This week, IEN shares the second part of Chi Hieu Nguyen’s conversation with Thomas Hatch about the after effects and developments in education in Vietnam following the school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This interview is one in a series exploring what has and has not changed in education since the COVID-related school closures. Previous interviews and posts have looked at developments in Poland, Finland, New Zealand, and South Africa. Nguyen is the CEO, and co-founder of Innovative Education Group (IEG. Innovative Education Group is an umbrella group of more than 10 education ventures. Part 2 of the interview discusses concerns about engagement and well-being as well as innovation in private and public schools. Part 1 of the interview discussed what happened in Vietnam’s schools following the COVID-19 outbreak, how the education system responded and what has happened since.
Thomas Hatch: In that period where schools were just trying to get kids online, in the US but also in other countries, some kids just weren’t showing up. In many cases that has continued, and we’ve seen chronic absence has skyrocketed. Did you see that happening in Vietnam as well?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: In Vietnam, students show up. It’s probably because of the culture of Vietnam, where, in general, it’s a very neighborly kind of community. In Vietnam you can have a house host 20 kids from the neighborhood coming together to share a laptop and study together, or you can have a whole village come into one house to study online with the teacher. Also, everyone was locked down, so the parents were at home with the kids as well and actually helped the kids get connected with their learning. I think the only problem that we have is the social emotional aspect. Being present in class is not an issue. It’s a social, emotional issue.
Chi Hieu Nguyen
Thomas Hatch: How has that issue manifested itself? How and when did people start to see that?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: I think it was when the country started to recover and school started to get back to normal. We saw a drop in engagement with school; kids did not want to go to school, especially kids who were beginning at a new level or a new school. Surveys of teachers across both the private and public sector reported more anxiety levels and less engagement among students and more misbehaviors than they had seen for years. Most teachers say that it’s not the academic issues they are concerned about, it’s the misbehavior and discipline issues that they are concerned about.
Thomas Hatch: Now that the issue has come to the forefront, how has the system and how have schools and the community at large responded?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: Well-being in general now is one of the top priorities, but even before COVID-19, the government required private schools to have an in-house psychologist and there has been a lot of focus on psychological services, but COVID-19 makes it more obvious. Now a lot of school events are not about academics; they’re about psychological programs or counseling. You will see parents taking their children to psychological service clinics. The national curriculum has not allowed much space for that, so it’s pretty much the effort of schools and also the private sector that provides those services and programs.
I spent part of 2022 studying in the US, and now that I’m back, every school campaign is about happiness and wellbeing. It’s good to be addressing the problems, but it also highlights the seriousness of the issues that students are facing. There’s also a tremendous increase in concern about the well-being of teachers. You see more teachers taking days off; more teachers getting sick. COVID is taking a toll on teachers because they were staying at home and teaching online and didn’t have to deal with a lot of the misbehavior. Now that they are back at their daily job, there’s an explosion of misbehavior in class, and they’re getting so stressed about it. Just this academic year, 16,000 teachers quit their job. That is one of the biggest numbers we have seen.
COVID is taking a toll on teachers because they were staying at home and teaching online and didn’t have to deal with a lot of the misbehavior. Now that they are back at their daily job, there’s an explosion of misbehavior in class, and they’re getting so stressed about it.
Thomas Hatch: Is it mostly seen as something that has to be dealt with at the local level, or is there an understanding that the national system needs to change? And have there been any moves to attack the high-pressure test-based system?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: When the new national curriculum came out in 2018, there were good and not so good aspects to it. One of the good aspects is that it is more competency-based. For the first time, there were no letter grades or number grades for primary school students. Now for primary school they only have “achieving standard” or “not achieving standard” rather than a letter degree. However, there’s more academic load in the middle school, so middle schoolers tend to take the biggest hit. Then in high school, it used to be that every high school student needed to study the same 13 subjects, but from 2018 on, with the new national curriculum, students can choose what track to focus on. If they choose the natural science track, they don’t have to do as much social studies. If they choose the social science track, they don’t have to do as much natural science. In general, the move tries to lessen the pressure, but the issue is still execution: How to transition teachers from teaching knowledge-based content to competency-based instruction over the long term.
Innovation in the private and public school systems
Thomas Hatch: In New York City there are certainly private schools that are innovative, but you also see public schools that are innovative. Is there a reason why the kinds of really innovative schools you’re referring to are all private in Vietnam?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: I think the reason is that in the Vietnamese public education system students still follow a very traditional testing system to move from primary into middle school; to move from middle to high school; and to move from high school to college. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for innovation. For example, private schools talked about competency-based curriculum and competency-based teaching and learning way before the national curriculum took it up. So when new technologies come out with lots of products and services, adding them is easier if I’m teaching in a private school, and I don’t have a test to teach my students to pass so that they can move on to a good high school.
Thomas Hatch: But are private schools still preparing students for the high school exit exams to get into university? Or are they preparing them for international settings?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: In private schools, there are basically two different groups. One group is more like the “low premium” private school, which is to say, the tuition fee is low – about $100 to $200 a month. Most of those schools follow the public school system. Then, the private schools with higher tuition fees, more like $400 – $500 month, usually prepare students for more international settings. Then even if the students stay back in Vietnam, they go to a university system that accepts alternative results not just the high-stake exam results. This is different from systems like China and South Korea, where students have to go through a very rigorous high stakes college entrance exam to get into the public universities. I think one good move in Vietnamese higher education has been the creation of an alternative application where students can use results from international standards and tests or they can use formative assessment results from their school to apply even to the top universities, both public and private.
I think one good move in Vietnamese higher education has been the creation of an alternative application where students can use results from international standards and tests or they can use formative assessment results from their school to apply even to the top universities, both public and private.
Thomas Hatch: But is it the schools themselves that are pushing things or is there a government policy encouraging them to do that?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: I think it’s all there in the DNA of schools. But with COVID-19, Vietnam is also doing lots of campaigns to improve digital literacy as well. When ChatGPT came out, the Government started to do conferences. I think in both the public and private sector, there has been a momentum to respond every time something technological comes out in the press, which was quite rare before COVID-19.
Thomas Hatch: I just want to come back around for a minute to focus on pedagogy. You said more recently, there’s been more focus on pedagogy. How? What does that look like? What interesting innovations have you seen in this arena?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: There are a few things that are picking up momentum. People have started talking about how to create multimodal teaching and learning, how to get students using digital resources, so they are not just textbook based. Now there’s a lot more use of audio and digital libraries, Youtube channels, that kind of thing.
The second thing is in terms of differentiation. If you look at the size of classrooms in Vietnam, some public schools have a class that may have 60 students. Even private schools may have 32 students in one classroom. But now teachers and schools are talking more about how to utilize technology to do more differentiation for students. For example, using a technology platform to provide different assessments for different types of students and then provide them with different sets of homework based on their ability.
The third thing, at some of the private schools, like Olympia, is how to adopt new technologies. There is talk about how to use ChatGPT in school, and how to use augmented reality and virtual reality to teach students in every subject. In terms of assessment, history is no longer just writing a paper. It’s building a digital museum. So nowadays there’s more talk on that alternative assessment, alternative form of teaching as well.
Looking Toward the Future…
Thomas Hatch: What about any other challenges or things that you see coming up that we haven’t talked about that you think are critical?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: I think the critical thing in general is the social emotional development of both students and teachers. I think that is something that educators and school leaders have to work on. Next month I will take part in a national movement called the Happy School Movement and we’re partnering with Oxford and others, and even corporations are willing to sponsor something like that.
But the second thing coming up started before COVID-19, and it’s the shift to competency-based teaching. Vietnam is an exciting place because we’ve started the shift, but moving the entire public system, including millions of teachers, from content-based coverage to competency-based teaching and learning is a tremendous effort from both the public and private sector.
Vietnam is an exciting place because we’ve started the shift, but moving the entire public system, including millions of teachers, from content-based coverage to competency-based teaching and learning is a tremendous effort from both the public and private sector.
The third thing is that I think there’s a movement in terms of internationalization of the curriculum, and, economically speaking, Vietnam is a very attractive destination for investment. I think within the next five years you will see a lot of investment in international schools, bilingual schools, and things like that. We’ll see it not only in the biggest cities, but in mid-sized and smaller cities as well.