Teaching English in VN: requirements and other information
Video source: Alex Stevenson
Video source: Alex Stevenson
Anita North, a child psychologist with Ethos Asia in Ho Chi Minh City, has experience raising children internationally firsthand. Originally from Australia, she worked as a psychologist in Thailand for five years while raising her two boys. “As they grew up, they used to say they were Thai,” she said. “We’ve sent them to school in Australia now that they’re in high school, partly to give them a sense of their culture as Australians.”
Azrael Jeffrey, Psychotherapist and Educational Specialist at the International Center for Cognitive Development (ICCD) said the movement of not only parents but entire families is creating “third-culture expats”. “We see kids who have French parents, were raised in Africa, and who spent years in the Philippines,” he said, also noting that a British or Australian international school might add more cultural variation. So how does this affect the development of children?
For North and her colleague Nessa Maguire at Ethos, it’s a difficult topic to discuss particularly because every child, and every situation, is different and demands an entirely individualised approach. While some children become more tolerant, accepting and worldly thanks to their experiences overseas, other children might lash out, or become introverted, anxious or depressed.
While the majority of their clients come from Vietnamese families, North said around 30 percent of the children they see moved here when their parents accepted a HCMC-based job. “Most of these children come from families who move quite frequently, to a new country every two or three years,” Maguire said.
“This brings difficulties, because the children aren’t able to establish a close friendship group. Then you have the parents who perhaps see this as a more long-term move. Then you have the difficulty of, ‘Okay, where’s home?’”
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“It’s a catch-22,” North agreed. “You don’t want them to be so rooted in home that they can’t fit in with the current culture. But you need them to have enough of an understanding with their home base that they can connect with their family and friends there.”
The professionals at Ethos Asian aver that most of their clients are special needs children who need support for issues like behavioral problems, attention deficit disorder and autism. For parents used to a high level of support for conditions like these in countries like the UK, the US and Australia, the change to Vietnam, which has less of a developed understanding of special needs support, can be challenging.
Jeffrey, on the other hand, does come across cases in which children need help processing a shift between cultures, especially at school. “Academics is law here,” he said simply. “Even with the international schools, a high precedence is set first and foremost on the test scores.” He said that while the most popular kid in a US high school might be the football star, popularity and social acceptance in an Asia-based school can be centred much more around intelligence and book smarts.
“I’ve had cases where an athlete who doesn’t get the best test scores will feel isolated here,” he said. In those cases, Jeffrey will encourage the student and the parents to branch out and develop social networks outside the school. “There’s not as much of an emphasis on the ‘whole student’ here,” he said.
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All the child psychologists we talked to agreed: when it comes to making sure a child has a smooth and healthy transition to another culture, the school is the most important factor. Schools are important for any child, and doubly so for one with special needs.
“In Australia, the UK, the US, a lot of [school-provided] support is mandated by law,” North said.
“Here, because they go into a private school system, the level of support is dependent on what school they choose, and what that school allows.”
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This support might be allowing the parents to make their child a peanut butter sandwich for lunch rather than opting for the school-provided option, providing extra tutoring or even the presence of full-time care. Even basic logistics can be a deciding factor: if the child has a physical disability, does the international school have ramps and elevators? If the child has a tendency to wander off, is there security present outside the school?
If the special needs are severe enough, Jeffrey says that some international schools will consider it bad business to bring these cases on board—they would require costly resources, and other parents might choose another school if they think one is focused too much on special needs. He declined to say which schools.
“It’s all about the school’s and the family’s expectations,” he said. “There are no bad schools, just different personalities.”
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If your family is headed to a new country soon, the child psychologists at Ethos Asia and ICCD have provided some tips.
Prepare well in advance. Children need to feel like part of the decision-making process, or else they might feel powerless and act out. Let them take control of small things, like choosing the colour of their new room, or picking what furniture they want to bring with them overseas.
Make sure there’s closure. When you’re leaving your home base, make sure you do it the right way. Give the child time to say goodbye to their friends, and provide ways for them to keep in touch in the future.
Prepare a scrapbook. Get your child ready and excited about the new country by creating a country scrapbook. You can include pictures of the currency, information about the climate, easy phrases in the national language -- anything that will help them understand their new home before the get there.
Pay attention to the details. If your child is attached to any food item or product, it’d be a good idea to make sure it’s sold in the new country. If it’s not, try changing the product before the move. It’ll help the child get used to the change and not associate it negatively with their new home.
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Get excited! As parents, you’re the leaders here, and kids will pick up on any stress or unhappiness you might be experiencing with the move. Put on a brave face and show your kid that they should see the next country as both an adventure and a challenge.
Create a social network. Relationships with both the community and other children are important. For the first three months, sign up your kid for anything they might be interested in: pottery class, baseball, yoga, you name it. Preventing isolation is key in a new country.
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“Cost”. “Competition”. “Choice”. “Commitment”. “Care”.
These words echo throughout the statements of parents in HCMC who’ve decided to take their children out of the traditional school system.
The alternative paths range from homeschooling, following a structured curriculum in a home environment, to unschooling, no school structure at home or otherwise. Parents are also selecting to enroll their children in what adherents call “world schooling”, allowing children to be educated by the world around them through travel.
Parents in HCMC are often divided into two camps: those who choose to educate their children themselves because of the high cost of private schools and those who consider it to be a philosophical decision. The concept is still new in Vietnam but a few parents frustrated with the long hours, costs, and rigidity of classic educational systems are following suit.
Khoi Nguyen began a group in Saigon for Vietnamese homeschoolers, in order to meet other parents with similar child-rearing philosophies but he soon realised that many of the Vietnamese interested in joining the group assumed homeschooling meant supplementing their children’s schooling with private tutoring. In Vietnam, educating a child at home is such a foreign concept that many people have never heard of it. Alongside his job as a computer engineer, Khoi now works as a homeschooling counsellor and educator for other parents.
Khoi didn’t start out expecting to homeschool his kids. The decision happened organically. “My wife runs a company that does exercise classes for kids from three to 15 years old. Most of her students are from international schools because they have shorter days”, he explained. “The kids in public schools are the ones who need us the most but they don’t have a chance to attend the classes. They don’t even have weekends. That’s very bad for kids.”
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For their own children, Khoi and his wife looked at their choices – either going to public school or paying the high premium for private school. Neither option suited their family. Instead, Khoi decided on homeschooling with strict lesson plans. He chose the Calvert curriculum, which claims Barack Obama as an alumni. Calvert is one of the priciest online curriculums available but Khoi insists it’s worth it.
Families in Vietnam “have all of these options on the menu”, Khoi said, “this year they can pick a very high-end school but in five or ten years can they still support that fee? It’s unsustainable. They might have to downgrade and the system in Vietnam isn’t compatible”.
The cost argument is concrete. In HCMC, the average price of an international school is VND341 million per year and, according to a report by VietnamOnline, the average salary for a Vietnamese worker is VND38.4 million per year. For the majority of Vietnamese families public schools seem to be the only option. On the other hand, expat families in Vietnam sometimes feel that international schools are their only choice because the public structure may seem too foreign for non-Vietnamese speakers. However, many expats work in companies that will pay a stipend for schooling.
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This is the case for Kristi Cruz*, an American mom with three children. Cruz’s husband’s company offers its employees an educational allowance, yet the couple refuses the aid. Cruz, a passionate unschooler, “lives as if school doesn’t exist”. She feels her children will learn when they’re ready and that they will be more competitive in the workforce because they’ll follow their true interests.
“Technology and the world are changing so fast. Schools are already outdated”, she said. “They can’t keep up with the jobs our kids are being prepared for. Now, everyone is spending their energy learning the quadratic equation, and guess what? I have a calculator to do that for me. These days they don’t need the quadratic equation drilled into their heads.”
Kim Nguyen* was born and raised in the U.S. to overseas Vietnamese parents. After getting married she and her husband decided to move to Vietnam to start their family. As a mother, Kim finds herself in the unique position of having both Vietnamese and U.S. influences. Unlike Khoi, she doesn’t have to worry about Vietnamese education laws but she’s still susceptible to the weight of her cultural heritage, which puts strong emphasis on the importance of formal education. When Kim’s son was born she initially followed the peer-pressure of society. “We put him in school not even really thinking”, she said. “It’s just what everyone his age was doing.”
She tried out a public pre-school but Kim realized it was the wrong choice for her family. Now, Kim manages a children’s play area, which gives her the luxury of spending her day with her son and allowing him to socialise with other kids. The fact that her son has dual nationality also gives him the freedom to continue his schooling in the US later on.
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“Our boy is always curious, always asking to learn”, she said. “So far he’s able to spell a few words. To be honest, I’m unsure if he’s a genius, average, or below average for a three-and-a-half-year-old but I don’t care. I just love being part of the process. For the rest of his life he will have the stress of meeting this bar and that bar. For now I just want him to be a kid.”
At a kid-themed café equipped with a labyrinthine climbing structure, Kristi Cruz met up with Angee Floyd, another unschooling mom.
Like Cruz, Floyd is also American and is raising two children in an unschooling environment. Unlike Cruz, Floyd is doing it completely alone. A single mom with a degree in teaching and what she described as “insurmountable student loans”, she decided to move to HCMC to reduce her living expenses. Floyd is able to teach less and spend the rest of the time with her kids. According to both moms, having the freedom to follow the needs of their children has created a deeper family bond.
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With the shouts and laughter of her children playing in the background, Floyd clarified her choices. “[In America] I went back to work after 6 weeks. I took my little, tiny baby and I was like ‘here’”, Floyd said holding out her arms. “I paid 1,200 US dollars a month to give my child to someone so that I could go back to work and then basically work just to pay for childcare. That’s why I can’t do it.”
Therefore, the question arises: what exactly do parents do when traditional school is not part of the equation?
The philosophy behind unschooling is that learning should be child led. A fascination with dinosaurs might provoke an investigation into palaeontology, while the routine process of paying for something at a store can teach basic math skills. A child in a world schooling family might learn Spanish by visiting Spain. There are no rules for what or how to study. Each family figures it out as life unfolds. Just as a baby learns to speak, a child will, for example, learn to read when they’re ready.
“When you spend your childhood being told what to do you’re not given the opportunity to make choices”, Cruz explained. “Then you turn 18 and you’re like ‘now what’? You’re on your own. You don’t know.”
“I like [this method] because it teaches my kids how to think”, Angee added. “They ask me questions and I say, ‘How can we figure out that information’? Versus when they were in school and it was like ‘the answers are in your book’.”
In contrast, homeschoolers follow parent-guided curriculums. Anne Hudson*, a US national and mom of three, initially enrolled her older children in Vietnamese pre-school but Hudson felt the schools were too strict and that the days were too long. “It’s too much pressure”, she said.
Hudson follows two curriculums with her children, a program for her son that keeps learning fun with drawing, games and songs, and a separate method for her daughter, who has a learning disability and needs a more structured approach to her lessons. Their typical day starts with outside play from 7:30am until 8:30, followed by homeschooling from 9 until 12. Extra activities, such as music or art, are saved for the afternoon.
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“I never wanted to be a teacher before. I was an exercise physiologist”, Hudson said. “There are some days that honestly I’m just pulling my hair out but mostly I’m surprised by how much I like it. There’s something special about it. You’re with your child and you really know the strengths and weaknesses of how they think.”
The modern homeschooling movement began in the 1970s when an educational philosopher named John Holt launched a campaign to “do away with the ugly and anti-human business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves”. Initially, Holt tried to rework the codes of traditional education - rote memorisation, forward-facing classrooms, the godlike reverence towards teachers - by testifying about his theories before the US Congress, but later he decided school in any form was inutile. His resulting newsletter, “Growing Without Schooling”, increased both his followers and his sceptics.
Holt may seem like a pioneer to some and an eccentric to others, but in reality homeschooling existed for centuries before it was given an official title. The precedents for alternative schooling vary from country to country. In the founding days of America children were expected to work alongside their parents. The trend towards self-directed learning was not so much a leap forward as a look into the past.
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In contrast, in Vietnam skills were passed on through ‘masters’. According to a 2010 report by WorldBank, “In the Feudal and Colonial periods, teachers were seen to have more importance than parents; their position was only lower than the king.”
Edmond Yee wrote in his book, “Confucian Education: A Moral Approach”, that Confucius taught the belief that “everyone has the same potential to be educated, and therefore education should be available to everyone. Vietnam was therefore constructed to be a collectivist country, meaning that individuals are less important than the whole.” These core Vietnamese values make the alternative education concept more foreign than in a country where children were historically schooled at home because of the community’s needs.
The online resources we queried showed that out of 77 countries with published educational regulations, 41 allow for alternative education but, depending on the country, families can be subjected to strict regulations.
Homeschooling is prohibited in 30 countries and in six, including Vietnam, the law is unclear.
The Vietnamese constitution is just abstract enough for homeschoolers to fit between the cracks. According to the Vietnamese education law, “Families have the responsibility to create conditions for their members in the defined age groups to learn in order to obtain the level of universalized education”.
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Homeschooling is not specifically mentioned, nor is it forbidden. However, this loophole doesn’t mean homeschooling families are free from difficulties. Once a student is taken out of public school their placement in the system is effectively ‘frozen’. Online courses are not recognised by the government so a child who wants to re-enter school will have to return to the grade they left. In addition, there is no homeschooling equivalent to a high school diploma in Vietnam. Children without a diploma cannot pursue higher education in Vietnam. The options are therefore narrowed down to going to university in another country, trade school or starting over in Vietnam. Vietnamese families who choose alternative education have to be fully committed to seeing it through for the long term.
Homeschooling has recently become a subject of controversy because of the case that shocked the world: In California,13, supposedly homeschooled, children were found to be brutally neglected by their parents. Cases such as these are few and far between but lawmakers are now demanding more oversight of children educated at home. Many countries have already installed rigorous checks of homeschooling families.
In Vietnam, children also slip through society’s cracks. “The government tries to encourage kids to go to school but obviously not every child in Vietnam does”, Khoi said. “You go to the streets and you see children everywhere. There’s no real law.” However, even if parents aren’t breaking Vietnamese law by schooling their kids at home they are breaking tradition and they are subject to intense judgment as a result. All the parents interviewed, whether expats, overseas Vietnamese or locals, spoke of the pressure from the outside world and especially relatives.
“My mom is probably the biggest critic about what we’re doing”, Angee said. “[Her] main concern is how will they go to college? How will they get a job? If they choose to go to college there are a hundred pathways to do that. In fact, a lot of unschoolers and homeschoolers outperform kids in traditional schools all the time.”
Yet, even within the alternative schooling community there can be divided camps. One homeschooling parent mentioned knowing “some [older unschooled] kids who haven’t started reading yet. How does that happen? Once they’re reading there’s a lot of stuff that they can do. But they need those basics.”
What do the statistics say? In a survey for Psychology Today of 75 adults who’d been unschooled as children, the adults described “dealing with others’ criticisms and judgments of unschooling, some degree of social isolation and social adjustment” as being their biggest challenges. However, for 72 of the 75 respondents, “the advantages of unschooling clearly outweighed the disadvantages”. 62 % of these adults went on to pursue higher education in some form and the majority were employed at the time of the survey.
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Regardless, of the debate about whether or not alternative education programs are successful, Vietnamese families have an added difficulty – most of the available curriculums are in English. “My family is not an English speaking family”, Khoi said with a sigh. “That’s the biggest challenge. I try hard but it’s only me who can follow the curriculum. Most of the families I talk to can’t get past the English gate”.
For other parents the biggest complaint is a lack of time. One parent has to be available to guide the children. It’s difficult to pursue a career at the same time. However, most families feel the sacrifice is worth it.
“[The judgment] doesn’t bother me”, Kristi said. “I’m very comfortable being a mom. People ask what I do and I’m like “I’m a mom” and I’m good with that. People act like it’s not good enough but children have rights and choices. You have the choice to pursue your career but when you choose to be a mother you have a responsibility to be a mother too. Children have the right to have a present parent.”
Nellie and Gavin, American parents of 3.5-year-old Lucy, have lived in HCMC for 7 years. When Lucy was diagnosed with severe hearing loss the couple looked into their schooling options in both America and Vietnam, and even tried a private pre-school in D2, but in the end they decided on homeschooling.
“Lucy is a completely developmentally normal kid; she just needs special attention”, Nellie said. “I went to the US and I looked at the schools there … I was impressed with the deaf schools but the mainstream options … it’s like … who cares? Who actually cares about my kid? I do. But does anyone else really care when a student might be the difficult student? You know, the one who can’t hear the instructions so isn’t following. So in the end it’s up to you to figure out what your child needs.”
For parents of children with special needs individualised care has added weight. Anne’s daughter has an auditory processing issue -- she struggles to process information as it comes in. Angee’s daughter started getting test anxiety when she was in public school to the point that she started having panic attacks and refused to read anything.
“Even though their former teacher was a good teacher she couldn’t see the issues that I could see from observing”, Anne said. “There are 14 other kids, so the teacher can’t keep her eyes on one kid that closely.”
Nellie, Anne and Angee all feel that despite the general stereotype that care is not as extensive in Vietnam as in the States they actually have a stronger community and more affordable options in Vietnam. “There’s also a great community of homeschoolers here”, Nellie said. “We always have things that we can do.”
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However, the fact remains that Vietnamese families, even those with special needs children, may have a harder time making the decision to stop traditional school. “International parents have less pressure”, Khoi said. “For the Vietnamese, the pressure is enormous. It’s everywhere. People in general just don’t understand what this thing is.” Yet, he holds out hope that education in Vietnam may be in the process of changing. “Right now there are some voices in the Ministry of Education starting to talk about homeschool”, Khoi continued. “They demand that we open up the system. I think in 5 years things will change. If they don’t we’ll be left far, far behind.”
Regardless of what happens in Vietnam’s scholastic future, families choosing alternative education have one thing in common -- they believe they’re doing what’s best for their children. As Kristi put it, “It’s a lifestyle. And school will not add to that lifestyle. It will take away.”
*This name is a pseudonym
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The prioritization of education has been a core feature of Vietnamese culture for centuries, and now the Southeast Asian country is opening its doors to foreign-owned entities providing public education for its aspiring academics.
Australia’s own Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) was established at the turn of the millenium in Ho Chi Minh City and was the first foreign-owned, public university to open in Vietnam. Professor Gael McDonald told Sinh Vien Viet Nam Newspaper last December, “Some of the key achievements in this area have been the introduction of authentic learning, reduction in examinations, a move away from textbooks to more contemporary materials, professional development for staff… with the mission to focus on delivering world class internationally recognized postgraduate degrees in Vietnam…”
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With a staff of academics from 25 countries around the world, RMIT engages in community outreach and has an increasing student population hailing from provinces outside the urban centers of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
This year, Fulbright University Vietnam will open in Ho Chi Minh City.
The original Fulbright program was launched over seven decades ago as a means of establishing closer diplomatic ties between the United States and countries around the world through the promotion of education and cultural exchange.
President Barack Obama praised the university during his visit to Hanoi in 2016 saying, “It is the first not-for-profit, independent university in Vietnam - which will bring academic freedom and scholarships to underprivileged students. Students, academics and researchers will focus on public policy research, governance, business, engineering and computer science, liberal education - everything from the poetry of Nguyen Du, the philosophy of Phan Chu Trinh to the mathematics of Ngo Bao Chau …”
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Fulbright University will open its doors in the fall of this year, promising a new and innovative approach to higher education in Vietnam, while engaging in community outreach and offering need-based financial aid to qualifying students.
At its inception, Vietnam’s educational culture was largely influenced by Chinese systems, particularly Confucianism. Confucian ideals dictated that although man is at the center of the universe, man is a social being, and finds his (or her) highest potential realized in community with others. Within this potential is the ability to be educated, and as such, education should be accessible to all. As community is important in Vietnam, education is seen as being not only a way of the advancement of the individual, but as a way of cultivating the kind of character that will help uplift his or her community.
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Former leader Ho Chi Minh decided when Vietnam gained independence from France on September 2, 1945 that the government’s three biggest priorities would be “fighting against poverty, illiteracy, and invaders.” His philosophy on education was guided by the principle that “an illiterate nation is a powerless one.” In October of that year, he issued a “Call for anti-illiteracy.” The nation responded to the call by creating 75,000 literacy classes with 96,000 teachers in order to teach 2.5 million Vietnamese to read and write.
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Vietnam has long been known as a country and a culture that consistently keeps an eye on progress. Throughout history, the Southeast Asian country has borrowed and integrated ideas about ways of living from influential societies, from the neighboring Chinese, to the French who formerly colonized it.
The opening of foreign-owned public learning institutions in Vietnam marks a paradigm shift in the country’s policies towards education. With the world’s eye on Vietnam as an emerging economy, it is sure to continue to attract foreign interests.
Vietnam is emerging as a bona fide market for educational investment, and its consistent desire for quality education is sure to be instrumental in its rise towards becoming a middle-income country, as it cultivates the minds of global-minded scholars.
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Stephen Coyle, an IELTS instructor for the Reliable English School (RES), didn’t just see the dawn of technology in the classroom—he heard it. “When I first started teaching [in Vietnam] 14 years ago, the noise level in the classroom was incredible; people were shouting, talking, laughing. Now, during the break, it’s completely silent. Everyone is just looking at their phones.”
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The heavy reliance on digital devices in Vietnam has come swiftly: over 35 million people use Facebook regularly in the country, and an estimated 32.43 million will have a smartphone in 2018.
The use of technology has irreversibly changed the way we look at the world and have become social, but in HCMC, will it change the way our kids learn as well?
Thomas Galvez, Saigon South International School’s Technology Learning Coach, acknowledged that technology can have detrimental effects on a child’s socialisation, but averred that it it’s all about balance. “It’s not about weaning them off [of smartphones],” he said. “It’s about teaching them the appropriate times to use it, and to understand the effects.”
With separate technology coaches for the elementary, middle and high schools and an overall ICT Director in the administration department, it’s safe to say that SSIS takes the role of technology in the classroom seriously. Earlier this year, SSIS became the first Apple Distinguished School in the country, a distinction both prestigious and rather nebulous.
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At the moment 400 schools spread across 29 countries are Apple Distinguished Schools. To hold this coveted title, Galvez said it wasn’t so much having Apple products (although SSIS is a completely Mac-driven institution and requires all parents to purchase a personal MacBook for their child when they enter the 4th grade), but rather promoting an innovative approach to learning. Finding ways to do this is Galvez’s bread and butter.
Although he acknowledged that it’s impossible to keep up with all the technological trends, he keeps current through an active world-wide professional learning network with other technology coaches. “Twitter is a great medium for this,” he said.
Once he discovers something he thinks might make learning more efficient, or connect kids in a deeper way, he meets with teachers to discuss how the program can be integrated into their lesson. For a language class, he said that SoundCloud is often useful, which allows teachers to comment in different places on a student’s audio file. For multimedia collaborations, he might suggest Explain Everything, an interactive whiteboard app that lets students create visual presentations in the cloud, so students and the teacher can interact as it’s created.
“That’s the great thing about these cloud-based tools,” he said. “They provide asynchronous capacities that students and teachers can access to provide feedback and learn anytime, anywhere.”
The emphasis on creativity and multimedia emphasised by Mac products is widely believed to help prepare students for future careers, many of which will require teamwork, collaboration and thinking outside of the box. However, as Rob van Driesum, a parent of an SSIS child (and, full disclosure, the freelance copy-editor of #iAMHCMC) points out, “Not all kids will end up working in multimedia. They’ll need skills in Windows-based Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook and so on.”
The debate about technology’s role in the classroom has been raging for over a decade, since the concept of One-to-One learning was first propagated in the late 1990s. By providing students with personal learning devices, from which they could read digital textbooks and complete assignments, many claimed that the learning process could be more efficient and streamlined.
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Subsequent studies have suggested that digital learning isn’t the silver bullet some first believed it was, and some schools have tempered their expectations, or at least begun to view technology as a tool rather than an end in itself.
Thomas Galvez at SSIS mirrors these thoughts. “The whole focus of this job is really not technology,” he said. “Learning is always going to be at the centre of schools.”
He paused for a moment, and then continued: “A good teacher is a good teacher. And to be a good teacher, you don’t necessarily need technology. Really, it’s about relationships.”
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From being part of the Chinese kingdom and the French colonial state to its complicated past relationships with the U.S. and Russia, Vietnam has historically been a country crowded with languages. As a result, Vietnamese itself was only recognized as the country’s official tongue in 1945.
Today it is mandatory for all students in Vietnamese schools to follow their studies in Vietnamese but the recent influx of foreign business and tourism has increased the importance of learning other languages as well. The majority of students study English as their first foreign language with French being the reigning second.
The priority of Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) is for all students in Vietnamese schools to learn English as their first foreign language, according to Priscille Lasémillante, Attaché for the French language at l'Institut français du Vietnam (French Institute of Vietnam) . Then, when possible, they can learn a second foreign language. Today French is the foreign language the most taught after English, with approximately 40,000 students. 10,000 or fewer students study Japanese and a fraction study Korean, German, Russian and Chinese, Lasémillante said in an interview given in French.
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To understand the country’s dominant languages today, we have to go back to the 1954 Geneva Conference where Vietnam was officially divided through the middle. This rupture informed not only policies but also language. In the North, Chinese and Russian took precedence in the educational system, while in the South, French and English became the preferred languages. However, after reunification, the Southern languages and Chinese plummeted out of favour and it was Russian that connected the country to the rest of the Communist bloc.
Do Huy Thinh, from the Vietnamese TESOL Association, wrote that, “Russian became the dominant language, overshadowing the demands for all others in Vietnam’s early reunification".
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Vietnam found itself with a surplus of Soviet-trained professors and a sudden lack of opportunities for Russian trained students; as a result the language is barely taught in Vietnam today. In 1987, Vietnam introduced Doi Moi , the open door trade policy that brought the country onto the international stage. The resulting explosion of business, tourism and foreign investments launched a need for new languages in Vietnam and English quickly took the lead.
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The English language was granted special authority in 1994 when the prime minister signed an order requiring government officials to learn foreign languages, with English being the primary focus. Foreign investments and influences from English-speaking countries have further solidified English as the top studied second language in Vietnam. MOET recently attempted to codify language training even more with the federal education agency’s Project 2020 initiative. Launched in 2008, the project’s mission is to advance Vietnamese students’ English to the level necessary for employment, yet as of 2018 Vietnam remains 7th in Asia in English language proficiency.
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Today Vietnamese parents tend to push their children to study whatever language has the greatest utility.
French remains popular in large part because between 1992 and 2006, French language education in Vietnam was financed by the French government. Numerous scholarships— notably in the sectors of medicine, engineering, and law—still exist to help Vietnamese continue their studies in France, and the only Vietnamese degree recognized internationally is a French-Vietnamese diploma in engineering.
German became another contender for a second language when Goethe-Institut cultural centers were set up in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and student foreign exchanges began to develop. Japanese become a third major player through scholarship schemes intended to help Vietnamese students study at Japanese universities.
English is still necessary for advancement in Vietnam and throughout the region—it is the official language of ASEAN—yet some experts warn against parents becoming too obsessed with their children becoming anglophones.
“We must not only focus on English, but also pay attention to demands of localities and grades. Besides prioritising English, we need to develop other foreign languages,” Minister of Education and Training Phung Xuan Nha said in reporting by Vietnam News. “Cities and provinces which have the necessary facilities to teach other languages should be encouraged”.
The lack of Chinese taught in Vietnamese schools may be surprising given that Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken by the most people worldwide, and it is the official language of mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore, countries in close proximity to and bearing business interests in Vietnam.
"China is the world's second largest economy,” Nguyen Thi Linh Tu, deputy head of the Chinese language faculty in the Hue University’s University of Foreign Language, said. “Learning Chinese, Vietnamese people can access a huge market in China and Chinese communities in other countries".
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Priscille Lasémillante agrees. The Vietnamese have a super power just in front of them. China is in the process of developing a cultural cooperation with the rest of the world and perhaps Vietnam should take note, she said.
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