schooled identity’ and their ‘village identity’. They also speak of their ambitions, and of the importance of supporting the nation and doing what is best for their parents. In many ways, they are caught betwixt and between: striving for an ‘educated’ and ‘modern’ future while maintaining traditional familial and cultural obligations. This is particularly resonant with me, as I have been particularly inspired by previous anthropological works on this subject (references here). 

In my next post over the weekend, I’ll touch upon teachers and schools in Bhutan. Meanwhile, here are a few pictures from our fieldwork…