[lg policy] Myanmar: An education policy disaster, 30 years on

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Jul 25 11:03:40 EDT 2018

 An education policy disaster, 30 years on
State school teachers take part in the British Council’s English for
Education College Trainers programme in 2016. The programme aims to improve
the standard of English instruction in Myanmar. (Supplied)
Wednesday, July 25, 2018
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change the language of instruction for some high school subjects has been a
factor in the precipitous decline of education standards.>
*A decision to change the language of instruction for some high school
subjects has had major ramifications and been a factor in the precipitous
decline of education standards in Myanmar.*


THERE'S WIDESPREAD agreement that Myanmar’s education standards are very
low. Most chart the start of this decline to General Ne Win’s 1962 coup,
which ushered in nearly five decades of military rule.

Fewer people understand why Myanmar’s education system, once the best in
Southeast Asia, has fallen so far. There are two main reasons. The first is
the mismanagement of the education sector by military leaders who
themselves knew little about the subject. Second is the tendency by
Myanmar’s military dictators to see students, particularly those studying
at university, as an enemy.

It’s impossible to cover the precipitous decline of education in Myanmar in
a single article. But I will try to explain one great mistake that has been
occurring for more than three decades. There are many other problems, of
course. One just needs to look at all the university graduates who have no
real skills of any worth and are unable to get a job.

My story begins in 1985, under Ne Win’s socialist regime, when English was
chosen as the language of instruction for mathematics and science subjects
at the 9th and 10th standards. Before this, basic education high schools
only taught these subjects in Burmese; all textbooks for mathematics,
chemistry, biology, economics and so on were in the Burmese language. But
from 1985 there was a huge change. The textbooks were now in English. The
exams were in English, too. The aim was apparently to raise Myanmar’s
education system to international standards. Of course, the result has been
quite different, for reasons that should be obvious.

The issue came up recently when the National Education Policy Commission
submitted its work report for the past six months to the Pyidaungsu
Hluttaw, Myanmar’s national parliament, on June 12. It said there had been
no review or study on the effects of changing the language of instruction
for these subjects to English.

During the discussion, lawmakers noted that there are not enough teachers
well versed in English to implement the policy. Teachers require at least
upper intermediate English skills to teach these subjects, they said.
However, according to a recent survey conducted by British Council, most
senior assistant teachers (SAT) have just beginner or elementary level
English. It means that most of the SATs are not qualified to teach those
subjects in English language.

It’s no surprise then that when teachers without a proficiency in English
try to teach science subjects in English, the students can hardly
understand anything. This has only encouraged the use of private tutors and
reinforced the habit of rote learning.

The National Education Policy Commission estimates that more than 90
percent of high school students are receiving tuition. Classrooms have
become a place where students memorise possible exam questions and the
relevant answers, rather than a place where they actually learn.

To make it easier for students to memorise science subjects, most tutors
try to compose the material into poems or songs. Thus this mistaken
education policy has encouraged parrot learning. When they are properly
tested, the students have neither English fluency nor an adequate
understanding of their science subjects. Despite putting in significant
time and effort, many students are basically uneducated, observed lawmaker
Dr Hla Moe (National League for Democracy, Aung Myay Thar Zan).

Although the problem has not, as the commission said, been reviewed or
assessed by previous governments, it has been widely debated by scholars
and those with an interest in education. The key point is outcomes. Does
the policy help provide the student with the skills needed? If not then it
should be reviewed and assessed.

The National Education Policy Commission reached a similar conclusion. It
said there were many reasons why Myanmar’s education system had declined,
and changing the language of instruction for mathematics and science
subjects to English was one of them. It said this policy decision had
adversely affected parents, students and teachers for many years, and
should be reviewed so a new policy could be set.

Hopefully, then, we will soon see basic education schools teaching
mathematics and science subjects in Burmese language or at least a
combination of Burmese and English


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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