Twenty years ago, SFU established a program that brought Vietnamese educators to campus to study education—then return home to apply what they learned.
This week five alumni returned to SFU for a reunion and retrospective symposium, celebrating their successes and sharing how the experience has impacted Vietnam’s education system.
Funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), SFU’s Vietnamese Consortium Fellowship Program welcomed 20 science teachers from 11 Vietnamese universities for graduate studies in science and education, with a goal of upgrading and reforming curriculum in Vietnamese postsecondary education. The program officially ended in August 1999.
SFU News sat down with alumnus Nguyen Quoc Chinh (MSc 1997), director of academic affairs at Vietnam National University, to reflect on his time in Canada, the skills he brought back to Vietnam and the fellowship’s legacy on his country’s educational system.
What are your memories of your time at SFU?
My best memories are of us struggling through the model of teaching class with professor Marv Wideen. Our classes were in the evening so we would head to the Diamond Club, have dinner, and then watch an educational movie. We’d have to report what lessons we learned from the movie.
This was very easy for our Canadian friends, but for the Vietnamese, understanding the movie was a problem. Trying to eat, and watch, and remember, and then write, was a big task for us. It was very difficult. So, normally, we would borrow the tape and we’d watch it again a day later maybe one, two, three, sometimes four times in order to really understand it. That was a very big challenge, but I turned out to be very rewarding. It was hard at the beginning, very bitter. But now it is sweet.
What did you study at SFU?
I was in the second group of the Vietnam Consortium Fellowship Program. I started the MSc. in 1994 and finished in 1997.
Where did your career take you after leaving SFU?
When I returned to Vietnam, I went back to Vietnam National University (VNU) as a chemistry lecturer. I needed to keep improving my understanding of chemistry, so I did my master of chemistry at VNU and then earned my PhD in chemistry from the University of Manchester. In 2008, I returned to being a lecturer but soon got promoted to be vice dean of the chemistry faculty.
Having an educational background really helped with research, teaching and doing management. I must have done a good job because by 2011 I was appointed the director of academic affairs for the whole VNU system overseeing 60,000 students. Everything I learned at SFU, from constructivism to curriculum design, I used it. I can look at the big picture and it has brought a lot of new ideas into the system.
How did the knowledge you gained at SFU help with your work in Vietnam?
For me, there have been two big things. The first is curriculum development. Before, people didn’t realize that curriculum needed to develop. They thought that curriculum can only go top-down. But curriculum needs to develop bottom-up, combined with top-down. So, we’ve trained our lecturers to become educators – they’ve learned about curriculum development, they write their own curriculum, they design the learning outcomes and the activities, and they design how to assess the learning outcomes in a systematic way. We implemented that. And it’s stuck. A 10-year project, it has brought about a big change in teaching and learning at VNU. Now, the lecturers know what they’re doing – they’re not just doing what someone else told them to do. And we’ve received government funding to train more people.
The second is the university entrance examination. In Vietnam, there is a national exam that every student needs to get through and we use this to recruit students to the university. But the exam didn’t really assess the students’ understanding and focused more on memorizing. We decided we needed a different way of assessing students and prepare them for the university. We’ve designed new testing for VNU. It was implemented in 2018 and has been a huge success. The students like it, the parents like it, and the university likes it. It lets us compare the exam like SATs. Nha Trang University will be using our test as well, so it’s having a big impact.
Did the program have a lasting impact on the education system in Vietnam? If so how?
There were 20 of us who came from Vietnam. Although most went back to their teaching jobs, we’ve still been able to make an impact. We brought back with us new perspectives. Things like action research and constructivism, they were common in other parts of the world, but not in Vietnam. We’ve helped it to become more common. It hasn’t been easy. When we first returned people looked at us like we were strange objects, but gradually they started to listen. I believe we’ve played some role in changing the way people think about education in Vietnam. If we change the way we teach, we can change the way students learn.
How does the education system in Vietnam in 2019 compare to how it was 20 years ago?
There has been a big change. Now people understand the importance of education. Before, it was just about pedagogy and how to teach this or that content. Now, people understand how to make a student grow as a person first, and pursue a career later. However, changing the way we think and changing the action we take is still very slow. We need more people like us – 20 is not enough. We need 20,000 to overcome the resistance and obstacles.
What sort of challenges remain?
What we still need to see is more educators. We have many teachers at the moment, but we need more educators – people who can help students learn, not force them to. Those who can make students curious to improve. It’s much better than 20 years ago, but we still need people who think a different way. When we first came here, our minds were fixed. But when we were in a good environment, with friends and good educators, we became more flexible and we could start seeing the bigger picture. We want that to happen to the majority of teachers in Vietnam.