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Friday 19 July 2019
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On educational reform and power

Last week a friend sent a playful WhatsApp video from Vietnam, where she was attending the Unesco Forum for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Global Citizenship Education (GCED) with a student representative from Hillview College. The theme: Learning and teaching for peaceful and sustainable societies: From early childhood to primary and secondary education. They were among ten countries selected by Unesco to present findings of the study. (A full breakdown of the programme is available online (https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/unesco-esd-gced-forum-2019-programme-en.pdf).

The study itself is impressive but what I replied to with, “Wow! That’s so cool you guys got to meet him!” was my friend and her student’s opportunity to meet the minister of education for Bhutan.

My first introduction to Bhutan was about two years ago through the Netflix documentary Happy. Among the countries highlighted, Bhutan is unique in its use of gross national happiness as a development indicator rather than gross domestic product.

In a 2005 New York Times article, A New Measure of Well-Being from a Happy Little Kingdom, Mr Saul, the Canadian political philosopher, is quoted as saying that “Bhutan’s shift in language from ‘product’ to ‘happiness’ was a profound move in and of itself.” This shift in language, I imagine, would have, over the years influenced citizens’ attitude and focus on how they view development. Language constructs our worldview, and as a nation, the watchwords that we employ become a part of our cultural heritage and remain embedded in our collective memories from generation to generation.

Over the last two years, I have written columns on minimalism, the small home movement and happiness. At the core of many of the movements is a search for happiness. A cursory look at social media (at the risk of repeating my columns here), reveals a persistent need to re-enforce our personal power, the power to control our own destinies. Many times the posts also reflect a focus on individual happiness first and miss the essential point that while our own reaction is important, we also live in a world that revolved around interpersonal relationships. And so, development in this case is truncated, becoming a half-truth if I may be permitted to say so.

Every year the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network publishes the World Happiness Report. In July 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 65/309 Happiness: Towards a Holistic Definition of Development. It is not surprising that in 2012, one of the chairs of the first UN High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm, was the prime minister of Bhutan.

Following last week’s column on the abusive nature of the SEA exam, I intended this week to address the call for solutions. When I received my friend’s Whatsapp message about the meeting with Bhutan’s minister of education, I thought of it as a useful starting point for our conversations on educational reform.

I speak about Bhutan because of its gross national happiness focus in education. (See an interesting master’s thesis, A Gross National Happiness Infused Curriculum: The Promise of a More Meaningful Education in Bhutan by Sonam Zangmo, Western Michigan University, 2014, https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1546&context=masters_theses). But, for Bhutan, united under Buddhist beliefs (the concept of gross national happiness arising from this religious background), gross national happiness is a focus in all spheres of life, including the nation’s small steps towards legalising LGBT relations in the interest of the happiness of all its citizens.

Last week’s column was a first voicing, some points to consider. Solutions, however, will require a thorough plan of action. Abolishing the SEA examination is not a simple step. It is one that can only be made if we understand historically what purpose the examination served and the ecosystem in which it existed, enabling us to put into place before the abolition a structure that will support a new vision. As I see it, it requires a societal overhaul but we shall start one step at a time.

Policies are framed for particular social, economic and political climates and I shall include here religion since religion will factor into our educational reforms here (for those interested, the Concordat 1960 is also available online as is the Education Act). Our case in TT is a little more complex because of our multi-religious and multi-ethnic construct and these will play a major role in our ability to put aside political and class biases for a greater common good (if of course we see creativity, critical thinking and the overall mental health of our society as a greater common good).

The question that we must first consider therefore is, are our leaders (and here I identify all our governing bodies for education) really interested in educational reform and are we willing to shift the balance of power?

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