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Education 2021 – Worrisome Present, Uncertain Future

For over 17 months now, schools, colleges and all education institutions have been closing, re-opening only to be shut again. Not just in Myanmar but in nearly every country worldwide, formal education in institutes of learning has been put on hold, or at best seen crawling at a snail’s pace. The only difference being that while classes in other countries, especially more developed ones, went digital and resorted to online learning, e-learning, remote attendance and distance education, Myanmar has seen a complete halt of all classes, due to the lack of infrastructure that facilitates digital education and remote learning for the masses. Thus along with premises for formal learning, education itself has also been shut out of most students’ lives, making it a prerogative of just a small elite group. The concern for school going children, is paramount.

Education is the single most important activity in the first two decades of every child’s life, that equips him with knowledge, capability and skills to build a better life and sustain himself economically. Time is precious and losing a year or two is a major setback. Not only that, the country loses out on a fresh lot of talent and delays a nation’s access to young minds, who are being prepared to join the work force.

However, the covid-19 pandemic, necessitated protecting life itself in the first place, and lockdowns were meant to ensure that the spread is contained within Myanmar’s boundaries. As the new academic year started on 1st June, all schools were scheduled to reopen, but reports reveal that in the current circumstances only one million children are attending the new session out of an estimated total of 9 million school going children.

The is universal consensus now that despite the current challenges, education and learning must continue, so that students do not stagnate and become disinterested in utilizing their mental faculties due to boredom and spending time in mindless pursuits. Scientific research reveals that children’s early years are a critical time for brain development when the brain sees rapid growth spurts. During adolescence, the unused connections in the thinking and processing part of the brain (grey matter) are ‘pruned away’. Extension human development specialist, Judith Graham states that ‘brains are built on a strong foundation’, a foundation that requires nurturing through exposure to knowledge and experiences.

Getting education back on track

Much has been said about the existing education system in Myanmar, deficient as it is, in concept, resources and reach. The pandemic has only made it worse. Should it be allowed to continue its downward drift, or stall further decline, and ensure that children of all ages get back to their learning regimen?

It is here when support from all sides can help save the learning generation, by taking on the role of educators. Education is not the responsibility of the government alone, or of parents and families. Commitment to imparting knowledge to young minds has to be a combined effort, formally in schools and colleges, and informally at home. The acquisition of knowledge, and skills can slowly continue despite digital deficiencies and disconnection.

It is for the first time that the world has faced a long-term lockdown situation with institutions shut and in-person attendance almost impossible. This necessitated perfecting online teaching methods, and where digital access was a limitation, other distance learning and teaching methods have been implemented.

Home-based learning

Educational experts have always reiterated that nearly 50% of a child’s knowledge and learning comes from home, where children spend two-thirds of their time. While formal learning has suffered a setback due to digital deficiencies and disconnection, other channels of teaching can continue. It is here that parental support can play a big role. The home has merged as the safest domain during covid times, but with all its comforts and distractions, not always conducive to learning. A learning environment needs to be created.

Home based learning is being encouraged in all developing countries, and governments are prodding parents in that direction. In a recent directive the Ministry of Education in the government of India issued guidelines for parents of children who have been confined to the home for long periods at a stretch. The ministry has reminded us of facts, often forgotten, that the home is the first school, and parents the first teachers. It is time to rediscover these.

A parent is the best person to know what his child’s learning needs are, and if he can invest extra time and effort, he can raise the child’s knowledge threshold higher. At this time, it would suffice if parents could be committed to passing on everything they know, to their children, condensing their lifetime of learning into interesting stories, and help the children imbibe this wisdom. This can be universal, educated parents can keep tabs on what the child is studying and lead the learning process, while uneducated ones can supervise, keep watch, and ensure there is sincerity in the child’s learning efforts.

Educators beyond schools

In a system where learning is completely teacher-led, whose authority is absolute in imparting information and knowledge in a one-sided monologue, the absence of the classroom and formal learning environment has proved to be an even bigger setback. This is because alternative teaching methods are missing, and onus of acquiring knowledge has never been on students themselves. Their job has only been to memorize, repeat, chant, practice, and reproduce the information they have managed to retain. Critical thinking, analysis and building independent perspectives are a far cry for most students, since they have become so accustomed to ‘storing’ information in their brains, without even completely understanding it. For the present what is required, is to instill self-motivated studying and learning, seeking help, and invest in the ‘pursuit of knowledge’.

It is here that educators can play a big role. Educators are vast group of people who help the younger generation learn, not just academically, but also life skills, or vocational training. The role of the private tutor, previously severely criticized, has taken on a new dimension, as the savior who will keep up the learning process at individual and group levels (covid permitting). In one of the previous issues of Myanmar Insider, we had questioned the need for private tuitions since we felt that the tuition culture led to spoon feeding and made students more dependent rather than self-reliant and self-motivated. Today, when schools and formal institutions remain inaccessible, their role takes a new dimension and they have become critical players in the learning process.

Private tutors provide customized lessons to their students, often in an environment the child is most comfortable in. in the absence of school attendance, their role becomes at once more taxing and easier – taxing because the lesson previously taught in school, is now to be taught by them; and easier because there is no conflict in the style of teaching. Additionally, tutors are able to ensure that the student remains engaged and involved, since there is no question of his being exhausted after a long day at school and homework to be completed. Tests, revisions and assessments become the tutor’s responsibility too.

A number of expatriates, foreigners, spouses of diplomats are eager to extend help and share their knowledge with local students. This is one valuable resource that can benefit enthusiastic students. Locally, older students and ex-students can be sought out for assisting in explaining lessons from existing textbooks.

Student-led initiatives

The most common slogan being heard throughout the pandemic has been, ‘stay at home, stay busy’. In the absence of school-led learning, middle and high school students can chart a learning path for themselves, developing reading habits by borrowing books from libraries, stay focused and self-motivated to not let this time go waste, and even form study groups, as group activities are often more engaging.

Initiatives in Myanmar

Numerous individuals and organizations committed to nation building have initiated ways of ensuring that education continues for the middle strata of students, with or without access to digital resources. Developmental work by UN organizations continues, and though the initial concern of UNICEF was to ensure child health and safety, continuity of education has been a close second. The learning gap is being reduced as the government, with support from UNICEF has invested in developing home based learning materials. The Japan International Cooperation Agency, along with UNICEF is supporting the printing of these lessons, which are then distributed. It is an effective way to have students review their past lessons and be prepared for the next level.

At the microlevel numerous endeavors have been initiated to facilitate learning at home. Teachers, foreign educated repatriates have set up platforms that help students as well as teachers. A couple are worth mentioning, include TeacherFOCUS, which is helping teachers carrying out home based learning through training and media support, with special focus on marginalized teachers in Myanmar and Thailand.

For helping primary students, Tin Ma Ma Thet set up the SAYA Foundation to provide technical support and mentor schools and educators at an individual level and even the whole school. Driven by the conviction that children must not be left behind in their learning due to the Covid pandemic, this Australia Awards Scholar, equipped with a Masters degree in Primary Teaching, launched a highly informative education program for primary students, “Learning at Home”. This is available online to both parents and students all across Myanmar. To date the videos have received 16 million views, and over 200 videos have been prepared by her team, under her guidance.

While Myanmar’s situation may be somewhat unique, the education emergency has been a global phenomenon, with over 1.5 billion learners impacted. According to UNICEF, more than 168 million children have been shut out of schools for a fully year, with girl students, refugees and students with disabilities most affected. Over 20 million girl students may never return into the formal education fold. Myanmar also stands to lose the benefits of progress made on the education front in the last decade, as an increasing number of teenagers opt for work and give up on education forever.