U.S. lessons for Vietnam’s education system

Going to public schools in California, I got used to average students envying Asian ones, including Vietnamese, for breezing through math and science class.

Now in Vietnam, I hear people asking how to improve education, personally or nationally, along U.S. and other western models.

What this tells me:

Each country is battling its own, evolving challenges.

In the United States, education observers warn year after year that the country’s performance in the hard sciences is slipping behind that of Asian nations.

Some attribute the decline to recession-induced budget cuts, hitting schools so severely that last year the Associated Press wrote teaching “has never seemed less appealing.”

Yet theUnited States allocates more money to K-12 schools than any other country except Luxembourg, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment.

And everyone, in theory, can go to school for free.

In Vietnam, on the other hand, “public” education carries an entirely different meaning.

Just about everyone pays, and those who can’t afford tuition, especially in the countryside, drop out.

Chronically underpaid teachers find other revenue, through either direct bribes, or extra classes they politely suggest students take.

The combination of instructor endorsement and exam obsession has enabled a widely-held perception that cheating is rampant across the country.

Academic dishonesty burst into the national spotlight this month when video footage from northern Vietnam caught students freely consulting one another during graduation tests, some of them aided by a teacher.

National assessments are an essential part of the country’s tradition.

A 2010 report by PISA lists Vietnam among a handful of countries where a history of civil exams and scholars in government have produced the modern-day emphasis on education as a measure of success, compared with wealth or military achievement in other countries.

But the tests have shifted priorities to ends rather than means, to quantitative scores rather than actual knowledge.

Partly for that reason, learning has become a process of rote memorization inVietnam.

How to get students to care enough about tests to study, but not so much that they stop studying — that’s a balance just about every country struggles with.

Seeing a Vietnamese instructor cheat on tape is jarring but not isolated.

Even in the United Statesit’s become common enough to read about teachers giving students answers or filling tests for them, an arguably recent controversy as some U.S. states have experimented with different public school tests.

More subtly, the preoccupation with exams — statewide testing, SATs, ACTs, and others — has sacrificed critical thinking.

A related factor, the increasing competitiveness of U.S. colleges, also has incentivized high school students to look good on paper but empty otherwise.

One of my old high school teachers complained to me that his students from a decade earlier could run circles around the ones he teaches now.

Vietnamrisks a similar fate, a future of quantifiably accomplished young people without any critical thinking skills.

To take action, Vietnamese educators could look at U.S. colleges that are trying a more holistic approach to the admissions process.

That is, they are evaluating applicants based on not just numerical scores but extracurricular activities, interests, and other indicators of the students’ overall character.

What that means for Vietnam is, judging students based on a range of achievements, rather than just the one test result in high school that decides where they end up in college.

As for pre-college, I don’t know a lick about pedagogy, so I will just stick to the obvious.

The top concern among students now is to ultimately find a well-paying job, which is a respectable goal, but not one that always fosters genuine learning.

The jobs will come eventually, but first educators must get students to care by meeting them on their own territory.

What do young people do for fun, and how can it be threaded into their education?

Reading manga?

Playing games online?

Surely there is a way to incorporate these into occasional lesson plans.

By starting early, teachers can create lifelong learners, and if they don’t know where to start, they can always ask the students.

 Source: Tuoi Tre Online

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