Last June I was sitting in a rather barren classroom in the Amsterdam School in Hanoi, Vietnam, speaking to English teacher Nguyen Hong Hanh about her students. I was so amazed by the respect and discipline the students showed when they walked into class and when they spoke with us, the foreign visitors. The Vietnamese teenagers were effusive, excited and quick to engage our students. But they were always deferential to the teacher, giving her the first place, responding to her slightest suggestion.
After the ceremony of welcome for the Berkeley High School students and teachers, the Vietnamese students quickly paired up with our students and, in their studied English which they wanted to practice, left for a tour of the Amsterdam School grounds. Impressed by this behavior, I offered a compliment to Hanh: “Your students are certainly respectful. It seems that you don’t have much of a problem with discipline.”
She was quick to respond. “Yes, but perhaps they are too respectful. I’m afraid sometimes our students only want to learn what we tell them, only want to prepare for the tests. We would like our students to be more independent, to learn to think for themselves and to work in groups, as you do in the United States.” Hanh made it clear to me that they were dissatisfied with their educational traditions, that there was too much passivity in class.
A week later, we were in central Vietnam and I had a chance to speak to Bao Kham, a prince in the royal family who has worked for 20 years in the education department at Hue University, preparing new teachers for the classroom. Again I found myself complimenting my counterpart on the serious discipline I’d seen in Vietnamese students. Kham picked up right where Hanh had left off: “Yes, but we are afraid that students are only learning rote memorization. We have to change our methods to encourage more deep learning. We need to think about changing the forms of assessment.” Instead of high-stakes tests, he suggested, the introduction of portfolios, exhibits and independent research projects would encourage more thorough learning.
Finally, on the day before we left, a few of us had a chance to meet Nguyen Thi Binh, famous for the work she did at the Paris Peace Talks and now a vice president of the country. We spoke about the very moving meeting between American and Vietnamese high school students and how close they had become. She asked our students in some depth to describe what they were studying, the books they were reading and the projects they were doing.
When we asked what the Vietnamese students study, Binh chuckled and said, “Well, they get quite a good dose of the classics. But perhaps they need more modern literature and more varied interpretations. I think our students could learn quite a bit from your students.”
I think back on these Vietnamese discussions now. We have been dealt a real blow to education with the local and statewide budget crisis. But this should not be used to shut down all efforts at effective school reform and reorganization. The truth is that the Vietnamese operate schools with less than a tenth of the funds we have. But they still have to decide what kind of schedule works best, how to group students to create learning communities and the most effective approaches to pedagogy and assessment.
It seems that our politicians are rushing us toward a culture of regurgitation, of enshrined truths, of passive learning just when the schools of Vietnam are turning away from such methods. Whether we have money or not, we still have to educate our children; we still have to create learning communities; and we still have to create contexts where every student is known well and pushed hard by some adult. We are in trouble in education but we won’t test our way out of the crisis and we won’t punish our way out of it. Now, more than ever, we need to be creative and engaged with the broader community to make education work for our kids.