Myanmar education: the roles of the stakeholders

The major stakeholders in education are parents, teachers and students. The success or failure of the education process depends on the interaction of these three groups and the changing roles they play in, or are assigned by, the society in which they live. In addition, they are affected by government policies and the influences of religious institutions such as monasteries, churches and mosques. Most importantly, however, it is the interactions of the child with the teacher in the contexts of the school and the community and with the parents and the family in the contexts of the home and the community that determine the outcome of the child’s education. Such relationships among the stakeholders are pivotal to creating the kind of cultural change necessary to sustain a post-authoritarian society. As such, the roles of teachers, parents and students will be discussed.

The role of teachers

Philosophies such as Buddhism and Confucianism advocate the enhancement and glorification of filial piety: the respect and devotion of an individual for their parents and teachers. In a predominantly Buddhist country such as Myanmar, teachers have traditionally been regarded as one of the ‘five gems’ and considered on the same plane as the Buddha (who himself was a teacher), the Scriptures, monks and parents. In such societies, teachers assume the role of substitute parents. This places a great amount of responsibility on them. The social roles of teachers and students are drawn so rigidly that expecting the latter to participate in dialogue and decision making is often deemed inappropriate (Han Tin 2004). Similarly, in other spheres of Myanmar life, especially where hierarchies exist, as in the military, in the monasteries and in instances in which superior–subordinate relationships occur, the divisions are rigidly drawn. The commands or orders of a superior are almost never questioned or challenged. It is, however, an experienced reality in education that teachers can, and do, have life-influencing effects on students. Many individuals who have succeeded in life invariably attribute their success to one or more of their teachers, who are remembered with much respect, affection and gratitude.

Teachers have great potential to act as agents of change. Teachers are, however, as a group, highly conservative and traditionalist, and tend to resist change. For instance, the two Departments of Basic Education[6] and the Myanmar Education Research Bureau have held training sessions on new methodologies and classroom strategies to counter rote learning but with little success. When the teachers returned to their classrooms, they reverted to their old methods after a time. This indicates the need to change the attitude of teachers by improving methods of teacher training—pre-service and in-service—and further increasing their professionalism. Teachers are crucial players in any endeavour to create a more enlightened population. Kennedy (1998) has pointed out that ‘outcomes of education are affected by the quality of the teaching workforce. Well-qualified and committed teachers will make the difference between success and failure for many students.’

At a time in Myanmar’s education system when the dedication, commitment, confidence and high social status of teachers are being eroded by malpractice and corruption, it is clear that corrective measures must be taken without delay to arrest this backslide. As Hattie (2004) remarked, ‘it is what teachers know, do and care about which is very powerful to the teaching–learning equation’. Teachers have one of the most significant influences on the learning of students.

The function of teachers is essential, as they have to inculcate important values in future generations and ensure the holistic development of their students. The best teachers strive continuously to develop in their students respect for other races, other cultures, other religions, other conventions, other traditions and other points of view. They are aware of the moral or conventional nature of social values that are to be employed in character education and ‘values lessons’. It follows that the training of teachers should also include the pursuit of moral, intellectual and aesthetic virtues and their acquisition. The major task of teachers would then be to impart these virtues to their students in addition to the main task of teaching the standard school subjects. Until the early 1960s, school activities included ‘pyi thu ni ti’ (lessons on civics, ethics and good citizenship). This was very much in line with present-day ‘affective education’, ‘values education’ and ‘character education’. To make headway in an attempt to reduce the corruption that exists in all work environments at all levels, lessons on ethics with emphasis on honesty and trust should be reintroduced in schools.

Teachers occupy a unique and influential role in Myanmar society and have the potential to act as agents of social change; imbuing their students with liberal and humanistic values and ideals so that when they become parents they will be less authoritarian and will bring about a movement away from the authoritarian model of social relations that exists in Myanmar. In addition to this, teachers have the potential to use their status in the community to try to interact with parents and influence them in such a way that they will be less authoritarian towards their children. By changing the mind-set of parents, teachers will be making it possible for future generations to move away from the dominator-type of society that exists today.

The role of parents/families

Children are born into the nation, the religion and the social class with which their family identifies. Few will dispute the power of the family as a socialising agent. Religion and moral codes tend to support traditional views, especially the dominant position of the father in the family and the special reverence accorded to motherhood in orthodox Burmese Buddhist families.

In Myanmar, financial constraints often discourage many poor parents from sending some or all of their children to school. Often these parents keep their children gainfully employed to supplement the family income, or keep them at home to look after their younger siblings while both parents are away at work in the fields or elsewhere. Such a scenario is true of many of the poor communities in rural areas.

A different picture emerges from the cities and towns. Most urban parents are aware that their children stand a better chance of succeeding in life with an education. Many parents strive (in many cases, beyond their means) to send their children to the best schools to obtain what they hope will be quality education. A worrying feature that is emerging is that some rural families have shifted towards urban areas because of the belief—real or imagined—that more job opportunities exist in the cities. This author has previously (Han Tin 1994) pointed out that most of the rural families who leave their villages often settle in peri-urban areas or satellite towns. Due to the high cost of living in cities, both parents invariably have to work to make ends meet and the children are left to their own devices. Also, the disruption from traditional village life deprives them of the support of the ‘extended family’ and the village monastery. The resulting disorientation often leads to antisocial behaviour and, ultimately, these children find themselves in the most vulnerable group of the population and their parents’ expectations are seldom realised. Fortunately, migration from rural to urban areas in Myanmar has not been excessive. Urbanisation in Myanmar still appears to be slow. According to the latest UNESCO Institute of Statistics estimates (based on World Bank development indicators), the rural population for 2005 was still 69 per cent of the total.

The role of students

The largest and the most important stakeholders in education are the students. According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (2007), of a total population of 48 379 000, the group aged from birth to 14 years makes up 25 per cent. Since 1988, when Myanmar emerged from self-imposed isolation of 26 years, the young people of Myanmar have become increasingly aware of what life has to offer. At the post-school level in the cities, the expectations of these young people are more varied as well as being more focused than previous generations. Most feel that the schooling they have received has failed to prepare them for the world of work. With the support of their families, they are willing to invest in courses that provide them with learning and skills that will enable them to strive for upward mobility. This is attested to by the popularity and success of private, non-government educational establishments, which have sprung up throughout Myanmar (see chapters by Lorch and Lall in this volume). Though such institutions have taken up the ‘slack’ in educational provision, the motives of some of these privately run establishments are rather dubious. Quality control is a necessity in these circumstances. Accreditation and recognition must be given by a professional body, which should be non-governmental, but with Ministry of Education representation.

[6] The Departments of Basic Education for Upper and Lower Myanmar.