For more than ten years the Karenni Social Development Center has been educating young people on the Thai-Myanmar border in human rights, international law and environmental sustainability.

The SDC’s school, at Nai Soi in a valley about 12 miles (20 kilometres) from the Thai border city of Mae Hong Son, accepts more than 50 students each year for a ten-month course. The center’s activities include providing training at the Mae La refugee camp and over the border throughout Kayah State.

The center is financially supported by grants from international organisations and receives a different but equally important kind of assistance from Mae Sot-based grassroots group Curriculum Project in the form of scores of textbooks each year.

One of the biggest challenges facing higher level migrant schools such as SDC is developing an appropriate curriculum and material for students, the center’s principal and secretary, Khu Myar Reh, told Mizzima Business Weekly.

Khu Myar Reh said class materials that are a reflection of the refugee and migrant experience in Thailand are “essential” for his students. The accompanying guides for teachers help them to save time on lesson preparation and supplement their training, he said.

Since its beginning in 2001, Curriculum Project has been developing textbooks and teacher’s guides for schools in the nine official Thai camps for displaced Myanmar and for migrant learning centres in border areas, such as SDC.

From 2006 to 2009, Quentin Hewitt worked as a curriculum developer and teacher trainer for Curriculum Project, an initiative of Yangon-based Thabyay Education Foundation, which develops culturally appropriate class materials.

“Particularly in the early days in the camps, populations were quite isolated and teachers and students lacked exposure to some of the cultural references and terms appearing in learning materials developed for Western contexts,” he said. “For instance, things like pizza, skiing, or how credit cards or the internet work, which isn’t necessarily obvious to that audience,” said Mr Hewitt, who now works in Myanmar as a development director for Community Partners International, an international health NGO.

A textbook and teacher’s guide on community project management are among Curriculum Project’s publications. The book takes students through the “cycle” of project management, from community consultation to evaluation, author Elizabeth Maber told Mizzima Business Weekly.

Most of the case-studies are focused on Myanmar, but Ms Maber said the book includes regional and international project management examples, including responses to natural disasters such as the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

Ms Maber said it can be easier to discuss responses to “potentially sensitive issues” such as natural disasters “when they are not so close to home”.

The book introduces students to community projects in education, health and the environment and was designed “to be sensitive to gender and ethnicity so that all users of the book can hopefully find something to connect to,” she said.

Ms Maber and Mr Hewitt understand the importance of creating a meaningful and engaging curriculum.

“We developed curriculum with the goal of supporting teachers to gradually shift from traditional teacher-centred to learner-centred education,” said Mr Hewitt.

The traditional teacher-centred approach requires a low level of student participation and focuses on information absorption, while the learner–centred approach focuses on developing students’ skills and supporting them to become increasingly independent learners, he said.

Mr Hewitt called the learner-centred approach a “tectonic shift” for many students and educators from Myanmar.

Research by Curriculum Project showed that schools in the camps often “over-estimated” the skill levels of their students, said Mr Hewitt. “This was partly because the teacher-centred learning model often doesn’t allow space to fully assess and evaluate students,” he said.

“So, for instance, sometimes I heard a teacher say, ‘We have completed the Intermediate textbook, so my students must be at Intermediate level’, when testing showed that this was not the case.”

Since being founded in 2001, the Curriculum Project has tested hundreds of students completing high school in the camps and determined that their performance in subjects including English did not match the level indicated in their textbooks.

The small team of curriculum developers and teacher trainers, which has never exceeded 20, developed a pre-intermediate English textbook for use in post-secondary schools that better matched the learning ability of incoming students.

“If the students hadn’t had much opportunity to speak in class [in elementary or secondary school], you need to gradually build their confidence to try new things. So you start with content that they are familiar with while you develop new skills,” Mr Hewitt said.

The pre-intermediate English textbook introduced skills in a learner-centred fashion through activities involving group work and activities and lessons which encourage “active and increasingly independent learning,” he said.

Curriculum Project meets an average yearly demand of about 5,000 textbooks, which reach more than 50 post-secondary schools border-wide. The high demand indicates the team is developing materials at the right level, said Mr Hewitt. Thousands of textbooks are also downloaded free of charge from the Curriculum Project website each year.

In the early 2000s Curriculum Project text books represented a fragile pedagogical standardisation in the camps where post-secondary schools would “pop up” and “decide what they would teach,” said Mr Hewitt. “There was limited co-ordination between schools in the early days.”

But that situation began to change in 2009 when the Karen Refugee Committee Education Entity, an organisation supporting post-secondary schools in the camps, launched an initiative called the Institute of Higher Education to integrate school management and curricula in six post-secondary schools in different camps, a process supported by the Curriculum Project.

Mr Hewitt said the development of the Institute of Higher learning was among the first examples of standardised education in the post-secondary sector in the Karen-administered camps.

However, curriculum development needs to be bolstered with training for teachers, said Mr Hewitt. “Curriculum can get you only so far. You also need to support teachers to change the way they teach.”

During his teacher training, Mr Hewitt said he encouraged teachers to be “endlessly analytical” about the way that they teach. “I asked them, ‘Why do we do it this way? Is it optimal for student learning? How could we do it better?’ “

He said this “analytical approach” is critical in low-resource environments where teachers need to be more “creative and adaptable.”

In an education sector with big classrooms sometimes containing more than 100 students, asking them to chant in unison may seem like a teacher’s best option. But Mr Hewitt believes engaging students through activities is always possible, if challenging.

The teacher’s guide accompanying the community project management curriculum provides instructions and alternatives so teachers feel supported through using the material – but are also able to make choices and adapt it to suit their own classes, said Ms Maber.

Curriculum Project updates its textbooks about every two years in a lean financial environment.

Tharamu Khu Paw, principal of the Pu Taw Memorial Junior College in Mae La camp, a post-secondary school established in 1998, said it faces many problems, including a paucity of human resources, school supplies, teaching aids and financial support.

Many teachers left the college for third countries under the resettlement program of the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, Tharamu Khu Paw said.

Others, she said, returned to Myanmar or moved elsewhere in Thailand in search of higher salaries. “We need more teachers to teach in our schools,” she said.

Ma Zin Mar Oo, the programs director at Thabyay, a Yangon-based education-focussed NGO and ‘parent organisation’ of Curriculum Project, said the greatest challenge for schools in the refugee camps and migrant learning centres along the border is “maintaining the stability and steadiness of programs”.

Asked about the future of education for Myanmar migrants and refugees in Thailand, Ma Zin Mar Oo expressed hope that the displaced population would be able to continue learning in Myanmar.

“We need to reform our own education system in the country and, while we do, we have to encourage our people to seek any opportunity they can get for education elsewhere.”