Education authorities resistant to change

March 20, 2016 | 04:14 am PT
The proposal for general education reform put forward by the Ministry of Education and Training contains few significant changes.

I do not think the proposal will help Vietnam improve its ranking in the World Economic Forum’s official list of education quality. Vietnam’s primary schools were ranked 91st out of 144 countries, and university education is currently 94th. The proposal on reform in general education drafted by the Ministry of Education and Training has proven that the authorities are not ready for a comprehensive and fundamental restructure of the education system.

According to the proposal, students in high school are placed into three ability-based groups including ‘general’, ‘technology/technique’ and ‘art or sports’, which from my point of view is among one of the very few innovative parts of the proposal.

The change is not sufficient to bring Vietnam in line with education systems in developed countries. For instance, if a student is talented at art or sport and wishes to make it her career, what is the point of forcing that student to continue her education in academic subjects such as maths, physics, or biology until ninth grade? Not until 10th grade are students assigned to ability-based bands which, from my point of view, is too late.

In developed countries, students in secondary school are divided into separate ability groups. The education system of Singapore, for example, places students into four categories including Express, Normal Academic, Normal Technical and Vocational. The bands are also categorized as private-funded school, specialized and ability-based education. Germany puts secondary students into four bands including Gymnasium, Hauptschule, Realschule and Gesamptschule, some of which allow students to finish their academic subjects in ninth grade; for others, academic studies last through 12th grade.

When my daughter was half way through her secondary schooling in Vietnam, I moved her to Singapore to continue her education. The number of academic subjects she took in Singapore was half as many of those taught in Vietnamese schools. More importantly, she was allowed to choose the subjects that she wanted to learn, except for maths and English which were compulsory.

The idea that it is compulsory for all students to follow the same curriculum from primary school through secondary school without taking into account each individual student’s ability and their potential is, I think, so outdated.

Students should be evaluated based on their natural ability, intellectual capacity, and personal preferences. People have various relative strengths and weaknesses. It is like you cannot judge a fish by its ability to fly or a bird by its ability to swim underwater. So let the bird free to fly in the sky and the fish free to swim in the water.

Students should be placed into ability-based groups rather than subject-based courses as soon as they enter secondary school. We should have learner-centered education rather than teacher-centered learning. That is the educational trend of the future Vietnam needs to follow.

The education ministry has laid down the principle that nine years of general education ensures consistency in the delivery of the same learning program to all groups of students living in every local area throughout the country.

I have recently been to a primary school in the mountainous province of Thai Nguyen where all students are from ethnic minorities. The school headmistress revealed that most of her students had considerable difficulty with the general educational program because many fourth and fifth graders were barely literate in Vietnamese. However, she said, the school had no choice but to send failing students on to the next grade, “otherwise they would drop out once and for all”.

I can really sympathize with these teachers who have resolutely stuck to remote villages trying to convince students to come to school. However, because the educational program is too difficult for these students to comprehend, I don’t see the point of keeping them staying on and teaching them things they find impossible to understand.

In many countries, the education ministry is only in charge of developing a standardized knowledge base or designing a national educational framework. Each local municipality is required to create their own school curriculum. Schools have freedom in their choice of textbooks and their emphasis on curriculum subjects. The education ministry has no say in the decision about what teaching methods should be used at each school.

The Malaysia Education Blueprint (2013 – 2025), supported by the OECD and UNICEF, which provides long-term policy direction, suggests 11 strategic and operational shifts, including greater autonomy on curriculum implementation and budget allocation for local communities and each school.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the education ministry is applying the same curriculum to each and every student. All students study the same subjects with no differentiation in the level of complexity of the curriculum, which is like placing birds and fish in the same class and teaching them both flying and swimming.

The VNEN education project has been carried out nationwide by the Ministry of Education and Training since 2012. With a student-centered approach, VNEN is expected to encourage students to think independently and creatively. However, the project has a particular focus on the disadvantaged and ethnic minorities and only helps rearrange how classes are organized rather than fundamentally and comprehensively changing the teaching and learning systems in primary and secondary schools with curriculum reforms.

Meanwhile, there are currently several international schools in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City adopting either U.S or European educational programs which have been proven to be appropriate for Vietnamese students. Why do we persist in pushing the VNEN model which means the same educational program for every local community and every student?

Perhaps it is due partly to the principle of consistency in the delivery of the same learning program to all. Only after passing the 12th grade exit exam are Vietnamese students eligible to enter college. While in Germany, students can move up to higher education after they finish nine years of primary and secondary schooling. In Singapore, it is 10 years.

With regard to higher education, the ministry has proposed to shorten undergraduate degrees to three or four years in total, which is similar to the high-quality model of university education used internationally. However, the question is how to radically transform our high school education so that it is not just preparation for university entrance.

Vietnam’s current science, technology and innovation capabilities are weak, and national economic development is slow. The reason lies in our “human capital”. Only through radical and comprehensive education reform can Vietnam develop quickly and sustainably.

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