Teaching Nepali teachers to teach betterWhy Nepal’s schools perform poorly year after year
In recent years, many scholars, policy makers, and educators have pointed to the abysmal results of Nepal’s education system, particularly its government schools. Some have noted the persistence of this low performance year after year.
According to a 2017 Asian Development Bank (ADB) study of education in South Asia, student learning achievement in Nepal ‘has remained poor over the years’.
Because of Nepal’s ineffective educational system, the country as a whole suffers but especially those from rural and marginalised communities -- Dalit, ethnic minorities, and poorer Nepalis of all caste groups. As wealthier students move to private schools, students from marginalised groups increasingly make up most of the students attending public schools.
In particular, the ADB places the blame on Nepal’s ineffective and outdated teaching methods: ‘The main issue in Nepal is how to address the weak performance of classroom teachers.’ It emphasised the need for ‘fresh perspectives’ for understanding teaching and teachers.
By and large, ever since modern schools arrived in Nepal in the 1950s and 1960s, Nepali teachers have taught the same way: using rote methods with teachers lecturing or reading material straight from the textbook and students listening and later regurgitating.
This holds true, with only a few exceptions, from pre-K through college, in both government and private schools. Very few teachers encourage critical thinking, meaningful learning, or practical application.
Why is rote so entrenched? Many factors seem to combine including cultural, political, policy, and personal factors. In an influential study, Nepal’s leading anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista argued that a status-based anti-utilitarian philosophy of education embedded within Nepali religious traditions has long pervaded and undermined Nepal’s ‘modern’ schools.
Historically, Bista says, education in Nepal has meant recreating hierarchy, not bringing about meaningful change in the world. The ADB addresses these foundational ideas when it calls for a new role for teachers: ‘It is important to develop teachers as facilitators and not as the sole source of knowledge and influence.’
Other scholars have noted how Nepal’s autocratic rule before 1990 promoted narrow education traditions creating a mindset that still drives Nepal’s schools, including the emphasis on rote.
In addition, Nepal’s culture of teacher education is broken. Years of pre-service and professional development efforts have made little dent on how Nepali teachers teach.
‘Most of the teacher education and training initiatives have failed to transform the classroom teaching and learning process,” the ABD report notes. It adds that this includes not just Nepal’s preservice training but also its in-service teacher education: ‘The opinion of most stakeholders is that in-service programs have been reduced to training halls and leave no impact on the teachers.’
That’s worth emphasising: ‘no impact’. What has been the result of years of trainings costing millions of dollars? No impact.
The problems with Nepal’s teacher training culture are many. The ABD stresses one key problem: what it calls the ‘approach to delivery of curriculum’. Nepali teacher education programs, it notes, are 'structurally loaded with adequate content … (but) the overall approach and delivery most often remains traditional and fairly weak’.
In other words, in Nepal, even ‘expert’ teacher trainers primarily use rote teaching methods. Exactly those trainers charged with showing teachers how to use non-rote methods often themselves rely upon rote methods.
They lecture about how teachers should not lecture. In doing so, Nepal’s trainings reproduce the core problems of its educational system: too much regurgitation and not enough higher-level thinking.
“Got it?” trainers yell out to teachers after a lengthy rote explanation. “Got it,” respond the teachers, and everyone is happy.
Kathmandu University professor Laxman Gnawali has researched the culture of trainings in Nepal, and finds two main problems. The first is methods imported from elsewhere. These methods work in these other places (presumably), and are assumed to work in Nepal, but are actually untested.
Gnawali does not conclude that outside methods cannot work, just that they can work only if they are better road-tested and carefully tailored to the realities of Nepali classrooms. That rarely happens. Instead there is an assumption that they should work.
The second problem Gnawali identifies is the many ‘last mile’ barriers to implementation that Nepali teachers face. Student failures in English, he notes, “are often ascribed to teachers' under-performance.”
“The plight of the teachers working in under-resourced classrooms,” he points out, “is habitually ignored.” That includes a daunting list of challenges: parents who are not literate, class sizes of 50 to 100 or more, hard-to-manage students, students who don’t speak much Nepali, multigrade classes, students years below grade level, a lack of materials, sometimes even no textbooks, and desks and benches fixed to ground or too crowded to move.
Too often, Gnawali says, teacher trainings presume a near perfect teaching setting. Trainings “present to the trainees a picture of idealised classrooms which are well-laid out, materials rich, learner-friendly, within teacher's control and generally conducive to learning.”
That’s not the reality real Nepali teachers face in real classrooms. Instead, Gnawali says, Nepali schools need more “context-specific” methods.
Many reports on Nepali education, including the ADB report, call for new teaching methods often developed in radically different teaching environments, but rarely place the emphasis on context specific appropriateness that Gnawali reminds us of.
In addition, no discussion of the problem of teacher trainings would be complete without mention of two core problems. The first is one I have seen over the decades but is rarely commented upon: the problem of paying participants extra stipends on top of their salary and transportation costs to attend trainings.
"As soon as you say the word ‘training’ to a government teacher,” a teacher once told me, “he'll ask immediately, 'How much allowance is there?'"
The extra money may guarantee high attendance – a common metric donors use to assess training ‘success’ -- but usually distorts who actually shows up for trainings and undermines their motivation to learn.
And finally, there is little to no accountability for teachers. Teachers in Nepal are protected by political parties. The parties help teachers get hired and protect them when in the position. In effect, the political parties control hiring and firing, not the schools.
Even if teachers do something egregious, they are rarely disciplined, much less fired. This almost total lack of accountability lowers performance across the board. It protects bad teaching.
Reform efforts must account for these realities if they hope to bring any real change to Nepal’s failing public school system. In the meantime, a generation of Nepal’s youth will suffer the consequences.
Tom Robertson is a historian and the former director of Fulbright Nepal.