Critical Thinking in Myanmar’s Education System (Part I)

Claire Allen considers an education curriculum based on critical thinking. 

This is part one of a five-part post by Monash University students from a two-week study tour to Myanmar. 

Editor’s Note: In July this year, nineteen Criminology students from Monash University travelled to Myanmar on a two-week study tour, sponsored by the New Colombo Plan Mobility Grant. This was the first Monash study tour to Myanmar and the first study tour to Myanmar with a focus on crime and criminal justice. Students engaged with a number of representatives from government, non-government, INGOs, universities and other agencies, as well as individuals including young activists and journalists, all working within Myanmar’s law enforcement and criminal justice sector. Through this learning experience, students developed and deepened their knowledge and understanding of the complexities behind Myanmar’s human rights, political, diplomatic, education agendas and how they intersect.  

Myanmar’s newly evolving democracy is limited by a lack of open debate and free discussion. Contributing to this is the education system, which encourages rote learning without challenge and promotes teacher ascendancy through the teacher-centred approach to learning. The previous military regime exploited the education curriculum as a political tool to prohibit open dissent and challenge to their authority, by instigating a state-wide attitude that disapproves of independent thinking. Consequently, the education system is resistant to reforms intending to introduce critical thinking.

Although, at independence, Myanmar had one of the highest literacy rates in its native language across the former British Empire, years of under-investment in the education sector have resulted in a “slow and steady decay” of the education standard. In 2014, Myanmar’s per pupil expenditure (PPE) for primary education as a percentage of the GDP per capita was 3%, which is significantly lower than the median PPE in low-income countries at 9%. This expenditure highlights the government’s low financial investment and prioritisation of the education system, which in turn, has far-reaching effects on the level and standard of education available. Whilst on paper, Myanmar still retains a high official literacy rate, with 89.9% of adults considered to be literate, these statistics are difficult to verify and may not be a true reflection of the literacy rate in rural areas due to limitations in surveying the population (Lall 2011: 221).

What these figures belie is the form of education received, whereby students are discouraged from developing or expressing their own opinions on the material taught. Although not an absolute or accurate measure of intelligence, critical thinking promotes a complex thought process founded on the objective analysis of information in order to form decisions and judgement (Lwin 2010: 6).

The current nation-wide approach to learning is heavily focused on rote memorization which neglects proof of understanding or critical thinking ability (Lwin 2010: 7). This was reflected in interviews conducted with Myanmar-educated individuals, who stated that the state-based educational program rewards students with high grades for regurgitating exact replicas of the textbooks in exams, including any margin indents or graphics. Therefore, although rote learning may result in a high official standard of literacy, it does not promote the ability to creatively or critically assess differing perspectives to those provided by the curriculum.

The prior military regime misused the education system as a mechanism to shape and mould its citizens in favour of their leadership and policies without challenge or opposition. Independent thinking was considered a characteristic that could unhinge and directly challenge the military government, and thus, was replaced by rote-learning practices. This contributed to the regime’s stability as it created a culture whereby questioning or challenging was not socially acceptable. To prevent opposition after the military gained control, the formal education system of the 1970’s to 1990’s indoctrinated “state-sanctioned values” (Maber 2014: 146) into the minds of the youth by implementing lessons that rewarded state obedience and discouraged individual expression. Education served as a “political tool to prevent children from learning to think” (Lwin 2010: 2), rather than a method to produce analytical and inquisitive citizens. Students were actively taught not to question or challenge authority, to accept traditional norms and faithfully reproduce any information presented to them (Smith cited in Maber 2014: 146). As a result, the military had constructed a “pliable population that would not challenge…” their authority (Maber 2014: 146).

In an attempt to further disrupt and prevent potentially divergent opinions, universities were closed between 1990-2000 (Lall 2011: 222). When reopened, most universities only offered distance education to reduce any student congregation, and thus, the likelihood of student activism (Oo 2015: 398). The lengths that the government went to prevent student voice and protests clearly highlight the strength of political activism. Tertiary students had become associated with inciting opposition and civil arrest, and therefore, were prevented from expressing criticism or their own political opinions at the expense of university education (Maber 2014: 147). Consequently, under the military regime, Myanmar’s population was denied the opportunity to challenge, question and debate (Brock-Utne cited in Maber 2014: 146) which continues to have far-reaching consequences on implementing critical thinking to this day.

It is equally problematic to consider the role that teachers play in discouraging the development of critical thinking in Myanmar’s students. Myanmar’s education sector is dominated by teacher ascendancy and student obedience, which has limited free discussion and expression of thought (Oo 2015: 395). This is not only a reflection of the traditional cultural and societal norms that require youth to adhere to the direction of their elders, but in part, the Buddhist teachings that focus on respectful behaviour towards teachers (Tin 2008: 114). Tin argues that these values are “permeated into the minds of children from childhood” (2008: 114), resulting in a reluctance to question or disagree with their teachers. Therefore, students are likely to express opinions that are consistent with their teachers and the learning materials provided, as they respect the opinions taught to them. As a result of the teachers’ social status, they occupy a “unique and influential role in Myanmar’s society” (Tin 2008: 115) and possess the potential to initiate social change within the education sector. However, many Myanmar teachers are “highly conservative and traditionalist, and tend to resist change” (Tin 2008: 115), which may create challenges in implementing education reforms based on critical thinking.

International education organisations have attempted to introduce the Child Centred Approach (CCA) to learning, which is a more progressive form of teaching that focuses on individualised understanding and reduces the teacher’s role to that of a facilitator (Lall 2011: 220). When interviewed, Lall found that many teachers were reluctant to introduce CCA as it could undermine the traditional societal hierarchy (2011: 219, 231). Another study conducted by the Myanmar Education Research Bureau (cited in Tin 2008: 115) found that when presented with new teaching practices to counter rote-learning, most teachers reverted back to their original methods after time. This highlights a potential challenge facing education reform, as teachers are reluctant to change their entrenched rote-learning practices. Thus, the challenges of introducing critical thinking extend far beyond the previous regimes’ unwillingness for the youth to question and challenge.

Despite transitioning to a democratic government in 2010, the education system is unlikely to undergo a rapid transition to one that encompasses critical thinking practices. The National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) has identified the need to reduce teacher-centred approaches to learning, as they contribute to the “poor quality of learning environments”. Consequently, the National League for Democracy (NLD) aims to implement CCA in preschool and kindergarten classes to further develop teacher competency (NESP: 39, 82-83). However, as highlighted above, this approach may be hindered by the well-established traditional perspectives on the role of teachers and their reluctance to change their practices. The education sector attempted to introduce new textbooks and methodologies in 2008 to instil analytical and creative thinking, however, “existing examination and assessment systems still encouraged memorization of the facts” (Tin 2008: 118). This exemplifies the often static nature of the education system and the challenges in introducing timely reforms. When meeting with the NLD in Yangon, they had also recently introduced new textbooks that aim to promote a curriculum with a higher focus on critical thinking skills. Whilst the NLD acknowledged the importance of transitioning away from a rote-learning based syllabus they did not illustrate any concrete policies, other than the textbooks, that would be implemented to change these existing examination methods. Thus, whilst these new policies possess the potential to initiate change in the education sector, they are unlikely to have an immediately noticeable impact on rote learning practices, as they are attempting to override decades of entrenched social norms and obedience.

Even if successfully implemented, these new practices are unlikely to allow for complete critical and creative thinking without legislation providing for complete freedom of speech and opinion. Opinions that criticise the military continue to be condemned and restricted under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications law. This is exemplified by the recent imprisonment of two journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who had exposed a massacre of 10 Rohingya men which implicated the military in the killings. Despite the aforementioned claims that the government is prioritising critical thinking, it seems unwilling to allow for discussion on political opinions that differ from their own. Education officials have implemented new restrictions to prevent university students from holding political lectures or discussions, and recently arrested eight students that were campaigning to end fighting in the Kachin state. This, in part, may be explained by Myanmar’s current political climate and Constitution. Although the current government is democratically elected, the Constitution provides the military with 25% of all parliament seats. In order for any substantial changes to the freedom of expression laws, unilateral support from non-military parliamentarians is required (Wilson & Skidmore 2008: Ibid). Consequently, legislation that would allow for debate or differing political perspectives on the military is unlikely to be passed. It seems contradictory to introduce educational policies aimed to promote critical analysis while continuing to enforce censorship on opinions deemed inconsistent with the government and military. Even if the new educational policies successfully promote individualised thinking and opinion, the opportunity to debate and challenge alternative perspectives to the military will likely remain restricted for some time.

With several obstacles preventing critical thinking being implemented, it is uncertain whether education reforms that aim to introduce critical thinking will have any immediate effect. Myanmar’s population has been taught to obey authority and avoid expressing opinions that differ from the government-endorsed information provided to them, and may risk punishment for speaking out. The military and government continue to enforce these practices by preventing open debate around issues deemed inconsistent with their perspective.

[Image credit: UN Photo/Kibae Park via Flickr]

Education Policy and Data Centre, ‘National Education Profile 2014 Update’, viewed 14 September 2018,
Lall, M (2008), ‘Evolving Education in Myanmar: the interplay of state, business and the community’, in M Skidmore and T Wilson (eds.), Dictatorship, Disorder and Decline in Myanmar, Canberra: ANU E Press, pp. 127-149,
Lall, M (2011), ‘Pushing the child centred approach in Myanmar: The role of cross national policy networks and the effects in the classroom’, Critical Studies in Education, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 219-233.
Lwin, T (2010), ‘Critical Thinking: The Burmese Traditional Culture of Education’, Thinking Classroom Foundation, pp. 1-8,
Oo, W (2015), ‘The evolution of cultural practices: Are changes to education in Myanmar leading to a shift in the way in which child-adult relationships are constructed?’, Global Studies of Childhood, vol. 5, no.4, pp. 395-403.
Maber, E (2014), ‘(In)equality & Action: The Role of Women’s Training Initiatives in Promoting Women’s Leadership Opportunities in Myanmar’, Gender & Development, vol. 22, no.1, pp. 141–156,
The Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Ministry of Education, National Education Strategic Plan 2016-21,
Tin, H (2008), ‘Myanmar education: challenges, prospects and opinions’, in M Skidmore and T Wilson (eds.), Dictatorship, Disorder and Decline in Myanmar, Canberra: ANU E Press, pp. 113-126,
Wilson, T & Skidmore M (2008), ‘Overview’, in M Skidmore and T Wilson (eds.), Dictatorship, Disorder and Decline in Myanmar, Canberra: ANU E Press, pp. 113-126.

Claire Allen is a Monash University student completing an Arts/Law degree and is based in Australia. She recently completed a study tour to Myanmar, funded by the New Columbo Plan Mobility grant, which focused on crime and criminal justice.