Friday, December 11, 2009

December 11

Today everyone seemed a little tired, or maybe it’s my projection. The core group of fifty has a few absences, and the observer group has thinned down to less than half. Maybe it’s the pace and intensity of the workshop, with really no free time—short lunch and tea breaks with long lines, so many people in our group, and every session seems to run over, even when we start precisely on time. The other point is that we are sitting in a basement room talking about a country that we yearn to directly experience, right outside the hotel doors. Also, the weather is beautiful, clear and balmy, even though it’s cold at night, like Colorado. By the end of today, I felt I would jump out of my skin if I had to stay inside that basement conference room, as beautiful as it is, any longer.

I’m amazed at the stamina of the group, nonetheless. Ivy, the facilitator, must be exhausted, as the group is slightly easier to manage now that we are settled in together, but the pace of the work is unrelenting. The Prime Minister was right—they seek to exploit us mercilessly, in his words.

This morning there were 12 short presentations on alternative assessment. Our topic revolves around Bhutan’s reliance on a daunting single exam in the 10th standard, and then again in the 12th. The entire future of a teenager is determined by this exam, and only a small percentage pass—meaning they can continue school, and then qualify for high-level jobs. This is so stressful and demoralizing, and we are hearing from everyone, students, teachers, administrators, that this exam needs to be examined. Also, the exam is based on memorized material, and does not determine creative or critical thinking, the depth of personal experience, etcetera. Our group has determined that we really want to change the reliance on this exam. It’s a system inherited from India (and indirectly from the UK) that never worked well there as well—I remember my undergraduate honor’s thesis on the secularization of the Indian intellectual elite, where I critiqued the Indian system of education, based on Gandhian philosophy.

The assessment presentations were from school principals and education professors—and it was dismaying that most of them were not on assessment at all. Richard gave an excellent one on assessment in his classes based on the Five Qualities. Still, it was great to hear a little about a bunch of alternative schools, most of them in India and Thailand though the Shambhala School in Halifax was represented.

The best part of the day for me was the breakout in the late morning. There had been growing concern that the development of the intellect had not been discussed much, and my group on Critical Thinking was formed to address that. (This is why I was initially invited, and I’m so glad we got to meet.) The group of 15, half Bhutanese, started out with an adversarial tone, with a few professorial types pushing critical thinking with a western flavor, implying that this was foreign to Bhutanese culture. I had this moment when I realized this is why I had come to Bhutan—to serve as a bridge. I spoke about the critical thinking traditions of Buddhism, from Nagarjuna and Dharmakirti, and how that training was preserved in the monasteries, though it was often taught in a rote manner, except in the debate traditions of the shedras. I had spoken to Khenpo before our group, and he spoke a bit about his training. I could feel the entire group relax, and quickly we developed a consensus: critical thinking was renamed “analytic” thinking, it was lacking in the Bhutanese curriculum, inherited from India etc., and that it was essential for Gross National Happiness. If students could learn to think for themselves, they could develop a more personal relationship with the material and the confidence to carry their education into their lives. We agreed that analysis was urgently needed in relationship with the media, and thought that perhaps critical thinking could be brought into Bhutanese schools in the “Trojan horse” of a media literacy program that is currently being developed. Why were things presented this way on TV? What statements have fallacies, what are distortions, what are lies, and why are they presented in the commercial, show, etc?

How to change the culture of a Bhutanese school? We felt it was so very challenging to do that we must begin with the Ministry of Education and the principals, and then alternative pedagogies could be developed with the teachers. Evidently, the Teacher’s College in Paro does teach a more Socratic approach to teaching, but if the exams are not changed, the education will return over and over again to rote memorization.

Anyway, by midday I was exhausted, and Richard and I went out for a walk at lunchtime, did a little shopping, went to a “Swiss” bakery for tea and a pastry, and generally basked in the sunshine. We saw a lot of our compatriots out as well, along with the entire city of Thimphu. So many darling babies, gorgeous women in their kir and gho gracefully worn, and proud men in their gho and kneesocks. No one is obviously wearing long underwear today. I’m noticing more the ethnic diversity of Thimphu—so there are saris, Nepali-type clothing, etc. Everyone is exhilarating in the day—maybe because it’s Friday? The willows are brilliantly golden, the mountains lush and steep on the north side of the valley, the river running clear nearby. I just want to hang out!

This afternoon we talked about non-formal and informal education, and recommended vocational training and non-certificate training programs, and that they be placed under the Ministry of Education. Currently there is little such training in Bhutan, even though it is a predominantly agricultural, rural country. Some of the most impassioned members of our group, from India especially, had fantastic things to say about this—some neo-Gandhians, and even my worn-out heart was stirred. What was great was that the Prime Minister and Education Minister, on the spot, agreed to work on this. Where else does such a thing happen? (Of course, we have to see what they can actually do when the dust settles.)

The Prime Minister also was signing stacks of letters and resolutions while sitting with us, and he stopped to read a declaration letter to the Copenhagen summit, in which he declared that right now statistics show that Bhutan has a negative carbon footprint, and he was committing the country to continue this and challenging other countries to try to match Bhutan. He spoke about this beautifully—a remarkable man. As he arrived today, I was speaking with Khenpo outside the hotel, and the PM strode up and shook my hand, saying he had seen me on TV last night, and thanks for such a clear expression of the issues in Bhutan. I’m realizing what a consummate politician he is, in the best sense. He had time to watch TV last night?

Tonight we watched the movie by Helena Norberg-Haas (do I have her name right?) on development in Ladakh, based on her book Ancient Futures, moderated by Sonam Wangchuk, an activist organizer and school founder who was featured in the film when it was made 20 years ago. He feels that Bhutan can learn from the lessons of Ladakh, and demonstrated clearly exactly how that can be. The Bhutanese show up for anything that looks like a movie, and they were there in force, listening intently as Sonam showed graphically in a powerpoint presentation, how an education system can decline when the political will is not there to improve and support it. Very clear, and frightening! I am coming to feel that our beautiful Bhutanese friends really have no idea about the tsunami of modernization that is swiftly rolling toward them! Heartbreaking!

All we have to do is go upstairs and turn on the cable TV with 60 channels to see what stimulation is coming into the lives of the Bhutanese. Many of the stations are Indian and have strange Bollywood dancing reality shows, dubbed B-movies from America (lots of murders, posturing, material display), a gazillion commercials for all kinds of products they would never before have thought they would need, and news channels like Aljazeera that beam in wars, assassinations, and scandals worldwide. Our Bhutanese friends report that their young people never before knew about war until they began to see it on TV.

Thanks for sharing all of this. I will blog another day, the last day of our workshop, and then am not sure about the internet connections I will have when Richard and I are touring for three

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