13 Minutes To Read

Microcosms of Civic Education in Myanmar

13 Minutes To Read

Kyawt Thuzar and Zoe Matthews discuss the links between civic-oriented pedagogy in Myanmar classrooms and conflict transformation.

Since the opening up of the country in 2011, young people in Myanmar have enjoyed the benefits of improved access to education and technology. They have what previous generations lacked: the opportunity to participate in transforming the political landscape of their country after decades of military rule. The reality is, however, that youth are growing up in Myanmar that is extremely diverse and vulnerable to the fragilities borne out of pre-transition era regimes. This is the root of an “us and them” narrative that has been simmering and trickling down from generation to generation. Until this changes, the process of building sustainable peace in Myanmar will be far from complete.

This narrative, which highlights a predisposition to conflict and ethnic/religious divides, is also reflected in classrooms around the country. Classrooms are microcosms of societies/communities where an “us” and “them” mentality can be experienced through the curriculum and the delivery of the curriculum. As a result of the narratives channelled via their classrooms or their social communities, young people are struggling to understand the tensions, contradictions, fears, doubts, and consequently, their own unfulfilled dreams. The goal of sustainable peace is grounded in a shared sense of unity/goals. In the case of Myanmar, ‘peace’ is highly intertwined with differing narratives for what ‘unity’ means because of how entrenched conflict and ethnicity are.

Our research study sheds light on classroom microcosms where there is a shared sense of unity, regardless of the diversity in trainer and trainee socio-economic backgrounds. These are classrooms where young people are provided civic-oriented education so that they will be able to evaluate the predefined “us and them” scenarios, and develop ways they can transform this into nationwide unity. Our research also explores who the educators using these methods in each microcosm are in Myanmar, and to what degree they employ the approach of developing civic skills, such as active listening, problem-solving and reflecting, in order to facilitate conflict transformation. What has been revealed in this study is a pedagogy that ‘advances dignity, rights, and well-being for all at local, national and global levels’ (Thabyay Education Foundation, 2017) in the non-state classroom. In turn, this revelation sheds light on the opportunities that exist for the state school classroom in the midst of education reform.

Civic education as a tool for navigating troubled times

Civic education is the process through which young people can be provided with the proper tools to deal critically with diverse narratives about social issues. They become aware of their own perceptions of personal and social realities, and how their own values and needs may conflict with others. They become more aware of the institutions, events, actions and processes that exist in their communities and why and how they or others are being marginalized. The idea is that with this knowledge base (civic knowledge) and a capacity to reason (a civic skill), young people can then take it upon themselves to join the struggle for social justice (they display civic attitudes or values). In other words, they want to become civically engaged to change the structures in society that oppress the most vulnerable in society.

Civic education is not limited to instruction in schools, but is the outcome of a range of informal and formal interactions in different environments: on social media, in the family home, in the classroom, etc. The problem that confronts Myanmar, like so many other countries in the age of social media and other online resources, is the potential for dis- or mis-information to distort ethical judgment, humanitarian values, social responsibility, and civic engagement.  Actors interacting with young people (their teachers, significant others, the communities they are associated with) are at the whim of an overwhelming amount of information. This information could easily be subject to prejudice or contain sensitivities that could provoke communal disintegration or rivalries, even among ethnic sub-groups. These sensitivities could even lie in how a festival could be named for example, since this would favour the language of one particular ethnic group or ethnic sub-group over others.

According to the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study in 2016, civic education requires an open and culture-oriented approach that emphasizes human rights, and a focus on social justice and political change.  If education divides rather than empowers, it becomes a root cause of destructive conflict. If actors responsible for imparting civic education to youth fall prey to hateful, partisan narratives contradicting human rights principles, how are the consequences of this mitigated? The answer to these questions may lie in an analysis of two specific sets of ‘microcosms’ in which civic education takes place in Myanmar: the state school classroom and the non-state school classroom.

Two ‘microcosms’ of civic education in Myanmar: A State School and a Non-State School Classroom

The ‘state school classroom’ refers to the government education sector as per the National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) for 2016-2021, published following the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR). This review was conducted over three and a half years to explore the challenges to, and opportunities for transforming the education sector. The NESP identifies education as one of the ‘key drivers to support the democratic and peace-building process’ and a critical part of nation-building and the sustainable development of Myanmar.  However, since reforms towards this goal are still nascent, there has been continuing mistrust towards the sincerity of these efforts.

Non-state classrooms refer to a diverse network of education providers which have either moved across the Thai/Myanmar border or emerged as a result of the transition by the Myanmar military towards democracy. Some of these classrooms may be in contested areas and thus associated with ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and/or ethnic based education providers (EBEPssuspicious of ‘Burmanisation’ and processes towards centralisation of education initiatives. These are sometimes perceived as addressing the grievances of ethnic minorities and may contain stronger hints towards self-determination.

The state and non-state classrooms at this point reflect opposing values and political approaches and different interpretations for what an “all-inclusive education system” means. In fact, the peace negotiations following Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) have not finalised the roles of signatory EAOs in the fields of education, health or natural resources. Thus, two sets of narratives so far exist for how young people can understand the term ‘unity’ and ‘reconciliation’ in each of their ‘societies’.  The situation is as predicted by John Dewey in his book ‘Democracy and Education ’ in 1916, that nationalist sentiment in education provision could ‘lead to a situation where emphasis is placed upon the needs of the nation (or in Myanmar, the ethnic group) rather than the needs of the individual child’. With these two opposing sets of narratives, the need of the EAO or the need of the state is placed above the needs of the young person. As yet, there is no space for a reconciliation between the two narratives and thus the two ‘societies’.

Nevertheless, while there is a divergence in narratives between the state school system and the EAO-affiliated education system, there are more layers within the non-state classroom context. Lall and South (2016) map non-state education providers along a spectrum reflecting language use and political demands. For example, these schools might range from more separatist, with a focus on ethnic languages for instruction or administration rather than Burmese, to more ‘pro-union’ schools – those willing to imagine a future engaging and integrating with state systems. Or, like post-secondary schools, they may be funded by local and/or international institutions contributing to the peace process in Myanmar via social cohesion, anti-discrimination and human rights trainings, and use educational materials provided by local NGOs or international universities. It is within these additional layers that non-state microcosms of educators and young people are participating in transforming conflict at the grassroots level.

Understanding the user and the theory behind non-state civic education pedagogies

The attitudes and actions of the participants in our research study summon similar imagery to the context described by Paulo Freire. Besides socio-economic disparities, as described in Freire’s context, Myanmar has a complex ethnolinguistic landscape and development reforms crippled by vicious identity politics.  At the same time, fragilities created by pre-transition regimes have also produced blurred lines between oppressor and oppressed, with certain previously oppressed groups becoming ‘oppressors’ themselves. Non-state classroom teachers/trainers are ‘the oppressed’ who have realised the nature of their oppression and are now leveraging an additional identity of someone who is questioning why the injustice of their experiences exists.

The educational and training backgrounds of our study participants reflect the piecemeal opportunities for social mobility available during past regimes. We identify two groups of educators among our research participants who are able to step beyond their political or ethnic or religious allegiances. The first group attended a variety of internationally-funded capacity building trainings related to human rights and inclusion, either immediately or a period after completing formal education (to at least the level of 10th Standard). The second group of research participants completed their formal education at tertiary level, formally graduating with a Bachelor of Education. The latter group of teachers then went on to develop their civic attitudes, knowledge, and skills, through similar trainings to those taken by the first group of participants and interactions with civil society actors. They then moved away from state school teaching to become non-state affiliated trainers.

Thus far, we have used the theory of Paulo Freire to interpret what civic education is.  However, John Dewey and Freire also form the basis of our arguments about how civic education can be ‘transmitted’ in the classrooms of Myanmar through teachers and trainers that display and model civic attitudes. Freire advocated for dialogic pedagogy, where the teacher becomes a facilitator of dialogue, and encourages interactions by posing ‘problem-questions’ (p. 81). This leads to an unearthing and exchange of both the teacher and the learner’s normally silenced grievances. Dewey, on the other hand, advocated for a democratic pedagogy whereby the learner is given the opportunity to rise to the challenge of discussing the issues and presenting solutions.  Civic values such as mutual respect and dialogue are modeled in both approaches. Facilitation thus replaces traditional teaching approaches to provide a natural space for young people to critically intervene to change their realities.

Placing the non-state classroom microcosm under the lens of the two educational theories

How the teacher positions themselves in terms of inequality and injustice is reflected in what the learner takes out of the classroom with them. If a teacher is apathetic in questioning the status quo or openly prejudiced, their learners are likely to be the same. The non-state trainers in our study are the opposite of apathetic. Their dialogic teaching methods challenge traditional teacher roles and establish patterns of communication that transmit civic mindedness, mutual respect and tolerance. By being passionate about facilitating dialogue and showing that collaboration is key to solving social issues, they are already influencing the next generation to follow in their footsteps.

Awareness of social grievances is difficult without a process of reflection.  Without reflective action, learners will not make the connection between what has been done and what the consequence for them was. Similarly, if a teacher does not walk their learner through a cycle of participatory learning experience and subsequent reflection, learners cannot then learn from them. The reflection requires that learners analyse and theorise what happened in the experience, either individually or collaboratively.

The reflection can in turn, lead to the development of empathy and self-awareness, two important components that make up a civically-engaged change agent. For example, participants from our study deliver training on social cohesion by creating an activity that simulates a conflict between two people. Trainees interact in groups, act out this simulated situation, and then, reflect collectively on why each party in the conflict acted the way they did and what could transform a negative conflict into a positive outcome. This inclination towards a culture of problem-solving and effective collaboration presents a model of civic skills and values to young people.

In the non-state classroom, multiple resources are used by our research participants to give their learners access to even more perspectives. For example, when learning about what ethno or civic nationalism is, they can read about examples of ethno or civic nationalism in South Africa or Sri Lanka. In this way, they engage in a democratic classroom where they can participate in the construction of knowledge necessary for them to understand their experiences. The trainer then facilitates discussions about what example is being presented by each case study, how they relate to the situation in Myanmar, and what we can learn from that comparison. This ‘tuning in’ process is necessary as a foundation for the learner to re-imagine future possibilities for their communities. In the context of these case studies, that may be a lesson in the benefits of pluralism and multiculturalism. Since those possibilities might have been shown to be successful in other case studies of other countries, the learner can then feel motivated to transform that imagination of a multi-cultural, pluralist Myanmar into a reality.

Another observation has been made, via our participants, that the issue of language must be addressed to reap the benefits of diversity in Myanmar. While instruction is mostly in the Myanmar and English language, the non-state trainers from our research study allow other languages or the ‘classroom languages’ of the trainees into these conversations. This is useful in clarifying any meanings that are lost in translation between the Burmese, English and other languages. The outcome of this is two-fold: First, there is less room for misunderstanding and thus more interaction between learners. Secondly, this approach creates a comfortable space for collaboration since it fosters respect for the contributions of all learners, no matter their ethnic or language background. 

Featured image courtesy of Matthew Venker

Placing the state classroom microcosm under the lens of the two educational theories

The child-centered approach (CCA), another contribution from Dewey, was a movement towards fostering that awareness in Myanmar. The CCA, where the learner is an active participant in the learning process and the teacher is the facilitator of learning is not a new concept for the Ministry of Education. Both UNICEF and JICA have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to train teachers working in state schools in the CCA through education colleges. However, efforts to train teachers in CCA pedagogy have been met with resistance as teachers cling to the traditional hierarchical structures between teacher and student.

Steps have since been taken to relax those hierarchical structures in state classrooms.  State teachers and teacher educators in Myanmar are at the beginning stages of learning about how to take the role of facilitators modelling civic values in their classrooms. They are also just starting to evaluate lesson plans to understand what constitutes as inclusive teaching practice based on civic values such as tolerance, empathy, and respect. This is a crucial step for cultivating their capacity for democratic and dialogic pedagogy and sharing power with their learners to create an environment for collaborative problem solving. The extent to which this new brand of learner-centered pedagogy gains traction will only be known after some time.

As part of Myanmar’s teacher education reform, the introduction of the component ‘Reflective Practice and Essential Skills’ (RPES) in the training of state school teachers at Educational Degree Colleges represents an exciting opportunity.  RPES allows teachers to deepen their professional skills continuously over the four years of their degree. These skills include creative and critical thinking skills, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), leadership, and problem-solving skills. Such skills are also necessary for an individual to constructively engage with the processes that are affecting their community, and contribute to the conflict transformation.

Teachers as such now participate in the cycle of reflection, analysis and practice in developing their civic skills and competencies in the classroom. With their teachers able to exercise and model civic knowledge and skills as reflective practitioners, there is a ‘trickle down effect’ (p.143) in that young people will then more easily be able to do the same. Likewise, if they or their students are confronted by hate speech or fake news on their social media feed or outside the classroom, they will have the skills to be able to evaluate it, look for other narratives and discard it if their disposition is to protect their values of tolerance and solidarity.

Dialogic or democratic pedagogy involves not only teachers and students but also contributions from other thinkers outside of the classroom. These can be in the form of alternative resources, such as research texts or YouTube videos discussing social issues. The idea is to expose the learner to multiple narratives on one topic so that they are able to compare their own worldview with alternative ideas, and collectively build on common explanations and ideas. Policies in schools need to support state school teachers’ access to multiple resources for the purpose of facilitating multiple narratives. These can thus be compared as per democratic pedagogy. Education policymakers should also ensure that training is provided for teachers on how to meaningfully use these supplementary teaching aids.

The ability of state school teachers to select and apply material based on the language needs and social backgrounds of their students is also a much-needed response to the complexities of Myanmar’s identity politics. It would give them the opportunity to implement the inclusive pedagogy discussed earlier. The shift is underway with the teaching of ethnic languages in state schools and the new Local Curriculum. It remains to be seen whether the design and roll out of this curriculum and the use of classroom languages will pragmatically address education as a root cause of inter-communal conflict in Myanmar (Salem-Gervais 2018South and Lall 2016Joliffe and Spears-Mears 2016Lo Bianco 2016). 

From divergence of all classroom microcosms to convergence

Both Dewey and Freire were passionate advocates for learners to be active participants in the learning process, as well as develop critical skills to both understand and evaluate the multiple narratives that surround them. If the learners are able to share their experiences and develop strategies for overcoming their grievances, they are already assuming the role of a civically-minded change agent. They are no longer ‘anaesthetized’ (p. 81) by rote memorization, but mobilised as part of a collective group of social change agents within a state school classroom. Our research has shown that this is possible in the Myanmar context, but that during the process of education reform, there are still lessons to be learnt. These non-state microcosms can teach us how to place the needs of young people first as a foundation for sustainable peace.

The work of our study’s participants highlights what happens when you invest in developing civic knowledge, skills and values in teachers and their ability to develop the same in others. Their training employs experiential and participatory methods that allow learners to actively engage with different learning experiences. The trainer facilitates discussions in all of the classroom languages necessary for the learners to help them draw parallels between the experience and their respective social realities. This is an example of the painstaking process that gives learners continuous practice with civic skills–such as active listening or assertive–rather than aggressive communication.

State school teachers are just starting to apply the cycle of action and reflection. This is a promising sign, not only in terms of their ability to apply civic skills to their own lives but also, how well young people will be able to apply those skills beyond the classroom. When learners are asked to critically reflect on how the simulated learning process relates to their own experience, they realize the common ground that is shared between two otherwise distinct ethnic groups. For example, commonalities could be revealed between Karen and Kachin participants who both may identify as oppressed by the “us and them” narratives.

An additional benefit of this revelation is a consolidation of civic values such as tolerance, respect, and solidarity, which strengthen the learner’s attitudes towards wanting to protect those values. By becoming facilitators of dialogue, state school teachers will give the learner more opportunities to actively engage in their lessons. Doing so breaks down the traditional hierarchical structures that exist in the state classroom, and over time, develop an understanding of different ethnic and religious perspectives. The use of multiple resources and classroom languages would have a similar effect.

A caveat lies ahead for both the state and non-state classroom. Until more teaching resources are accessible to state school teachers and/or they are trained and allowed to be able to use them, there is only a single narrative being conveyed: that of the state. The danger of exposing young people to a single narrative has been explained, whether it be a narrative favouring the state or a narrative that is inclined towards ethnocentrism in a non-state education provider. A narrative, however subtle, can serve to divide rather than to unite. If educators have little autonomy over their teaching materials or encouragement to be reflective practitioners, they are not being encouraged to identify divisive narratives nor promote critical civic knowledge, skills or values among their students. 

If the goal is genuinely that of promoting national reconciliation, there should be a shared recognition between both state and non-state microcosms that both educators and recipients were once (and are still in some cases) considered oppressed. There is hope for the future because now educators in each microcosm are able to take more opportunities in their classrooms to break down their aforementioned ethnic and religious walls. These are the walls in classrooms that favour “top-down” pedagogy, while rejecting “bottom-up” methods that reinforce and construct the narrative of “us and them”. When educators from each microcosm, as the mentors of the next generation, are better equipped with civic knowledge, skills and values, this will be a step towards reducing the inequalities that exist between Myanmar’s diverse communities. They can then demonstrate to the communities they serve, and policy-makers alike, what inclusive education is and how conflict transformation actually could start from the ground up in Myanmar.

Kyawt Thuzar is a freelance consultant working with different entities such as Search for Common Ground and Westminster Foundation for Democracy.  Her research areas are the sociology of education and politics, and education.  Kyawt Thuzar holds a Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language (Yangon Institute of Education, Myanmar), a Master of Education in Cultural and Educational Policy Studies (Loyola University Chicago) and is a Fulbright Scholar. 

Zoe Matthews is an independent consultant based in Myanmar who has worked with Search for Common Ground and UNESCO, and co-founded a small non-government organization in Myanmar called Mote Oo Education in 2013.  She has a Master of Education from the University of Wollongong, Australia. Her research interests include learner social identity, the intersection between English language teaching, translanguaging and civic and peace education, and the implications of this for teacher education.