Exploring Diversity in Education

The Khayay School in Myanmar

After looking at different learning methods around the world, I began to ask the question: is it possible to teach inclusivity in schools so that empathy is not just a conscious reaction, but rather an embodied behavior? How do schools celebrate diversity?

This question stems from my personal reflection on a school dear to my heart: The Khayay School. As a teacher, daughter, sister and colleague of the Khayay community, I was able to see the impact of peace and diversity education in a pre- and primary school setting — for both children, teachers and staff. This is a short story about the beautiful philosophy and history of The Khayay School.

Tucked away in the corner of Parami Road in Yangon, Myanmar, 150 students from 21 countries — ages between 18-months-old and 10-years-old — come through the gates every morning. The children are exposed to five languages according to the school’s own multilingual learning method. The Khayay School however, is not a language school. The children learn about dignity and diversity, with language being a tool for socio-emotional-cultural development and for encouraging global citizenship.

The school was founded in 2004 with the philosophy to develop a culturally progressive approach that is tangible in 21st century education. Now is the time in which emotional and cultural intelligence are more important than ever. The school is inspired by learning processes from different countries, including the Myanmar curriculum. The students might learn math using a Japanese counting method, while learning how to read in a co-learning environment where conceptual understanding is as important as lexical comprehension.

Enjoying a traditional Myanmar puppet show

Here is the remarkable thing about this school though. It is an international and a local school registered under the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Social Welfare, and taught mostly by an all-Myanmar staff. At this school, where you come from and how you speak is not a basis of judgment for who you are.

Most of the teachers at the school are from Myanmar, and have come into being as teachers through the school’s teacher training program. Prior to 2014, Myanmar did not have any policies or infrastructures for the development of early childhood educators. Between then and now, The Khayay School has trained countless early childhood teachers through a scaffolded mentorship program. The three-year program introduces teachers into the classroom immediately as teaching assistants who will support the main teacher while learning about classroom management. In a country where many have not experienced or taught progressive early childhood education, the Khayay teachers are able to teach both international and local students.

The fact that this model has prevailed for 10 years goes to show that perhaps we have been looking at international education all wrong. Having gone to an “international school” in Myanmar myself, I questioned how international one can be when the majority language spoken is English despite being a community of 87 countries; and how diverse one can be when knowledge is based on an American curriculum. Not to say that this environment was terrible; it was wonderful. However, in such contexts, I ask: what is the ideal international curriculum that we should be teaching our students and how can we help them embody real empathy that looks beyond language, accents and differences? In today’s world, how can we really celebrate diversity without compromising one culture or language over another; without feeling like it is us vs. them?

CISV International People’s Project with Khayay School teachers

The Khayay School philosophy is rooted in peace education. One of the organizations they participate in is called C.I.S.V. (Children’s International Summer Villages), started post- WWII by progressive child psychologist, Dr. Doris Allen. The purpose of C.I.S.V. was to foster inter-cultural relationship amongst children with the hopes that they would continue to become cultural ambassadors for a more just and peaceful world. With Chapters spanning over 70 countries and 230,000 participants worldwide, it is an informal educational organization that bridges people together.

The Khayay teachers host community workshops for children from different ethnicities between the ages of 11 and 16. Myanmar has 135 ethnic groups, some of which are in conflict with the government. In these workshops however, differences don’t matter. The children acknowledge each other for what they bring to the table as people.

During school hours at Khayay, the students don’t care if they are from different countries or speak different languages; they learn not to judge each other based on their accents and they understand that it is not skin color or hair that makes a person. They communicate with their peers and with their teachers, about things that children often talk about. They are encouraged to talk with everyone, interact regularly with everyone; and in the process of doing so, build relationships based on human kindness and mutual understanding.

One of the best conversations I overheard was at lunch two years ago. I was sitting with a group of international kindergarteners: French, Japanese, Vietnamese, Myanmar and Korean. As we were eating, the kids began having a lively discussion about how to say certain utensils in different languages, and were asking because of their own curiosity! They were being ambassadors of their own countries, but they were also extending an invite for others to join as members of it by teaching the language. In doing so, they broke down the barrier of differences and were mutually engaged in a space where everyone represented themselves and what they knew. The things that they didn’t know were complimented by others who knew it. This microcosmic society of kids wasn’t about nationality or origin; it was about being and accepting others who were being.

Khayay teachers doing community-building activities

Communities like this are necessary in today’s world because we are constantly coming across new people, experiences and societies. We need to be versatile as we find belonging within and between individuals, collectives, towns, cities and countries. We are characterized by differences, but those differences are also what connects us and lets us connect others.

After moving away from the Khayay School to pursue my Masters Degree, I missed that school environment. I missed hearing voices speaking in different languages; I missed watching the colorful interactions; but most of all, I missed that space where everyone recognized that there was a world, and that they were a part of it.

Now, I have found this same worldly belonging in my graduate school community, and I am determined: how can we push this community philosophy farther so that it becomes a norm, not a phenomenon?

Visit The Khayay School to learn more about the amazing work that they do.