I was fortunate enough to be one of the 20 teachers selected to take part in a one-week teacher exchange program arranged by the Al Qasimi Foundation and the UAE Ministry of Education to learn about the education system in Vietnam.
During our visit, we conducted the first stage of action research projects comparing the UAE and Vietnamese education systems, looking at classroom, teacher, administration, and ministry level policies and practices that we could potentially apply in our own schools to improve student achievement and international assessment results.
Vietnam was chosen for a number of reasons:
- Like the UAE, Vietnam is also a relatively new nation (unified in 1976).
- Vietnam faces many economic challenges and yet it is one of the top performing countries on international student assessments such as PISA, as well as in STEM subjects such as robotics, which are both key areas the UAE would like to improve.
- Vietnam prioritizes education, which receives 21% of their annual budget. They see education as a vehicle for change and for the future prosperity of their country. Similarly, the UAE allocated 17.1% of their annual budget to education for 2018.
- The governments of both the UAE and Vietnam have long-term education plans that are incorporated into their national agendas.
We visited several government and private primary and secondary schools, as well as multiple teaching and training institutes. We also visited the Ministry of Education in Hanoi and had the privilege of meeting the Ministry’s General Director.
What I found really interesting was the quote written outside the Ministry, "If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people." This mentality was shared by every member of Vietnamese society that we met and was a reoccurring theme of our trip.
The importance of education is deeply embedded in Vietnamese culture and beliefs; everyone in society is part of the education process. Everyone in Vietnam, from community members, students, and parents to teachers and ministry officials, understand how their efforts contribute to the whole and try to make informed decisions. For instance, the high-level government officials we met are constantly thinking about the challenges Vietnam faces in educating its young students. They say that they are “in the kitchen, and know the recipe for education.”
But it is not only the officials that are part of the decision-making; everyone has a voice in these discussions and is part of the change. It is different than being giving orders or being removed from the entirety of the development of curricula, policies, and procedures. Very few other countries have shown a similar level of awareness, forward thinking, and determination.
We saw that the teachers were very satisfied with their jobs and even with low salaries they stick with it – there is little teacher turnover. Part of their satisfaction comes from that fact that teachers in Vietnam are highly respected, both in society and in the classroom. Respect for teachers is among Vietnam’s traditional values. Students listen and learn even with larger class sizes. This might be a cultural trait, but overall it reflects the hierarchy in the education system, which extends well beyond delivering lessons in school, with teachers being positioned to impact many dimensions of student well-being and support.
On our last day in Hanoi, we presented the initial findings from our ongoing action research projects to some Vietnamese professors. The presentations summarized our preliminary observations, as well as outlined the different strategies and processes we will recommend the UAE Ministry of Education adopt.
One key observation the UAE teachers highlighted as having policy implications for the UAE context was that while Vietnam faces many financial challenges as a developing country, they perform well on international assessments. In comparison, the UAE has challenges with its performance on international assessments but has a lot of financial resources. In response to their financial limitations, the Vietnamese education system structures its curriculum differently, with great success.
For instance, in the UAE, there is a lot of technology used in the classroom, but this is not the case in Vietnam and yet they are one of the top countries in the world in STEM fields such as robotics. In Vietnam the students are first taught the foundational principles and skills in primary school before moving on to using the technology (such as computers, etc.) in secondary school. This is important for the UAE to learn from as it seeks to become a global force in the STEM fields, such as robotics, tech, innovation, artificial intelligence, etc. Currently, the UAE often focuses on the short-term solution of providing technology in the classroom and not on scaffolding, developing, and integrating the necessary skills for using the technology into the curriculum.
Another important distinction between the education systems that the teachers highlighted is that while education attainment is on the UAE’s national agenda, it is not as incorporated into the culture here as it is in Vietnam. In particular, we were very impressed with how everyone is part of the change in Vietnam. Teachers from the UAE are willing to be part of the change here and want to be included more in decision-making and reforms, being advocates and experts. We were also impressed with the professional development options the teachers have in Vietnam and would like to have similar, more targeted options too.
The action research component of the trip was an energizing and validating part of the teacher exchange experience. Many of my fellow teachers were inspired and commented; “Comparing the education process in the two countries will help us visualize our teaching in a more analytical and focused way.” Others said, “We are now more likely to talk with colleagues in our schools about our experience conducting action research as part of a group and about exchange programs. This convinced us of the importance of collaborative work with teachers from other countries.”
Overall, we are very happy with our experiences in Vietnam and look forward to presenting our completed action research projects to the Ministry of Education this fall with the hope of influencing policy and practices in the UAE.
Reham Zahran is a former teacher and the current Community Liaison Coordinator at RAK Academy. She is also a member of the Ras Al Khaimah Teachers Network and will be an instructor of a Teacher Professional Development course at the Al Qasimi Foundation in the fall. To learn more about the Teacher Exchange Program check out our website. To become a member of the Ras Al Khaimah Teachers Network and learn more about their courses visit the RAKTN website.