Maung Nyeu speaking at Gutman Library on his latest book, March 2020
Photo: Elio Pajares
When Maung Nyeu, Ed.M.’12, Ed.M.’14, Ed.D.’20, logged onto his Zoom account in April, ready to defend the dissertation he had started seven years earlier, it was more than the completion of an academic program. It was an extension of his life. Nyeu grew up in a remote, mountainous area of Bangladesh known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts. When he was six-years-old, during his first few days as a student, he was hit with a cane, multiple times, by his teacher. It wasn’t that he was acting up. Nyeu just couldn’t understand what the teachers were saying because they taught in Bengla, the official language of Bangladesh. His family spoke Marma, one of eight different indigenous languages used in the region.
That year, as a first-grader, Nyeu did the unthinkable, at least by Western standards: He dropped out of school. It would be four years before he returned. Unfortunately, the move wasn’t unusual for that region: The student dropout rate hovers around 60% and most of it happens when students are still in primary school.
When Nyeu came to the Ed School, first to get a master’s degree, he knew it wasn’t only language that created a barrier to learning for indigenous students in the Chittagong Hill Tracts — textbooks also had no local context. What students saw in their books was not what they knew, even remotely, from their lives. This became Nyeu’s motivation. In time, he not only started a school with local monks in the region, but also a nonprofit that has been creating children’s books in indigenous languages. This work served as the foundation for his doctoral research, which he’ll continue as a post-doctoral fellow at the Ed School.
Describe your dissertation, From Indigenous Elders’ Stories to a Critical Thinking Curriculum: Transcending Rote Learning with Culturally Relevant Narratives.
I collected 94 stories from indigenous elders in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, published 16 beautifully illustrated multilingual storybooks, developed a critical thinking curriculum, and conducted a randomized control trial intervention with 2,865 students from 15 schools with 83 classrooms.
What did you conclude?
This study finds that student peer-to-peer discussion using cultural storybooks improves academic word knowledge, student engagement, quality of writing, and moral and civic education of historically disadvantaged and marginalized indigenous students.
You published the books through the nonprofit you started while you were an Ed School student, correct?
Yes. Our Golden Hour started with a group of friends and classmates in Gutman 437. From the beginning, one of our primary objectives has been to foster a love of learning and is to create opportunities for children to learn in their mother tongues. That is why all of our children’s books are multilingual and include indigenous languages. This initiative also serves to revitalize endangered languages and cultures through the books. These students have never seen or read a children’s book in their lives. Every time we go to a school to distribute the storybooks, we see them bringing smiles to the faces of these young children. So far, we have distributed more than 10,000 books and hope to double the number in the near future. We also design curriculum and provide professional development opportunities for teachers.
Your research focus was almost derailed when you first started the master’s program back in 2011. Why?
I remember, near the end of the fall semester, I had to write a research paper. After long Gutman Library searches, I could hardly find any education research on the deplorable dropout rates of indigenous children in our communities. The weather was also getting cold in late November and I had never lived in such a cold place! I called my father. I complained to him that the weather was too cold for me, and that I was struggling to write my final paper. I remember he took a pause and told me, “When you have the opportunity to study at Harvard, when you reach this level, it is not about you anymore.”
You persisted and eventually started a school in Bangladesh.
We started one school with 12 orphan children and one teacher. The next year we had 28 students, then 72. Today we have three schools with more than 2,200 students. Moreover, some other schools expressed interest in becoming partner schools. Partner schools share curricula, teachers and administrators regularly exchange ideas and best practices, and experienced teachers mentor new teachers. Today, we have 15 partner schools. Including our three schools, we have a combined 18 schools educating more than 10,000 students.
Do you get to visit the schools often?
I learned from my experiences that proximity matters. I cannot do research on the education of indigenous children from a distance. I need to get close to the teachers and students, and meet them and work with them in their places and in their environment. I understand the challenges and opportunities better when I work closely with them, and sometimes it may even lead to profound understanding. I try to visit at least two to three times a year. Even when I am at Harvard, I will stay up to 1 or 2 a.m. to have conversations with the schools. Now that I have graduated, hopefully I can visit more often, when the COVID-19 situation allows.
What will your post-doctoral work involve?
My research and writing will focus on the education of indigenous children. More than 370 million people, nearly 5% of the world’s population, are indigenous and live in more than 90 countries spanning six continents. In each of these countries, indigenous students have lower academic achievement and a higher risk of dropping out than their non-indigenous peers. Similar disparities are found on almost every measure of academic success in countries with Indigenous populations.
Your approach to this research is unique.
I believe in an ancient Chinese proverb, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” In my research, I take an asset-based approach, as opposed to a deficit-based approach. Instead of starting from what indigenous students and their communities lack, I hope to design studies based on the foundation of what is unique and interesting in the community and in the children. I plan to conduct more in-depth research and develop curricula and pedagogical practices incorporating indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing. My studies have shown that when students’ see their learning is connected to their lived experiences, it is both engaging and effective in improving their academic outcome and success in school and beyond.
Read Q&As with the other 2020 doctoral marshals: