Finishing Fieldwork 2: Teachers and Snow Storms

Today we ended our second fieldwork trip with one last school in far western Bhutan. We also managed to get caught in a blizzard while we were traversing the highest road pass in Bhutan (Chele La, 4000m). We made it up and down safely thanks to some adept driving by Kezang and the prayers of four Buddhist nuns that we picked up on the way down. Such is travel in Bhutan…

Students walk home from school as the snow begins to gather.

Students walk home from school as the snow begins to gather.

This last school that we visited was a lower secondary school, so only through Class 6. It was bone-chillingly cold inside and out, so we huddled around the heaters to conduct our focus groups. In my last post, I promised to write some on the teachers we interview, so I will stick to that topic in this post. 

Just for a bit of background context, teachers in Bhutan are trained at one of two Colleges of Education in the Royal University of Bhutan (Paro – mostly primary level; and Samtse – mostly secondary level). Bhutanese teachers are members of the Civil Service, and are placed at schools based on opening and need, rather than preference. (Unlike, say, the United States where schools hire teachers that apply to teach there.) This has the effect of re-distributing teachers throughout Bhutan, so a teacher that hails from the far west can end up with a position in the far east, and vice-versa. This has some interesting effects on language in schools, as there are 20 unique languages in Bhutan. Although English and Dzongkha are the languages of instruction, for many teachers these are not even first or second languages. 

In terms of challenges, the majority of teachers we interviewed told us that they are assigned too many teaching hours, do not have enough preparation time, struggle to find resources (and usually end up supplementing with their own money), and have to deal with high student-to-teacher ratios. However, the biggest complaint from the teachers is that the centralized curriculum that is given to them is too vast and too exam focused, which restricts their ability to teach well. 

While none of these things are explicitly unique to Bhutan itself, what is worth exploring here in the Bhutanese context is the last point on the curriculum. In Bhutan, there are many aims of the education system that promote Gross National Happiness, Green Schools, and other values and life-skills. However, I argue, based on our research, that none of these lofty goals are possible based on the restriction of the curriculum. Teachers tell us that they would very much like to have more activity-based learning, more student-centered learning, more freedom to teach Bhutanese values, and more happiness and fun in their classrooms. These things are not possible with the current curriculum, which is burdensome, pedantic, and achievement-focused and only allow itself to be taught in a didactic style to make sure to get through it. This complaint from teachers increases the higher up in the education system you get. 

This is frustrating for Bhutanese teachers, because at the same time the curriculum is restrictive, there is a push for more ‘21st century pedagogy’ and for a ‘21st century classroom’. (These rather vague terms were explored in our focus groups, and our discussions are forthcoming within our publications as a result of this project.) As one teacher exclaimed, “How can we have a 21st century classroom with 20th century curriculum and 19th century materials!” That being said, we did have some interesting conversations on how to exactly incorporate activities into the lesson plan, as many teachers felt that to do more student-led activities were ‘extra’ and beyond the curriculum scope. However, every teacher was resolute that more activity-based learning made students more engaged and helped them learn more. 

When we get into a conversation regarding examinations, however, that is where there are interesting complexities with Bhutanese teachers. The feelings on examinations are mixed, but many teachers advocate for the importance of examinations to remain in the school system. (Here, I refer to annual summative examinations at each class level that determine whether or not the student will progress to the next class level.) As a thought experiment in our focus groups, we asked teachers if they could imagine a school system without examinations. (Of course, myself knowing quite well that those school systems do indeed exist.) Many teachers we interviewed were skeptical about such a system, and expressed that students could not possibly learn in such an examination-less system. The students themselves were also skeptical of such a system. One teacher today said, “Without examinations, students will not study and teachers will not teach.” That is a very interesting statement, and one worth ruminating on. I’ll leave that up to you, since I will be ruminating on this myself in writing up this project! 

Next steps for us are to begin really analysing the data we have collected. We will also return to Bhutan in September to speak to a few more teachers, students, and community members, as well as begin to officially disseminate some of our preliminary findings to key government stakeholders and the Bhutanese public. 

Scenes from our last fieldwork visit in Trip 2