Teaching history

My son, Gyamtsho Tshering, 17 years, Class XI, is home for his winter vacations. My wife and I are delighted to have our family together, and have often worried that our son has had to be away from home for most parts of the year.

Gyamtsho studies in St Joseph’s School, also known as “North Point”, in Darjeeling, India.

Why is he in North Point? Because while he was at Lungtenzampa MSS, the government decided to teach Bhutan history in Dzongkha. His mother had been seriously concerned. “Even as a subject, most students find Dzongkha difficult” she had grumbled, “so how can they use it to learn history properly?” I agreed. Plus most people, especially teachers, had complained that Dzongkha language teachers wouldn’t know enough of history to teach it, and most history teachers wouldn’t be able to teach in Dzongkha.

So we sent him to Darjeeling, despite the emotional and financial hardships.

Now it looks like 10 researchers contacted 96 schools and 15,000 students to establish what most parents have known all along – that teaching history in Dzongkha may not be such a good idea. I hope that the government takes the research findings seriously and acts quickly to undo years of damage.

But some of the damage can’t be undone. If, as the researchers conclude, teaching history in Dzongkha has failed, then, we must accept that, in the last three years, thousands of our students have learnt little history and they probably now dislike Dzongkha even more. Not good for the students. Not good for our national language. Not good for our country.

As for our son, we have not regretted. He receives a well rounded education in North Point, where academic standards are high and a premium is placed on values, sports, music, art, social work and leadership.

And guess who the principal of North Point is? Father Kinley, a Bhutanese! Five years ago, he was sent to revive North Point, a school that had deteriorated over the years. His challenge was to turn the school around. His tool was complete authority and autonomy to do so. And in five years, in spite of the political turmoil there, he has more than turn the school around. Father Kinley’s efforts are already being recognized – Educational World Magazine recently declared that North Point as one of the top 10 residential schools in all of India.

It’s obvious. Bhutanese teachers are capable. Give them the right incentives, some support and a little authority and autonomy, and they will deliver. And remember, good heads make good schools.

Good heads make good schools

More than 150 educationists attended a three-day seminar this week to examine our education system. Participants agreed on a range of problems frustrating education in our country ranging from inadequate infrastructure to ineffective teaching methodologies.

The seminar was an excellent idea. And recommendations were good. But nothing is new. Education workshops and seminars have time and again identified the same problems and agreed on similar strategies to improve education. Why? Because no matter how many times we met, we hardly ever followed through on the important decisions. So the quality of education, let’s face it, remains poor.

It wasn’t always so. In the early 1980s, some schools were widely regarded as education powerhouses. Punakha, Yangchuenphug and Khaling were the dominant schools at that time – they produced some of the finest students, many of who have gone on to do well in life.

Today, I’m afraid, it is difficult to point out any school that performs consistently well. All our schools seem to be equally mediocre, at best. What’s going on? Why have even our top schools gone bad? The problems and their cures have been extensively catalogued through countless seminars and workshops, but we are yet to see a noticeable improvement in the education system.

So while we wait for across the board improvements, consider Punakha, Khaling and Yangchenphug. Can we improve these three schools at least? Or for that matter any three schools? And make them into centres of education excellence?

True, a lot of work would need to done. Even for just three schools. But think about what Punakha, Khaling and Yangchenphug had in common in the 80’s. All three had very good principals – Father Coffey in Punakha; Father Mackey in Khaling, and Mr Tyson in Yangchuenphug. Some say that those principals were good because they had a lot of power. And that’s the point. Good principals need authority and autonomy to do a good job.

So can we identify three capable principals? Or a dozen, perhaps? And give them the challenge of improving their respective schools? They’ll need some amount of power and autonomy to get the job done. But they will succeed, even with minimal extra support.

Difficult, you say? I agree. We’ve corrupted our system so much that it’s difficult to spot potential, ability and commitment. That’s why all our good principals go unnoticed. When we do, its difficult to acknowledge, cultivate and reward them. That’s why our good principals don’t feel appreciated. Most importantly, we find it extrememly diffcicult to devolve real power and authority to schools. And that’s why our principals find it so hard to deliver.

But that’s no reason for inaction. Our children’s future is at stake.

The end of school

Galek, my daughter, age 9, class 4, finished her final exams yesterday.

Today, her last day at school, is significant.

It’s significant for me because she’s completed yet another year at school – a reminder that she’s growing up; that time flies.

It’s significant for Galek too – today marks the completion of her first academic year since the introduction of democracy in Bhutan; the completion of one of the five academic years that we’ve given the DPT government to improve our education system.

So I’ve been thinking: what has the DPT government done so far to improve the quality of education? And how have their policies made education more meaningful for our students? I’ll have to think, and think hard, about this for a while.

Meanwhile, Galek will get her results today.

Lyonpo Thakur, you’ve completed your first academic year as education minister. How would your report card look?