Place-Based Education in Bhutan: A Reflection from my Fellowship

To start with gratitude; I am beyond thankful for the opportunity to be the first Teton Science Schools Fellow in Bhutan. It has been an enriching adventure filled with personal and professional experiences that have continued to challenge my way of thinking and broaden my perspectives. I spent the first half of the Fellowship in Samtse, a small town along the border of India in Southern Bhutan. Samtse is home to Samtse College of Education, where I was stationed for four months. Living and working here included a variety of experiences from an audience with The King of Bhutan, the gaining of lifelong friends, spontaneous trips in efforts to be blessed by high Lamas, and the exploration of this beautiful, peaceful and magical country.

In fulfillment of the Fellowship, I engaged with the College lecturers, as well as students, to assist in the implementation of place-based education. I supported the lecturers in using place-based education in their modules and was responsible for two of my own modules. One of the greatest challenges I faced was implementing place-based education in a new place.

How do I teach place-based education in a culture, society, and environment I don’t know?

In my past place-based education experiences, I had an underlining knowledge about the place and was given opportunities (through academic courses) to enhance and deepen my content knowledge and my connection to that place. For this experience, I had little background knowledge and no such opportunities. I had to develop the connection to place and content knowledge on my own; I read books, talked to locals, immersed myself in the culture and society, and sought advice and resources from experts. I attempted to connect to this new place through my students; I wanted to see what they saw; I wanted to know what they knew; I wanted to be able to see this place through their eyes. I started to wonder if that was even possible? Is it possible for me to set aside my perspective to be able to see this new place through the eyes of the locals? Was that required to help implement the ideas of place-based education? Was that required in order for me to be able to connect to this new place? I have no answers, only more questions…

In attempts to learn about this place, and assist my students in making their own connections to place, I tried to make my lessons as student-centered as possible. I was conscious of what opinions I shared, of projecting my perspective. I asked my students questions about their prior knowledge, about their prior experiences as students and then teachers in the Bhutanese educational system. On my first day of teaching, I asked for them to think about a time in their life that would paint me a picture of what learning means to them. After several minutes of awkward silence, one student stood up and told me about how education in Bhutan was rooted in other’s philosophies. Up until the 1960s, education in Bhutan was based on India’s system. He told me about his hesitation to ask questions, to act out of line, or to challenge anything the teacher was lecturing on. As he told me of his story, many shook their heads in agreement. My student ended his story talking about how he wants education to be different, about ways that it already is and ways that it could still be improved. I started to see that there was a disconnect between the Bhutanese people and culture, and their education system. That first day showed me the relevance of place-based education. It showed me the importance of teaching to place, the importance of teaching in context to what one knows, loves, and cares for. This is where my challenge began… How do I start to teach the importance of including place in an education system I am not a part of? How do I know what is important to Bhutan? What is most relevant to this system, culture, and ecology? I started by asking questions. Almost every lesson involved a discussion: How does this apply in the context of Bhutan?

This process of teaching in a new place presented many new challenges for me as a place-based educator. There are many things I wish I could go back and teach again using the place-based knowledge I have gained over the past few months. Overall, I have been able to use my moments of challenge, as moments of growth. Coming to Bhutan and completing this Fellowship has helped me reflect and grow from the knowledge I gained over my two-year Master’s program at Teton Science Schools and the University of Wyoming. I have been able to apply my understanding of place-based education, utilizing my knowledge in a different context, exploring the PBE principle of “local to global”. How can I use my local knowledge of my place to explore this new, unknown place? This experience has challenged my ideas about place-based education and has pushed me to think more critically, more reflectively on what it means to be an educator in the context of (a new) place.

This experience has helped solidify the principles of place-based education and develop a new awareness and meaning to what it means to be a place-based educator; It is a never-ending process of developing local knowledge, making connection to the local community and growing awareness of one’s self in the context of culture, society, and the environment.

I look forward to my next adventure as the TSS Fellow, living and working in a new place in Bhutan. For the next five months, I will be at Talhogang Primary School, a pilot community school that has been adopted by the Youth Development Fund, a local nonprofit. I know this experience will bring new challenges for me both personally and professionally, and I face them with a new understanding of this place, the culture, and its people. I still have much to learn about Bhutan, as well as teaching place-based education in this context, but I look forward to the challenge and continuing my growth towards being an effective place-based educator.

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