Teaching for Tibet

17th October 1997 at 01:00
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-de duction, 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 (#163;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.

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