Tuesday, December 29, 2020

For Education Transformation: Look No Further Than The Royal Academy

It’s not new of HM expressing his grave concern over quality of education in his Royal Addresses. In fact, during every convocation ceremony of graduates HM has always stressed on the important role that education play in steering the nation towards economic development and social harmony.

The recent National Day Address had many other underpinning urgent reasons to yet again retrospect on the ever increasing importance of quality of education in the country.  Some of the subtle reasons are as follows: 

First thing first. 317 Students dropped out of schools as per the Kuensel report dated Dec, 9th 2020. Forget about how so many children didn’t take personal responsibilities to learn on their own during school closure due to covid 19, children in general don’t bother to give a heed to understand the importance of education.  This is just one problem. 

Domestic violence during the first lockdown was so high that when second lockdown was announced Her Majesty had to immediately put in place the Help Shelters for people affected by domestic violence. The whole purpose of real education thus far couldn’t meet its end.  

Divorce and suicide cases are increasing every year. What Education are we giving that children and young adults don’t value the gift called life? Similarly, unemployment issue was still unresolved and then the Covid 19 forcefully unemployed thousands within a month’s time. All thanks to His Majesty’s Kidu Fund for saving and sustaining so many lives of Bhutanese brothers and sisters. Not to mention the large number of youths unemployed due to mismatch of college degrees and the jobs available. 

We don’t have rigor to maintain and value our relationships, we don’t have enough of the sense of integrity to move on and compassion for others and for oneself, and above all we haven’t really shown the leadership of self to stand, take opportunities and make differences in one’s life and in the lives of others. We lack creativity and innovation to come up with new business and social ideas benefiting everyone in our community and nation at large. 

Inside a mud plastered classroom of Lichen Community Primary School in Trashi yangtse(April, 2010).

Yes, there is serious concern to worry about.  How well are we preparing our children for the new challenges of tomorrow should be the question to seek answers for. The exam oriented – test driven teaching learning should stop! The problem isn’t much with the National Curriculum, its more to do with the approaches, mechanism and the real purpose of the school education that we seem to forget. The scientific evidences of good, bad and the ugly can be left for education experts to reveal. The following are just some of my own observation of the downsides of our School Education System in place.

Testing is the Prime Focus thus Curriculum manifest itself as a content driven and ultimately encourages rote learning. This practice doesn’t encourage critical thinking, creativity and cannot accept any personal opinions and critiques thus leaving less time and space for learners to think for their own. 

Confused between 'urgent' and 'important' purpose of education: All resources of a school is geared towards becoming the top ranked school in the country by literally coaching students to score high marks to secure positions in National Exams. In the bargain, the low achievers as well as the high achievers struggle throughout the year barking up the wrong tree: There is no skills learnt or grooming of learners on all aspects of development happened. 

Lack of diversity in programs for learners at schools: Academic output is almost considered as the litmus test for all the learners. Academics is given too much importance, physical wellbeing is taken care to certain extent but social, spiritual and emotional aspects of child’s growth during those formidable yet important stage of school going children is almost non-existence. Though I must mention there has been humble attempts made but these areas are often considered as secondary needs. And thus holistic development which we all propagate so proudly does only appear best in books and thus children are deprived of many opportunities to be their best possible version of themselves. 

Lack of In-build Professional Support mechanism:  
Teachers can do only so much. The number of instructional periods allocated and whatever free periods is left is utilized for planning of daily lesson plans and corrections of pile of books and record keeping can only exhaust teachers. Forget about the setting of question papers for mid and annual examinations and the correction of hundreds of answer booklets. In addition to this, the numerous meetings to attend, preparing TLMs and much more. This culture of hyper-active workaholic approach which is often branded as being effective and efficient will only have direct adverse impact on teacher’s input in the classroom when quality of interaction between a teacher and a learner is deemed so vital. 

We are blessed to have a King who not only genuinely feels for his subjects but also takes out a lot of time from his private life to do things for the welfare of his citizens. We, as his humble subjects, have so much to learn and emulate from his visions, thoughts, actions and his disposition. Of many, one of HM’s projects which is very close to his heart is the establishment of The Royal Academy in Paro. HundrED- a Global Education Non-profit which encourages creativity and innovation in education world-wide recognized The Royal Academy and its educational practices (especially The Five Areas of Development) in 2018 as one of the inspiring innovations in education in the world. The following paragraphs talks about the programs and approaches implemented in The Royal Academy. The summary is based on my humble attempt to understand the working of the Academy by reading online articles, their web content and watching their YouTube videos- Please visit their website for primary information.   

Gomdri is an orientation program conducted on the commencement of an academic year. It is designed to introduce students to the philosophy, the Five Areas of Development, Skills, Processes and Watermarks (Check the Learning Frame work in the bottom). The teachers converse with children to record their backstory and thus children with the help of teachers work on their individual Roadmaps (https://hundred.org/posts/12961?innovation_id=284&nofollow=t). Roadmaps are basically the statements of their status quo on all Five Areas of Developments and a list of measures, steps and actions they want to implement to overcome their weaknesses and challenges to attend to a better version of themselves each term. 

The implementation of measures and designing of individual learning experiences forms the second phase of learning. This second progressive stage is known as Yardak where knowledge gaps and weaknesses are strengthened with series of meetings and discussions between mentors and mentees. 

Shejun Phelrim is the next level of learning mechanism which helps students ‘enhance development and growth in the Five Areas of Development, Concepts and Domain content, Skills, Processes and Watermarks’. This stage focus on the creation of new knowledge.  The ‘Learning Experiences are designed in such a way that students are provided opportunities to demonstrate and achieve their indicators of success’.

Nature retreats for both students and faculty is one of the core features of the Academy. Such retreats enable learners to   ‘develop a sense of respect for nature’ and take opportunities to learn from the environment. ‘A learner growing up in such an environment retains their child-like curiosity to learn, engage and reflect’.

The Roadmaps prepared at the start of the year which are reviewed frequently constitute one of the important tools of assessment at The Royal Academy. ‘Assessment tools such as observations, classwork, reviews, and projects are based on teachers’ qualitative observations’. An individualized review papers (not the question papers as we call them) are prepared for children and there is no culture of invigilation duty as the Academy aspires to enable learners inculcate trust and a sense of personal responsibility making their learning and over all progress both personal and important for their life. Above all, ‘Understanding of the process of learning and the acquisition of skills during this process will be the key focus of assessment at The Royal Academy’.

The philosophy of education at The Royal Academy finds its bases in the teachings of Guru Padmasambhava. The realization of ‘primordial wisdom’ propagated by Guru Padmasambava which means the ‘Recognition of one’s innate awakened state’ serves as one of the purposes of education at the Academy. The ‘Learners engage in a sustained process of self-introspection in order to recognize that they are fundamentally pure, joyful, wholesome, creative and ever-evolving’. The Royal Academy also creates conducive learning environment to ‘enable learners to become their own treasure-discoverers’ by providing skills and processes to help learners ‘actualize their inner potential’.  

Thus there is no overwhelming emphasis given to the content of the curriculum (which we do in our schools) but the focus is in providing required set of skills (by strengthening the five areas of development of every individual learner) to face the challenges of tomorrow: Be it the choices to make or vital decisions to take in one’s life. The following are the Five Areas of Development which are intertwined (in a typical school set up every department work in silos) and are assessed in such a way that it encourages cross pollination of ideas thus enabling an individual learner to grow in a holistic manner.

Cerebral Development:
‘Cerebral development focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on the academic content of curriculum’. The focus is ‘on developing and enhancing the learners’ abilities in the three languages- English, Dzongkha and Mathematics’. The inter-disciplinary approach is used in creating the learning experiences for the three languages. The content will be drawn from the other subjects such as Life Sciences, Sports, Aesthetics and Computer Science. The ‘focus of cerebral development at The Royal Academy is creating opportunities for learners to develop Skills and Processes, and to engage their curiosity and creativity’. Learners and teachers co-create what they want to learn.

Emotional Development:
‘It offers opportunities to help build the learners ability to recognize their own emotions, understand the external and internal factors that influence them and regulate emotions positively. The Royal Academy will create a safe environment for all learners to express themselves and experience a range of emotions’.  Trust, among other universal values, is given utmost importance. 

Physical Development:
‘Physical development at The Royal Academy ensures the general well-being, health, hygiene and physical fitness of all learners. Through games and sports, students will value the spirit of collaboration, leadership and communication’. 

Social Development: 
The Social Development area ‘focuses on developing wholesome relationships with peers, adults, community and the environment’. ‘Social Development aspires to help learners become a person of substance, one who is open to ideas, has the willingness to change, is a trustworthy member of a community and someone who conducts herself with integrity at all times’.  There is an initiative called ‘7 gifts from children’ where learners share about 7 unique things (traditions, festivals, food recipes(children share recipes and cook for each other during Sundays), songs and many more) from their locality with the rest of the children in the Academy. In this way teachers and students learn from each other enabling stronger bonding to happen. 

Spiritual Development:
Spiritual Development at The Royal Academy refers to the ‘idea of mindfulness and interconnectedness’. This area of development ‘aspires to ensure that each learner becomes the best that they can be for the benefit of individuals and the community’. The Academy aspires children to find joy in every experience and also ‘understand the essence of compassion and empathy’.

The Academy also has two sister centers, The Education Research Center and The Teacher Development Center, within the campus dedicated to conduct researches on education and learning and to help teachers develop professionally. The Education Research Center also develops curriculum and methodologies. The Teacher Development Center, on the other hand, will create teaching resources and conduct workshops frequently for teachers to equip them well to deliver the curriculum to meet the evolving needs of education in general. 

We have been doing the best possible but time has arrived to raise our own standards. Just imagine how much our Miss Phurba, Miss Dil Maya, Mr. Daw Penjor and Mr. Prakash would benefit with this sort of diverse exposure and learning experiences. The approach will not only take care of the academic aspect of our learners but also their emotional, physical, spiritual and social development. This will facilitate them to be even more emotionally stronger thus enabling them to productively channelize their different emotions( thus discipline issues will reduce, gang fights will be a thing of past),  be resilient enough to face any difficulties (reasons for school dropouts, suicides, drug abuse), value relationships and become more responsible and productive members of society and respect cultural diversity and value the importance of being interconnected with nature and people around the world which will forge them to think, feel and act for the larger benefit of all sentient beings.    

If one is genuinely concerned about the quality of education, we, as educators, must unlearn, relearn and learn newer and better strategies and approaches to help our children. Our focus must change from testing to equipping learners with skills to face and thrive in the ever evolving world. It is so encouraging to see sincere views and opinions shared on social media about the Bhutanese education system after the National Address of His Majesty. It simply indicates that we are good listeners and we are even better leaners….You would agree how gracefully we wear western dresses, learn and celebrate all the popular festivals and savor the taste of cuisines from different region and culture. With that same rigor, let me invite you to unlearn the approaches that didn’t work so long and for the betterment of our children and our collective future let us all learn, adopt and implement in our schools many of the best strategies and approaches from the ‘Ground Zero’ of Education Transformation in Bhutan: The Royal Academy. 

The Learning Framework

HundrED articles: 

For in-depth information on The Royal Academy please visit www.academy.bt 

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