Vietnam is planning significant general education reforms for Grades 1-12. Draft legislation on the National General Education Curriculum Design prepared by the Ministry of Education and Training has been put out for public consultation. The draft, which has been in development over the past three years, envisages the most drastic and positive changes to education since 1945.
The overarching philosophy of the reforms is not “what do we want students to know?” as in the past but rather “what do we want our students to do and how?” This philosophy is embedded in every detail of the draft rather than just expressed as an empty statement.
However, the draft has also caused a very controversial nationwide debate about the teaching of history in secondary schools. As the new curriculum will have fewer courses than before, the draft suggests history should be integrated into a new course, “Citizenship and the Motherland”, which combines history, citizenship and national security.
Many history professors, teachers and members of the general public have seen the move as a devaluation of the importance of history.
Professors Phan Huy Le, Vu Quang Hien (Vietnam National University, Hanoi) and many others assert that history should be a stand-alone, compulsory course. They argue that the amount of knowledge required to study history is so vast that it cannot be taught with other subjects. Moreover, they say, students are incapable of judging right or wrong if they rely on the way social networks distort history and that misinformation is used by “reactionary forces” for “peaceful evolution”.
They are concerned about the next generations who might question the correctness of what their forefathers did. They strongly assert that history plays a very important role in patriotic education, building trust in Ho Chi Minh, the Party and in the people. Therefore how history is taught is something the Party, the Vietnamese government and the whole political system must pay attention to.
What is the Ministry of Education and Training’s response to these criticisms? Vice Minister Nguyen Minh Hien and the team leader of the drafting taskforce Professor Do Ngoc Thong say that they have never devalued the importance of history education.
They say history education comes in many forms and is not restricted to the history syllabus. A history course is just as important as many other courses, but the total amount of teaching time is limited. Integrating history into a Citizenship and the Motherland syllabus will help hone the content and reduce pressures on overloaded teaching staff. The new course is compulsory.
One member of the taskforce, Professor Bui Manh Hung, says a school-based history education differs from teaching or learning history as an academic field of social science. The history curriculum, like any other course, must be based on scientific findings, he says, but it needs to help students to develop the competencies that Vietnam needs.
As an independent researcher, I believe we should focus on the ultimate goal of education. What is the aim of history education? If the answer is to educate students to know the past and to nurture patriotism, then the next question is, whether or not we achieve this goal through the way we currently teach history?
A few years ago when the decision was taken not to include history in the high school graduation exam, thousands of students in Nguyen Hien school ripped their history books up and threw them away.
This year, when history was an option on graduation exam courses, there were many schools where not a single student chose it. On one campus, 66 faculty and staff served only one student who took the exam.
This shows that students hate the history curriculum and how we are failing to teach it in schools. If we do not change the way history is taught, it will be impossible to improve the situation no matter how many hours we spend on it.
The philosophy of the current education reforms is to transform knowledge-based education into a competencies-based one so we need to ask the question: “What competencies do we want students to achieve from learning about history?”
Of course we do not want students to become living encyclopedias who can say exactly what happened on what day in the past. We do not aim to train every high school student to become a historian. We do not want to use history courses to encourage extreme nationalism in our students.
What do we want? We know that Vietnamese history, like any other nation’s, is not perfect. There were victory stories that we are proud of and also painful losses that we feel miserable about. There were successes and failures.
We do not just want students to know what happened in the past, but also to learn how to think critically so that they are able to judge the evidence and to understand the historical forces that have shaped our world, how we have survived as a united nation and what price we have paid for our independence and freedom.
Students will gain these competencies after being exposed to various interpretations of historical events so that they can reach a deeper understanding of the values that have formed our national identity.
These competencies are achieved through discussions, interactive debates, visits to museums, projects, role-play and many other activities.
These must be linked to the Citizenship and Motherland course because a direct goal of the history course is to develop civic competence, based on judgments about our historic values and an understanding of what defines a nation, what make us committed to the motherland and what it means to be both Vietnamese and a global citizen.
The proposal of integrating the teaching of history into the Citizenship and Motherland course is a goal-oriented approach, in which historical knowledge is the material, but not the end product.
The nature of history is such that we can always interpret an event in different ways depending on the perspectives of each individual. The value of history education is to expose students to such complexity and help them build their analytical skills. Seeing history through their own eyes will help them to develop a collective memory and love of their country.
Teaching history by teaching a list of facts, imposing only one viewpoint and rote learning, as we have been doing for many years, is the best way to ensure students lose interest in it and to destroy the meaningfulness of history education. That is the issue here, not the question of whether history should be a compulsory or optional course or whether history should be included in the national exam or should be integrated or not.
And how might this affect higher education? It is expected that the seven education and teaching universities across Vietnam will lead the reforms. However, few of the faculty from these universities have taken part in the debate so far.
Most high school teachers are worried about how they will integrate history with the other subjects because they were trained to teach single courses and this is more about giving lectures. Therefore the reforms must start at university level, in terms of teaching history students to become either history teachers or historians.
How can high school teachers build critical thinking skills if they do not possess such skills themselves?
Ly Pham is an education researcher from Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City.
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