What do Vietnamese kids actually learn in public schools here? Former educator Frank Fox provides a glimpse into the local system.
The school system in Vietnam rests on one major foundation: learning by heart. While beneficial in fields like mathematics and geometry, it suffocates creativity in other subjects.
Don’t get me wrong, there is creativity going on in Vietnam. There are people with the ability to react fast, find independent solutions and do as good a job as everybody else in the world. But it is not the native education system that hauls in the credit in these cases, only individual effort and determination. Fortunately these essential traits are commonly found in Vietnamese people.
Let’s have a look a look at each level in the Vietnamese education system.
Kindergarten | Primary School | Secondary School | High School
Kindergarten in Vietnam
Kindergarten is not yet dominated by learning, it’s rather a nursery with opportunities to play and learn the rules of social interaction. Yes friends, to ensure that your child is treated well at the kindergarten, a monthly gift, nicely wrapped in an envelope, is more than welcome in both public and private institutions.
Primary School in Vietnam
Once in primary school, our children face a curriculum that consists of the following basic subjects: Mathematics, English, Reading and Writing, Sports, Crafting, Painting, Music and Morals and Etiquette.
Looks pretty neat, doesn’t it? If you replace the moral and etiquette subject with basic science, it looks like our own curriculum back home. The difference is, that the children here learn by heart what can be learned by heart. In music you learn the notes and repeat meticulously what’s in the book. Even if learning by heart already kicks in, it’s still primary school, so the pressure is not yet in full effect.
That starts with:
Secondary School in Vietnam
If somebody in Europe told you that he had to learn the periodic table by heart, you would either roll on the floor laughing or buy him a pint out of pity. Well, prepare to dish out many pints in Vietnam.
This is the same as everywhere else in the universe. I actually can’t imagine any other way to learn math than learning the rules first and then start applying them and playing with numbers.
This was one of my favorite subjects in secondary school. In Vietnam you basically learn about Vietnamese authors, preferably those from the army. You read articles, discuss the morale of the story and the writing style of the author. After that you learn his biography by heart. My question whether there is freestyle writing at tests was answered with a straight “No”.
Learning about art in Vietnam is quite similar to learning about arts in Europe, however stricter. Topics are given and the students have to follow them.
This subject a creative highlight in a very Vietnamese way: Take a song and replace the lyrics with your own. The cooler teachers let the students sing for the test.
Grammar is taught, as well as reading and communication. The education in terms of grammar is pretty good and nobody can deny that. The main problem here is that many Vietnamese English teachers deliver a strong accent in the first place, and copying them doesn’t make it better. If students find the time to watch English movies in their spare time, they can develop pretty good skills. But that brings us back to the point of personal determination.
This subject is taught without exploding oxyhydrogen gas, there is no mixing of sugar with sulphuric acid and no lithium tossed into a bowl of water. But as I mentioned above, these activities are substituted by learning by heart the periodic table of elements.
Quite similar to chemistry in terms of the absence of practical experiments and the presence of more formulae to learn at school.
The science of life another topic. Apparently there an array of interesting experiments is conducted in Vietnamese secondary school that we didn’t do, even at high school. Okay, here as well as in other subjects learning by heart is an integral part of the system. But they practice microscopy, anatomy and even dissecting a live frog. Vivisection is, however, not a practice to recommend for the sake of compassion. But, they usually don’t have a real skeleton in the cabinet, like we did.
This subject shows it’s worst face. Out of roughly 100 Vietnamese students I asked on occasion if they like history, how many answered with “Yes”, do you think? Exactly zero.
History in Vietnam comes with a general introduction to the king generation of Vietnam, skipping scientists and foreign countries. There is no cultural education about the past. But what do they actually learn in history?
Well, on average, 12 A4 pages per week about how many helicopters were destroyed in this battle, how many soldiers died in that battle and what are the relatives of that general, his biography… is crammed into the short-term memory until the next test.
When I asked roughly 45 students why there is a day off on the 2nd of September, only two knew what was going on and one of them finally came up with the answer “independence day”.
A subject that gives an overview over the continents and introduces personalities like Columbus. The rest is focused on climate and agriculture, such as soil types, coffee production and weather. In a society that derives the lion’s share of its identity from farming and fishery, this is actually an important part of education.
Physical Education is pretty much the same as it is back in good ol’ Europe and North America.
Source: Patrick Lee
Tests and exams at secondary school:
In secondary school students are expected, as in most other systems, to sit a variety of regular tests and exams. These include simple tests, evaluatory exams and entrance exams to further education.
Simple tests: There is a 15 minute test every week and a 45 minute test twice a month. It’s basically writing down everything you have crammed into your short-term memory over the last week - under time pressure.
Evaluatory exams: There are four main exams during every grade and they are basically the same as at the tests, but obviously a little more significant.
High School Entrance Exams: Here students re-cram everything from the last nine months that conveniently vanished from the short-term memory. By heart of course. There are four subjects that get tested during the final exams at secondary school in Vietnam: Mathematics, Literature, English and one practical subject that is chosen every year by the Department of Education. This subject can either be biology, geography or physics.
The first two account for 20 points each, the last two for 10 each, which adds up to a maximum of 60 points you can reach. In some special cases, a student can reach more than 60 points though, but that is rare and only for students who had excellent marks during the whole course of secondary school.
Every year the headmaster of every high school sets a minimum score every student needs to be accepted at this particular school. Students write down their preferred high school, as well as (usually) two alternative institutes in case they cannot reach the required score to be accepted by their first choice.
High School in Vietnam
High school is basically the same as in secondary school, except there is more pressure and more to learn than before. The entrance exam for universities is quite similar too.
At home, in Austria, I sometimes cursed the outdated school system we have and the fact that we are required to cram our heads with useless information from outdated books. And taking a look into the Vietnamese education system almost made me exclaim “Tu Felix Austria”! Almost. But at the end of the day, accepting the bad just because you've found worse is not the way to go.