|All play and no work: Professor Ho Ngoc Dai guides his students. — VNS Photo Viet Anh
Since founding Viet Nam's Education Technology Programme based on his experiences in the former Soviet Union, Professor Ho Ngoc Dai has fought tirelessly to revolutionise teaching methods, making learning enjoyable for students acrosss 40 provinces. Ha Nguyen reports.
An older man with a gentle face, wearing a tawny jacket, walked with deliberate steps across the stage. A roll of tremendous applause thundered from the audience, accompanying his short walk to the podium.
Professor Ho Ngoc Dai, an educational psychologist, went on to make a speech which was very simple but meaningful, it captured the attention of the audience and moved many, including myself.
"We aim to create an educational environment that encourages children to go to school without any pressure," the professor told the attentive audience at the experimental school, Thuc Nghiem, which was celebrating its 35th anniversary last Saturday.
Dai is the founder of the Education Technology Programme (ETP) which aims to help Vietnamese children to access an education in which the student enjoys going to school.
ETP places students at the centre of the educational process; the teacher's role is as a conductor with the children working in concert with one another to gain knowledge.
He recognised the support he has received from parents and teachers, as he once had to struggle to implement the new teaching style.
"I would like to express thanks to parents who have sent their children to Thuc Nghiem School; cohorts of teachers have joined in effective co-operation with us, and most importantly our pupils feel happy studying at our school," he added.
Out with the old
He brought the new ideas back from his time spent in the Soviet Union where he observed new teaching methods and innovative ideas in education at Experimental School No91 in Moscow.
During his study there Dai practised teaching modern maths for first, second and third grade students and successfully defended his PhD thesis in 1978 based on that experimental teaching.
He saw the enthusiasm students had for learning and decided to bring the methodology to Viet Nam, however he faced obstacles and resistance to setting up the model.
When Dai proposed to apply the method to Vietnamese classrooms he was met with a reactionary mindset from individuals and faced particular difficulties when the national education system was reformed in the 1990s.
He suggested a trial, teaching modern maths for first grade students, but he said the majority voted against him and only two were in favour of the new method.
"My educational theory seemed to be the direct opposite to the national education system.
"My philosophy is the student is at the centre not the teacher; learning means playing; learning without examining and without giving a mark," Dai said.
"Meanwhile, the national education system emphasises the importance of the teacher, forcing students to learn without considering how they think and focus on giving out marks and regular examinations. This places too much pressure on the students, as well as their parents," he said.
Dai's ETP has finally received due recognition and is now being applied widely thanks to an agreement from the Minister of Education and Training, Pham Vu Luan.
He said he is very happy because this year hundreds of primary schools in Viet Nam's nearly 40 provinces and cities have applied to access his ETP method, which is supported by text books he wrote for first-graders in Vietnamese language and mathematics.
Vu Thi Tham, deputy head of the Ho Tung Mau Primary School in the northern province of Nam Dinh said her school has been transformed by the programme.
"What differentiates this programme from others is that it helps students develop their own thinking," Tham said.
"After a two-year trial run, education managers in the province are confident in the programme because they realised that students are happy and teachers are interested in teaching."
She recalled that during the last two years of the ETP experiment her students felt that they were playing during a lesson so they understood the lesson very well.
All primary schools in the province have now used Prof Dai's methodology.
Tran Thi Ngoc Hue, a teacher at the Duong Hoa Primary School in the southern province of Kien Giang's Kien Luong District, said most of her students are ethnic Khmer.
"Compared with other programmes they are now able to get meaning of the lesson very quickly.
"For example, they can now read Vietnamese lessons fluently right from the first term of the school year while in the past they couldn't even at the year end," she said.
Hue said the programme guides teachers on how to use their teaching methods so that their students can practice and know how to recognise phonic elements, or the sounds related to speech, in class.
"As a result, the students can read and write fluently because they are well versed in the rules on spelling. Not one of them is facing illiteracy," Hue said.
"This method creates a positive mood for both teachers and students who gain the confidence to communicate with teachers and their friends," she said.
Teacher Nguyen Thanh Huyen of Trinh Tuong Primary School in the same province said they do not have to prepare lessons before teaching.
"As a result, we have much more time to do research and take on the concerns of our students; we talk more with them and understand them more. It's very important," Huyen said.
"The programme is really significant because it helps completely change from how to teach and how to learn," said Hoang Duc Tung, former head of Trung Nhi Primary School in the midland province of Vinh Phuc's Phuc Yen Town.
In the past a teacher lectured and read while students wrote, now the teacher acts as a designer and facilitator and the students work as engineers and builders, Tung said.
Last school year, hundreds of parents rushed to register their children to study at the school, he added.
Pham Anh Dao, from Ha Noi's Ba Dinh District, said the school has won prestige for its quality among parents since its founding 35 years ago.
" I chose this school because each class has only 40 students and my first grade daughter did not have to carry a big bag full of books to school. But more importantly is that she did not have to do exercises at home," Dao said.
She said she had to wake up at 3am to line up the queue to secure a position for her second child to study here.
Like Dao, Pham Van Thanh in Ha Noi's Cau Giay District, his family has chosen this school for their two children because the model respects personality of each student from the first grade.
"My children feel respected when communicating with teachers. It is one of very few schools in Viet Nam that don't pressure children to achieve. My children say they feel quite comfortable when going to school. Moreover, each subject is taught by a specific teacher unlike other schools in which one teacher must teach many subjects," Thanh said.
He added however that he is a little unhappy because a number of kind-hearted teachers have moved on to work for other private schools.
"Many more parents have registered to apply the ET programme next school year," said Ngo Hien Tuyen, an education expert from the Ministry of Education and Training's Primary School Department and co-ordinator of the ETP. — VNS