BEP Myths Debunked

- Gyaltsen, Science Education Officer, DoE

Most of the issues discussed in exile community, be it in media or any public forum, are political in nature. Discussions on education-related issues are rare, if not nonexistent. While we find popular Tibetan websites and journals flooded with articles on situation inside Tibet and exile Tibetan polity, how often do we get to read about the problems and challenges that we face in the field of education today? For instance, no matter how naive, most Tibetans are cognizant of Middle Way Policy and the fact that it is the official standpoint of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA); but how many of us are aware of CTA’s Basic Education Policy (BEP) and its salient features?

As a person working for Tibetan Education, I often end up discussing on BEP with teachers, administrators, school children and parents. To my surprise and dismay, even after nearly 10 years since the BEP was promulgated by CTA, not many people in our community have even a rudimentary knowledge of the policy and its features. Worse is that many have skewed understanding of the policy which leads them to blatantly discredit it. In this article, I am highlighting three common myths about BEP amongst the Tibetan populace based on what I heard through grapevine and formal interactions.

Myth 1: BEP is Synonymous to Tibetanization of Medium of Classroom Instruction

This is the most common myth about the Basic Education Policy in our community. There is definitely a clause in the BEP document which underscored the need for full conversion of medium of instruction to Tibetan in our schools. However, neither is BEP just about this clause nor is this clause the most important aspect of BEP.

While people may debate on the legitimacy of mother-tongue based classroom instruction (although scientific research in this field has proven beyond any ambiguity that mother-tongue based classroom instruction leads to better conceptual understanding in children), taking one’s impressionistic disliking for this vernacularization aspect of BEP as the sole basis for discrediting the policy as a whole grossly overlooks the significance of the key features of BEP- most of which have universal appeal.

For me the essence of BEP lies in the four aims of giving education viz., enabling to fully awaken the students’ discriminative faculty of mind to be able to distinguish right from wrong which constitutes the principle of “freedom”; students embracing other beings as more precious than the self and sacrificing the self for the service and welfare of others which constitutes the principle of “altruism”; enabling in students the ability to preserve Tibetan culture and natural environment constitutes the principle of “upholding the heritage”; and finally the principle of “innovation” stresses that students should be to introduce new principles, systems, movements and so forth in accordance with the needs of time and place.

Besides these four aims of providing education, BEP endorses: student-centered teaching methodology, abolishment of 3 hour examination system, inculcation of higher order thinking skills, Inclusive Education, teaching of traditional subjects (such as Valid Cognition) and so forth. In short BEP envisages a ‘paradigm shift’ in our education to address the crucial issues plaguing our society such as lack of professionals, unemployment problem and cultural uprooting of youngsters.

Here, I also feel Department of Education is partially responsible for reinforcing this myth in the community. It has overemphasized the Tibetanization of instructional medium through implementation of various BEP related projects over the years. These projects, lopsided towards efforts to vernacularize medium of instruction left more crucial issues (like effecting positive changes in teachers’ classroom practice) almost unattended. I strongly believe that as long as BEP fails to bring about quite a radical change to the existing classroom practice of the teachers, it shall remain just a policy document.

Myth 2: Implementation of BEP will Adversely Affect the English Language Proficiency of Children

At times common sense can be tyrannical, causing unnecessary impediment to progress. The assumption behind the second myth is that below-par competency in English Language will be an obvious side effect of the switch in medium of instruction to Tibetan, and introduction of second language only after III grade as per BEP.

Quite counter-intuitively, many scientific researches in the field of mother-tongue based education system has shown that developing a strong foundation of mother-tongue language in children, rather than impeding, actually helps in acquisition of second language later in school, provided this alternate system is implemented properly.

Retrospectively, for about 40 years since the first Tibetan school was established in India, all the Tibetan schools followed a system wherein medium of instruction was English right from I to XII grade. Going by the (commonsensical yet unscientific) logic behind the second myth, the students who graduated from the Tibetan schools under the previous system must be reaaally good in English! Are they? If majority of the readers objectively respond to this question in affirmative, my argument would stop here. However, if the general response to this question is negative, I won’t hesitate to voice my argument that ‘just as following an English Medium System doesn’t guarantee good English Language competency in children, switching the medium of instruction to Tibetan will not necessarily hamper the standard of English in schools’.

For me this question of language competency (be it Tibetan or English) has very little to do with medium of instruction rather, it has much (if not all) to do with quality of our language classes. Cases of teachers teaching English language in Tibetan medium (even at Secondary and Senior Secondary Level) are not uncommon in our schools, the absurdity of which cannot be fathomed. Emphasis on creative writing, speaking, developing reading habit and so forth which is absolutely crucial for developing language skills has been seriously lacking in most of our schools. How then can we expect our children to possess good competency in languages?

Myth 3: Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche Formulated BEP

On several occasions I have heard people say that BEP is a ‘utopian vision’ of Ex Kalon Tripa Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche which lacks practicability hence, fails to garner popular support from people. Some even go to the extent of saying that Rinpoche is a monk and has no children; therefore for him to insensitively formulate a policy which undermines children’s career prospect is understandable.

If only these people study the rigorous drafting process of BEP, they would realize that BEP is not a handiwork of an individual.

Rinpoche prepared the outline of the Policy in 2003. Subsequently, an Education Drafting Committee was appointed in 2003 comprising of five members chaired by Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok, then Secretary of the DoE. The committee submitted the first draft to the Kashag. After giving the draft a thorough consideration, the Kashag produced a second draft which was distributed amongst all Tibetan educational institutes and scholars in exile seeking their comments and suggestions. The DoE compiled all the suggestions that were received and submitted them to the concerned authorities. A seminar of Indian scholars distinguished in the fields of traditional as well as modern education was held in January 2004 to consolidate the professional advices and suggestions received on the second draft. A similar seminar of Tibetan scholars and administrative panel was held in February 2004. Thus, a third draft was prepared by the Drafting Committee and it was reviewed by the Kashag. Later an international seminar of modern academicians was convened by the Kashag in June 2004; final version of the BEP document was prepared after making some changes according to the suggestions that came from the seminar.

Finally, in September 2004, the document was tabled at the 8th Session of the 13th Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies (ATPD) for approval. The Assembly held discussion on the document, made certain changes accordingly and then voted on; the BEP document was ‘unanimously’ approved by ATPD.

The reason why I presented this narrative on the rigorous process of drafting of BEP is to make people aware of the fact that the policy was not casually formulated overnight. It involves hard work of many eminent academicians and scholars in both traditional and modern education over a period of time. Therefore the question arises; are we justified as an individual to discredit the policy simply based on our impressionistic views?

Conclusion

I presented my viewpoints on the BEP in this article not with the hope of making everybody agree with me. I know that would be unrealistic. However, I feel that healthy discussions on important educational issues (such as the one I brought here) is seriously lacking in our community; therefore my primary intention for writing this article is to spark intellectual discussion on the topic based on sound reasoning and proper analysis.

Being political refugees in India, I understand that political activism is much hyped in our exile community. I don’t have anything against that. However, we must realize that our struggle is non-violent in nature; education is the key weapon for a nonviolent struggle. In that sense, a collective effort from the community is required to improve the overall standard of education. Working towards a better education is thus, a form of political activism!

Administrator
  1. Tsiphu Reply

    Gen Gyaltsen La,

    First of all, thank you for writing this piece. I have to acknowledge, before reading your article, I also held many of the myths to be true. You pick on important issues of miscommunication in the society and your explanation and reasoning is clear and needed. I particularly found the part where you discussed the succession of policy considerations made to formulate the BEP extremely informative.

    There are several inter-related points I want to raise in relation to your article.

    1. The search for a non-political imaginary and its relation to “preservation of Tibetan culture”
    You begin this article by lamenting the almost hegemonic space that politics takes in the Tibetan community. I agree with you on that. I see the singular political imagination that has accompanied the creation of a successful( and an insular) Tibetan community to have impacted many aspects of our exile life. One is of course education. Others could be the discussion of History and culture. From my own pondering-s, I have come to believe that the reason why political space dominates our imaginary is complex and also deeply rooted in the narrative of our exile society. It will take time and conscious effort to make meaningful changes.

    However, I believe that one way the political space has become dominant and in some regards rigid is due to the way we approach the understanding of Tibetan culture. Sayings such as “mi-gyam gyun tsin” “nyampa lharso” rings a familiar bell to most Tibetans. But for a moment, let us try to explore what does that actually mean? What does culture mean? What does a culture uprooted from its geographic home mean? Is it something to be “preserved” and therefore becomes politicized? Or can it be more experimental? can it allow more room for creativity?

    2. Art and Language as Culture
    The above questions brings me to my second point. Having studied in Tibetan education system, I know for a fact that art- be it fine arts or performing arts is often overlooked. But if we were to truly ask for a more open space and more open discussion, we need artists or if not, we need the imagination of artists. We need more people to explore our culture. Why is there minimal institutional support in this regard? Why is there no effort to teach our performing artists the art history of Tibet? Or to find scholarships to send them to conservatories? I think there is potential there.

    3. Tibetan Language Pedagogy
    Related to art, Tibetan language pedagogy in exile is an unfortunate victim of our exile fears and politics. Language needs freedom. We need literature. We need Tibetan children to study Tibetan that is appropriate to their age. Where are the Tibetan children’s books? How do we expect children who are at tender age to read heavy buddhist texts? (although they are important) This goes in accordance with your point on the quality of language classes.

    4. Lastly, these are simply questions. Are bilingual experts included in the policy meetings? When policies are formulated, do they take into consideration or are they sensitive to the difficulties of an exile learning?

    So all my points are touch points that your article sparked. I simply ask that when we talk of political space, we try to go deeper- look at history- look at culture- look at generational thinkings that formed- and then try to understand ways it could be changed.

    All in all though, I understand it is easy for an outsider to point these out but the actual difficult task has to be implemented with your time. I truly applaud and appreciate what you do. So thank you again.

    Best,

    • Gyaltsen Reply

      Hi Tsiphu,
      Thank you for your insightful response to my article! Although I have the complete list of Indian, Tibetan and Overseas experts invited for the meetings, the list doesn’t show the academic specializations of the individual scholars. However, some of the names familiar to me like Prof. Ngawang Phuntsok (Professor of Education in Department of Elementary, Bilingual and Reading Education at California State University) and Catriona Bass (Author of the book ‘Education in Tibet’) definitely have expertise in bilingual education. Moreover, seeing the sheer size of (both modern and traditional) academicians and scholars involved in the drafting process, I can assume that many of them may have sound understanding of Bilingual Education.
      Secondly, in the preface of the BEP document written by Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, he has highlighted the key challenges of the education in exile and subsequently writes “Seeing the prevailing standard of cultural awareness, thought and conduct, many people associated with the education of Tibetans realized that the present system of education is incapable of fulfilling the ultimate desire of the Tibetan people”. In short, I believe that the new policy was formulated after studying thoroughly the drawbacks of the previous Education System.
      Best
      Gyaltsen

  2. Tenzin Reply

    Gen Gyaltsen La,

    Great article!
    I strongly agree with one of your important points that we rarely hear about our education system and/or policy being discussed by general public or/and in different Tibetan media. In our community, policies are regarded as something that are only related to the people at the administrative levels, and hardly reach to general population unless one makes an extra effort to make it. Hence, I personally feel that there is a huge gap between the general population and the policy makers. I am not sure whether it is feasible or not, but ideally, I think any education policies should be made accessible to the general population by involving more stakeholders like school administrators, teachers, parents, and students.
    I deeply appreciate your effort in highlighting this important issue in our community. I just want to know the original source of your references made on “mother-tongue and second language” for my own interest.

    Sincerely yours,
    Tenzin.

    • Gyaltsen Reply

      Hi Tenzin,
      Thank you for your response! Following are the references on bilingual education that you may refer to:

      1] The World Bank. (2005). In their own language…education for all. Retrieved from http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EDUCATION/Resources/Education-Notes/EdNotes_Lang_of_Instruct.pdf

      2] Garcia, O. & Baker, C. (Eds.). (2007). Bilingual education. An introductory reader. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

      3] Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (4th ed.). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

      4] Brisk, M. E. (2006). Bilingual education: From compensatory to quality schooling (2nd edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

      5] Dutcher, N. & Tucker, G. R. (1997). The use of first and second languages education: A review of international experience. Pacific Islands Discussion Paper Series 1.

      6] Wang, S. (2007). The failure of education in preparing Tibetans for market participation. Asian Ethnicity, 8(2), 131-148.

      7] Tsetan, D. (1995). Bod ljongs kyi slob gso. Beijing: China Tibetology Publishers.

      8] Rabgey, T. (2009). Tibet: Hope through engagement. Zeidman Memorial Lecture [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BVRmuqb9_c&feature=related

      9] Gzhis-rtse sa-slob. (1992, August 22). Gzhis rtse sa gnas slob ‘bring lo rim gsum pa’i tshod lta’i ‘dzin gra’i lo gsum gyi las don pyogs bsdoms. (Unpublished primary document).

      Best,
      Gyaltsen

  3. Anonymous Reply

    Could you please address the issue of Tibetan language preservation in exile, especially for Tibetan communities in North America and Europe?

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