(Dr. Ly Pham’s interview by VietnamNet Jan. 2, 2016)

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 Tolerance of the shortcomings of education in Vietnam reaches its limit

Lê Hạnh: Observing education‘s evolution in 2015, what was significant as you see it?

Dr. Phạm Thị Ly: During 2015, the Vietnamese educational system has been changing rather dramatically. It is especially worth mentioning that the general public’s opinions have participated in the shaping of new policies in education. There appear to have been many opportunities for public comments, and it seems that these comments have influenced the policy makers to a greater degree than in the past. You can find evidence for this conclusion in such stories as the debates on teaching history, awarding professorships, or providing medical programs in a private school, among others.

What are the implications? We know that “truth” does not always belong to the crowd, but it is probably safe to say that social media has made the policy-makers more considerate of public opinion when making decisions. I think it is a good sign. These intense debates about critical issues raised points of view that all sides had to think about, especially, the need for quality communication among all parties and stakesholders.

The intense emotional comments from the general public about stories on the critical issues I have mentioned reflect the fact that people have reached their limits concerning blind trust towards reform. Unfortunately, some people were more emotional than factual in their criticisms and thus their arguments were without sound evidence. For instance, some suggested that the “integrative teaching of History” meant termination or removal of this course from the curriculum without understanding what the concept of “integrative teaching” meant, and how History courses are taught in other countries.

So while it is clear there is increased pressure for reform, it is all clear that their will also be monitoring and challenge concerning how it will be accomplished. Among the voices of the intensive debates, there were journalists who took serious responsibility in working on these issues. For example, Nguyễn Kim Hải of Vietnam Television cooperated with her colleagues to produce a comprehensive report on the teaching of history in other countries to provide a multi-cultural perspective on the issue.

Lê Hạnh: In a conference held by Institute for Educational Research (HCM University of Pedagogy) in last December, there was a comment that our education system currently is a “monopoly”, “single ideology” and “exclusive path.” Is it the major issue that educational reform has to deal with?

Dr. Phạm Thị Ly: Eliminating the monopoly is important, but it is not enough by itself. The education market is based on trust. Students are vunerable customers but the government has few mechanisms to protect them. The state is unable to protect students just by “prohibition” regulations toward higher education institutions. “Socialization” needs to be encouraged, but not be seen as putting a financial burden on the people. This goal can be accomplished by enabling various sectors of the society to contribute their ideas, efforts, and resources toward educational reforms. One example of this is that, the national curriculum can be delivered by various textbooks prepared by many groups of authors not just a single unique textbook identified by the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) as before. This reveals the fact that MOET is ready to accept a diversity of approaches within the system. Such diversity gives hope that the education system is moving forward in its attempts to meet the needs of the society.

However, we expect that the state will do a better job in terms of protecting the students by mechanisms that assure accountability of the schools. The school administrators can declare or promise whatever they want as long as these statements are able to be verified through a system of fair and transparent accountability.

Most intensive challenge: Transforming the mindset

Lê Hạnh: Highschool teachers strongly oppose the reforms. Does this prevent education reform or does this help to realize the reality?

Dr. Pham Thi Ly. Both. Such responses show that the teachers are not really ready change their mindset and the way they work, especially since they do not have motivation to get out of their old way and step into a new one. It is understandable, as they were brought up in a root learning system and are familiar with it in the same way as we feel familiar with our air. The most challenging reform we face is transforming the mindset. This is an intensive challenge and a signal of the differences that are needed for the new approaches that we want to apply.

Differences could be better or worse than what we have currently. Generally speaking, answering the question whether the new approaches are better or not is not difficult. We live in age of digital communication technology and therefore searching for stories of success or failure in other education systems is easy. Much more difficult is translating the success lessons into reality. It used to be that what was seen as common in the world would be seen as strange in Vietnam.

Therefore we should not underestimate the challenges in terms of transforming teachers’ mindset. Strong opposition from the teachers is a warning for policy makers to have considerate steps when moving forward. They should pay attention in their communication to build trust and consensus. Most important for building trust is the consistency between what the governments says and what it really does, especially when the trust of the general public has been undermined. Trust is a limited resource; when it runs out it will be difficult to refill.

Le Hanh: New educational policies introduced in 2013 surprised students and parents; for instance, Circular 30 regarding eliminating scoring in primany schools; introducing VNEN model, removing entrance exam to secondary school, especially the intensive situation of the university entrance exam. Those changes caused intensive responses of the general public. Do you think such a response is the result from poor preparation, short sighted, and lacking public’ interest consideration of the policy makers?

Dr. Pham Thi Ly. It is almost impossible to conclude about all of those issues in just one comment. The intensive reactions of the general public resulted for various reasons, not just poor preparations or inconsideration, even if that was true in some circumstances.

We appreciate the determination of the MOET concerning the changes. However I think that the implementation can be improved for a better result. The two recommendations that I would make are to include policy dialogues/review procedures, and to increase professional communication for improved effectiveness of public relations. Some of the new policies that were introduced without practitioners’ consultations had avoidable shortcomings.

I wish to emphasize the importance of independent scholars. Why? Education reforms influence millions of families and other stakeholders including interest groups. Independent scholars should provide objective and informed comments/ judgements for policy makers. There will probably never be a decision that could satisfy all of the stakeholders in a matter related to various people like education. Therefore we will need to accept risks and be ready for overcoming obstacles. The thing is, we can learn from these mistakes and learn how we to prepare for preventing such mistakes as much as possible in the future.


Section 2. WHAT WE CAN EXPECT IN 2016?

Le Hanh: Along with top-down approaches (state directions and policies), there have emerged several activities from civil society, individual and groups initiatives, etc. What are your comments about the influences of these activities in promoting better education?

Dr. Pham Thi Ly: The “Books for Rural Areas” movement initiated by Nguyễn Quang Thạch and his 123 days walking trip from Ha Noi to Saigon in order to stimulate parents building up mini libraries for primary students are moving events. I wish to emphasize two implications: first, Thach’s initiative is worthy of appreciation; and second, the MOET’ recognition for his efforts. This is a wonderful example for matching the individual bottom up endeavors and the political will of the government. Lacking either factor such impacts will be limited. Other endeavors of individuals and groups have been growing steadily. For instance, Phan Khac Huy with the “One bowl of noodles” project, the artist But Chi with “The Coach,” and Dr. Giap Van Duong with the “Giap School”online programs.

All of these endeavors are to supplement for current shortcomings of the formal education system. Regarding the scale, these activities are small, but in terms of implications, it means a lot since it reveals the enlightened insights of the elite. More importantly, such awareness is being translated into actions and inspires people.

Le Hanh: Controversial debates or conflict of interests between groups should be ended. In your opinion, what needs to be continued discussed carefully, and what can be introduced?

Dr. Pham Thi Ly: K-12 reform is an urgent need. PISA achievement is encouraged, however, it is only one measurement among many others, and it has its own shortcomings. In other words, PISA scores are not the whole set of skills and knowledge that we need for building up the economy and society. Therefore, PISA scores are not the goal of education. It cannot replace the competitiveness need by our labor force in the global market.

Educational reforms or increasing the quality of the labor force starts from the K-12. We have lost so many years as the result of an imposed and authoritarian educational system. The consequence is, learning becomes penal servitude instead of enjoyment. A recent finding shows that 17% of the high school students in Vietnam considered committing suicide. With such hard work, how much of what is studied in school is really helpful in our lives? It is worth mentioning that Vietnam labor’s productivity is the lowest in the region; 15-18 times lower than that of Singapore and Korea, respectively. When I went to teach English in Korea I really started to see the issues students are facing… Without a degree and the prospect for finding a job, who still wants to study in school?

K-12 education overload is due to the fact that we see providing knowledge as our ultimate goal therefore we want students to know everything as much as possible. However, it is obvious in the era of digital technology and knowledge-based societies, that there is no way to give enough knowledge to the students. What we teach freshmen students might actually be outdated by the time they graduate from high school. The employer’s question today is not what you can do, but what are you able to learn to do; can you work in a team with a high level of responsibility or not. So it is not just the amount of knowledge but the capacity to learn, to adapt, and to communicate that is the determinant factors to our competiveness today.

The Draft of National General Education Curriculum has been built on the idea of transforming a ridgid and authoritian educational system into a competence-based educational system. Lecturing and memorizing teaching methods should be replaced by organizing diverse learning environments for students so that they have experiences and obtain skills/competencies needed for the 21st century.

This is in the right direction, although making it happen is challenging. The most intensive challenge will be transforming our current mindset from seeing knowledge as an ultimate goal of education. To be competitive in a global market, we cannot delay the education reforms any longer. Curriculum and textbooks for K-12 should be the first priority. What we need to discuss more is how to make it happen; how to attract the brightest people to participate in these endeavors; and how to prepare to convince the general public of the need for this change.

The MOET needs to listen to various sides, but it doesn’t need to follow every opinion. It is necessary to absorb constructive comments and suggestions, but also necessary to be assertive and improve the quality of communication.

Le Hanh: In 2015, what are positive movements that you see in higher education? If you chose one key area to improve the quality of higher education, what would it be?

Dr. Pham Thi Ly: 
University autonomy is continuously a hot topic. However, it is not a magic wand that can make changes in higher education, or automatically lead to high quality. The Vietnamese government is promoting transforming more and more schools into self-financed institutions. It means seeing higher education as a service, putting the schools into a market context so that they can be more dynamic to meet the needs of society. Market means competiveness, therefore schools will have to change their curriculum and personnel policies to survive.

So, improving the policies to assure full autonomy to HEIs is movement in a positive direction. However, it seems that the state and the university administrators have been placing too much emphasis on “autonomy” as “having the right to do this or that without asking permission” while they do not pay attention to accountability, a very important factor to keep balance on the expansion of university autonomy.

Therefore I think increasing the accountability of institutions of higher education should be a key factor in the context of Vietnam. University Charter 2015 has over 20 thousand words, only 110 words are about accountability. Even worse, this document does not use the term “accountability” but rather “social responsibility.” This word does not reflect the true meaning of accountability, which refers to the obligation of the university to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner, not just to the state authorities but also to all the stakeholders, especially students and parents who pay for tuition fees and taxpayers in general.

Le Hanh: Halfway reform sounds dangerous, especially with “working for only one’ terms” mindset. Do you have any recommendations to avoid such a situation?

Dr. Pham Thi Ly: What does “half way reform” mean? We should not expect that changes will happen in one night. How can everything be as our dream, waking up in the morning and we could see our children happily go to school and obtain the skills/competencies they wouldn’t have without schooling?

No. Reform is never easy. We do not forget that the force-feeding educational system has a long tradition and it is difficult to replace it in just a few days or weeks or months or even perhaps years. Therefore we certainly need many more years, many more people participating in the efforts to reach our goals. With such a long journey, every single step forward is appreciated. We might go fast or slow, which depends on our resources, the ability of the government in convincing people about the need for the change, and the level of participation of each citizen. Of utmost importance is that the knowledge that we are going in a right direction. If we go in the wrong way, our resources and efforts will be wasted. As a person who read the Draft of the National Curriculum for General Education very carefully, I trust that this direction is appropriate and consistent with global trends. The question is, how we make it happen in reality.

There is no question of halfway reform. If what we do is not consistent with what we say, that is another issue. This is something likely happen, if we do not prepare well. The educational reforms, in particularly, educational methodologies and goals, are happening in each classroom, so the most concern lies on the matter of teachers and their preparation. Teacher training is necessary and important of course, but more important is creating the motivations for the teachers to pursue the changes.