HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Thinking Space

First published at: http://www.tuoitrenews.vn/cmlink/tuoitrenews/city-diary/thinking-space-1.32791
One of the things I most enjoy about teaching English in Saigon is the opportunity it gives me to interact with children. These kids are the future of the country, and over the next several decades they will be the ones overseeing Vietnam’s climb up the economic ladder. We celebrated International Children’s Day here a few weeks ago, and I think that adults would do well to consider, at least for a moment, the impact the current generation of children will have on the future. We should also discuss what skills these children will need to deal with the issues they will confront as they grow up.

For this article’s sake, I’m only going to talk about students under the age of 12. After teaching several dozen Vietnamese children, I’ve noticed that they are, in many ways, exceptionally bright. When it comes to solving mathematic equations or scientific formulas, most of them are much quicker than me, even though I’m more than 10 years older (and supposedly wiser) than them.

They are also incredibly artistic. A few of my students have sketched out drawings that are more impressive than some museum pieces I’ve seen. Whenever we play Pictionary on the board in the classroom, I feel bad about erasing some of the drawings, since they are so good. I can barely even draw a dog without it looking like a horse, yet a 7-year old girl in one of my classes drew a pretty accurate portrait of me in about three minutes.

While these abilities are certainly important, one glaring exception to their skill set is the ability to think creatively (art is obviously an exception to this). This is especially noticeable to me, since I just completed 17 years of education in the U.S. last August. Many Americans worry about the fact that Asian countries are churning out huge numbers of mathematicians and scientists. As the test scores of American students have fallen in the past few years, people have become more concerned that children from other countries will be better suited to handle future problems.

While this is a valid concern, one thing I believe (most) American schools do well is foster an environment where creative thinking is encouraged. Kids are given opportunities to create their own stories in English class, and innovative thinking is rewarded. I’ve noticed that education in this part of the world is heavily based on memorization. This emphasis leads to students that are brilliant at remembering how to solve problems that are similar to problems from the past, but they struggle when they confront something new. I find that this issue is most prominent when it comes to writing. Obviously, writing in a language that you aren’t fluent in is very difficult, but the children I’ve taught have had trouble creating even simple stories.

For example, several of the textbooks my students use include a chapter on travel. There will be a section about kids traveling to another part of the world, and at the end of the lesson, the children are asked to write a brief story about a trip they have taken. Since many of them haven’t had the opportunity to travel, I tell them they can make up a story. This is followed by blank stares. So, I’ll write an example on the board, just to get them thinking: “I went to Paris, I saw the Eiffel Tower, and I ate some yummy French food.” Now they get to work, but when they finish, most of them have written something like this: “I went to Hanoi, I saw Halong Bay, and I ate some Vietnamese food.” Most American kids I know would jump at the opportunity to invent their own adventure tale; probably involving the moon, or maybe dinosaurs and time travel, but my students just substitute my nouns with theirs.

This may seem trivial to some people, but I think it is quite significant. Vietnam, and the world in general, is changing faster than ever before, thanks to things like globalization and demographic shifts. When today’s children become tomorrow’s adults, they will have to deal with issues that their parents never had to deal with. There may not be a formula to solve a problem; instead they will have to think ‘outside-of-the-box’. Right now, it doesn’t seem like Vietnamese schoolchildren are being given the space to think this way. They are certainly smart enough to think unconventionally, but when such a thought process isn’t inculcated in the classroom from a young age, students have no reason to change the way they think. That should be fixed.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agreed with you. Vietnamese schools/parents need to allow kids to be more creative.