After decades of rote learning, Myanmar’s education system is on the brink of a massive overhaul.
Tech entrepreneur Rita Nguyen’s new startup Jzoo doesn’t have a proper office yet, so the team, a handful of 20-somethings, set up their laptops on the kitchen table of her own downtown flat.
She picked them because they were clever, passionate about tech and had almost no experience in a company like Jzoo. Nguyen came to Myanmar after a career in silicon valley, but instead of searching for the Mark Zuckerbergs of Myanmar, she decided to make her own from scratch.
“I tend to hire the very young and the very inexperienced and train them. It’s the only way to go, honestly,” she said. “You don’t really go into a country like this and look for people who can innovate. You just don’t. That’s not to say they don’t exist, there’s just not that many.”
The innovation gap isn’t Myanmar exclusive. Nguyen’s native Vietnam and other Asian nations struggle to foster independent and creative workforces, yet as Myanmar emerges from decades of isolation, it finds itself decades behind. The government has begun a total overhaul of its education system to foster a deeper kind of learning, but the changes could take a generation to implement. Meanwhile, while new start-ups and foreign investors are coming in, and they’re looking for more than hardworking, cheap labour: They need people who can think.
“To be frank, students, not all, but many of the students cannot apply what they are taught to the real world,” said Dr Myo Win, interim chair of the Department of Methodology at the Yangon Institute of Education.
Dr Myo Win argued that Myanmar society is weak in what he calls “higher-order thinking.” That concept—also called “critical thinking,” “social, emotional learning,” and a handful of other buzzterms—is tough to define in a textbook, however, in the real world, he claimed, the problem is clear: Myanmar people are less likely to take initiative and push boundaries, choosing instead to memorize, replicate, follow instructions and send any problems to the next one in charge.
He said the causes go to the very foundations of Myanmar tradition, which reveres elders and teachers and encourages perfection over experimentation—although British colonists didn’t exactly encourage independent thought, either. Perhaps most influential of all was decades of isolationist military rule, especially after the 1988 student uprising, which engineered a society based on codes, hierarchy and unquestionable authority, whether between commander and soldier or teacher and student.
“How do you foster risk-taking in children, these positive risks, sticking your hand up, coming up with an answer that’s not a memorization?” said Cliff Meyers, chief of education for UNICEF Myanmar. “How would you do that with your head teachers, so that they actually do something innovative or outside of the box? Because doing that comes with a huge risk. ‘Who said you could do that? Who gave you permission?’…That is part of critical thinking: willingness to look for opportunities and go for it.”
The most effective place to change a culture, he argued: Education.
“Ministries of education are pretty conservative, not only about transmitting information and knowledge. They transmit social norms. How you function as a society. The morals. The behaviour. All of that comes from the education system,” Meyers said.
The present government, at least, agrees. “They want their workforce to have employment skills. They want their kids to be able to graduate and be able to work, compete,” Meyers said.
But its current education system suffers from what Dr Myo Win calls “teacher-centred” learning. Think: huge classes, long lectures, few questions and no discussion between students. “Teachers are quite authoritarian,” Dr Myo Win explained. “Most of the students listen, note down. They do not think for themselves.”
Myanmar’s current ten-year basic education cycle culminates in a single national matriculation exam. Everything comes down to the exam, and the exam hinges on rote memorization.
“The exam is quite predictable,” said U Soe Win Than, a private tutor and instructor for the English Access Micro Scholarship Program, funded by the U.S. State Department.
He said around exam time you can see students huddled over textbooks, muttering to themselves, learning equations, names and dates or English passages by heart. “It sounds like a parrot.”
When U Soe Win Than was in school, some of his teachers were passionate and invested; others, especially in high school, simply shuttled pupils through the system, delivering exactly what was necessary to pass. Even when the textbooks featured pre-reading and comprehension activities, the teachers rarely used them. “They don’t want to do that sort of thing because it is just wasting time when they know it won’t be on the exam.”
They aren’t necessarily lazy or unmotivated; they simply have no choice.
“In a large class, 60 to 70 students are in one room with one teacher. The teacher cannot handle it. The one teaching time period lasts 45 minutes. So during 45 minutes, what the teacher can do is write on the board, ‘Ok, copy now,” and walk out. If they don’t know, they have to take the private tuition,” he said, referring to the unlawful yet ubiquitous practice of giving private exam prep on the side for money.