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24 Aug 2023
Pritha Dahal

Time To Reimagine Education Reforms

In this blogpost, which is part of #TheSouthAlsoKnows blog series, Pritha Dahal reflects on education reforms in Nepal, which seem to be driven more by policy makers including international organisations rather than learners and teachers whose learning and pedagogical practice are embedded in a particular cultural context.

“Why is it that, everyone thinks they are in a better position to make decisions for me, and yet I am the one who faces the consequences of these decisions”, said one of my students when we were discussing parents and expectations. This statement speaks volumes, especially in relation to the school education reforms that continue to take place in Nepal.

Nepal’s education system, despite twelve reform cycles in the last fifty years (Ham and Dekkers, 2019), is still plagued with structural and quality issues (Bhatta, 2011). This has resulted in high drop-out rates. Government reports state that two thirds of children enrolled in grade one drop out before reaching grade twelve, which is the final year of school (Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, 2022). Also, despite continued efforts to make the school education system more equitable, it continues to legitimise the values and cultural practices of the dominant caste/class and reinforce systematic inequalities (Pherali, 2013).

Nepal, along with many low-income countries, implemented learner-centred education reforms to transform its passive, traditional teacher-centred school education system (Schweisfurth, 2011). The assumption was that such a reform would ensure skilled human resources who contribute to the country’s social and economic growth (Government of Nepal, Ministry of Education, 2022). Yet, learner-centred education’s implementation has failed to yield the expected results, rather, education systems continue to grapple with the same issues (Sakata et al., 2019).

This undoubtedly creates panic and rightfully so. As a nation, we seem to be unable to provide quality education. This ‘crisis’ is especially used by donor organisations like the United Nations and the World Bank (Schweisfurth, 2023). A policy brief of the World Bank stated how 84 % of Nepali children in grades three to five lacked foundational numeracy skills such as two-digit division. In essence, this mandates intervention. The World Bank has recently approved $ 120 million support to Nepal’s Education sector for the School Sector Transformation Program. The World Bank will assist the government of Nepal to establish “teacher mentoring system at the local government level and ensuring a full complement of subject teachers (English, Math, and Science) at upper-basic and secondary levels” (World Bank, 2023).

The pledge above is useful, but as a teacher, I feel like we are missing the main picture. There seems to be an urgency of finding “quick fixes” (Nguyen et al., 2009). Yet these ‘quick fixes’ somehow do not include actors who interact with the education system daily, the learners and teachers. Despite growing calls to make education reforms more contextual and participatory (van der Kuilen et al., 2022), it still feels like policy makers including international organisations are continuing to lead this conversation as they have financial leverage (Tabuluwa, 2013). But to reform or truly address the system, one needs to be able to identify the exact state in which it exists or does not exist. Yet, in the Nepali context, this seems to be largely ignored or undervalued.

My teaching experience has taught me the importance of how culturally and contextually rooted learning is. Over the years, no matter how different students in each year would be, a common concern most of them (if not all) expressed was to try and ensure that they would not disappoint their parents. Even though they critically reflected upon their parents’ actions, they reiterated the fact that academic success was important as it would help them show their gratitude towards their parents for the effort, they had invested in them over the years. This was valued as being more important than their own personal gains.

When I started teaching, I went in with the naïve assumption that if I ensured that my classroom culture was safe (as a class we set ground rules, respect each other, no talking while someone else is talking, not attacking each other personally), all learners would be proactive in the learning process. Yet, it was only a handful of children who participated in class. No matter how much I encouraged them both in class and individually, some children would remain silent. This was not because they were not used to learning collaboratively or not interested in class. Rather, many of them had inhibitions as they felt they were not good enough (this stemmed from their own experiences where they had internalised that, if you are not the best, you do not talk in class). So instead of trying to tackle their ‘low self-esteem’ or dismissing their assumptions, I realised that I needed to design lessons that allowed children to get to know each other more meaningfully. When the relationships and trust between learners improved, classroom participation also increased exponentially (and now, everyone had opinions that they wanted to share).

In one of the classes that I taught, a student was struggling to keep up with her schoolwork. She worked extremely hard, but she kept falling behind because of illness in the family. So, she asked if she could meet me at least three times a week after school for an hour where she could work without distraction. I soon noticed that whenever she came, her friend accompanied her but always stayed outside the room. When I eventually asked, I was told that her friend was in fact the one who told her to do this, and she agreed on the condition that she would be with her, and this was her showing her companionship.

The above experiences demonstrate how pedagogical practices are part of the culture and context they are found in (Alexander, 2000). Practices are embedded in the broader political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental contexts (Bartlett and Vavrus, 2017). I would like to call the readers’ attention to the fact that these instances are not generalisable, but rather, I wanted to illustrate that even as someone who was born and raised in Nepal, I had to learn to be open to what my learners were expecting and understand how they learn, not by my standards but by theirs.

About the author

Pritha Dahal is a teacher who is greatly passionate of her work and truly believes that learners will tell you about their experiences about learning, you just have to be open to listen to them. She is currently pursuing a PhD in education at the School of Education, University of Glasgow.

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