Photos: Barbara Schmid
The country of Bhutan has frequently made headlines for its emphasis on Gross National Happiness. Since 2008, Naropa University has enjoyed a strong partnership with the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB), which serves as the country's ministry of education. Naropa faculty members have designed a contemplative psychotherapy program and conducted training in mindfulness awareness practices. In spring 2012, Associate Professor Deborah Young will begin facilitating a study into what constitutes a Gross National Happiness (GNH) classroom.
Young's research will take place at Paro College of Education in Bhutan, which provides training for pre-school through higher education instructors. Some educators there still rely on PowerPoint presentations and rote learning, which begs the question, "What is a GNH classroom?" The findings will provide a framework for developing classroom foundations, pedagogy, and curriculum.
Before the Bhutanese can develop criteria for a GNH classroom, Young says Bhutan's own uniqueness needs to be discovered. Traditionally in Bhutan, knowledge was shared orally until about four decades ago when Western-style educational systems were established. For Young, that brings up many questions.
"If we want to keep oral learning traditions as part of the embedded process of learning, how do we incorporate that into a classroom? How does actual storytelling not become just a class of storytelling, but how is it embedded to the actual learning process at the college level, at the elementary level, at the high school level?" she asks.
Young will endeavor to answer those questions and more through a participatory action research project expected to last six months to a year. Altogether, sixty people in four teams will participate in the project, including twenty professors besides Young. A mix of qualitative (personal narratives) and quantitative (number crunching) data will be collected in a three-phase process at baseline, mid-intervention, and post-intervention intervals.
"The population that we are studying is integrated into the design implementation, analysis findings, and action plan. It's not just the researchers. The participants work side-by-side with the researchers and become researchers as well," Young explains.
Novel techniques of involving the community being studied and introducing changes while the research is under way allow researchers to gather valuable feedback and make adjustments. In contrast, historically researchers would have developed something they thought would work, and it would have been implemented after the research was completed.
Paro College of Education Director Thubten Gyastho says the participatory action research model, which he describes as "genuinely participatory, engaging, empowering, reflective, and learning-oriented," can be transformational. "This ambitious project has long-term impacts that will develop a sound foundation and authority in the area of GNH pedagogy that is unique to Bhutan and something other educational systems would be keen to learn from and research," Gyastho wrote in a letter authorizing the study.
A Bhutanese PhD program in GNH pedagogy and curriculum studies is an anticipated outcome of the research. Initial benefits for Naropa include the university's involvement in international research and the opportunity to spread contemplative education from a Naropa viewpoint. Down the road, the principles and values selected for GNH classrooms in Bhutan could lead to new ways of thinking about Naropa's approach.
"The way that Naropa is set up, we are alternative. We are very different; however, we do live in a consumer capitalist society and we do have a Western paradigm that we all come from. Are we really going as deep as we can to deconstruct our assumptions and reconstruct a different way of learning? For instance, even our structure at Naropa where we have students taking five or six classes a semester is a very traditional Western approach to education. Are there other ways of structurally organizing learning that is more effective, that would align with a more relaxed nervous system where learning can happen in a more productive joyful way?" Young asks.