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Four things to learn from Bhutan

by User Not Found | May 28, 2018

By Lottie Dowling, 2018 Bhutan Study Program Group Leader 

Bhutan is a tiny country wedged between the Asian giants of India and China. It’s often viewed as a mythical country; the land of the elusive Yeti, the only ‘carbon negative’ country in the world and a place where ‘Gross National Happiness ’ is seen as more important than GDP.

In April 2018 I led eleven Australian educators on the AEF study tour group to Bhutan, a trip that inspired, delighted, challenged and ultimately educated us all in ways we hadn’t expected.


For me I learnt four key things from Bhutan.

1. Second languages empower global citizens
Dzonga is the native language spoken in Bhutan, however, English is taught in schools as a second language and is used as the medium for all other subjects. Our group was unanimously impressed at the level of students’ English. Five years old were writing whole sentences in English and number stories in Math. Grade 8 students discussed ethical consumption and its implications – all in their second language. The students we met communicated with us in English, discussing Australia’s geography, sports and animals, from as young as grade 1. Their use of English was extremely active; productive skills of speaking and writing were equally developed alongside the receptive skills of reading and listening . Students asked and answered questions in English, comparing their culture to Australia’s, as well as other countries. Bilingual skills allowed them to participate as true global citizens.

2. One short personal experience can change a life time of assumptions
Over the last 10 years, we have seen the rise of many Asian countries in international tests such as PISA . Asia’s education systems are often misunderstood as uniformly similar with teacher-directed learning. However, student centered learning - from class organization to reward systems - was apparent in all the classrooms we observed in Bhutan. Upon achievement students choose their reward from their peers (from a variety of clapping types and chants). When students presented to the class they were encouraged to use the class call and response behaviour management strategy to manage their peers’ behaviour if the class got too noisy. If a student didn’t complete work adequately they were asked to reflect on their own performance and, if they wished to do it again, given the choice of how long they needed to prepare for it. As my colleague Carol reflected, this positively challenged our stereotypes and expectations of Bhutan’s education system.


3. Real world experiences, build intercultural understanding
Often we learn about other cultures through ‘second hand experiences’ such as books, TV and films.We discovered in Bhutan that an in-country experience allows us to learn alongside others and build intercultural understanding (a key aspect in Global Competence ).

One night we held a dinner and invited the principals and teaching staff from the schools visited to join us. Conversation flowed about similar hobbies, such as fishing (with promises of photos to be exchanged of prized catches!) and I listened to my female Bhutanese table companions, a principal and senior teacher, discuss the challenges of developing a successful career, while balancing raising children and a healthy family life, all of which was naturally aligned to Buddhist principals. The conversation could have happened in any country in the world. The added Buddhist aspect deepened my own intercultural awareness of some of the implications a deeply Buddhist country has on the daily life for its’ citizens. The more we travel and interact with others, the more opportunities we have to see that differences in cultural beliefs and practices are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but simply ‘different’. These personal interactions forge natural emotional connections, building our capacity for empathy and helping us see that we have as many similarities as we do differences.

4. We participated as a group, but learnt as individuals
As we completed our daily reflections across the week, I observed that our participants had often observed or learnt quite different things from the same activities. We were each naturally drawn to our own areas of expertise and interest. During school visits one participant studying early years had observed a Prep class; another who worked in an ESL role, had watched an English class – and another in a senior leadership role spent time discussing school management with the principal. When we discussed these experiences over lunch or on the bus, the diversity of our own backgrounds and experiences led us to think about our observations in different ways and draw links to our own educational contexts.


On return to Australia I had the opportunity to share my new-found knowledge of Bhutan with others. To share practical techniques or ideas with my colleagues, to clarify their stereotypes or misperceptions. This expanded the impact of the study tour and enables me to support the professional learning of others.

View all the images from 2018 Discover Bhutan Study Program here and follow the conversation online with #BSP18.

For more information on the 2018 Study Program offerings, please visit our website: www.

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