Friday, December 28, 2018

Lessons from Bhutan do not include English-medium education

"Improving the Quality of Schooling: Some Observations from Bhutan" is an interesting essay by Phuntsho Choden and my colleague V Santhakumar.  A key insight seems to be the following:
There is also a realization that 'quality schooling for all' cannot be achieved merely through the improvements in the provision of schooling such as providing better school infrastructure, having better-qualified teachers, or making the curriculum and pedagogy attractive to the students. There may be an equally, if not more, important need for demand measures, which encourage parents to use schools not only to enrol their children but also to retain them through it and ensure that the children learn at school....
Among these "demand measures" is what Section 7 of the essay calls "Focus on government schools":
It is remarkable to note that there is a much greater focus [than in India] on government schools in Bhutan not only by the government but also among the parents.... The majority in Bhutan wants their children to be educated in government schools. Unlike Indian states, there is no notable exodus of children from middle-class families to private schools. Though there are a few good-quality private schools in the capital and a few district headquarters, the rest are considered as an inferior option by the parents who believe that the facilities and quality of teachers are relatively better in government schools.
Bhutan's focus on improving the public education system is commendable indeed. Government expenditure on education was 7.39% of the GDP in 2015; the 2013 figure for India was 3.84%. The figure on the left is a comparison from Unesco's Institute of Statistics. And here is another vizualization from Gapminder.

The quality of schooling is good enough for the authors to remark: "A couple of teachers from Kerala who work in Bhutan note that their own children are receiving better schooling in Bhutan than they would have in Kerala." (And Kerala, as we know, has among the better public education systems in India. See, for instance, the ASER 2016 report, pp. 46-49). There are certainly lessons here for various Indian states.

However, the authors also suggest that the high reputation of government schools in Bhutan could be the following: "The fact that the government schools provide education in English medium could be the added advantage in Bhutan, considering that this is a major reason of migration of children to private schools in India." This suggests that were the Indian public education system to do the same, it too would enjoy a higher reputation than it now does.

Indeed, earlier in the essay, Section 5 of the post outlines just this as one of those "demand measures": "Schooling in English medium but connect with culture". Here is the section in full:
One notable feature of the schooling in Bhutan is that the medium of instruction is English. There could be historical reasons for it. The fact that the early teachers came from abroad and did not have proficiency in the local language could be an important reason. However, the adoption of English as the medium of instruction has not led to a neglect of their national language. It is taught as an important subject in schools and we could see teachers who specialize in it and students who do well in the subject. This is an important point since there are politicians and intellectuals (especially in various states of India) who argue that an English medium education makes the children neglect their culture, and the medium of instruction should be the local language. There are no indications that the Bhutanese people have abandoned their own language or culture due to the English medium education. Instead, anecdotal evidence indicates that they are much more wedded to their culture than most Indians are to theirs.
It is not clear what one is to make of these observations. The authors assert that the use of English as the medium of instruction (MoI) has not led to the neglect of the national language, Dzongkha. As evidence they say that Dzongkha is "taught as an important subject in schools"; that they saw "teachers who specialize in it and students who do well in the subject". Yes, this is evidence that Dzongkha is not being "neglected".

Surely, a far more desirable state would be for Dzongkha to flourish! Evidence that Dzonghka is flourishing would be if the language is being used as a knowledge-language in the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities -- at the school level as well as in higher education; if dictionaries, specialist terminologies and other reference materials are constantly being produced in the language; if books, magazines, mass media, the entertainment industry, and the internet use Dzonghka for pretty much all purposes -- from discussing politics to the latest developments in art, science and technology; if there is vibrant literary activity, including translations into and out of Dzongkha....

"There are no indications that the Bhutanese people have abandoned their own language or culture due to the English medium education," say the authors. Unless there is evidence of the language flourishing, choosing English as the MoI must necessarily mean neglect of their national language. And if there is indeed evidence of Dzongkha flourishing (in most, if not all of the domains mentioned above), it would be interesting to understand how and why that is happening!

A word on the other languages in Bhutan. It is worth noting that speakers of the other 21 languages that Ethnologue lists for Bhutan need to learn the national language, Dzongkha, as well as English. Their educational trajectory is likely to be different from that of native speakers of Dzongkha.

Thus, while there is no doubt much to learn from Bhutan's schooling system, switching to an English-medium education is certainly not one of the lessons India can learn from Bhutan.

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