By Jonathan Bennett

11 July 2017 - 15:53

'Most villages [in Burma] have at least one monastery.' Image (c) sasint, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.
'Most villages [in Burma] have at least one monastery.' Image ©

sasint, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.

What happens when teachers at a traditional Burmese monastery learn the latest teaching techniques? Jonathan Bennett of the British Council in Burma explains.

What can you tell us about the monastery?

The monastery is in Hlegu, a rural district, north-east of the capital Yangon. It was built about 15 years ago, when someone donated money to buy the land and build the monastery. The monastic school was set up a year later.

Buddhism has three big sins: greed, anger and ignorance. To lessen the temptation for greed, Buddhists donate money to charitable causes, like monasteries. In areas of Burma where Buddhism is the main religion, most villages have at least one monastery.

For Buddhists, the greatest deeds are sharing or donating (dhana), keeping the precepts (sila), and mindfulness or meditation (vipassana). So donating to monks, monasteries and pagodas is considered very sacred.

What’s the monastery’s place in society?

The monastery is the centre of most communities, sort of like a community centre. It’s where events and activities are organised.

The monks are usually seen as heads of the community, especially in rural areas, and they can be very influential. The head monk is like a community leader.

In the past, it used to be culturally appropriate for the head monk to punish parents by reprimanding them, or even caning them, when their children made mistakes or misbehaved. Parents were seen as their children's teachers, so if their children made mistakes, it was thought that the parents were not good enough teachers.

What's the difference between a monastic school and other schools in Burma?

In the past, monasteries and monastic schools were where children from poor families came to learn. The upper-class elites had their own private teachers for their children.

Recently, there has been a resurgence in monastic education. This is in part because state schools are often too far from children who live in remote rural areas, so it's expensive and takes too long for them to travel to and from school.

Another obstacle for poorer families is that at state schools, which are secular and government-run, students have to wear a uniform, which parents have to pay for. Also, the curriculum at the basic-education schools is more formal and rigidly academic.

Monastic schools also follow the state curriculum, but more loosely. For example, they include vocational training such as welding, basic electronics, sewing, carpentry and computer skills.

Such training is important for less well-off families, because a lot of their children do not complete formal education. Vocational skills give them opportunities for the future.

How has the monastery adapted to fit the modern world? 

The monastery has no WiFi with a modem, but you can access the Internet using mobile data, so most people tend to go online via their phones. However, the students do not have smartphones. There is one desktop computer, one printer and one photocopier.

What is a standard day at the monastery like?

The children get up at 5.00 and breakfast is at 6.00. The school day runs from 8.30 to 15.30, with lunch between 12.00 and 13.00.

After the school day is over, there are other activities, such as collecting rubbish and cleaning. Dinner is at 18.00, followed by prayer and meditation from 19.30 to 20.00, followed by 'night study' from 20.00 until 21.30.

After this, the children are either allowed to watch TV, or they can go to bed.

Who are the different kinds of people at the monastery? 

There is one head monk, five monks and eighty novices, who are training to be monks. The head monk at the monastery is also the monastic school's principal. He supervises the teachers and meets guests.

There are 25 full-time teachers who teach all subjects. The students learn Burmese; English; maths; social science, such as geography, history, economics; and natural science, including physics, chemistry, and biology.

What happened when teacher trainers came to the monastery?

In March 2017, five teacher trainers set up a six-month course to train the school's teachers.

The teachers used to teach in a traditional way, with the teacher talking all the time in a traditional lecture setting. This was usually a 'chalk and talk' situation, with recitation and very little planning.

Now the teachers have a much more interactive, 'learner-centred' approach. The students work on activities in pairs and groups, and take part in discussions. Teachers plan lessons and ask the students questions. They also do assessments at the end of the lesson, to check what the students have learnt. This gives children opportunities to practise, and get involved in the lessons.

How did the teachers in the monastic school training respond to the training?

In general, the teachers have responded very well. They say they feel happy and proud of what they've learnt, and often text their teacher trainers to say which techniques they used in that day’s lesson.

Might any traditional teaching practices at the monastery help children in other schools?

Learning about morals might benefit pupils in the state curriculum. Currently 'morals' is taught as a subject, but there is no exam, so neither students nor teachers pay much attention.

At monastic schools, there is much greater emphasis on this subject. For example, at weekends, the boarders study Buddhist scriptures and learn stories about moral values.

Find out more about the teacher training scheme

Learn more about the British Council's work in Burma.

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