Monday, December 26, 2011

Allowing Learning to Happen

During the teacher training this week (which I am continuing to love), Mrs. Das told an interesting tale about a man who thought he could be helpful by assisting a butterfly out of its chrysalis. Why let it struggle. So he slit it open and the butterfly tumbled out. But then what?

Many parents and teachers try to help children and students through obstacles by doing the work for them. Their knowledge and skill is second nature and they want to transfer it to their children, so they can get frustrated when a child struggles to own this knowledge independently. Impatient, or maybe just out of a wish to be helpful, they finish the problem or give the answer before the student has time to do the work. "This is why masters are not always good teachers," said Mrs. Das.

Her classroom strategy? "Wait time," she says. "Give the students time to think before filling in the answers." She also reminds teachers that it isn't what the teacher teaches but what the student learns.

Helping a butterfly out of the chrysalis actually impairs the butterfly, she won't acquire the wing strength she needs to fly, her wings might be misshapen, and she might even die. Though a student will survive heavy handed teaching, something still might die: their own critical thinking, their enthusiasm to learn. Students need to have freedom and guidance to make necessary connections in their brains if they are going to be life long learners. As hard as it is to stand back, sometimes it's better to watch them struggle to find answers on their own.

This article in Psychology Today sheds light on the phenomenon.

I look forward to seeing how we can apply this understanding in the classrooms of all our pilot projects.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

REC's Master Teacher Training

Much has been happening in the world of Lho Mon Education, so much that I haven't had time to write up any reports. In short, I couldn't be more pleased with our final line up of LME partners. I will share details about the final two soon. 

Meanwhile, I am spending this week and next at Paro's Khangkhu Resort observing the Royal Education Council's master teacher training for a select group of educators from the REC Beacon Schools, which are testing out the latest innovations in education. Six of Paro's Beacon Schools, or Seed Schools, are participating in the master teacher training (from a total of 15 Beacon Schools in Paro and Thimphu). This week's course is the fourth in the series with a special focus on brain based learning, classbuilding, and teambuilding, critical thinking and active learning. I'm soaking up every word like a very thirsty sponge.

The instructors are from Singapore's Educare and they are, in a word, fabulous. Mrs. Jaya Das keeps all of the teachers completely engaged and animated from the beginning of class until our final tea. We have so much fun. At one point today the whole room was literally in tears from laughter.

The reason for the laughter was the result of an exercise in communication. About twelve of us lined up against the wall facing in one direction. Mrs. Das turned the person at one end (which happened to be me) around and showed a series of hand movements. Nothing elaborate, but I was immediately flustered. I was to turn and tap the next person on the shoulder, and as soon as she turned around, show her the movement, and so on down the line. What started out as a simple touch of the shoulder, ribs and hip, turned into the most hilarious wing flapping movement. As the final teacher did his goose dance, all of us grown adults were in stitches like little kids.

Mrs. Das gave us a minute to let us quell the giggles, compose ourselves, and wipe our tears. Then she asked: What would have generated more accurate information transfer?

The answer? When teachers demonstrate something once and expect students to grasp it entirely, there is sure to be a problem. But if a teacher demonstrates something, lets the student try it out, guides them, revises and then lets them work on their own, the chances are the student will truly absorb the information.

In turn, her own method of having us interact, be active in the room, have fun, helped us absorb that information. So it was a lesson within a lesson. And there were many more lessons throughout the day.

I am deeply grateful to the REC for letting me sit in on these important sessions. Twelve of these master teachers will participate in our July Curriculum Development Workshop so it's been great to meet them, learn about their experiences as teachers in Bhutan and as participants in this groundbreaking program, and to play! At lunchtime, Aum Tashi told me that she applies what she has learned from these trainings and the students have transformed. There is a new sense of security and belonging that has increased student self esteem, reduced discipline problems, and created a learning environment that allows her to be a better teacher and the students to be better students.

Anyway, I could gush on and I probably will!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Crises in Bhutanese Education

This article in Kuensel, sheds light on a crises in Bhutanese education. Despite a skyrocketing unemployment rate, new graduates don't want to accept posts as teachers. Only 44 people applied for 155 slots. Meanwhile, 200 contract teachers who taught for at least a year or two in remote areas have been pleading with the education ministry to give them a chance to join the teacher training program in Bhutan's two teacher training institutes. These issues are both bound up in the issue of the civil service. I'm sure there are hard working officials who are trying to rectify the situation but who are bound by endless laws and bylaws. It's a shame. And such a contrast to the Finnish model, where teaching is the noblest of professions, as explained in this New York Times article.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

English Program Begins January 2012: New Video

We will soon be announcing a few exciting new names to our growing list of partners who will be using the LME framework to create their own units. But our first project has always been Chokyi Gyatso Institute (CGI) where we will begin implementing the secular curriculum for monks in January, 2013. To prepare the monks to study in English, we are starting an intensive English language program next month. Debbie Miller from Canada is generously donating her time and energy for the first six months and will be arriving shortly. She'll be teaching in one of the temple classrooms while we wait for the new classrooms to be built. Then we get to plaster the walls with maps of the world, build bookshelves and line them with dictionaries, atlases, resource texts. We'll be getting a few computers and other materials. We've put together a new video about CGI. If you'd like to make a small donation, it will go a long way.

Either way, please watch the video.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Good People

Building a solid team of advisors and partners is the key to the success of Lho Mon Education and it's also the activity that makes this job most fulfilling. There are so many great people out there. If it wasn't for Katherine Riley volunteering her time during her sabbatical from teaching high school in Vermont, we wouldn't have the LME Framework document that is the basis for all the curriculum development we are now doing. She was so easy to work with, bright, experienced, supportive, creative, and ready to collaborate. And funny! I miss our daily work sessions.

It is encouraging to see the caliber of people that this project is attracting. Lately I have been seeking the advice and guidance of Professor Alex Lautensach, assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), Canada. He is providing invaluable feedback related to our teacher training program. It means the world to me whenever someone really takes the time to read through all of the documents that Katherine and I originally developed. Professor Lautensach's research expertise is broad: environmental ethics and human behaviour, determinants of human security in the areas of health and environmental support structures, science education and affective learning outcomes, teaching and learning for sustainability, and bioethics education and cultural safety. It's the perfect fit.

And now that Lho Mon Education is forming an alliance with the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, I have the honor and privilege to work with their founder and executive director Dr. Tashi Zangmo. To have a Bhutanese counterpart with such devotion to her work and with such an open mind is really a blessing. I've really enjoyed our brainstorming sessions and also finding out that we both attended schools in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. She's such an asset to the country and we are really lucky to be working with her. The hope is that we will train one teacher who will be dedicated to teaching the nuns and together we will create a curriculum specifically for them but based on the LME Framework. The curriculum will be implemented in at least one nunnery as a pilot, in tandem with the CGI pilot. She is also developing a resource center for nuns in Thimphu where we could conduct classes. Our first course of action is coming up with ways to teach teachers how to teach Life Skills and we are open to suggestion.
Some of you may notice one major change here: We are no longer SJI Education. Rinpoche has long said that "education is the key" to his vision of creating an enlightened society in east Bhutan. With that in mind and considering the broadening scope of the curriculum development we have been working on, he suggesting moving the education component out from under SJI to its own independent project that will stand side by side SJI under the Lho Mon Society umbrella.  Lho Mon Society is the civil society organization, Bhutan's version of an NGO, that looks after both of these initiatives. I am pleased therefore to introduce the all new Lho Mon Education and am excited about the change. I'll soon post the URL of our new web site and other information as we grow into our own.

English Starts Now

It was wonderful to finally meet the monks in Dewathang who will be participating in the pilot project. And especially wonderful to have our founder Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche there with us. We held several key meetings with the top khenpos who run the monastery to hammer out the details of our project and select the class who will be our inaugural group. We chose the young ones, the most recent additions to the monastery, most of whom just completed the second grade. I sat behind them during the 10 day puja and was impressed by their diligence, camaraderie, good humor, and good behavior (even when naughtily tickling the ear of a dozing monk).

Rinpoche spent hours of is precious time discussing his vision of what we can do and how. He was full of enthusiasm and amazing ideas. I am very grateful and encouraged and inspired at the moment.

One thing became very clear: CGI is ready for the English program to begin immediately. The monks are very eager for it and since we are teaching the LME curriculum in English, it's key that they have a head start. So in just a few days I managed to find a willing and very capable volunteer to come to Dewathang for six months of intensive English Language instruction  beginning in January 2012. That's soon! Our volunteer, Debbie Miller has spent many years teaching English in Korea but many of you have met when she was volunteering at SSRC near Whistler. There is much to prepare in advance of her arrival and I will soon be announcing an online campaign where people can help support this important first step of the initiative.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Teaching Zero Waste

For the past four days, I've been here in east Bhutan at the Chokyi Gyatso Insitute, site of SJI Education's first pilot project. I've been meeting with the head khenpos and lopons, making acquaintance with the monks, enjoying the warmer weather, and sitting in the ceremony that started yesterday. The puja lasts all week and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is here presiding. He's been discussing SJI and GNH at every mealtime and telling us stories of his early childhood, which was spent in the region.

He said something so interesting yesterday, that legend has it that Dewathang has saved Bhutan once and is predicted to save Bhutan again and again. The tale goes that one disciple of the great Longchenpa was practicing Vajrakilaya in Yongla up the way and the next day the British army's camp burnt down (no fatalities) and they retreated. Maybe SJI can help save Bhutan in more gentle ways.

One sign that Rinpoche's vision is helping change the area already is the beautiful tsok offering that the monastery prepared for the ceremony. Tsok is a traditional Buddhist practice of feast offering and often these days monasteries rely on packaged foods like chips, biscuits, candy, soda, and ramen noodles, all of which leave huge piles of non recyclable garbage. This garbage has no place to go in most rural areas and ends up in the rivers and streams, often the plastic is burned crating toxic fumes. So Rinpoche insisted that his feast offering be all local foods with no packaging. A group of women from Kulikata has been spending the morning making neat bundles of bamboo leaf filled with all kinds of curries and chili and rice. Hundreds of people from surrounding villages have come to pay respects and all are fed. There are endless cups of tea and homemade snacks. The cups we use are carved from bamboo as well. All the ingredients are from local villages—fresh milk, fresh churned butter, red rice, white chilies. We each were given one big leaf full of corn meal and rice, then handed one of the banana leaf bundles tied in string. Inside were all kinds of surprises, some of us had lovely black beans, others stewed pumpkin dish, or turnips. In the end, there was no garbage at all.

I wonder if the young monks are satisfied, if they see this practice of zero waste as being backward or if they can appreciate that it is cutting edge. Of course I hope the latter. But if there were piles of chewing gum and chocolates, do you think they'd still choose the fresh home made puffed rice instead? Habits are so hard to break, materialism is so hard to ward off, desire is a bitch!

Our hope is that through our integrated, project-based curriculum we will be able to help guide these young boys to make sustainable decisions from the heart, not because they are told, but because these see the whole cycle of consumption and role they can play in creating a more self-reliant, healthy society. How does one teach this kind of responsibility and instill a willingness to resist the temptation of bag of salty potato chips?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Lateral Route

Tomorrow morning I leave for Samdrup Jongkhar via Bumthang and Trashigang. It's a three day journey, though I hear Phunthso would like to do it in two. I'm asking him to drop me off in a small village about 2 hours before Dewathang so that I can go meet the nuns who might participate in our project. I'll spend the night at the nunnery and then catch a bus to Dewathang the next day. I'm sure there will be much to report.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Why Testing Doesn't Work - New York City

I taught a 300 level English class at CUNY Hunter College in New York for two semesters in 2008-2009. Many of my students could not even write a coherent sentence. They had no understanding of basic punctuation, they used phone text abbreviations like "u" instead of "you." It was appalling. It was obvious that teachers before me had passed them through the system rather than taking the time to teach them. If I gave them a B or higher, they would be eligible for master classes. I ended up giving out quite a few B minuses. It was painful, but necessary.  This article in the New York Times talks about a new CUNY program that is teaching remedial English and math to high school graduates who passed all of their exams but can't do basic functions. The SJI Curriculum advocates testing for mastery, not failure. Tests will be used to asses whether students have fully understood the material, and if they have not, they will receive further tutoring.

How to Pass On Tradition, Venezuelan Style

Rural-Urban migration is a major issue in Bhutan, in fact Bhutan has the highest rate of rural-to-urban migration in south Asia. Some progressive educators blame the education system for, unwittingly, further promoting this trend by discounting native wisdom traditions in favor of consumerist ideals. 
This project in Venezuela is working to preserve and strengthen indigenous culture in such an interesting way. It's an accredited university open only to students from tribal areas. They receive lessons in indigenous rights, language and mythology and in the afternoons they get the chance to put practical skills to the test, herding buffalo and tending vegetable plots.
I wonder if such a thing would work in Bhutan. 

The Power of Film

Hazelnuts on the branch
I returned to Thimphu on Friday to start conversations with potential teachers (some great leads) and to sort out my Indian transit visa so that I can make the journey to Dewathang in one day (through India) instead of three (the Bhutanese lateral route). But the visa office was closed and so it was back to the Ambient for more chance meetings of the best kind. Daniel Spitzer and his colleague Justin Finnegan, the hazelnut maestros, came in just as I had gotten settled. We sat together and began formalizing our collaboration as if we had planned the meeting. While their project is based in the Mongar Dzongkhag, it is still in eastern Bhutan and the education for workers model that they are developing could easily be sent down to S/J to help businesses in the region. I'm really seeing the balance of having these four pilot projects in place and am excited by the possibilities. We discussed where the December vipassana retreat for teachers should take place. Bodhgaya? Burma? Bhutan? Somewhere warm would be nice.

In the evening I attended Lama Shenphen's movie night at Deer Park. It's a wonderful offering on his part, sharing alternative and independent films followed by a discussion of its themes every Friday night. The film nights attract a good mix of Bhutanese and chillips, young and old. This week's film was All the Invisible Children, a series of shorts from various directors on the theme of child exploitation. I was struck, of courses, by how education can shape a child, both in a positive and negative way. By the way, Lama is always interested in collecting more films to show, preferably contemporary, in English or with subtitles, with content that does not glorify drugs, misogyny, etc.

When I think back about my own education, about the moments when I was shown a new way of thinking, I realize that film played an essential role. Documentaries have had a particular impact on my behavior, such as The Corporation, after which I changed my spending habits, and Earthlings, after which I stopped eating meat. If you care to comment, please share your favorite educational films, I'm interested to know, particularly if there are online resources, such as the PBS site, that we can use in our teacher training or in the classroom. SJI has already translated The Story of Stuff and The Story of Bottled Water (with approval from the filmmakers) into the local dialect of east Bhutan to great effect. I am starting to think that translation might ending up being a big part of the work we have ahead.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Nonformal and Informal Education in Bhutan

As I was googling for a good image of Lama Shenphen that would illustrate what wonderful work he is doing here in Bhutan, I came across this document that I thought was very interesting. After the landmark Educating for GNH Conference in 2009, Lama participated in a workshop to discuss formal and nonformal education. A group of participants came up with some very specific recommendations.

In particular they emphasized that "learning often primarily occurs outside schools — informally in families, peer groups, and communities, and through the media, internet, and other means, and also ‘non-formally’ in courses such as Bhutan’s literacy programs geared to mothers in rural areas. Thus, ‘non-formal’ education is defined as coursework that occurs outside credentialed or degree-awarding institutional frameworks, while ‘informal’ education is defined as learning that occurs outside coursework altogether. The December workshop therefore emphasized the vital importance of extending the Educating for GNH initiative into the informal and formal education sectors, the Education Secretary gave an introductory presentation on this subject, and a breakout group focussed on this potential on Dec. 11. A summary of this group’s significant observations and recommendations is provided here."

For me, it's a must read. 
In particular I liked recommendation C:

c) The curricular needs of monastic communities should be examined and reviewed, with a view to utilizing aspects of the monastic curriculum more effectively in secular education and conversely to evaluate what aspects of the monastic curriculum may need modification and updating for present times. Students might be engaged in active surveys of the monastic and secular communities in an effort to bridge the present and growing gap between the two sets of curricula.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Way Things Move in Bhutan

The roads were closed between Paro and Thimphu for the royal couple's visit and I was stranded in Thimphu at the Ambient Café. There are surely much worse places to be stranded! In fact, as always is the case at the Ambient, there was a wonderful parade of familiar faces and fortuitous chance meetings. First I ran into Sonam Choephel, my old friend and attendant of Rinpoche's who just came out of three year retreat. We had a cappuccino and in walked Lama Shenphen who was full of wonderful ideas about potential candidates for the pilot project we are planning at Chokyi Gyatso Iinstitute. Then the Swiss contingent, Casper and Sabine, came in and promised to take me on their next hike. As Lama Shenphen and I discussed the project, I noticed a man seated nearby perk up listening. This is what the Ambient almost seems designed for. So many times I've changed the course of my work due to a simple bit of evesdropping at the Ambient. He came over and introduced himself as Daniel Spitzer and we began talking about our respective projects, his is a hazelnut farming initiative in east Bhutan. Lama went off to help rescue some addicts and Daniel and I sat and talked with no small amount of enthusiasm for nearly an hour. The synergy abounded. On top of all the alignment of our projects, it turns out he was Rinpoche's English teacher back in the 1970s. I think we may have just found our third pilot project! Here's a picture of Lama at the Ambient that I took last year.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Information sharing

At the recommendation of Rinpoche, I had a wonderful meeting with a high ranking official with many years experience in the education system here. He is working on some very interesting education reform projects himself and I found the conversation both stimulating and challenging. Reform is never easy. It's like mounting a revolution, any educationist will tell you. He gave me some sage advice and loaned me two interesting books: Leading Out: The True Purpose of Education (Ritinjali, 2010) by Arun Kapur of the Vasant Valley School and Dominique Side's textbook on Buddhism for classrooms (Philip Allan Updates, 2005). I hope our lively discussion will continue. He also told me that his aunt is here in Bhutan from Berlin. She is a dear friend who was my tent mate during the filming of Travellers and Magicians back in 2002. He said she's on a trek right now and I just love the idea of her far out in the mountains but on her way back so that I can see her. Last time I saw her we rode our bikes to a river in Berlin and released little paper boats in which we had written down our wishes. Now I need another little paper boat (biodegradable of course) for my current most fervent wish: new education alternatives for the youth of Bhutan.

Monday, October 17, 2011

SJI Heads Meet in Thimphu

SJI's primary head was not in attendance, alas.
SJI had its first meeting of the season at the offices of Dasho Neten Zangmo, Chairperson of Bhutan's Anti-Corruption Commission, a member of the Executive Committee, and a dear friend to SJI. Also in attendance were Tshewang Dendup, who is taking up more leadership responsibilities, Tshering Dorji who has been expertly managing the Center for Appropriate Technology, Tashi Colman who is the firecracker of the team – we wouldn't be here without his energy, Karen Hayward, who has been working for GPI Atlantic finalizing the fantastic research report that Linda Panazzo compiled on all aspects of the Samdrup Jongkhar region and helping out in myriad other ways. We updated each other on all that has happened recently and it was a lot to cover. Solar engineer trainings, agriculture trainings, extensive research. And it looks like everything is moving ahead in good order. The three-person Executive Committee was dissolved as we restructure our management model to be more focused. We are all heading east to Dewathang at the end of the month.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Partnering: Bhutan Nuns Foundation

With wedding fever in the air, meetings have been difficult to arrange so I felt very fortunate that Tashi Zangmo, PhD, Executive Director of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, made the time to come to my home office in Olathang for a discussion about a possible partnership between SJI Education and BNF. 

BNF, and its patron Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuk, have a mission: "to provide a high leverage means of empowering and educating Bhutanese girls and women, improving the living conditions and economic vitality of rural villages, and preserving Bhutan’s strong, sustainable culture as it faces rapid economic development." 

Could we train one of her nuns to teach integrated curriculum? Could we teach her to develop her own unique curriculum for nuns in Bhutan using the same framework, criteria and resources that we are using to develop the CGI curriculum? It looks like the answer is yes! It seems there is great synergy between Dr. Tashi Zangmo's vision and the SJI vision.  And we both seem to be fans of good dark chocolate.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Education Alternatives in Bhutan

Since we began the Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative's education project in May 2011, much progress has been made and along the way I've met some fantastic people, read inspiring passages in great books, made great connections, found incredible resources and learned so much. I wanted to create a space where I can share the latest news and links and chart our progress as we help create an alternative education model for east Bhutan and beyond. So…here we go!