Another textbook project? The implementation of Escuela Nueva in Vietnam
This qualitative case study examines the implementation of Escuela Nueva, a rural multigrade schooling model, in Vietnam from the perspectives and experiences of local teachers and school administrators. Escuela Nueva first emerged in Colombia in the 1970s as a scalable low-cost educational innovation model that can be disseminated to other under-resourced regions around the world. Indeed, to date, the model has travelled to fourteen countries around the world, impacting the lives of over five million children. On the surface, the implementation of Vietnam Escuela Nueva (VNEN) appears to be a close reproduction of the original model. However, some aspects of VNEN in practice in fact directly contradict the principles and philosophies of the original model. Rather than encouraging more teacher autonomy, child-centered pedagogies, and local adaptation, the implementation of VNEN has reproduced the rigidity, conformity and textbook dependency that have been core features of the traditional Vietnamese education system. This points to the difficulties that can arise when attempts at scaling up educational change across borders come into conflict with local systems of reasoning, which impede the achievement of the intended outcomes.
KeywordsEscuela Nueva Vietnam Folk pedagogy Education reform Policy transfer
In the past few years, Vietnam has been abuzz with various ambitious educational reform initiatives introduced at all levels of the education system as part of the government’s Fundamental and Comprehensive Reform of Education and Training campaign. One of the more publicly contested initiatives is Vietnam Escuela Nueva (VNEN), an USD 84.6 million project funded by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and supported by the World Bank in the period of 2010–2016. VNEN brings to Vietnam a new primary schooling model, covering grade 2–5, that promotes self-instructional learning, active pedagogies, student leadership and collaboration, and a closer partnership between the school and the local community. Although VNEN was only piloted in 24 primary schools in 2010, the model quickly expanded throughout the country and reached its official target of 3,745 participating schools several years before the conclusion of the GPE grant. More notably, many schools not funded and supported by the GPE grant also began to voluntarily adopt the VNEN model by drawing on their own local resources. To date, approximately 20 percent of all primary schools in Vietnam are implementing the VNEN model in some form, and the model has also been extended to up to grade 8.
From the state’s perspective, this swift, extensive, and largely voluntary scaling up of VNEN already confirms the success of the project. In an implementation support meeting with the GPE and the World Bank in June 2015, the Vietnamese head of the project remarked, “I have no complaints about this project. Has there ever been a project that was able to expand before its own conclusion?” (fieldwork observation). Another senior policy-maker I interviewed reiterated this point, “Look at the number of schools that follow VNEN now. It’s not important to succeed or get more funding, but to expand, and we are already doing that.”
In other words, many policy-makers in Vietnam already seem to consider the number of schools implementing the VNEN model as an indicator of the successful “scaling up” of this reform initiative. Moreover, because the VNEN project itself borrows from Escuela Nueva, a model of low-cost multigrade schooling originating from Colombia, these numbers have also been taken as evidence of the successful expansion of Escuela Nueva around the world (Le 2018). However, quantitative indicators cannot provide a complete picture of the process of scaling up education reforms, whether at global or national levels (Coburn 2003). Previous studies of cross-national educational policy transfer and scaling up of educational initiatives have repeatedly found that new innovations are inevitably reinterpreted and mediated at the classroom level as they map against teachers and administrators’ long-held beliefs and practices (Ball et al. 2012; Nguyen and Hall 2017; Nguyen et al. 2012; Steiner-Khamsi 2012). Some questions that must be asked include: Is the common label of VNEN actually disguising myriad locally mediated versions of this model, and if so, to what extent? What are the challenges that local educators have encountered in their attempts to implement VNEN in their schools and how have they responded? What do deviations from the original model reveal about existing pedagogical logics in Vietnam? These questions compel us to dive deeper into the everyday, on-the-ground processes of turning national policy documents into concrete moments of teaching and learning in local classrooms.
This paper thus seeks to investigate the extent to which the VNEN model has changed as it scales up by examining this project from the perspectives of local teachers and school administrators. Vietnam’s borrowing of Escuela Nueva is ostensibly driven by a desire to move away from traditional didactic education toward more progressive student-centered pedagogies, which has been the Vietnamese government’s strategy for more than a decade (Nguyen et al. 2012) However, beneath the façade of a paradigm shift, VNEN as locally practiced embraces many elements of the traditional Vietnamese education system, especially its dependency on textbooks and existing guidelines. Contrary to the popular assumption among Ministry officials that the VNEN model has been successfully scaled up in Vietnam, I argue that in truth, the VNEN’s philosophy of active and participatory learning has been significantly mediated in the process.
This suggests a need to reconsider “scaling up” as not purely a process of quantitative expansion and “plugging” new educational reforms into new contexts. Rather, what appears to be a continuous process of bringing educational reforms to scale is actually a collection of discrete moments of everyday reproduction of the reform in the local classroom, where each teacher attempts to construct a new schooling model from the “materials” that consist not only of the new policy documents but also their long-held beliefs about what works in education. In this case, VNEN as locally practiced is what emerges when foreign ideas of active pedagogies and new schooling models come into “friction” with local Vietnamese systems of reasoning, practices, and social structures and produce myriad inflections of the same ideas (Tsing 2005).
2 Vietnam Escuela Nueva: why borrow?
Vietnam is often considered to be one of the success stories of international development assistance as a whole and international educational development in particular (Kamibeppu 2009; Pond 2014). By 2000, it had successfully achieved universal primary education and primary completion rate was also at about 90 percent, a remarkable number given that in 1990, this figure was only at 47 percent (Attfield and Vu 2013). Vietnam has also met the goal of devoting 20 percent of the annual national budget to education, a commitment that even many developed countries have not been able to meet (Attfield and Vu 2013).
Despite remarkable achievement in improving access to education, Vietnam still faces significant challenges in raising the quality of learning and instruction (Attfield and Vu 2013; Kamibeppu 2009; Pham 1998). Like many other developing countries, education in Vietnam is still characterized by rote memorization and high-stakes exams. In this context, there is a widespread public sentiment that the current national education system needs urgent fundamental reform. While parents worry about the psychological toll that this high-pressure education system forces onto young children, political leaders worry about whether students are being adequately prepared to contribute to Vietnam’s growth in the twenty-first century global economy. This perspective aligns with the global discourse on the educational demands of the knowledge economy that has driven reforms around the world, with new emphases on flexibility, creativity, and an entrepreneurial spirit (Robertson 2005; Tran and Marginson 2014).
Government attempts to address this issue of education quality date back to the early 2000s. In 2000, the National Assembly of Vietnam approved a plan to rewrite the national curriculum and textbook in the direction of “active learning” and “student-centered learning” (World Bank 2015). However, the revised curriculum continued to emphasize rote memorization, and in general teachers persisted with traditional didactic pedagogies. This attempt to change the education system mainly failed because MOET did not clearly explain the new directions of “active pedagogies” and “student-centered learning” nor did it provide adequate training to teachers and school administrators.
In 2013, the Government of Vietnam once again reaffirmed its commitment to reforming the education system toward a more progressive direction with the release of Resolution 29-NQ/TW called “Fundamental and Comprehensive Reform of Education and Training,” a policy document that has since become the basic blueprint for numerous policy changes. The title indicates the state’s recognition that if Vietnam wants to establish an education system capable of meeting the demands of the twenty-first century, an entire paradigm shift in education is required. Reforming the education system cannot depend on incremental changes in separate parts of the system; the entire education system must be fundamentally and comprehensively overhauled.
In this context, the Escuela Nueva model originating from Colombia provided an appealing blueprint of comprehensive educational reform. For Vietnamese educational policy-makers, Escuela Nueva is seen as a transitional model from traditional to progressive education that has been proven to work in the context of a developing country (Dang Tu An 2015). Escuela Nueva first emerged in rural Colombia in the 1970s as a rural multigrade schooling model that promoted active pedagogy and student ownership of their learning process. While active pedagogy can be a contested concept with myriad possible understandings (Tabulawa 2003), Escuela Nueva specifically imagines it as classroom practices designed to simulate the student’s own discovery and construction of knowledge:
As can be seen from this quote, Escuela Nueva in fact draws upon Western progressive education theories that have become popular around the world (Tabulawa 2003; Vavrus and Bartlett 2012). However, Escuela Nueva’s international appeal goes beyond its philosophy of active pedagogy or its demonstrated positive impact on student achievement (Forero-Pineda et al. 2006; Psacharopoulos et al. 1993). One of the distinctive characteristics of Escuela Nueva as a reform model is how it has been explicitly designed to enable going to scale (Colbert and Arboleda 2016). Since the writing of the first Escuela Nueva manual, the model’s co-founders Oscar Mogollón and Vicky Colbert have intentionally made explicit and systematic each step and component of the model to facilitate future replication (Colbert and Arboleda 2016). In particular, the co-founders of Escuela Nueva designed ready-made textbooks with clear progression of exercises and commands in order to enable the students to self-study without having to rely on teachers’ guidance (Colbert and Arboleda 2016). The self-instructional guides have been particularly effective in multigrade schooling contexts where the teachers have to divide their attention between multiple levels of instruction simultaneously (Little 2001). In other words, Escuela Nueva provides a readily transferrable educational innovation “kit” that not only brings good ideas to new contexts but also clear instructions on how to implement and scale up these ideas.
[Escuela Nueva] engages the school’s responsibility to produce the conditions that transform learning into a student-centered activity through manipulation, action, and experimentation. These theories treat children as competent persons, with interests and natural curiosity, with unique skills, with the potential to learn, and with the confidence to make important decisions on their own. This approach develops a whole child – self-directed, confident, and capable of interacting with the world. (Mogollón and Solano 2011, p. 4)
3 Policy borrowing, policy enactment and “folk pedagogy”
The global travel of Escuela Nueva from Colombia to Vietnam is part of the widespread phenomenon of cross-national policy lending/borrowing that has captured the attention of many scholars in comparative international education (Auld and Morris 2016; Mundy et al. 2016; Steiner-Khamsi 2012). While many scholars have critiqued the impositional and neo-imperial dynamic underpinning much of cross-national policy transfer (Dale 2000; Samoff 2013; Verger et al. 2014), instances of South–South educational policy borrowing such as VNEN seem to indicate more voluntary learning of policies that are seen as global “best practices.” Embedded in these processes of voluntary policy learning is the assumption of many policy-makers that educational policies are universally applicable and effective, at most with some minimal level of local adaptation (Auld and Morris 2016; Clarke et al. 2015; Stromquist 1999; Tikly 2015). Yet, is it possible to scale up educational reforms without changing the fundamental nature of the reforms in question? Reforms inevitably map against and come into friction with local cultural logics and institutionalized practices. Many anthropological studies have highlighted the mediation and adaptation of global policies when they travel to the local contexts (e.g., Anderson-Levitt 2003; Steiner-Khamsi 2006). In other words, the assumption that a policy model can always be scaled up is challenged by the appearance of new hybridized practices during policy implementation. It is for this reason that Stephen Ball and colleagues (2012) advocates for framing implementation as policy enactment to underscore the contingent nature of the process whereby policy scripts are acted out in the classroom.
In this paper, I am particularly interested in how hegemonic assumptions about the nature of learning in Vietnam, or educational philosophy in other words, work on the new ideas of VNEN to mediate, resist, and eventually transform them. Bruner (1996) calls these implicit and unquestioned assumptions about the nature of teaching and learning as “folk pedagogy,” or the normative beliefs that guide the teachers’ actions in the classroom. While Bruner (1996) explores folk pedagogy from the mindset of teachers, in truth, these implicit beliefs about the nature of learning are shared by teachers, parents, students, and the general society. They form a “horizon of taken-for-granted” that are so deeply ingrained as to become rarely questioned, even during processes of educational reform. These folk pedagogies are not inscribed in any texts or teacher training materials; rather, they are intuitive understandings that are transmitted from generations to generations through direct observation and participation in the process of education. Consequentially, the work of any education reform or innovation is to “compete with, replace, or otherwise modify the folk theories that already guide both teachers and pupils” (Bruner 1996, 45).
Similar to other education systems in East Asia, the Vietnamese education system has often been described as “exam-centric” and “teacher-centric” (Tran 2013). In particular, numerous studies on the teacher–student relationship in Vietnam have found entrenched cultural beliefs in the unquestioned authority of the teacher as the master of knowledge (Hamano 2008; Nguyen and Hall 2017; Nguyen 2015). However, these popular characterizations miss another fundamental dimension of Vietnam’s education: the centrality of the textbook. It is the single set of textbooks written and distributed by the Ministry of Education rather than any codified body of education laws that serves as the cornerstone of the education system in Vietnam, linking the central bureaucracy to even the most remote classroom for ethnic minority students in the highlands (Salomon and Vu 2007). In Vietnam, the informal understanding is that to be an excellent student, one must obey template answers set out in textbooks. Pre-service teacher training is likewise structured around the particular content of the lessons in the textbooks, rather than a more comprehensive training in pedagogies (Hamano 2008).
Given their important role in the education system, textbooks have also become the target of most educational reforms in Vietnam since 1945 (Duggan 2001; Hamano 2008). However, both experts and public opinion tend to recommend reducing the workload and updating the knowledge included in the textbooks rather than restructuring Vietnamese education to be one less dependent upon print materials. As a result, “educational reform” in Vietnam has become synonymous as the introduction of new textbooks, with other aspects of system restructuring relegated to the background. As the later section will show, VNEN has not been able to escape this mentality.
The centrality of textbooks in Vietnamese education system can be traced back to the Confucian style of education in which learning occurs through the memorization and emulation of established knowledge and analysis (Nguyen et al. 2012; Woodside 1991). In this tradition, the student copies what the teacher dictates from textbooks, thereby gaining access to the most valuable knowledge that has been distilled by previous generations of scholars and compiled into written form. The words and arguments printed in the written text are perceived to be more authoritative and valuable than any possible argument that the student can construct on their own. According to this logic, education is not a process of acquiring skills or furthering the horizon of existing knowledge but rather a quest for mastering the truth that previous master sages have discovered and compiled in the books (Lincicome 1995).
This Vietnamese folk pedagogy stands in stark contrast to the theories of learning underpinning VNEN and progressive education in general. As mentioned above, the vision of Escuela Nueva is for education to foster competencies and skills rather than transmit knowledge content, and for students to construct their own knowledge rather than memorize the words of others, whether they are dictated by the teacher or embedded in textbooks (Colbert and Arboleda 2016). Part of this vision includes a radical shift in the locus of authority in the classroom: from the teacher and the textbooks to the student; to make this desired transition, the true central task of VNEN is to attack the Vietnamese folk pedagogy. Ironically, however, a close examination of VNEN on the ground reveals that underneath the façade of a paradigm shift, VNEN as locally practiced embraces many elements of traditional folk logic in the system.
Between 2015 and 2017, I conducted a vertical case study that traced VNEN from a global discourse to its enactment at the local level, drawing from policy document analysis, archival research, interviews with policy entrepreneurs, observation of donor and policy-maker meetings, video analysis, classroom observations, and interviews with teachers, school administrators, and parents.1 This paper is part of this larger vertical case study. While the larger study focuses on the global and national levels of VNEN design and implementation to unpack the rationales for policy borrowing, this paper emphasizes the local level of enactment, drawing on my observations and analyses of two rural schools in Northern Vietnam that serve as examples of the issues that can arise as the model scales up. One school, Morning Sun, is an exemplary school in the region and has been chosen by provincial-level officials to experiment with VNEN since 2012. The other school, Evening Star, only started implementing the VNEN model in the 2016–2017 school year and has adopted it in only one classroom so far, but because each school subject is taught by a separate teacher, most of the school community has been impacted by the introduction of VNEN.2 The short length of exposure to the new model in this second school is a limitation, as perhaps some of the findings here might be initial transitional issues rather than fundamental, structural ones. However, comparison with the first school which had 5 years of experience, especially drawing from the educators’ recollection of the first year of implementation, can shed light on persisting problems when trying to adapt VNEN. I also triangulated the data from these two schools with newspaper articles and opinion-editorials published by other teachers and administrators around the country to show that observations from these two schools were by no means unique.3 The same criticisms, praises, and difficulties in implementing VNEN were consistently articulated by actors from all over the country.
Fieldwork was conducted twice, once in summer 2015 and once in January 2017. In addition to 30 h of classroom observation, I conducted 16 semi-structured interviews with teachers, school administrators, and parents, each interview lasting between 30 min and an hour. A mix of convenience and snowball sampling was used to identify local stakeholders who would be interested in participating in the study. In each meeting with a participant, I would be accompanied by a mutual acquaintance, typically the person who had made the referral or another local community member interested in learning more about VNEN. As a Vietnamese national myself, I understood the importance of having this mutual contact in Vietnamese social customs, especially to establish a deeper level of trust and respect. As it happened, I was often accompanied by a contact unfamiliar with VNEN and as such would require an introduction to the model from my research participants. These provided invaluable insights into how each different stakeholder involved in implementing VNEN articulated their own interpretation of the VNEN model.
Interviews were coded by hand using in vivo coding to further respect the unique thoughts and expressions of my research participants and also elicit their taken-for-granted assumptions by looking at common phrases and expressions (Saldaña 2016). Basing my analyses on the participants’ own words also partially addressed the issue of the researcher’s ability to impose a biased interpretation in the analysis and write-up phase (Wolf 1996). Nevertheless, I acknowledge that of course my particular positionality as a Vietnamese young woman trained in the Western academy influenced the entirety of this study, from my analytical lens, my research questions, to my relationships with the participants. As such, this paper does not purport to present an objective, generalizable “Truth” about local experience with the VNEN model, especially given the limited scope of study at the local level. Nor is this study meant to be an evaluation of whether VNEN has succeeded or not. Rather, in highlighting the perspectives of local teachers and administrators, I hope to suggest some of the support needed to scale up education innovations especially in the Vietnamese context.
5 Entering a VNEN classroom
One of the official documents produced by the large Escuela Nueva project commented, “You have to see [Escuela Nueva] in action to believe it!” (Mogollón and Solano 2011, p. 7). Indeed, to someone like me who grew up with the traditional Vietnamese classroom arrangement of desks and chairs in neat rows facing the board, entering a VNEN classroom for the first time made it immediately clear that the model was introducing some fundamental changes to the classroom experience. The desks had been rearranged into roundtables so that students could be seated in small groups. Their desks were covered in colorful markers and crayons, a medium-size whiteboard, the self-instructional textbooks that were the hallmark of Escuela Nueva, and other arts and crafts materials. The walls were decorated with posters, maps, and other student projects. The back of the room had a designated “Learning Corner” that served both as a class library and a place to showcase educational materials.
Many of the exercises in the VNEN textbooks are designed to be done collaboratively in small groups, with the group leader subsequently in charge of presenting their group’s answers to the entire class. In practice, this often encourages a playfully competitive spirit. For example, in a Social Studies class, each group had to discuss and write down their answers on the whiteboard and whoever first brought the whiteboard to the front of the class would “win.” As soon as the teacher said “Begin,” the students started talking, and noise levels quickly escalated as debates became more heated. When team leaders had to present their thoughts to the whole class, they also did so in a loud, confident, and self-assured tone. Perhaps this would all seem typical to those used to the Western classroom, but in the Vietnamese education system, to hear the student’s voice in class is a rare thing. As the principal of Morning Sun reflected to me, “Before, you would never get to hear the children’s voice, but with the VNEN model, they are really learning valuable communication skills.”
Indeed, no one can deny that many components of the VNEN classroom significantly differ from the traditional Vietnamese classroom. Yet as Duggan (2001) observed, educational reforms in Vietnam often reflected continuities rather than changes. Deeper conversations with local teachers, administrators, and parents who have been exposed to the VNEN model also highlighted these same dynamics.
6.1 VNEN students: new mini-teachers or photocopiers?
One common expression that emerged in many interviews was the likening of VNEN students to “mini-teachers.” One teacher from Evening Star exclaimed “They’re like mini-teachers!” when talking about the extent of change in student behavior. The principal of the other school also used “mini-teachers” when she talked about preparing students to succeed in this new model, “Every year we spend the first two weeks of school to introduce the students to this model and ensure that they transition from the role of the student to that of mini-teachers.” As “mini-teachers,” VNEN students are now expected to take ownership of their own learning process by following instructions in the textbooks, directing other members in their group to do the same, and in the end reporting to the whole class their learning results.
However, this final whole-class presentation is often very similar to the teacher’s lecture in the traditional model. When describing a typical class, the same teacher from Evening Star explicitly used the word “lecture”:
VNEN is meant to introduce a paradigm shift in the roles of students and teachers in the classroom. Official documents and explanations of the projects reference constructivism as one of the scientific theories that legitimize this particular school model (Dang Tu An 2015). However, as previous studies on attempts to introduce constructivism to Vietnam have found, constructivism is an abstract idea not easily grasped by teachers whose entire education and training process has followed a “banking pedagogy” model of teachers depositing knowledge into the students’ minds (Freire 1993; Nguyen and Hall 2017; Nguyen et al. 2012). Indeed, most of my research participants, even the teachers with many years of experience at Morning Sun, began their interviews by expressing that they still considered themselves novices of the VNEN approach. One math teacher from Morning Sun said, “I still do not think I have a good theoretical grasp of this model, and I try my best to search for materials online but there is not a lot.” In this context, teachers reconcile new ideas with their own experience by translating this novel phenomenon into the language of their folk pedagogy: teachers teach, and students learn. When students become the actors tasked with finding and distributing knowledge to their peers, they are merely stepping into the role of the teachers. Different actors within the classroom can now transverse the teacher–student boundary, but the overarching hierarchy of the teacher over the student remains in place.
At the end of the lesson, each group leader comes up to me and delivers a lecture based on their understanding after following the book. The smart ones are really able to lecture about all the content they are supposed to learn in that lesson.
In the case of VNEN, teachers can trust that their students can assume the role of the teacher and teach themselves because fundamentally, the source of authoritative knowledge in the classroom remains the same: textbooks. Teachers have never been the ultimate authority; textbooks stand in that role. Textbooks in Vietnam are written under the close supervision of the government, and in an authoritarian political context, they play a key ideological role in inculcating loyalty to the Vietnamese state (Salomon and Vu 2007). As a result, few teachers in Vietnam would dare to deviate from the materials written in the national set of textbooks, not just in terms of the topics to teach but also the exact words that count as the “correct” answer. Additionally, the Confucian heritage which encourages learning by heart the words of ancestors, in combination with the heavy official curriculum, further incentivizes teachers to teach rote memorization of the textbooks (Duggan 2001; Nguyen et al. 2012).
Under the VNEN model, traditional textbooks have been reformatted into instructional guides with more activities, questions, and practice problems, as well as explicit commands that students must follow sequentially in order to progress through their lessons. In this model of self-learning, the written text with its continuous chain of learning directives assumes an even more dominant position in the classroom, determining every step of the student’s formal education experience. The meticulous lesson design in the VNEN textbooks provide many teachers with the sense of assurance that students would still be able to learn the materials and pass content knowledge standards. When asked what she saw as the best features of VNEN, a teacher from Morning Sun immediately identified the new textbooks:
The centrality of the textbook in the VNEN classroom is such that in a Literature lesson that I observed at Evening Star, the teacher had to miss the first 10 min of class in order to search for his copy of the text, which another colleague had borrowed, rather than improvise.4 In another interview with a new science teacher in Morning Sun, she expressed her anxieties with the new model because, “They only began teaching the VNEN textbooks [in teacher training programs] after I graduated. I only know how to teach with the normal textbooks.” As a result, VNEN diverges from a model of student-centered education in the sense that while the child is ostensibly given complete freedom to direct their learning process or to self-discover knowledge from experiential activities aligned with their everyday lives, orders and directives based on what the textbook says remain a major part of the VNEN student’s experience.
These instructional guides are designed scientifically. They are more colorful and animated too. Even though the content is exactly same as the old textbooks but it is written very well, with many activities.
Furthermore, the sequential directives in the VNEN textbooks are supplemented by a broader standardized, ten-step process to learning under the VNEN model: (1) get into a group; (2) write the name of the lesson in notebook; (3) read the lesson objective; (4) begin the basic task of the lesson; (5) report to the teacher when done; (6) do the practice task, first on their own, then with a neighbor, and finally with the group; (7) do the applied task; (8) evaluate learning results along with peers and teachers; (9) finish the lesson, report learning results in the Evaluation chart; and (10) done with the lesson or revise parts that were unsatisfactory. A poster detailing these ten steps is required to be hung up in every VNEN classroom. In other words, not only is the VNEN learning experience more structured by written commands, it has also been transformed into a mechanistic process: learning can always be achieved in ten steps.
As can be seen in Fig. 1, whereas the traditional textbook provides a blank space for students to write the solutions in their own words, the VNEN guide helpfully supplies both the written component of this word problem question, as well as the appropriate mathematical functions that must be used. Arguably, students studying under the VNEN model would have an easier time answering this problem compared to students using the traditional textbook who must engage in extra cognitive thinking to find the solution.
Some teachers comment that with this level of detailed instructions, how can the students learn on their own? Many of the teachers that I interviewed expressed a sense of uncertainty about whether their students were really learning in the VNEN classroom. A Math teacher from Evening Star who was teaching in both VNEN and traditional classrooms expressed, “My VNEN students are definitely more confident and active in answering questions, but I think the students in the normal classroom still have a better grasp of the materials.” The parents I talked to also expressed their worries with the sheer number of fill-in-the-blank exercises in VNEN. In particular, they complained about the fact that students could just answer questions in the new VNEN textbooks without having to take their own notes, “Whenever I open my child’s notebooks, they are all empty! She cannot summarize the lessons, and she does not seem to get the main points. How can I be sure that my child is really understanding what is going on?”
In other words, many teachers and parents continue to be concerned that the activities embedded in VNEN still allow students to engage in rote learning, especially when the new methods have not proven their effectiveness. These worries dovetail with the traditional concerns with learning by heart, or học vẹt [literal translation: parrot learning] in Vietnamese popular culture (Bayly 2014; Salomon and Vu 2007). One of the online commentaries on VNEN by Ms. Quyen, a primary school teacher in a central province in Vietnam, introduced a new analogy of “photocopies” to suggest that VNEN students were not engaging in authentic learning. As she argued:
Thus, on the one hand, the VNEN model seems to be genuinely educating more confident and vocal students who can stand in front of the public and deliver lectures about the lesson as if they have become a “mini-teacher.” On the other hand, students also seem to be mass produced into an idealized figure of the active child through a standardized process of learning, one in which it is unclear whether students are truly constructing their own knowledge or whether they have become another generation of imitators. Underneath VNEN’s appearance of radical change lie many continuities with the traditional education system in Vietnam, many of them paradoxically the same elements attacked as backward and in need of reform according to the official project mission.
We are expanding this VNEN project with the hope of eradicating the traditional pedagogy of recitation and copying so that our students can find knowledge on their own, but if they are finding knowledge on their own because they are provided with these ready-made answers, aren’t we really just making photocopies of our students? Is this right? (Do Quyen 2015)
6.2 Deviation and uniformity
The rigid procedural design of the VNEN learning process and materials raises legitimate concerns over its potential effects on students’ academic outcomes as well as behaviors and identities. However, in truth, it is questionable whether any teacher perfectly follows the guidelines of this project. All of my participants revealed numerous instances of minor changes and adaptation that they made to the project materials and structures in their daily work.
For example, despite having many praises for excellent students who can fully comprehend one lesson without help from the teacher, one of the teachers in Morning Sun still conceded, “Of course I still have to mix both the new and traditional pedagogy, like lecture again to the students when they are doing the final reporting, because I have to maintain the content standards.”
She also pointed to activities in the self-instructional guides that she found illogical or unfeasible to implement in the local rural context, a critique that other participants also raised. For example, a suggested VNEN activity to make the school more child-friendly is to grow a school garden, but as another teacher expressed, “Many of my students go home to work in the fields to support their parents. Would they really be interested in a school garden?” In another lesson, students were tasked with creating a healthy, nutritious meal plan with the help of their parents. As an Evening Star teacher pointed out, this simple exercise would be very difficult for her students in the rural village:
In these rural villages, the task of taking care of students and participating in the learning process alongside students still falls to the teacher. Even if the VNEN model provides opportunities to deepen the relationships between home–school–local community, these opportunities are still constrained by the larger socioeconomic structure that an education reform initiative alone cannot address.
Parents in the villages are not like those in the cities! Those who earn money by trading with city vendors, they leave home at midnight and return at dawn, then spend the entire day sleeping or doing a second job. When do they have the time to sit down and help their children learn?
These inherent disparities between different communities, such as the rural–urban divide, point to the essential need to adapt the VNEN model to different contexts, a point also supported by the original Escuela Nueva project (Colbert and Arboleda 2016). Indeed, the principal of Morning Sun attributed the success of her school’s VNEN model to the school-wide recognition that localization was necessary. In her school, teachers were willing to workshop their lessons and adapt the instructional guides to fit the level of difficulty of the materials. They saw that some topics would require more time than others and made the necessary adjustments for this. Teachers were also given full power to change the format of the activities. For example, an individual assignment can become a group activity or even a whole-class activity if the material was deemed to be too difficult. In the words of the principal, “We are so successful because we really respect teacher autonomy – that is the principle of VNEN, isn’t it?”
Remarkably, while teacher autonomy was indeed an integral component of the original Escuela Nueva model, it has not been as emphasized in the Vietnamese version of the project. While official documents of the project made references to decentralization and student-centered education, this “decentralization” pertained to school management and financial tasks rather than decentralization of curriculum planning. Teachers and administrators who have found success with the VNEN model tend to enjoy both autonomy in lesson design but also a supportive professional community willing to collaborate on lesson-planning.
However, not all teachers are confident enough to make their own changes to the VNEN textbooks. Even if they usually adapt the VNEN lessons to their own students’ needs, teachers tended to interpret this need for adaptation as a consequence of their inability to fully understand the new schooling model. Most of my participants began their conversation with me by expressing their confusion that I was approaching them for insights into VNEN, given the common sentiment, “I do not quite think I am doing VNEN correctly.” Some even apologized for not being able to show me a VNEN class that faithfully replicated the model videos of the project.
The pressure to follow the project guidelines is rooted in teachers’ fear of being reprimanded by higher authorities for “not implementing the project correctly” (Ha Ngan 2015). For example, even when all students in the class are running into the same problem, some teachers would still be afraid of whole-class lecturing. If they combine individual or group guidance with whole-class lecture, school administrators or officials from the Department of Education can easily comment on their files, “Even though the student has understood the materials, the teacher did not guarantee the VNEN method,” a comment that can hurt their pay bonuses or records (Ha Ngan 2015).
This, too, is part of the folk pedagogy guiding Vietnamese teacher’s daily work. Specifically, it is an implicit but shared understanding of the hierarchy within the education system that constrains the work of the teacher, always fully aware of their role as agents of the state. Especially on days of assessment when the teacher would be highly scrutinized by other teachers, administrators, and Ministry officials, there is more of an incentive to refrain from doing anything inconsistent with the principles of the project, even if that meant risking students’ learning outcomes (Saito et al. 2008). In this context, pedagogies that are supposed to promote “student-centered education” can ironically contribute to a new tyrannical atmosphere of top-down control, driven by bureaucratic interests rather than those of the actual students.
7 Textbook mentality
Thus, many teachers and local administrators seem to have a “textbook mentality” when implementing VNEN in the classroom: the priority is to follow the learning commands in the self-instructional guides rather than making necessary changes to ensure students’ learning outcomes. Students, in turn, learn that it is most important to follow the commands in the textbook, because this is how “education” is supposed to be.
It must be acknowledged that most of the directives and activities in VNEN textbooks do promote group discussion, collaboration, and verbal expression. Children in VNEN classrooms are noticeably more vocal, active, and confident, a change that has underpinned much of the popular support for this new model (Le 2018). Nevertheless, it is also clear that the official VNEN self-instructional guides form the cornerstone of the model. Even if each individual activity provides an active, experiential learning moment, it is still important to question whether the entire VNEN experience, so strongly structured by the self-instructional guides, still follows its principles of active learning.
In a recent reflection on the factors leading to the success of “scaling up” Escuela Nueva from a local grassroots innovation to a global policy model, the co-founder Vicky Colbert argued very explicitly, “teachers and students need to be key actors of the change” (Colbert and Arboleda 2016, p. 408). What this implies is that the meaningful participation of teachers, students, and parents in the design and adaptation of the model consequently should not be only one of many project components but should form the entire way of “doing” VNEN. Perhaps if these local actors were more involved in the initial borrowing of Escuela Nueva, they would be able to gain a deeper understanding of active pedagogy philosophy, to raise concerns about the conflicts between VNEN and traditional folk pedagogy, and most importantly, to advocate for more training and support so that educators would be able to best adapt VNEN to their local contexts. However, thus far, VNEN has been a top-down educational reform introduced by the Ministry of Education, without extensive training and continuous support to build the capacity of local stakeholders to take over the project. In fact, in my communications with Fundación Escuela Nueva (FEN), the international NGO that supports the dissemination and implementation of Escuela Nueva model around the world, FEN has expressed concern with the opaque and top-down control of VNEN by the Ministry of Education in Vietnam. This runs counter to many of the progressive educational principles embedded at the core of Escuela Nueva.
This case of VNEN indicates a serious challenge with the current movement of transferring educational “best practices” around the world. Global “best practices” such as Escuela Nueva are able to travel to many countries because they can be distilled into replicable policy “kit” designed for successful going to scale (Colbert and Arboleda 2016). However, given the complexity of factors that can potentially contribute to educational success, what ensures that the factors identified as key elements of Escuela Nueva success are indeed the right ones? As Auld and Morris (2016) argued, “Whilst identifying policies for transfer relies on straightforward and generalizable causal claims that focus on school systems’ practices and structures, the reasons underlying different levels of pupil achievement are inherently complex and explanations are conditional” (p. 202). In this context, the work of policy evaluation and lesson-drawing is never as technical and neutral as commonly perceived; researchers and policy analysts are often under pressure to produce interpretations and recommendations that align with donors’ or policy-makers’ interests (Rizvi and Lingard 2010; Steiner-Khamsi 2013). As the previous paragraph alludes, perhaps the key factor behind Escuela Nueva’s original success was its nature as a grassroots teacher-led movement; however, this element of teacher empowerment rarely came up in official stories of VNEN or in my interviews (Dang Tu An 2015).
Moreover, even if the lessons drawn from the success of Escuela Nueva are correct, they are not necessarily universally applicable and effective—another fallacy of the “best practices” transfer movement (Steiner-Khamsi 2013). While the self-instructional guides played a huge role in the original Escuela Nueva by providing materials to allow students to learn on their own while the teacher is busy with other groups of students, in Vietnam, taking into account the textbook mentality, prewritten textbooks would not be a best practice. In the end, what was supposed to be an innovation in Vietnamese classrooms was held back by the delivery mechanism: the new textbooks.
To many Vietnamese policy-makers, VNEN is already a successful story of “scaling up” without significant additional resources from the Ministry of Education, given the extent to which schools around the country have voluntarily adopted the model in the past couple of years. This paper draws on issues of implementation on the ground to challenge this optimistic perspective by highlighting the ways in which the folk pedagogy centered around following textbooks and commands mediate the philosophy underpinning VNEN. Specifically, teachers and students continue to overly rely on the teaching and learning directives set out in the new VNEN textbooks. While new group-based activities and experiential learning opportunities are indeed being introduced in VNEN classrooms, they tend to be given by the textbooks rather than as experimental ideas from the teachers. This rote approach to implementing VNEN is only exacerbated by ministry and local department of education’s evaluation mechanisms that penalize deviation from the textbooks.
Despite this study’s limitation in scope, the issues and experience of the participants here still challenge the idea that there can be “quick,” easily scalable solutions to long-standing educational issues. Rather, for educational innovations to be successfully replicated, local actors must have a meaningful role in the decision-making process even from the early stage of implementation, and there should also be long-term training, dialogue, and collaboration in order to build local commitment to new educational practices. As previous studies in Vietnam have indicated, Vietnamese teachers do tend to be excited by new ideas about education that are more child-centered, they just need more sustained training and support, as well as a higher degree of inclusion in the policy process (Nguyen and Hall 2017). More action research with the local school community, driven by their own interests and needs, can be beneficial in determining how progressive educational innovation can be realized in the Vietnamese classroom.
In other words, the “scaling up” of educational innovations is not a technical, quantitative expansion of coverage of a given idea but a political process of negotiating traditional power relations, notions of authority, and the implicit beliefs regarding the nature of teaching and learning. While VNEN indicates a desire to radically transform existing educational beliefs and practices, ultimately it still fails to challenge the authority of the textbooks, and by extension, of the authorities and central government. This is not to argue that active pedagogy, constructivism and learner-centered reforms in Vietnam will inevitably fail given the conflict with the folk pedagogy. These cultural beliefs, while deeply held, are nevertheless mutable if they are centered and made explicit as the object of change in policy discussions. As Stromquist (1999) argued, “On many occasions, what a system may need is not a new idea or new technology but rather a very careful understanding of how current processes are operating and what it needs to make them more effective” (p. 17). Policy-makers in Vietnam must account for the historical centrality of textbooks if they truly want to succeed in the goal of fundamental and comprehensive reform of the education system.
More detail on methodology and methods is available in another publication (Le 2018).
The names of both schools have been changed.
In late 2015, the VNEN project suddenly became the center of media attention after an article criticizing the inefficiency of international aid to education in the country. The initial critique of the financial aspects of the project paved the way for teachers, parents, administrators, and some officials to comment and criticize the inapplicability of this model in Vietnam. For over a month, it seemed as if at least one new article on VNEN was published daily. In particular, giaoduc.net—the online newspaper covering educational issues—created an official series on VNEN and invited readers from all backgrounds to contribute op-eds.
These issues of textbook shortage are prevalent throughout the country and also present another major challenge in implementation (Ha Ngan, 2015).
I would like to thank the constructive comments provided by Roseann Liu, Shervin Malekzadeh, and the editors and reviewers of this special issue to support this paper through its various iterations. This project was partially funded by Swarthmore College, PA, USA.
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