Teaching for Tibet

17th October 1997, 1:00am
Muriel Gilmour


Teaching for Tibet

Tibet has been a Chinese colony for nearly 50 years, and the Western powers are as indifferent to the plight of its people now as they were when Mao's army invaded in 1950. But for a college in Liverpool the fight for Tibet's freedom is close to home: every year it sends teachers to northern India to help educate the children of the dispossessed. Brendan O'Malley saw the fruits of a remarkable partnership

They call this the roof of the world, but it looks more like another planet, a moonscape of bare brown mountains, topped with jagged Himalayan peaks that are cut through by ice-grey glaciers. Half-way up, at 12,000 feet on a barren plain, the wind is whipping up the dust into miniature sandstorms that scour the sun-baked ground. But the military-style band plays on.

Rows and rows of Tibetan children, the girls in traditional ankle-length green tunics, march on the spot to the sound of flutes and drums. Their daily drill, in the shadow of an onion-domed prayer shrine, is being observed by a dozen or more teachers, a Buddhist monk - and four visitors from Liverpool.

If it looks like a defiant demonstration of nationalism in Tibet, which has been occupied by China since 1950, it is a mirage in the mountain desert. For this is morning assembly at the Tibetan Children's Village in Choglamsar, Ladakh, on the northern tip of India, and the regimented pupils are the children and grandchildren of Tibetans who fled their homeland after the People's Liberation Army crushed the national uprising of 1959.

The visitors, two teacher trainers and two students, have never seen anything like it. They came here from Liverpool Hope University College to spread new science teaching methods but found an education system with a very different goal from the one back home: to groom a nation-in-waiting, ready for the day when Beijing might hand their country back. Even the litter bins are daubed with the slogan, "Free Tibet".

"I didn't come here with any idea of the Tibetan situation," admits Di Stead, a primary teacher trainer at Liverpool Hope. "But these people have got a cause. It's peaceful and it's powerful."

The flight of the Tibetans, largely forgotten by the world, is about to be relaunched into Western consciousness by the release of two Hollywood movies - Jean-Jaques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet opens in London next month, and Martin Scorsese's Kundun, the story of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's political and spiritual leader, is due out in the US at Christmas. After the Dalai Lama escaped, around 120,000 refugees fled to Nepal and the hill stations of India, many of them walking for two to three months through some of the world's highest mountains and thickest jungle. Thousands crossed into Ladakh with their flocks of sheep, goats and yaks. But many of the animals died in heavy snow storms, and the refugees, desperate for food and clothing, took work on road-building programmes or survived on emergency relief. They settled in "camps" (they still use the term for their villages out of a belief that one day they will return) in northern and southern India, and a Tibetan government-in-exile was established at Dharamsala.

In their wake the Chinese tried to eradicate any sense of a national Tibetan identity. During the Cultural Revolution of the mid-Sixties Mao Tse-tung's Red Guards smashed symbols of Tibetan culture such as the prayer shrines (stupas) and the Buddhist monasteries that played a central part in Tibetan life. Chinese settlers arrived as part of an attempt to swamp the indigenous population, estimated at 6 million.

The Dalai Lama countered by developing his own miniature education system in India, with a curriculum and ethos designed to keep the country's culture - and hopes of freedom - alive in the young exiles. Schools that had initially been set up for sick and undernourished children from the road camps were expanded and new ones established in which Tibetan history was taught and Tibetan art and dance encouraged, alongside subjects geared to the modern world - English, social sciences, science and maths. Today, primary pupils are taught in Tibetan from the age of seven to 11, then they learn in English, the business language of India.

"It's drilled into them that education is one of the most important things you can have - for you and for Tibet," explains Kay Ashton, one of the two student teachers from Liverpool Hope.

The schools are funded with the help of foreign sponsors through an Austrian-based aid organisation, SOS Kinderdorfer International. One of them, a lecturer at Liverpool Hope, urged his colleagues to get involved, and l0 years ago a remarkable partnership was born: since 1988 two volunteer tutors have been going to children's villages in Dharamsala and Ladakh each year to provide training workshops on a particular subject. These follow a four-year cycle of English, mathematics, science and professional teaching skills. At the same time, each year two student teachers carry out part of their teaching practice in Ladakh.

In all, the Liverpool tutors have trained more than 900 Tibetan teachers, drawn from the network of Tibetan schools in India that cater for more than 10, 000 children. The scheme has been replicated in two other villages - one in the large Tibetan community in Bylakuppe in southern India, another in Uttar Pradesh, on the Indian border with China and Nepal - and a parallel project has been set up in Nigeria. Thirty to 40 members of staff at Liverpool Hope donate funds through payroll-deduction, and in February the project was awarded a Queen's Anniversary prize for outstanding achievement in education.

This year in Ladakh the training focus is on science. Di Stead, 42, and Tim Griffiths, 35, both specialists in the subject at Liverpool Hope, are trying to inspire a greater emphasis on practical investigations and make the subject fun. "The students here have a very good scientific background knowledge - when a teacher asks a question they all chant out the answer like Pavlov's dog, " Di Stead says. "But they can't tell you why Coke rises up the drinking straw - because carbon dioxide is less dense. They can't apply their knowledge at all."

The tutors are drawing on research from the Children's Learning in Science project at Leeds University, which emphasises the need to find out what children believe, then tackle their misconceptions through practical work. "There are two messages we are bringing," Tim Griffiths says. "One is about the way you learn science. The other is that teachers too often presume that what's inside the children's heads is the correct scientific view. Research shows that we hold lots of unscientific views in our mind, and, if we just learn by rote, these ideas will stay side by side with the new ones, rather than being kicked into touch."

The contexts for learning couldn't be more different from the UK. Water boils at 84 degrees celsius here due to the differences in pressure at this altitude. Power supplies are intermittent. Though the school has one computer, most children will never have driven in a car, made a telephone call, or seen an electric kettle. Having a bath means standing under a pipe in the street - when the generator is on, to pump the water up from the Indus.

This means the workshops have to be carefully tailored to make them relevant to the pupils' lives. One idea sprang from the fact that all the meals at the school are carried by the children from the cookhouse to their boarding homes in steel buckets. So when Tim and Di are looking at the concept of the transfer of heat they use the example of food canisters.

Another session uses the prevalence of tuberculosis to look at misconceptions about how the lungs work. The fun starts when chests have to be measured and participants have to blow into a water-filled container to measure the relationship between chest size and lung capacity. A third workshop deals with fibres and fabrics and examines what makes a good dye - an important topic because many pupils go on to use dyes in making traditional shirts and carpets at the Tibetan Handicraft Centre next to the school.

Norbu Norkhang, 22, the school's head of science, says: "We have learned how important it is to motivate the children and clear up the confusions in their minds - by letting them do their own experiments." But he is equally sure of the value of the training to the Tibetan cause. "How much a nation develops depends on the level of science development. We have a very firm idea that one day we will achieve freedom, and we must be ready from all directions."

For the Liverpool students this is a tough assignment. The tutors began their workshops in the Dharamsala school, so for three weeks the students were on their own in Ladakh. With no time allowed for observation, they were given textbooks to read and thrown straight into the job. Chris Pease, 27, a primary maths specialist, has to teach secondary science; Kay Ashton, 21, a primary RE specialist with a music and theology degree, has to teach secondary English.

Tibetan secondary pupils are based in the same room all day (it's the teachers who move around), sitting at rigid benches reading textbooks and chanting answers indicated by the teacher.

"One of the reasons I decided to come here," says Chris Pease, "was the discussion at home - Chris Woodhead's ideas about whole-class teaching like in Asian countries. This is a big step towards that." He says this method seems to work very well for drilling facts into the children, but there are drawbacks. "In maths and science they do some pretty complex work. What students are covering in A-level at home, the children here are doing two to three years earlier. But the impression I am getting is there's not always the level of maturity to be able to apply it. And there's a common thread of not having as much free time to play in their own way or in a structured way in the classroom."

The benefits of the Tibetan emphasis on disciplined work are more apparent among the infants, where it is complemented by Montessori-style techniques. Every morning, six days a week, their work is laid out on personal mats. They do 50 minutes of phonic word literacy work in Tibetan and 50 minutes in English, and 50 minutes of maths in Tibetan, mainly in pairs or small groups. Even the numeracy centres in Britain are recommending only 45 minutes a day on number work, and that's in a five-day week. Here, at the age of four and five they are doing static and dynamic additions and subtractions by physically counting and moving blocks numbered 1, 10, 100 and 1,000. They are also using Dienes blocks, something you would expect to see among seven-year-olds in Britain.

There are few distractions from work for the 642 children, who live in the school. They are mainly orphans or sons and daughters of single parents, who may be nomads working hundreds of miles away. Some parents send their children to India just so they can grow up in a free country. Boys and girls sleep in two separate, spartan bunk rooms off a main, empty communal lounge, where they sit on the polished concrete floor doing their homework by dim electric bulb or moonlight. There are home-made posters on the wall. All their personal possessions are kept on one small shelf, and they don't usually fill it.

Kay Ashton and Chris Pease are experiencing this hard life at first hand. Though their tutors have the relative luxury of being housed in the village's guest room with en suite bathroom - throw scoops of cold water over yourself for a shower or down the pan to flush the toilet - Chris and Kay have to share a room in one of the 26 homes for pupils. For them the toilet is an enclosed slatted platform raised above a sewage pit outside. While Chris can cope with washing under the shelter of the willow trees, Kay is not used to the communality of sharing a bowl of water and a candle with the girls in an outhouse - "They try to wash your hair for you. I went three weeks without a shower."

The Tibetan teachers are used to such conditions. A surprising number of them, in Dharamsala in particular, have qualified for lucrative professions as doctors and vets in the US but have chosen to return to teach on a salary of 3,000 rupees (Pounds 50) a month in the searing 40-degree heat of the Himalayas. "Seventy per cent of the teachers were educated in this school or at Dharamsala," explains Ngodup Wangdu, director of the Children's Village. "They feel they must go wherever they can be useful. They have very special feelings for the Tibetan cause."

But for how long can this continue? It is now nearly half a century since Tibet was occupied, and how many future generations will feel the same way? The question saddens Mr Wangdu, who left Tibet himself at the age of six. He explains that compulsory family planning - including, according to his "government", cases of forced sterilisation and abortion - and the influx of settlers is transforming Tibet into a Chinese province.

"Our population is in a very critical condition," he says, his voice suddenly breaking and tears welling in his eyes. "At the moment the ratio of Tibetans to Chinese is 3:2. After ten years it may be 1:4. Then we will be a minority in Tibet."

The Tibetans, a religious people steeped in ancient traditions, have faith in the Dalai Lama, whom they believe to be a reincarnation of their patron God, Chenresig. But the arithmetic of power is against even a God-king. China, the coming superpower, is unlikely to yield to a country of up to 6 million spread over territory the size of Western Europe. So the Dalai Lama is preaching compromise - autonomy in return for allowing China to run Tibet's defence and foreign affairs. Until then the refugee schools will continue to educate for Tibet. But if he fails, Ladakh, the Land of Broken Moons, may become a land of broken dreams.


The children's daily routine is punishing. Woken up at 4.15am by a loud knock from the house mother, they start with jobs around the house, polishing the floor with cloths, picking up debris in the yard, whacking down the paving stones to make them level.

Breakfast is at 6am, then they dress for school. At 6.15am the seniors begin self-study, then go up to the playground for assembly at 7.15am. Classes run six days a week from 7.30am to 4pm, finishing off with half an hour of prayers. Then it's games for the seniors - up to three football matches being played simultaneously on the same pitch - and floor polishing for the younger ones. More self-study at 6.30pm. Bed at 9pm, except for the seniors who often spend evenings practising traditional dance.

One day the children in the British students' home got up at 4am, moved all the bunks into the middle of the room and painted the entire house by 7. 30am.

And that was their day off.

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