Sunday, December 5, 2010

Blog #30: Done and Done!

DISCLAIMER: Those of you who have been following my blog will have noticed that I haven't written an entry in almost two months. I apologize for the significant gap in entries, but time has not been a luxury I have had (nor have I had any other luxuries if you want the truth). But just because I haven't written anything in two months doesn't mean I didn't have lots to say. As you will see, there has actually been quite a bit on my mind. Many people have asked me to write more about my teaching experience here (in particular those brave souls considering coming here to teach next year). I found that during the school year this really was of no interest to me since I lived and breathed that experience every day. But now that the year has come to an end, I found myself in a long awaited state of reflection. I apologize for what you are about to read. It is about two months worth of ideas and it might just take you that long to read it. Good luck and enjoy!

Work has completely consumed the last two months of my life. To tell you the truth it’s all a bit of a blur to me now. I was hoping to keep better track of the time, to take in every experience, to let life here marinate, but somehow the remainder of the school year has come and gone with little excitement to show for it.

I returned to school after the mid-term vacation with the idea that I was going to do everything differently in the second term. I had recognized several areas of my teaching that I needed to improve and I felt that I better understood my students, both their personalities and their needs. My new approach was short-lived.

At first I had students reading the stories, essay, poems, what-have-you on their own, and working in groups to generate exam style questions that they might be asked on those particular readings. The groups would then submit the questions to me, I would spend the night sorting through them, weeding out the ridiculous ones and typing up the ones I deemed worthy of addressing, and the next day I would give them a practice test on the reading.

My reasoning behind this was twofold. First, I think that students learn best by asking critical questions to themselves as they read. If a student can ask a good question, they can probably produce a good answer. This is particularly true in this culture, where students are used to being spoon fed information rather than being asked to think for themselves. Secondly, a significant portion of the final exam is devoted to sight passages (25% for an unseen essay, and 25% for an unseen poem). After marking their first term exams I realized that both of these sections caused a tremendous amount difficulty – there just wasn’t anyone to spoon feed them and they lacked the critical thinking skills to comprehend the passages on their own. And so, something needed to be done about this.

So group work it was, and for a short while it worked splendidly. But only for a short while. What I soon noticed was that only a few students in the groups were participating in generating questions. The rest were sitting idly by as the smarter students did the work. This could just be a typical teenage attitude towards learning, but I do wonder if it has something to do with the apathy that I sense persists in both the students and at times the teachers. The belief in both cases is that the ultimate goal is to simply finish the task – a fallacy which in my opinion, more than anything else I have come across, has the potential to obstruct the future educational development of the country.

Unfortunately, even when the “groups” were able to produce relatively intelligent questions, individuals were generally unable to produce answers that could be described as such. I have been working for the better part of a year to get students to move beyond the superficial to a place of substance, and still only a handful of them truly grasp what that entails. Then there are some students who from time to time surprise me with a truly insightful response, but usually they themselves are more shocked by this than I. Others produce, on a consistent basis, the most basic level of response to questions that demand much more. And lastly, and perhaps most commonly, there are those students who simply regurgitate Buddhist philosophy in the most tangential way. To these students, the answer to any question that could ever be posed seems to relate to nature’s impermanence, which is enough to plunge me into an existential crisis, both as a human being and as a teacher.

After my role-reversal experiment in which students were setting the questions for their own tests I tried a new activity. I asked students to read a story for homework and underline at least two lines from the reading that they found interesting. The results, I assure you, were uninteresting. They were simply unable to distinguish the important information from the superfluous information. Again, all year I had been modeling how to do this. I would pick out provocative lines from stories or essays that we were reading as a class and ask students to respond to a series of guided questions relating to a line. Even so, when left to their own devices…nothing.

Then I came up with yet another idea, one that was considered both novel and controversial among my colleagues; I showed my students a movie. I’m sure I broke at least half a dozen rules in doing this, but I will adamantly defend my decision to do so. It wasn’t just for fun – although I wasn’t opposed to injecting a little bit of entertainment into my students’ otherwise monotonous lives; there was actually some method behind my madness. Students have almost no exposure to film or television here, and this, in my humble opinion, is a missed opportunity. My students (and friends) with the greatest proficiency in English all accredit this proficiency to movies and music (hip-hop in particular). I’m not sure how strong the correlation is, and I’m sure there are other variables in the equation (in particular socio-economic status – only wealthier families have televisions and/or MP3 players), but at the same time, the power of television and music is undeniable and constant exposure to the English language can’t possibly be a bad thing. So I showed a movie. Shoot me.

Unfortunately my choice of movies lacked dialogue for the first 30 minutes of the film. Whoops. Not my fault though. I couldn’t just pick any movie (although I did later show my students The Princess Bride “to teach them about the elements of fiction and good storytelling”…giggle), I had to at least pick one that related to the curriculum. So when we finished reading “Too Bad,” a futuristic story about a man who invents a robot that, upon miniaturization, can be injected inside the human body in order to quite literally zap cancer cells with its laser, I searched through my hard drive for a movie that could at least draw one or two parallels. I found the Pixar animated WALL-E. For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, familiarize yourselves immediately. It is an incredibly cute movie, and as is becoming the trend with animated films, it is also incredibly intelligent and geared more towards an adult audience than to children.

The students absolutely loved it. They were quoting lines from the movie for the following few weeks (again, The Princess Bride probably trumped the effect of WALL-E. Every time I passed one of my students they would say to me, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”)

I had told the students before watching the movie to bring notebooks with them and to try to draw comparisons between the movie and the short story. I expected them to touch on ideas like character traits (both robots, despite being machines, exhibit human emotion) or themes (both robots sacrifice themselves for the greater good of humanity), ideas that were fairly obvious, especially after the numerous hints I gave before starting the movie. But alas, my naïveté got the best of me once again. Instead of critical analyses on the parallels between the movie and story, I received haphazardly written plot summaries which, even then, proved to be inaccurate (somehow a number of students started talking about the “moon people”). Once again, a few students produced well written, thorough and sound comparisons, and perhaps that makes it all worthwhile, but the majority of students just couldn’t manage to think on that higher plane.

“To be articulate and discriminating about ordinary affairs and information is the mark of an educated man.” This line was taken from the unseen essay that appeared on the class eleven final exam. The essay is entitled “Classroom Without Walls” by Marshall McLuhan. It’s actually a brilliantly written essay, one which I would urge anyone in education to read when they have a chance. In it McLuhan argues that educators need to embrace the mass media as a valuable teaching tool, as it has the potential to tear down the restrictions of the classroom walls and allows for students to learn through their exposure to different forms of media. The novelty of this idea has by now worn off in the Western world, but I assure you that in Bhutan it is still considered not just novel, but strange as well. When I came across this quotation I found it ironically appropriate to include on the exam considering my failed attempts to teach my students to think critically while watching a movie.

The question I actually posed to students was, “Do you agree or disagree with the above statement? Justify your response.” I will admit that it is a difficult quotation, but the essay was actually taken from the supplementary section of their textbook, so it was deemed ability-appropriate (that is not to say that it is, just that it was “deemed” to be) and if students had understood the essay at all, they would have had some opinions on the matter. The incoherent drivel that landed on their pages spoke for itself.

I’m going to begin the next school year by writing this quote on the board. I think it establishes a good objective for the year, if not for the students then for me. I think it is a worthwhile goal. I have always believed that the purpose of education is to teach children to think critically at all times, to ask questions, to voice their opinions in a meaningful way. I have never been one to care about what is right or wrong. Obviously, in certain disciplines that is the ultimate goal. But being a student of philosophy, I have never found a point in discussing what is right or wrong, but rather why something makes sense or fails to do so. If a student can express an idea clearly and convincingly justify their reason for thinking that way, in my opinion, that student is far more likely to succeed than the student who is simply able to answer a question “correctly.”

With that being said, I find myself living in a pedagogical paradox. I was brought to this country to deliver a Canadian style of education to my students, – and I find my personal philosophy of education does align with this approach to education in most respects – however, the Bhutanese education system is still largely based on the Indian education system, which holds at its core a very different philosophy, one which does in fact stress a “correct” answer (keep in mind that when I’m discussing these philosophies I am doing so as an English teacher. I do not mean to suggest that a philosophy which emphasizes fact is not valuable in other subjects. But when students come to me and ask me, “Who is considered to be the father of the essay?” I’m not exactly sure of the answer or its importance).

Bhutan is still a relatively poor country, and as such, citizens rely heavily on the government for assistance. This is particularly true when it comes to education, as education is free for all Bhutanese citizens. However, because of limited resources and the geographic need for schools to offer boarding facilities to their students, positions in schools are quite limited. The result is that all students are offered a seat in government schools up until they reach class ten, at which point in time they must write a national board exam in order to qualify for class eleven. Of the 12, 000 or so students who write this exam (this number is an estimate based on what friends have told me – please do not consider any of these numbers facts…you know I don’t like those!) approximately one third of them will qualify to continue their education in government schools for class eleven. When students reach class twelve they once again write a national board exam. Those students who receive an average above 40% will be granted a leaving certificate which verifies that they have passed class twelve (frighteningly, these people can become teachers!). Those students who are in the top thirty percentile (again, this is an estimate), usually a mark above 65% I’m told, will qualify for scholarships to colleges within Bhutan. And then finally, those students in the very top percentile (maybe 1%) will qualify for government scholarships (which includes a comfortable living allowance as well as tuition and books) to universities abroad (which is necessary to pursue certain careers, for example a career in medicine, as Bhutanese colleges do not offer such programs). So the whole system is highly competitive and there is obviously a great deal of pressure on students, as well as teachers, to perform and get good results.

So here is the problem. The national level board exams that I have described are based on an Indian system of education. They are extremely content heavy (the Physics textbook is bigger that the Whitepages in Toronto) and notoriously unpredictable. So preparing students for this exam, especially when it comes to English, which is – despite some people’s refusal to admit so – highly subjective, is extremely difficult.

Why, you ask, is it so difficult? Well in order to understand why it’s so difficult to ensure good results I must first explain the evaluation process.

Every year in January teachers from across the country travel to a designated location to participate in evaluation camp. Teachers are not only paid a tidy sum of money to participate, but they also are given a travel allowance for the expenses they incur on their journey to said location (I’m building up ammunition to write an article for a Bhutanese newspaper on this issue).

The entire evaluation camp lasts thirteen days, one of which is granted as a holiday. During the twelve working days, teachers are assembled into teams based on subject, and these teams, usually consisting of eight or nine teachers, are responsible for evaluating the exams for all of class ten or twelve in their respective subjects. In some subjects the task is not so unreasonable (not all students take subjects like physics and chemistry, and these subjects are also relatively quick to mark). However, considering that every student must take English, and that evaluating an English exam takes considerably longer than evaluating a Math exam, the English teachers who attend the evaluation camp face quite a daunting task. Oh yeah, and to make matters just a little worse, students write not just one English exam, but two (each of which is three hours long)!

Because the camp is only twelve days long, teachers are given a daily quota of exams that they are required to evaluate (if you do the math, for English it works out to about forty-one exams for class twelve English per teacher per day). This in itself yields interesting results, mainly that exams are more often than not scanned rather than read. However, the troublesome part for an English teacher like myself is that in order to cope with the mountains of exams, evaluators are given answer keys for the exams. In some respects this is probably a good thing considering that often the evaluators are teachers from primary schools (remember I mentioned that one only needs to have passed class twelve with an average of 40% to become a teacher), but again, for the English exam it is still probably not so great.

The problem with answer keys is that the evaluator doesn’t really have to think. They simply read the answer and see if it matches the model answer given in the answer key. For English, a subject in which answers can vary in an infinite number of ways, this system of evaluation is fairly illogical and certainly flawed.

Perhaps an example will better emphasize my bafflement. I will give an example from the grammar section of the class eleven exam. Keep in mind that grammar is by far the most concrete area of the English curriculum; there are at least some rules that should be followed (although we all know there are always exceptions to grammar rules). I say this only to stress that in the English literature section of the exam, answers are even more subjective. But let’s stick with grammar for now. (Let me warn you that in some cases…sigh…I’m not entirely sure of the correct answer. Please don’t judge me. Trust me, neither are you.)

1) The new law passed by the parliament made everyone’s life secure. (Rewrite using the word “security”)

My best guess for this one is as follows: “The new law passed by the parliament provided everyone with security.”

But maybe: “Security was guaranteed to everyone in the new law passed by parliament.”

2) He demanded them to treat the information as confidential. (Rewrite using the noun form of ‘confidential’)

I’m not sure, but maybe: “He demanded that they treat the information with confidentiality.”

I also thought of: “Confidentiality was demanded of them in regards to the information.”

3) Young people think the world is made _____ them alone.
a. up of
b. for
c. of
d. with

You tell me, is the answer “up of” or “for?” I personally would have said “up of” but I believe the correct answer on the exam was “for.” Who knows?

Okay, last one. These ones are the students’ favourites. You are instructed to rewrite the sentence using the given prompt while maintaining the original meaning. Good luck.

4) A: It would be a good idea if you went and asked her yourself.
B: You’d _________________________________.

The only thing that comes to mind for me is: “You’d be wise to go and ask her yourself.” I’m sure there are other possibilities. I urge each and every person who reads this to contribute any variations on any of these answers in the comment section.

Not only are the questions extremely difficult to begin with, but if a teacher is simply marking off of an answer key and fails to use any judgement of their own, a student with perfect grammar could actually end up doing quite poorly. I have experienced this first hand while marking exams. I usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of responses to these types of questions, but every now and again one of my brightest students throws me a curve ball and provides a response that I hadn’t even considered, a response that is perfectly correct. I do my best to award the marks where they are deserved, but I’m not so convinced that the teachers at evaluation camp will exercise the same discretion (I do not mean to criticize. I, in fact, sympathize, as the expectations placed on evaluators are far from reasonable if quality is to be maintained). With that being said, the board exams are clearly flawed and attempting to predict which answer evaluators are actually looking for, especially for a native English speaker, becomes a nerve-wracking task (after all, students’ educational futures are on the line).

So how do you deliver a student-centred approach to learning when there are very specific expectations on the exam which actually discourage any sort of deviation from the “norm?” In the literature section of the exam it becomes a matter of structure and form, teaching students the components that make up a good answer, but in grammar questions like the ones above, it becomes a game of mind reading and speculation. Combine this with the fact that the expectation is that students have a comprehensive understanding of English grammar (an expectation that most native English speakers can’t possibly meet) and students often give up before even writing the exam.

And grammar is in my opinion the biggest problem here. There is no concrete guideline for what grammar a student is expected to know, so what do you teach? What concept is being tested in question number four? Seriously, I have no idea.

Even when there is a concept to be taught, the expectations are that students know everything there is to know. According to Deva Kumar, the head of the English department and a thirteen year veteran of Jigme Sherubling HSS, in 2009, for the first time in his experience here, students were asked about idioms on the English board exam. Nowhere had the curriculum specifically mentioned to teachers that they were to teach idioms and so the students were left flabbergasted and clueless when they reached this section of the exam.

Now we know to teach idioms to our students, but the question still arises, which idioms? The answer: all idioms. Well, living in a country where English is a third or fourth language to most people has taught me that native English speakers speak almost entirely in idioms. I found that towards the end of the year I was teaching my students an idiom a day simply because I had accidentally used one and they had no idea what I was talking about. So they’re learning. And I guess I’m teaching. But if you look online or in a book of idioms you will quickly realize that to demand that students know all the English idioms is completely unrealistic (there are literally thousands and I’ve learned that I don’t know what most of them mean) and unfair. Oh yeah, and just a reminder that idioms have appeared on the exam once in the last thirteen years. So is it worth the time or the worry?

Anyways, I have digressed. Somewhere – approximately 2000 words ago – I mentioned the pedagogical paradox that I find myself in. I am supposed to be delivering a Canadian style of education to my students, – a student-centred approach that teaches students how to find answers on their own or in groups, but veers away from rote learning and lecture based classes – and yet, on their own students can’t possibly meet the demanding expectations of the exams that unfortunately determine their entire future. The reality is that it takes a heavy dose of spoon fed education to guarantee good results on the board exams. As a teacher where do my obligations lie, in educating them properly or in ensuring that they do well on the exams and continue their education? For most of the year I found myself stuck in this crisis of conscience.

So I made a compromise with myself and with my students. I decided that since I am teaching class nine and eleven this year, grades that are not subject to board exams but rather “home” exams, I will teach in my own, Canadian style, working on critical thinking and writing skills, and next year I will adjust my pedagogy, feeding them information until they’re bloated.

All was fine and dandy until about two weeks before exams when I finished the syllabus and began review. It was at that point in time that it became frighteningly apparent that my students were confused about the short stories we had studied. When I taught these stories the first time I had checked students’ understanding on a regular basis through questions and assignments, and all of them seemed to be doing okay, but again, in my naïveté I failed to recognize that they were all just faking their understanding in order to move on to the next activity or story. I figure that in a class of thirty-six students, maybe five or six of them actually did the work themselves (less so in my weaker class), and the rest just copied their friends, altering their answers ever so slightly with zero understanding of what they were saying. When I was teaching and asked time and time again, “Does that make sense?” I imagine Pavlov was rolling around in his grave, laughing proudly as my students collectively, though mundanely, answered, “Yes, sir.”

So I did what any good teacher would do. I completely abandoned my principles and started teaching them in classic Bhutanese fashion. The problem was that being Canadian this approach was completely foreign to me. Even worse still was that it was far more time consuming. Students specifically requested that I take them through each and every line of a story and explain what it meant.

Soon it became clear that class time wasn’t going to suffice, so students began asking for me to come after school to teach. How can you say no to students who are so eager to seek extra help? At home I think I would faint if even one student asked to have class for an hour after school; here there was an entire class asking me to teach for an hour to an hour and a half, not just after school, but also on Sunday, the one day of the week we don’t have school. I felt even more obligated to take extra classes when, once again (and slightly less surprisingly this time), regular class were canceled during the week leading up to exams for various (ridiculous) reasons. My friends and colleagues thought I was crazy (taking extra classes is actually quite common for class ten and twelve but unheard of for class nine and eleven), but I did it nonetheless.

For the most part I honestly loved it. These classes were usually far less formal than regular classes. Not all of the students came, though most did, so I would crowd them together and just sit on a desk and go to work. They lapped it up. Once we finished the short stories – again – the focus shifted to grammar. Even teaching grammar during these extra classes had a different feel to it. Maybe it’s that only the students who were really eager to learn were attending, I don’t know, but there was a flow that I don’t think existed during regular school hours.

Anyway, this continued for a little over a week, at which point in time I had already collected the students' reading and writing portfolios, and started to panic that I wouldn’t be able to mark them in time to return them to their owners. So extra classes were suspended indefinitely and my days and nights were consumed by students’ portfolios.

Oh portfolios, how I loathe thee! If I never see another portfolio again I will die a happy man. Best case scenario, it took about forty-five minutes to finish one student’s portfolio (that’s including both reading and writing). But that was if the grammar was good. If the grammar was bad, it could add another half hour. And if the grammar was atrocious (which is actually not a strong enough word to describe some students’ portfolios) I was looking at maybe an hour and a half, at which point in time I would just give up and ballpark their mark. So we’re talking about an average of maybe an hour per portfolio, and I teach ninety students. I get dizzy just thinking about it.

In all fairness, some of them were extremely well done. I gave one girl eighteen out of twenty. She was very creative, had great style to her writing, and a really critical mind. That was the type of portfolio that made it all bearable. But that was also the type of portfolio that came around only when the stars were aligned just right. For the most part students would all write the exact same things: essays on nature’s impermanence, stories about girls who fall in love with boys only to discover later that the boys are cheating on them (affairs are very common here; see Ann’s blog for an entry entitled “Marital Relationships” which discusses this matter), or poems about teachers and/or parents being gods (those are my favourite). After reading two or three entries on these topics you want to throw up; after reading eighty entries like this you want to chop up a bunch of chilies, rub them into your eyes until you can no longer see, which in all reality would be much less excruciating than reading even one more portfolio.

So after working from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (and sometimes later depending on my duties for the week) during the weeks when I was taking extra classes, I embarked on a professional voyage (of a very static nature) to correct ninety portfolios in just two weeks. It took me day and night (and weekends), an entire tin of coffee, and a few bottles of whisky (upon completion of my day’s work only), but I am proud to say that I got it done, and just in time to give them back to my students before they went home (some actually refused to pick them up and so they have become entertaining kindling for the Bukari…the portfolios, not the students).

I was so relieved to be done marking portfolios that the 180 exams that I had to mark couldn’t even bring down my spirits. I have learned that the joy of marking exams is that they require absolutely no feedback. With portfolios I would read through each entry and meticulously correct each and every grammar mistake (when possible) and then provide a comment and the end of the portfolio informing the student what they did well and what they needed to work on. With exams I wrote a number next to the answer and (this was my favourite part) drew an oddly satisfying circle around said number.

I’m not saying that marking the exams was easy; it wasn’t, but it was certainly less painful than marking portfolios. I have been working on them for the past three weeks. For the last week I have been working from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. with breaks only for lunch and dinner (and sometimes a short rest), but I’m finally done.

So how did my students do, you ask? Well, I’m technically not allowed to say anything until the results are officially declared, but let’s just say they finally managed to muster up some creativity despite the questions demanding nothing of the sort. Grammar was just as I had expected, and the extra classes seemed to have paid off with the short story (for the most part).

Critical thinking continues to be a complicated problem. The unseen poem proved to be a disaster. I chose “Hawk Roosting” by Ted Hughes, admittedly, quite a difficult poem. However, the questions posed on the exam were not particularly difficult, and yet the results were shocking. Some students actually left almost the entire section blank (including the multiple choice questions). One girl actually came up with a brilliant interpretation of the poem, both literal and figurative, in which she argued that the poem was actually about a man’s sense of entitlement over women (pretty much exactly what Hughes was writing about, I think). I was elated to see such a fabulous response. My elation faded when I later awarded one student half a mark (0.5) out of twenty-five for the entire poetry section of the exam. But sadly that is the reality of teaching here. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try as a teacher, students will not succeed. It took me a long time to come to terms with this (pretty much the entire year…and I’m still not entirely comfortable with it), but my sympathy wanes when the student doesn’t even attempt to answer the questions (especially multiple choice…I mean, come on!).

So I’m done for the year! We are still asked to report to school every day, but hours are fairly loose and there is nothing to do. It has all gone by so quickly. My class threw a tea party for three of their teachers who are leaving next year and I was invited, as I was the class teacher. It was really cute and they are all such sweet kids (even the naughty ones), and more than anything it was a really good opportunity for me to once again reflect on my decision to stay here for another year.

Sitting there, sipping my tea as one of my friends spoke to the class with tears in her eyes I realized that there is no way I could have come home so soon. I was not ready to say goodbye, and I feel fortunate that I didn’t have to. Next year will be a good year. I will know what I’m doing. I will spoon feed information to my students, I will reluctantly teach to the test, I will deal with the grammar problems as best I can, and I will be sure to marinate in the experience. It really does feel like one that only comes along once in a lifetime.


  1. Wow Nick, this post truly gives scale to the sheer amount of work that you have been putting into your teaching. Teaching to tests is always a troubling issue, wherever you may be. Congratulations on finishing and thank you for providing great insight into the experience.

  2. Hello, thank you for blogging about your experience. I will be in Bhutan for 10 weeks and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions, I couldn't find a way to contact you through your blog. Thanks!