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Textbook reform package raises stakes to $1.7bn

Update: April, 17/2014 - 09:55
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by Thu Huong Le

A national project to reform textbooks and curricula could cost up to US$1.7 billion, raising the eye-brows of education experts and the public. Professor Hoang Tuy, a pioneer in education reform, said he was shocked at the estimated cost, considering the current economic slow-down and that the salaries of teachers had for years not kept pace with inflation.

Associate Professor Van Nhu Cuong, the author of many secondary and tertiary textbooks, said even though the cost included building infrastructure and training teachers, it was still huge. Critics also question whether the reforms would transform students into active and creative learners and get the skills they desperately need to succeed in the real-world.

I was born in the 1980s and studied some textbooks that were in their tenth or more reprint. Some of us used textbooks handed down by our sisters or brothers to save costs, illustrating that the content did not change for years.

In those days, the on-line world of knowledge was not so accessible, but our generation was not bothered. But that has all changed. Now, as our economy grows and our society changes to cope with the next phase of development, innovative thinkers who can keep with world trends are vital.

There are many worrying stories about the failures of our education system. While many university graduates can't find jobs, students turn their backs on vocational schools. Students avoiding learning history despite its relevance in the political, social and cultural worlds. The best students choose to study abroad and often stay there. No wonder companies complain that applicants often lack the necessary working skills.

The problems are often rooted in the way Vietnamese children are taught from first to twelfth grade. bombarding them with facts and figures instead of teaching them how to learn, think and ask questions. But before the students learn, the teachers themselves must upgrade their skills.

Presenting the draft project at a recent meeting of the National Assembly Standing Committee, Deputy Minister of Education and Training Nguyen Vinh Hien admitted that current textbooks were too theoretical, were often impractical and some of the topics were too heavy or poorly explained. He said they did not prepare students well for vocational or university education.

According to the draft, the project will be carried out from October this year. During the first phase, experimental textbooks for the first, sixth and eighth grades will be composed. Textbooks for the remaining grades will be created from 2016 to 2020.

After the new curricula and textbooks are evaluated, the new curricula will be phased in throughout the nation to suit the needs of individual schools and ethnic peoples. But the draft project offers little explanation on how to achieve the set goals of equipping students with skills for self-learning, communicating and logical thinking. They also do not offer the kind of teaching equipment, infrastructure and teaching methods that must go along with textbook reform.

In an article written for online newspaper VietnamNet, Nguyen Khanh Trung, an education adviser from the Institute for Research on Educational Development, referred to the need to produce high school graduates who can think independently, provide good arguments and make decisions.

In the long-term, better graduates will boost the quality of human resources in Viet Nam, which is better known for providing cheap labour to factories and institutions around the world. To achieve real reform, students, teachers and educators must have greater flexibility and freedom.

Currently, students and teachers are under extreme pressure to cover all materials required by the Ministry of Education and Training. A typical Ninth Grade student has to learn about 12 to 15 subjects in one academic year, leaving them little time to enjoy learning, to cultivate intellectual curiosity or spend time on experimental learning. Our grading and assessment systems currently dwell on the ability to memorise and follow learning modules.

I believe the ministry should only monitor the building of a national framework for each grade. It should not assume the role of co-ordinating the rewriting of textbooks. Textbook reforms must have input from a wide variety of people, not just those from education sectors.

Education affects the whole country, therefore we need to tie education to the needs of society. The private sector should be invited to engage in this process. Teachers can follow the national framework but they don't need to cover everything written in textbooks. They should be allowed to be as creative in their teaching methods.

In 2011, an earlier proposal to reform school curricula and textbooks also caused a similar stir because of the huge costs. Three years down the road, and we're facing a similar situation. The Party resolution requires that by 2030, the education system of Viet Nam must be able to compete with those in regional countries. Therefore, change is a must.

When I was at high school, students often denigrated learning things like physical education or geography, calling them minor subjects. However, as I grew up, I realised these subjects are extremely important. Physical education enables you to stay healthy, deal with daily stress and study. Geography teaches you about the world at large, so you can integrate much easier with people of other nationalities.

I wish my education was not all about chasing good grades. The direction of this huge project must be to instill a passion for learning and intellectual curiosity in our students, giving them a solid foundation to launch their own lives and contribute to the nation. — VNS

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