Heather and Mary
Partners Asia Supporters
For several days in January 2014, we have had the great good fortune of witnessing first hand how the building blocks of Burma’s new democracy can be constructed one child, one parent, one teacher at a time. We visited four very different Buddhist monastic schools in which EduNet, a partner of Partners Asia, is working.
EduNet is a small, locally-based NGO working to improve education for the very poorest children in the slums in and around Yangon. With a staff of 16, plus volunteers, it offers innovative programs to monastic schools in which teachers agree to its teacher training methods and all the stakeholders (monks/nuns, teachers, and parents) buy in to its model for improving education. EduNet currently works with sixteen schools. There are about 170 monastic schools in the Yangon area, so this is a small but hopefully fertile beginning.
For each school, EduNet develops an individual, needs-based, three-year plan. It has the capacity to offer material aid (such as books and school supplies, toothbrushes, and drinking water storage) as well as technical support ranging from teacher training, to health education and medical checkups, to advice on forming parent and student councils, improving literacy and developing a culture of reading, and advocating for change using street theater.
New Approach to Learning
One of the keys to EduNet’s success in these schools is an integrated, holistic approach to education improvement. First and foremost is teacher training which emphasizes a “child-centered approach” to learning – as opposed to the traditional “teacher-centered approach”. In the old model, a teacher stands in front of a class reciting “facts”, which children are supposed to memorize but not necessarily understand, and manages the classroom through corporal punishment. EduNet encourages teachers to use activity-based learning (teaching with songs, games, sports, and real life experiments), positive discipline (involving students in the management of their classrooms), team work, critical thinking, and open reflection. Teachers meet together within a school and visit other schools to see how other teachers are using these techniques. Monks, teachers, and parents repeatedly told us that the most profound change in their schools has been the new teaching approach. According to the head monk at Mi Ga Dar Won school, most parents support the new approach because their children are more engaged and go to school more regularly. Other children in the community want to attend when they see how happy his students are.
Health and Hygiene
As part of its holistic approach, EduNet builds on the power of this new teaching method with additional strategies to improve education. Good nutrition and personal hygiene – from tooth brushing to hand-washing – are emphasized because learning is difficult for children who are hungry or sick. Parents at more than one school told us their children have come home and taught them to wash hands with soap and have explained why it’s important. Other parents laughingly said their children now remind them to brush their teeth before bedtime in addition to washing their hands with soap. At Than Lyin school, we saw EduNet posters on the library wall showing the relationship between dirty latrines and diarrhea and how important it is to keep drinking water clean.
Leading and Speaking Up
Children being taught to use their brains and ask questions are also learning to speak up. Student Councils are instituted to encourage student responsibility. They provide the chance for students to learn leadership, discipline, responsibility, and decision-making, and teach students how to manage their own problems and help with the problems of the school. A mother shared that as a result of Student Council, her child speaks more openly and even participates in theatrical performances. A parent at San Dar Yar Ma school told us that her daughter used to be shy and afraid and that now she is more self-confident and even speaks English to foreigners at temples.
At Mi Gar Dar Won school, we saw children playing soccer and running races next to open trenches of dirty water and piles of garbage. We asked about this. The answer was that the Student Council had recently done a big clean up of the garbage, but within a short time the piles were back. EduNet is encouraging the Student Council to work with the community to help break this cycle by raising awareness of the connection between garbage and diarrhea. EduNet will help them do this using street theater around the garbage piles, explaining the health consequences of the garbage and asking the community “how can we change this together?”
A Virtuous Cycle
Our observations and conversations with teachers, parents, and monks have led us to see that although EduNet’s efforts are aimed primarily at improving education, the indirect impact of its work is, in fact, creating an expanding circle of positive change. Beyond just helping one child or one family, EduNet’s integrated, grassroots approach to education reform sets in motion a cycle that has the potential to ripple through a community. One of EduNet’s staff explained it “Only education can break the cycle of poverty – and education includes health”
Critical thinking, leadership development, improved health, improved reading skills, and learning to cooperate in school, family, and community are all critical building blocks for Burma’s future democracy.
Article of Interest: Bridging the Gap – Migrant Education Integration Initiative