Standing on the cusp of the twentieth century, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck saw the importance of modern education in preparing Bhutan for what lay ahead. Despite the daunting challenges of his time, he established schools in Bhutan and sent Bhutanese children to study in India. Realising the importance of advanced monastic education, he also sent senior monk-scholars to train in Tibet. His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuck built upon the early foundations of modern education and pursued the footsteps and vision of his father. However, mass public education was started only after 1955 by His Majesty King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. By 1959, there were 440 students studying in about 11 primary schools. This increased to 102 schools and over 9,000 students by 1971. The development of education continued to receive privileged consideration during the visionary leadership of His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Today, we have 704 schools, 24 tertiary institutes and a total of 1,85,757 students with nearly 11,000 teachers.
Bhutan’s education program, both modern and monastic, has been a success story. Our general literacy rate today stands at 71.4% and youth literacy rate at over 93%. Mass education and literacy resulted in the creation of a corp of administrative and technical personnel which was required for development while reducing our dependence on foreign experts. We have come a long way in developing our national human resource in diverse fields.
More than a hundred years later, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new century again and in need of a new vision to prepare for what lies ahead. Unlike the past century, this one is qualitatively and quantitatively different. It is defined by the accelerated rate of change in all aspects of our lives because of rapid technological advancements and globalisation. The future will be more wired and digital, driven by sophisticated technologies in towns and villages alike, as well as in homes and in workplaces.
Since the introduction of parliamentary democracy, our time and energy have largely been committed to the establishment of democratic institutions and ensuring their success. This remains a national priority. However, we need to bring into focus other equally compelling national priorities. Education is an indispensable one.
The Ministry of Education has made commendable efforts to initiate reforms in our education system. It is now time to give renewed life to these efforts by reorienting our school structures for the need and challenges of a different social context. We must revisit our curriculum, pedagogy, learning process, and assessments to either transform or rewrite them in view of the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century. Otherwise, continued focus on textbooks and content without integrating technology and social learning risks perpetuating passive modes of learning. Then, whatever education our children acquire today will become irrelevant and obsolete when they graduate. Their competitiveness in an increasingly progressive and fast-changing world will be compromised and the nation will suffer by paying a heavy price.
Therefore, our generation has the sacred responsibility of radically rethinking our education system and transforming curriculum, infrastructure, classroom spaces, and examination structures. Educationists and experts have identified what twenty-first century competencies mean for children everywhere. By developing their abilities for critical thinking, creative thinking, and learning to be life-long learners, we have to prepare them to be inquisitive, to be problem-solvers, to be interactive and collaborative, using information and media literacy as well as technological skills. We must prioritise self-discovery and exploration, and involve learners in the creation of knowledge rather than making them mere consumers of it. We must make STEM subjects part of their everyday language.
In preparing our youth for the future, we must take advantage of available technologies, adapt global best practices, and engineer a teaching-learning environment suited to our needs. Technology is the argument of our time and a major indicator of social progress. The irony in our context is the absence of technology in classrooms for a generation of students who are exposed to, and live in the digital age. To ensure that teachers are not disconnected from their students, professional development of teachers should integrate technology, digitalisation, artificial intelligence, and automation.
The process of reforming our education system must aim for standards and goals which are of the highest possible order. We cannot compare present progress with our past and celebrate it as a measure of success. We cannot compare with our neighbours and draw satisfaction from having caught up with them. Instead, we must aspire to be ahead of them and become the standard-bearers. Such an aspiration is not an expression of misplaced idealism. Rather, it is founded on the strength of conviction that our survival as a sovereign state will depend on the physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, and moral make of our children and indeed their competencies.
These are not neutral qualities and cannot be dissociated from the identity of our children as Bhutanese. As we prepare to educate and equip them with competencies for the twenty-first century, we must equally prioritise their holistic development so that they become caring, dependable, and honest human beings as well as patriotic citizens. We need to embed in them the conviction and sense of pride as a Bhutanese by grounding them in our country’s history, culture, tradition, and value system. In their thoughts, attitudes, and actions, they must live the very ideals and values which define us as a unique nation and people, who have overcome all odds stacked against our survival.
The new vision for our education system must encompass the drive to create enlightened citizenship that is as much local as it is trans-local. This can only strengthen the quality of our democracy and secure our sovereignty. Each of our children must embody the fine blend and balance of our native grit and intellect with acquired knowledge and skills to survive and prosper as individuals and as members of our national community.
In achieving such a vision, it is not enough to merely transform our education system and impart twenty-first century competencies. We must simultaneously endeavour to create relevant jobs and economic opportunities. Otherwise, we risk reproducing in future the very scenario of today, where our education system has resulted in thousands of unemployed youth. Without the concomitant creation of a knowledge based economy, our hard work and effort will prove futile and frustrate expectations and optimism. Therefore, it is imperative that our children not only acquire a world-class education but also thereafter find gainful employment, that provide meaning and satisfaction and meet their aspirations for better livelihoods.
In order to initiate a transformative reconceptualisation of our education system, I hereby grant this Kasho on the auspicious occasion of the 113th National Day in Punakha Dzong on 17th December 2020, corresponding to the Third Day of the Eleventh Month of the Male Iron Rat Year, in exercise of the powers bestowed upon me by the Constitution. It expresses my deepest conviction about the irreplaceable role of education in the process of nation-building. I trust that a time-bound Council for Education Reform will prepare a visionary and workable roadmap for the twenty-first century to support the Royal Government of Bhutan in this august endeavour.
The Druk Gyalpo