What we might learn from Vietnam

I’ve been thinking a lot just now about what I do and how I do it.

I’m a teacher, of course. Doing interesting (usually, I hope) things with computers. Which, naturally, changes all the time.

One of the many things that change is the things we have to teach and the ways we have to teach them. Driven by our government Рthe one that tells us that making schools semi-privatised academies is good because schools know what their kids need best but then turns round and tells us exactly which classes every child has to take.

Just now the thing seems to be knowledge and rigour. Because it’s really good for children who are growing up in the age of Google and embedded computing if you make them learn a whole pile of stuff off by heart. My wife’s been looking at a draft of a GCSE Science syllabus tonight and it looks so content heavy and seems to require so much learning of oh so important facts and laws and equations. My own explorations into the new Computing National Curriculum (with it’s talk of von Neumann architecture in some of the “guidance” – more of that at a later date) have seen the same sort of thing.

Stone age curriculum. How fun…

Which is why I was Quite Interested in an article on the BBC website I caught today about how education has been going in Vietnam of all places. The ideas of developing a “deep understanding of core concepts and mastery of core skills” and “students [who] are expected to leave education not just able to recite what they have learned in class, but to apply those concepts and practices in unfamiliar contexts” seem strangely out of place against learning Newtons Laws by heart or attempting to understand the ways CPUs work.

And both so obvious and so alluring. And, you know, maybe actually fun.

There’s lots of talk of mastery around in our own curriculum of course. But I rather have the feeling that it’s being applied in a context which believes that it means “to know lots about” or “to be able to recite” rather than to have actually mastered a skill or even an idea. Sure, there will be some applied understanding questions on exam papers – but I know, from setting and marking real GCSEs, that these questions can easily turn into ones which reward blank knowledge.

I had a Year 9 child in the back my car this evening. A lift home from cricket. He was discussing with my son how he’d answered some questions on a science test they’d had today. “I knew it was something about that bit of what we’d been taught” he said. “So I just included as many of the key words as I could. Some of them are bound to be right and I’ll get the marks.”

And that’s where a knowledge based curriculum, rather then one which attempts real, deep mastery, gets you.

Maybe I need to move to Vietnam then…

PS Рfor future reference: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jun/17/twitter-facebook-vine-autoplay-video-battery-life-data-allowance