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

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…