Education I have grown up with : How things work in Myanmar schools

Posted: 16/05/2013 in Interesting Stuffs, Myanmar

A childhood friend of mine told me that she would die happily if her English could be as good as half of mine. I was like speechless. Not because I was happy to hear her compliment about me but because I knew where my English was and realized the gap among youths in Myanmar. Don’t get me wrong.

I think everybody who have read my pieces in English would definitely notice that my English is not better than an average non-native speaker with silly mistakes at times. Yet, many of my Myanmar friends consider I speak/write good English. Of course, there are a number of people out there in Myanmar whose English is way better than mine. Being said, if we were to rationalize, the percentage of those who speak good English might not be more than 5% (Or 10% if we guess very generously) of the total population. And that is sad.

It is even more shocking considering the fact that everyone who goes to public school in Myanmar starts learning English at 5. After 11 whole years we have learnt English “at school”, why on earth we could not speak English well? There you can see our awesome education system.

We have good text books with kind teachers, but no proper execution with good teachers. I cannot stress enough how execution at public schools in Myanmar fail. Syllabus are interesting (except awesome history textbooks which stopped around 1960s and were never updated), instructions and guidelines on lesson plans are fine, facilities are okay (at schools in cities and big towns, of course we are not talking about tiny huts where all students from different grades sit in one same hall under one teacher and was called as “schools” in some remote areas) and visions and missions of our ministry of education or whatsoever are inspiring.

Myanmar School Building

My School – No.(3) Basic Education High School Botataung. During colonial time, it was known as Ye Kyaw Methodist. All public schools in Myanmar are named in the format of “No.(x), Basic Education (Primary/Middle/High) School, (Township name). No fancy name at all. :\

Say a chapter in science at grade 8) comprised with explanation on theory and practical exercise, I bet 9 out of 10 teachers would instruct to skip the practical part because 1)the lab could be locked down by headmaster or whoever have power to control it or 2) it is not required to pass the exam or 3)the teacher was just bored to do it. Back to English, I remember there were some speaking lessons at the end of text books but no teacher seemed to have time to take a look at it, needless to mention for asking students to practice it. There were no official co-curricular activities. If teachers noticed that you were talented at something such as singing, writing or sports, they might send you to compete with other schools randomly.

Talking about schools, there were only two types of schools if we wanted to classify it – rich schools where children of generals, rich people and famous people went or poor schools where the rest went. (Mine was a poor one although my parents sent me to school with a car while it took only 10 minutes on foot.) And all those citywide or nationwide competitions favour those students from rich schools in many ways you cannot imagine or I cannot recall.

There was no such thing called scouts. (Thank god, it is now back in a pretty hilarious way since last year (or this year). Only those who pass exams with high marks and good at other several things such as sports etc. can join it or so I understand.) When education authorities instructed to set up and “use” multimedia classrooms where we had computers, projectors, cassettes, headphones, English books etc, we had had to practice only to show off on the day those authorities would visit us. Once they visited, assumed we were using it very effectively and efficiently and went back, that “multimedia” classrooms were shut down in dark. That is why I keep on saying execution failed. Instructions came

And can you believe that I had to go to headmistress office to beg her in order to let me use school library for few minutes as I needed some reference books for a nationwide essay competition? To my knowledge, almost every schools have decent libraries and nobody is allowed to use it freely. There were some sections where students were allowed to read there for few minutes but it lasted only for a semester or two. The more I think about it, the more I feel sad for all those precious dusty books in the library. There is no habit such as studying at libraries at all in our high schools. (or in Universities)

Myanmar School Classroom

Where I spent my grade 9) from 2002-2003. Photo taken in 2011.

Exam was the most important part. But, we did not need to be worried about it till we were grade 9) because everybody must pass exams till grade 8). If I think about it now, I have no clue why those smartest education system planners in Myanmar did it. But yes, till grade 8), even if a student could not answer to obtain enough marks to pass, he/she would somehow pass the exam. Remember, slogan of Myanmar is “Mystical Land”! (I believe this exam system has been changed a bit such as grade 5), grade 9) have “real” exams where student may fail. I am not too sure on it.) On top of that, we only required to study about 2 or 3 chapters if there were 5 chapters to study for the exam. As our teachers were very kind, they often even narrowed it down to few questions and answers so that we would need to study only a few to “pass” the exam with good marks.

Oh, did I forget to mention that we study everything (I repeat, everything) by heart including essays and sometimes maths?! If I liked to put a line or two of my own sentences to the English essay written by a teacher that was supposed to be memorized by students and write it out again in the exam, I had to take the risks of getting deducted some marks. (I was a cool kid back then not like in my uni time, most of the teachers loved me so much that they rarely did it to me. But it totally depended on their mood and emotion towards the students.) Even for maths, if you calculated by skipping a non-important step to calculate out the exact same result, you were at risk, too.

I may continue writing about what we do at a typical day at school. Brace yourself for more awesome things!

  1. vira says:

    this is actually a sad story..but why am I not frowning? maybe because similar things happen in my country (though not all of it) and I’m kinda used to this kind of situation.
    So how did you learn English? Did your parents teach you at home?
    I’m really curious, because you do speak & write good English for a non-native speaker 🙂

    • mydaydream says:

      Yeah, Vira. I guess it is more or less similar with the situation in many other developing countries. Still, it is sad to look back.

      There are some of my friends who speak much better English than mine and they went to libraries at British Council/American Center and took part in small group discussions/activities with like-minded English speakers. For me, I was lucky enough to have a very nice English teacher since I was 10 and he taught me on some weekday nights till I was around 14. 🙂

  2. Mabaydar says:

    it is really such a sad things to think back that I grown up with that kind of education. I remember my trouble at lab when I first attended Lab Class in Singapore. I totally have no clue, what it is all about. I was just sitting down hoping i just need to copy the lecturer circuit. But later when other students are doing it, i had to run around lab and asked for lab. I failed in Lab test while I got nearly full marks in tutorial. Lab teacher asked me whether I need help in tutorial. He thought I have trouble understanding the concept. But what I actually trouble is basic understanding of how to see “Resistor” value on physical device. I didn’t even know how to count pin no. in IC. Which way is the correct way which he didn’t need to explain to other students. It was really sad sad things…

    You are right about library. No students in Myanmar would have experience of studying in library. Not even having the idea of studying there.

    • mydaydream says:

      I know right! I was such a rebel back in Myanmar for conservative people so it was not that challenging to be in computer lab (but I reckon if it was physics/bio/chemistry lab, I might fail as well.) And that library thing was saddest thing. One of my wild dreams is to run a library which is #2 in Myanmar after National Library. (And that National Library is also a sad place, nobody goes there or nobody know where it exists. It was such a nice place that I always went there and enjoy all the old books and atmosphere. Plus, the staffs there were super humble that I couldn’t even believe that they were government staffs!)

    • sunshine says:

      Every experience whether good or bad teach you something,its the same for experiments also..:)

  3. Aqua Chu says:

    I like your writing. You have a good command of English. You proved good points. I want to join you. I’m also willing to write articles and blogs on Myanmar Education “BY HEART” system. I’m a matriculation student this year. I can’t bear those ridiculous marking scheme of all subjects, esp physics. If you want to know more, please contact me through email.
    Aqua Chu

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