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Walking Together: A Teaching Metaphor from Myanmar by Bryan Duff, senior lecturer in education

A row of flip-flops

In 2014, SEAP approached me to partner with them in developing and teaching a course on education in Asia. I hesitated for two reasons. I had no firsthand and little academic knowledge about education policy and practice in Asian countries. More than that, having never left the U.S. despite growing up in a military family, I felt provincial and therefore eminently unqualified to lead such a course. But once I understood that the envisioned class would comprise a series of guest lectures by experts on Burma, I agreed to the partnership, looking forward to the chance to enrich my understanding of U.S. schools with a comparative perspective.

Though excited, I also second-guessed my decision to participate in a course so different in pedagogic format from my other classes. I specialize in community-engaged courses wherein undergraduates work directly with children or engage in public discussions about education, using what they learn from academic reading, discussion, and personal reflection. As if the content weren’t foreign enough to me, a one-credit seminar with guest speakers would feel like teaching on another planet!

But before I could worry too much, Cornell’s Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs released its first Request for Proposals for the Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum (ICC) grant program. I proposed to SEAP that we apply for funds to infuse community engagement into the new course. In imagining the form of this engagement, I received significant inspiration and practical input from Thamora Fishel, associate director of SEAP; Rosalie Metro, whose dissertation at Cornell focused on the potential impact of history curricula on ethnic conflict in Myanmar; and Kaja McGowan, associate professor in the Department of the History of Art.

The result: a funded proposal for a more focused and experiential version of the original course. Co-taught by Kaja and me in spring 2016, “Crossing Borders in Education: The Case of Myanmar” combined expert guest speakers from all over the world with a pen-pal exchange between Cornell students and peers at the Yangon University of Education as well as weekly participation in an existing after-school program for the children of refugees from Myanmar (mostly from the Karen ethnic group) now living in Ithaca.

The ICC funding enabled me to spend 10 days in Myanmar in January 2016 before the course began. Accompanied by Thamora, whose travel experience and elementary Burmese were invaluable, I visited a variety of schools (primary, secondary, and tertiary; government-run, monastic, and privately funded) and had extended “face time” with the Yangon University of Education students who would be our pen pals and their professor, Aye Aye Cho. The grant also enabled us to bring to campus some guests from Burma whose travel costs would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive.

Before leaving for Myanmar, I thought that I would be able to write each night to process my new experiences and consolidate my memories. But I was too exhausted after dinner to do anything but sleep. Now back in the United States, I am still sifting through these experiences, attempting to analyze and synthesize the rich cultural landscape I was exposed to. But in all my reflections, I keep returning to a metaphor that I heard for the first time in Myanmar: good teaching is “walking together.”

I heard this expression on our first full day in Myanmar. That day, Thamora and I visited the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) in Insein Township in northern Yangon. Founded in 1927 as the Baptist Divinity School, MIT now confers undergraduate and graduate degrees in both theology and the liberal arts. We visited MIT because it is the new professional home of Pan Ei Khin, who had taught Burmese language courses at Cornell as a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant in 2014–15. During our visit we met MIT professors and officials and joined a few of Pan’s English classes. Thamora and I spoke with the students, and we asked them (among other things) to tell us about the qualities of their best teachers. One student suggested that “[the best teachers] walk together with their students.” Prompted for more, she said that walking together means that the teacher listens instead of just talking.

To be fair, I was already primed to latch onto the student’s idea. I draw a bright line between teaching and presenting or lecturing. In my world, a teacher is someone who helps others develop knowledge, skills, and insights through conscientious use of content expertise and attentiveness to learners’ motivational and cognitive starting points. Immediately, I thought, isn’t the strong resonance of the student’s expression just a case of confirmation bias at work? But upon further reflection, I realized that this visual metaphor for interactive pedagogy was new, layered, and beautiful. I wrote it down immediately.

In fact, I did more than write it down. I used the expression and its spirit the next day when I was scheduled to give a presentation at the Yangon University of Education. Myopically (as I was accustomed to leading seminars with 25 or fewer students), I had prepared an interactive workshop, not bothering until two days before the event to ask my host, Professor Aye Aye Cho, how many attendees she expected. When I finally asked and learned that nearly 200 people would attend, I thought about how I had never talked with a group that big and that it would be difficult for me to be a true teacher for such a large audience. However, learning about “walking together” in Pan’s English class at MIT inspired me to retitle my talk and resolve not just to talk.

In my presentation, I shared a few stories about schools and teaching in the United States but spent most of my time asking questions and responding to answers. Microphones were passed around so that everyone could hear. The response from the students was exceptional. In fact, so many of them got up to speak that I was not able to finish the set of questions and stories I had planned. At the end of my time I thanked the audience and said, “Wow! Your interaction with me suggests that your university is giving you lots of good practice in walking together.” This earnest compliment turned out to be naive. As I was walking across campus with some students later that day, I asked one of them if he was surprised by the strong participation. He responded with a no, explaining that this had been a rare chance for the students to speak their minds. I understood, then, that such enthusiastic participation was not simply a demonstration of walking together, but was actually the result of students in Myanmar seizing a rare opportunity to participate in a less didactic learning experience.

A few days later, just miles but seemingly a world away, Thamora and I visited a place where such interactive learning experiences are common. I first learned about the Pre-Collegiate Program (Pabedan Township, Yangon)—and the debt it owes to John Badgley, former curator of Cornell’s Echols Collection on Southeast Asia—through an article in the journal Education About Asia. High school students enrolled in this program spend 16 months immersed in Socratic seminars, field trips, internships, and community service. In short, they participate in the kind of education that will prepare them for entering selective liberal arts colleges and universities around the world. The end goal of the program is to have the students return to Myanmar as change agents.

During our classroom visit, the Pre-Collegiate students seemed well on their way to that strong sense of agency. Thamora and I were not allowed to be spectators that morning; rather, we were pulled immediately into small group discussions of a short text on a case of medical ethics. Though I noticed a small degree of deference to us as guests (first and foremost) and as PhDs, the students humbly but vigorously challenged me to define my terms and consider other perspectives on the case. We all held each other to this standard: Is your point clear, and is it robust? We listened carefully, and we asked each other questions. We never left our chairs, but we were definitely walking together.

While processing my experiences in Myanmar after I returned to the United States, I initially resisted meditating on the concept of “walking together” because I thought it already resonated with my pre-existing beliefs and therefore did not stretch my thinking. I do indeed hope to review other possibly dissonant parts of my Myanmar experience in time and with support from friends in SEAP. However, I now realize that resonance is not just echo and amplification. It adds tones and texture to a sound. My Myanmar experience did not only give me new words to express my sense of good teaching. It also provided a powerful image and a renewed commitment to this pedagogy.

The walking in “walking together” conveys movement and dynamism without falling into the mile-a-minute trap. We live in fast times. Mental patience and stamina—the kind of slower, mindful thinking that helps us avoid heuristic traps—are potential casualties. Rather than race to the top, schools might encourage students to slow down, look around, and listen carefully. And the together part is key, too. Walking together means that we pay attention to each other; we notice when our partners are winded, bored, or in need of a change of pace. Yes, teachers have more knowledge and experience for guiding, pointing out insights, and helping novices avoid dangerous terrain. But novices notice things, too, and only a sense of walking together will prime a teacher to slow down and listen to them. Though I consciously practice this pedagogy in my classrooms, I am more fit and energized from walking together with my friends in Myanmar.

See the Fall 2016 SEAP Bulletin for the full article