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Towards a better standard of English
Students
Bhutanese high school graduates should be able to speak and write clearly in English, with a sound foundation in grammar and a rich vocabulary. They should have developed critical thinking skills and should be well read in both fiction and non-fiction. This is an education policy vision, prescribed in a new document called the "The Silken Knot: Standards for English in Schools in Bhutan".

Produced by the Paro-based centre for educational research and development (CERD), the document is the first forward-looking attempt by the education department to set a standard for "teaching, learning and knowing".

The concept divides English into four major frameworks of learning: speaking and listening, writing, reading and literature, and language. Each framework has four parts - statement of standards, indicators of levels of achievement, teacher inputs, and provisions that are necessary if the standards are to be met. Each part deals with a critical component of the document.

For example, indicators of levels of achievement describe the type and range of performance that can be expected of students in each area of English study as they progress through the school system, from classes PP to 12.

Bhutanese students need to be encouraged to read widely and to read

There are clear instructions for teachers for each level - suggesting lessons that need to be planned, knowledge and skills that need to be learned by teachers themselves. A description for teacher's input in writing for level six (classes 7-8), for instance, says: teachers will assist students to use language and sentence structure to create an effect or mood.

CERD : a concept whose time has come
The centre for educational research and development was established by the ministry of health and education "to carry out systematic studies on different aspects of education provided by the government".

It is expected to generate ideas for enriching curriculum planning, to assist in teacher preparation and to support teachers in the field.

Before its establishment in April, 2001, the concept of research in education was either absent or not widely known.

It is expected that CERD will ultimately grow into a leading educational think-tank and research organisation with a core body of professional staff. CERD plans to forge links with relevant and reputed research institutes and organisations in the region and elsewhere. It also hopes to establish a mechanism for quality standards in education and promote a spirit of enquiry and analysis through "action research".

Since its establishment, the centre has carried out a study on the improvement of primary education with UNESCO assistance. It actively collaborated with the DDC to produce a Dzongkha-English dictionary. It assists the English subject committee of the curriculum and professional support division (CAPSD) and supports the Paro NIE "in providing content enrichment input".

The "Rinpung Experiment"

Through this experiment, which the centre describes as "a call to come to the basics", teachers of Paro valley come together to talk about their subjects to get a wider understanding of it. A major task of the centre being to promote the standard of English in high schools, it came up with the Silken Knot. It will now carry out studies and formulate national standards for other subjects like Dzongkha, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies.

CERD is supported by NIE, Paro

The director of CERD said that the Silken Knot, a metaphor which he thinks best epitomizes education, is "a response to the perceived decline" of English standard in the country.

Students
Countries like the UK, US, and New Zealand have all formulated national standards. The centre formulated the standards with the voluntary assistance of a retired professor from the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

In developing the standards CERD, among other things, discussed English and its teaching with educators and other professionals, studied existing national documents related to the subject, and statements of standards for English in English-speaking countries of the world.

CERD also observed more than 150 classes covering 80 percent of the high schools in the country, conducted interviews with teachers and educationists, and held over two dozen workshops around the country.

In developing the standards CERD, among other things, discussed English and its teaching with educators and other professionals, studied existing national documents related to the subject, and statements of standards for English in English-speaking countries of the world. CERD also observed more than 150 classes covering 80 percent of the high schools in the country, conducted interviews with teachers and educationists, and held over two dozen workshops around the country. Through field visits CERD discovered a wide variety of standards in schools across the country. Many teachers had not taken advanced courses in English. Some did not study English beyond grade 10. Many had studied up to grade 12 and the elective courses offered in the national institutes of education (NIE).

There were deficiencies and shortfalls in teaching, learning and the curriculum content of English. The existing English curriculum was one-sided with too much emphasis on old fictional literature. Teachers spent almost all their time explaining texts to students and students spent all their time writing down what the teacher said. This habit had become deeply entrenched in the education system. Beyond class eight, English had been reduced to "the transmission of approved information about assigned literature texts and memorizing that information for examinations".

Decline in the standard of English in Bhutan?

Is there a decline in the standard of English in schools in Bhutan, or is the notion merely "perceived" ? There is no definite answer. One group - including many teachers around the country - feels that the standard is deteriorating. Other teachers pointed out that the decline could be attributed to the "cumulative effect" of many factors. For instance, the young age of students and cramped classrooms could have a lot to do with the falling standard. Some educationists, however, do not agree that the standard of English is declining. Students themselves think that they "are doing pretty fine in English".

The Silken Knot

The Silken Knot in fact hopes to address all these shortcomings, real or perceived, prevailing in the teaching and learning of English.

It brings grammar and a whole range of language studies back into the classroom. It incorporates modern and non-fictional literature such as essays, letters, reports, biographies, and scientific and media writing in the curriculum in a big way. Copies of The Silken Knot have been distributed to all senior and junior high schools in the country. Some schools and educational institutions have already begun implementing the document, which they see as a "welcome and required" challenge. Teachers feel that the standards document is the "beacon" they have long been looking for. But one thing about the beacon the teachers must certainly do before anything else - understand it thoroughly themselves.

Contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's national newspaper

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