Ken Winograd, an associate professor in the College of Education, visited Vietnam in December as part of the Fulbright Specialist Program. During the two-week assignment he led presentations on primary education. He worked for one of the leading education think tanks, the Vietnam Institute of Educational Services, based in the capital city, Hanoi.
Winograd’s work with Vietnamese researchers and teachers was part of a larger school reform effort underway in Vietnam. Topics including learner-centered approaches, critical thinking and differentiated instruction are all garnering interest among Vietnamese educators.
In a personal narrative, Winograd describes the experience working with his new colleagues at the VNIES in Hanoi.
Supported by a Fulbright grant, I went to Hanoi in December 2012 for two weeks, to work for Vietnam Institute of Educational Services, a group under the aegis of the Ministry of Education and Technology. VNIES is the leading education think tank in Vietnam. It is staffed with 441 researchers, staff developers and administrative personnel. Fulbright supported my travel to and from Vietnam; my hosts in Hanoi supported me while I was there. You can learn more about VNIES at www.vnies.edu.vn.
Vietnam is currently engaged in school reform, from classroom practice to national standards and assessment. Education in Vietnam, unlike the United States, is highly centralized with a long Confucian tradition of teachers lecturing and students learning primarily from the teacher. Education leadership in the country understands the need for comprehensive education reform, and the 2015 Plan currently in development aims to improve curriculum and teaching in the nation’s schools. This includes more learner-centered pedagogies, critical thinking, and differentiated curricula. Incidentally, climate change is a central focus of the Ministry of Education and Technology. It appears that Vietnam education (like in most countries of the world) is significantly further along than US schools in teaching climate change.
The heart of my work was a series of presentations on metacognition, multiple intelligences, learning theories, active learning and learning styles. The topics were determined by VNIES researchers whose focus is K-12 education with an orienting principle of learner-centered curriculum and teaching.
I gave presentations to audiences of 12-20 people, mostly researchers at the institute but also elementary and secondary teachers at the institute’s ‘experimental school.’ The presentations were scheduled for six hours per day for nine of my days with VNIES. Each night, based on my emerging understanding of this new cultural context, I worked to revise my next day’s talk. Predictably, my talks sometimes were ‘off the mark’ in terms of the interests and background of my hosts, as the research problems and questions of the participants revealed gaps in my preparation. For example, one participant wanted more explicit information on assessment in multiple intelligence schools. So, that night, after researching the topic on the Internet, I emailed a document on assessment to one of my contacts, to be translated, printed and ready for distribution at the start of the next morning’s presentation. My presentations and the give-and-take between and among the participants and me led to much learning by everyone.
My presentations were in English, and since most of participants were not English fluent, I had interpreters at all times. Showing PowerPoint slides, I summarized the main ideas in English, followed by a translation in Vietnamese. I had three translators at different times. I was always appreciative of their skill and resilience, especially when I showed the group instructional videos in English. Typically, we would play the video and stop it after several minutes: first for a translation of the big ideas, my own ‘take’ on that segment which was also translated, and then group discussion (again, translated back to me so I could ‘lead’ the discussion which, in reality, was illusory.). When talking about Piaget and constructivism, I showed a Marilyn Burns video on the teaching of elementary mathematics. This modest 15-minute video led to so much discussion and learning, and it was due, in part, to the excellent work of the interpreters.
My hosts were excited to hear about all things ‘modern’, which is how they characterized anything not traditional (like behaviorist approaches to education, still the dominant mode of teaching in the country). I gave an all-day talk on ‘modern’ learning theories (emphasizing Piaget and, even more, the social constructivism of Vygotsky). For each of my topics, I planned demonstrations of different pedagogical approaches. The most engaging times were when participants, in small groups, developed curriculum. A raucous afternoon of multiple intelligences (i.e., Howard Gardner) curriculum development was especially memorable. I found the Vietnamese to be creative, intellectually curious and quite funny. After two days of multiple intelligences work, a lot of side conversations consisted of people asking each other, “So what’s your strongest intelligence?” They were all in agreement regarding mine.
I observed three classrooms in the experimental school: a first grade reading lesson and a first grade mathematics lesson. I also visited a high school English class, but they were preparing for an upcoming examination so there was no teaching to observe that day. My classroom visits were followed by meetings with the teachers and principal from the school. At these meetings, I was called on to report my observations of the teaching. I was impressed with how the teachers engaged the students in quick-paced (almost Socratic) problem solving questioning. The teachers had a deep understanding of the subject matter and a high-level of fluency in their use of teaching strategies. Although these first grade teachers had 40 students in their classes, the skillful questioning strategies of the teachers appeared to keep students engaged, on task and learning in these whole-group lessons.
I also was taken to a regular elementary school not far from the institute, and I observed a second-grade class on moral education. It was fascinating. The focus of the lesson was ‘respect for parents and grandparents.’ The teacher showed video and slides of different ethical dilemmas, e.g., a young boy watching television while his mother enters the house carrying bags of groceries. The teacher posed the question, ‘What does it mean to act ethically, in this case with one’s elders?’ Students engaged in a variety of learning activities to examine this aspect of ethical behavior. I loved how the teacher engaged students in small group discussion around this topic, and also how she invited students to choose how to show their learning in a variety of modes (role play, original songs, poetry, storytelling): very Howard Gardner!
Before leaving the class, students invited me to the front for questioning (how old are you? Do you have children), and one precocious girl performed an amazing song and dance routine in English. The children asked me to sing a traditional American song. The Vietnamese sing, routinely, in their family and school lives, so it was not a big deal for the students to ask and then listen to me sing. I gave them a hearty rendition of ‘Take me out to the ballgame.’ I recall someone in the back of the room shooting video of my bravura performance. If you read this article and have the video, can you send it to me?
Reflecting on my 18 days in Vietnam, clearly…it was the work and the relationships with the people that were most memorable. I have been working in elementary schools and curriculum for nearly a quarter century, so I was prepared for most questions and problems related to elementary education. Not surprisingly, the participants at my presentations asked insightful questions and challenged my thinking with great indirectness, aplomb and warmth. My hosts are well read in their particular areas of research, and most of them are experienced as classroom teachers. After showing a video of the ‘project approach’ in action in some US classrooms that appeared to have no more than 20 students, a skeptical researcher asked, ‘But how would this work in classrooms of 40-50 students?’ which is the average class size in Hanoi, and 50-60 students in rural schools. I told her that there are no ‘answers’ to the question but only guidelines and hypotheses for what might work. Another day, one researcher was interested in merging models of multiple intelligence and learning styles, especially models developed by Kolb and also Fleming (VARK). The MI researcher in the group opposed the mixing of these models, but the LS researcher held her ground, pointing to work of some Australian scholar. I encouraged the LS researcher to develop a model and then test it out in the Experimental School. We are continuing to explore possible solutions to her re-modeling of MI and LS over email.
I am appreciative of the Fulbright Program and VNIES for their support of this trip. The VNIES and our College of Education now are exploring a ‘memorandum of understanding’, which will lead the way to continued collaboration and sharing of knowledge by our respective teachers and researchers. I look forward to this important opportunity for international cooperation.