Forget what's professed about professors as high school teachers

March 16, 2022 | 05:00 pm PT
Nguyen Van Tuan Medical researcher
Apparently some people in Vietnam want professors to teach in high schools. Makes no sense, if you ask me.

The jobs of a professor doing scientific research and a teacher instilling knowledge into children and adolescents are vastly different from one another.

I was surprised when someone asked me whether in Australia, where I work as a university professor, high school students are taught by people with PhDs. In fact, I was so flabbergasted by the question that I actually took some time to check it out.

It turns out that Hoa Binh Province in northern Vietnam is proposing to spend a chunk of the provincial budget to hire professors to teach at specialized high schools in the province. A proposal says that those who are committed to teach there for at least 10 years would get a one-time payment of VND1 billion ($43,705) as incentive.

The policy is intended to attract talented people to support students participating in national and international competitions, and help with the province's research efforts apart from training school faculty members, officials have said.

And this is part of a bigger plan. Hoa Binh's developmental project for its specialized high schools, to be continued until 2032, aims to increase the percentage of teachers at specialized high schools with Masters and PhD degrees.

There are no specialized schools, otherwise known as "schools for the gifted", in New South Wales. However, there are some selective schools for students with exceptional achievements and special talents.

All primary school and high school teachers in Australia have Bachelor's degrees, while some others have Masters degree holders. There are a small number of teachers who have PhDs in education, but these are exceedingly rare. Most high schools here don't hire professors to teach.

So why is there a need for professors to teach in high schools, even if they are for "gifted students?"

The main goal of doctorate programs is to build a community for scientific research. Their main work environments are universities and laboratories. Doctoral degrees are akin to "passports" for a career in scientific research. These are not intended for a career in teaching.

Doctors and professors usually have very specialized fields of interest, and they are not equipped with pedagogical skills, especially for high school students. This is why many professors, while stellar in their fields, are not very good teachers.

Teaching, especially at high school level, is much harder than in universities. University and college students mostly study on their own with their professors mostly nudging them in the right direction. That is not exactly teaching.

In high schools, teachers are required to guide their students through every step of the way with questions and answers and exercises, using pedagogical skills honed over years.

High school subjects are also vastly different from what's taught in universities. I often say that basic education levels, including high schools, only serve to turn someone from knowing nothing to knowing a bit of something. Universities are where the real work happens, building upon the foundations laid in high school to climb up the ladder of academic pursuit.

A good teacher is someone who knows not only to transfer knowledge to their students, but also inspire them. A good teacher doesn't need to have a PhD.

Some people say professors can help "gifted students" to do academic research, but I'm afraid that's not feasible. At high school level, students do not have enough resources to do actual, proper scientific research. Some student research projects in Chinese high schools were eventually revealed to have been done by the teachers themselves. High school students are also not academically equipped to handle falsifiability in scientific research.

Another important job for high school teachers is to mold personalities, to teach students how to be good, balanced human beings in the first place. At universities, the transference of knowledge takes precedence.

I believe authorities need to reconsider the proposal regarding both its feasibility and effectiveness. Instead of hiring professors, teachers' skills need to be upgraded. Nowadays, the criteria to enroll students in the field of education are much easier than for other disciplines, like medicine or pharmacies. Teachers are also not very well-paid. How will we get highly skilled teachers then?

There are many such problems to be tackled and it is better that the focus is on doing that instead of chasing after frivolous goals like sending students from elite schools to international competitions.

After all, what's good about a society with only a few exceptional individuals rising while the rest remain stuck at the bottom?

*Nguyen Van Tuan is a professor of medicine in Australia. The opinions expressed are his own.

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