LESSONS from BHUTAN: EMBRACE CULTURAL DIFFERENCES TO EFFECT CHANGE

Article excerpt

Nestled in the Himalayan Mountains, Bhutan, a Buddhist country, is one of the most isolated nations in the world. After spending a month there, we all agreed it deserved its title of "The Last Shangri-La." Our team of professional development specialists spent the summer of 2010 providing professional development in the basic principles of special education to teachers, administrators, and government officials. At the end of our visit, we left with a new appreciation of the need for all professional developers to become more aware of cultural differences both overt and subtle. In the process, we sharpened our skills, increased our cultural sensitivities, and came back to the United States as more effective and more broadly engaged staff developers.

Before the Special Education Project began in Bhutan, there were limited services for children with disabilities, with the exception of the blind and deaf population. Our challenge was formidable: How do we train teachers and administrators to expand special education in a country with few services, a lack of required resource materials, and a dearth of basic infrastructure?

BACKGROUND

The Special Education Project was launched by an American family, Ruedi and Alix Laager. They are raising a child with special needs and have a long-standing relationship with the people of Bhutan. Thanks to their interest and generosity, combined with a request for assistance from the Bhutanese government, the project began in 2008. The Laagers forged a working collaboration with the Bhutan Foundation, the Ministry of Education, and the Youth Development Fund. The family also formed a U.S. advisory committee to assist in further developing special education priorities suggested practices. Since the project's there have been many activities to promote special education, including visits from officials to the U.S. to observe special education programs, training and on-site coaching by unteers, and guidance in developing special cation policies. During the summer of 2010, our team provided a three-day workshop for teachers, principals, and officials on best practices, a two-day stakeholders meeting with representatives from the government and nonprofit organizations, and on-site coaching in two of the designated pilot schools. The Bhutanese have welcomed and embraced the expertise and technical assistance from the American specialists and are committed to continue working together.

PRINCIPLES OF STAFF DEVELOPMENT

As we began to do our work in the country, we realized that the principles of staff development that guide our work in America also apply to Bhutan. One of the most important principles of effective professional development, engaging the learner, was critical for Bhutanese educators. Similar to their American counterparts, Bhutan's teachers and administrators enjoyed hands-on learning strategies that encouraged active participation and the opportunity to dialogue with each other (Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001). It was particularly important for us to engage the Bhutanese in active learning for several reasons. Initially, teachers and administrators were reluctant to ask questions. In Bhutan, we were considered the "experts from the U.S." Consequently, there was a cultural value placed on maintaining a certain level of reservation and quiet respect. The Bhutanese did not feel comfortable challenging the "experts," and their willingness to speak out publicly in a large group was limited. However, when we changed the workshop format to include activities that fostered interaction and small-group discussion, the level of participation changed dramatically. The strategies we modeled in learning sessions were techniques for teachers to incorporate into future lessons to engage and reach all learners. The favorite culminating activity introduced by our team was the "aha" strategy. The activity required participants to write a significant summary point that resonated with them and then to share their "aha" with at least five others. …