Professor Đỗ Đức Thái
Professor Đỗ Đức Thái from the Hà Nội National University of Education (HNUE) talks to Khoa học phát triển (Science and Development) online newspaper about the maths ecosystem that he and his colleagues have been trying to build and its meaning to the education system of Việt Nam
How did the idea of building a learning ecosystem come about?
I saw a number of quite serious problems during my time at university. The first problem is the enrollment quality of the Faculty of Mathematics and Information. The quality of our entrance exams was inherently very good, especially between 1997 and 2012. However, for the past few years, due to the negative impact of the multiple-choice-type entrance exams, the quality of students accepted to the faculty has been decreasing on both angles: the quality of a maths learner and mathematician, or the ability to think, to reason and to self-study.
The second problem comes from specialised schools and how students are trained to be outstanding. There is a visible paradox: we spend a lot of effort and money to train a team of good students but those students do not return to their home country later to work and contribute. I am not so extreme that I think it is necessary to be in the country to contribute to the country, but I cannot just train anyone to leave. We need to review our policy of attracting and using excellent students.
As for training students for domestic and international competitions, I was also the one who took the International Math exam when I was in high school, so I support them taking the exams, but it seems that the exam no longer brings the same meaning as before. We have let “achievement disease” heavily dominate this competition, even to the point of distorting maths teaching in today's high schools.
The third problem, I have to say that the input quality of the master's system (and a part of graduate students) of the Faculty of Mathematics of my university is getting worse and worse although the enrollment is stable.
Which criteria do you use to evaluate the quality of new students of the maths faculty?
We evaluate students based on the outcome standards of the programme and that assessment has been stable over the years. This allows us to relatively closely assess the quality of the training and the quality of the students. From K64 to K69, the data is large enough for us to conclude that the thinking and reasoning capacity of students entering the Faculty of Mathematics-Informatics of HNUE, has decreased compared to the previous period.
This is quite understandable, the way of teaching in high schools is hurting the quality of students. The exam model dominates the training method: high school teachers now mainly teach students tips for taking tests. The teaching of maths theory is no longer as proper as required. Students follow such methods until they enter university, and then do not know how to take notes, with their self-study ability also decreased significantly.
Then they graduate, some become teachers of specialised schools and again teach their students the same way of learning. That will lead us to a deep crisis in terms of the quality of maths teachers nationwide. I have always believed that to teach a normal high school student, only an experienced teacher is needed, but to train a good student in the true sense, it is imperative the teacher also has truly excellent qualities.
Witnessing these problems, I thought we needed a radical solution. So I started to think of a solution to that situation, at least in my unit. We are trying to create a learning ecosystem that links the three vertices of the triangle: specialised schools, maths departments, and graduate education systems. I hope this will solve our problems, and furthermore, do good for the future of our education system.
So how does the ecosystem you're building work?
What is a learning ecosystem? As we know about ecosystems in biology, I understand that a learning ecosystem is a set of closely related, interdependent, mutually dominant components, in which the foreground becomes the source of input to the next factor. Thus, the learning ecosystem of our university includes high school students (from Nguyen Tat Thanh High School, which is under the management of HNUE), undergraduate and graduate students. A fourth component, although one that stands outside the ecosystem, which dominates and affects the aforementioned components of the ecosystem is the Ministry of Education and Training, foreign universities and employers.
I think that the ecosystem that holds all the clues together is an effective solution, instead of solving each problem separately because these elements are attached together from the beginning as a closed circle. When the quality of the Faculty of Mathematics and Information’s graduate students is not guaranteed, the quality of the graduate schools' enrollment is also poor. Master's students are the human resources for high schools. If the teaching staff lacks the capacity, they cannot train good students, and the quality of the entrance into our department also declines. The cycle repeats itself!
In your opinion, is an ecosystem in the Faculty of Mathematics enough to improve the position of the country’s mathematics?
I think the ecosystem of the maths department is just a small ecosystem in a larger ecosystem, which is the learning ecosystem of an entire university. It is an alarming fact that many Vietnamese universities have now cut the number of maths credits in their training programmes. I think that's a mistake. This mistake comes from two reasons. The first reason is that the knowledge that we teach is not practical for students, they do not understand how it is of any use to the field they study. In education, there is a basic principle, which is to create learners’ belief in the value that education brings. If students find that this knowledge has no value, they will not learn it. This leads to the second reason when students fail a lot, they put pressure on the school, and thus the school puts pressure on the training system to cut that subject.
These two reasons make mathematics faculties in universities weak, especially those specialised in economics. At HNUE, we decided to change that by working with all faculties (such as the Department of Physics, Faculty of Chemistry and Faculty of Information Technology) to jointly rebuild the curriculum of teaching maths credits for those faculties.
So the Faculty of Mathematics at HNUE has started to act to avoid maths dying in university?
Yes, we connect with other faculties to show them how useful maths is. When reworking the programme, departments will often have to tell us what they need us to teach. We create a simple curriculum, starting from zero, going through all the knowledge they need. We present to the faculties both the content and the minimum time to teach that programme.
Regarding the curriculum, it is best that both sides write it together.
In addition, we also expand our ecosystem by internationalising the training process of the Math-Informatics faculty. For many years, the faculty has had a very good international co-operation relationship.
When shuffling the entire training programme, it is inevitable that there is a lot of new work to do, so some lecturers and staff in the faculty and the university also hesitate and don’t want to proceed. In general, we must slowly persuade our staff. Not much has been achieved since this should take a few years to see the outcomes, but until now the biggest gain for the HNUE is changing the mindset of our lecturers. — VNS