Inspiring teachers with liberal arts education


On November 30 and December 1, Fulbright University Vietnam co-hosted the inaugural Pioneering Educators Network (PEN) workshop in collaboration with Innovative Education Group (IEG). The event attracted over 100 educators from all around the country.

Initiated by Fulbright and IEG, PEN aspires to become a network of pioneering educators promoting innovative teaching methods, updated educational trends, cutting-edge pedagogical practices and the liberal education model in Vietnam as well as in the region.

The PEN workshop 2019 is grounded in 3 fundamentals: (1) Intellectual Curiosity, (2) Creativity, and (3) Writing and Thinking in Teaching”. Instead of giving traditional, noninteractive lectures, experts from Fulbright and IEG engaged the audience by putting them in the shoes of learners, letting them experience and thus understand the technical steps underpinning liberal education approaches. This allowed teachers to not only observe how experts conduct a creative and discovery-based class, but also empathize with actual learners – how they take in knowledge, what makes them happy or nervous, and how the teacher can lead the class without “passivizing” learners.

Teachers putting themselves in learners’ shoes

In attendance were committed educators with years of experience who restlessly seek for ways to innovate and enhance their teaching practices. PEN is most certainly not their first teaching workshop. However, as one participant has pointed out, most such events remain too theory-focused and still struggle to apply modern methods smoothly. Coming to PEN was a chance to gain firsthand experience on advanced approaches and explore the extent of their applicability.

Some participants are experienced educators, while others are young and passionate teachers

Ms. Nguyen Thu Phuong, teacher at Phan Huy Chu High School (Ha Noi) has been experimenting with the liberal education model and wants to employ it to teach literature. However, she had yet to solidify her grasp on how liberal education can be exercised in a classroom setting. This experience allowed her to compare it fairly with a more traditional approach.

Scientifically proven methods

For Ms. Vu Thi Lan, teacher at Tran Phu High School for Gifted Students, in Hai Phong province, one of the main obstacles to replacing obsolete practices is the teachers’ reluctance to attempt new, “experimental” methods. However, education specialists at PEN2019 introduced pedagogical concepts proven to be effective and supported by scientific evidence.

“This has given us confidence to apply more positive teaching methods, convincing parents and colleagues to have faith in and encourage those new approaches”, said Ms. Lan.

Mr. Tran Minh Luan, Principal at Nguyen Quang Dieu High school for the Gifted, Dong Thap province, also supports this idea. As per the new curriculum passed by the Ministry of Education and Training, primary, secondary and high school teachers are actively participating in professional training, which requires the implementation of innovative methods that enhance the activeness of both teachers and learners.

“Rigorous training sessions on these methods, like the PEN workshop, are extremely valuable to us. The methods are simply and clearly illustrated, which helps us apply more easily to our own classes as well as demonstrate to other colleagues at home,” Mr. Luan explains.

Teachers are actively participating in professional training nationwide

As an instructor of future teachers, Ms. Hoang Thi Thao from Hue University’s College of Education is aware that although how innovative, active teaching is encouraged, actual implementation remains a challenge despite an abundance of theory. Professional training programs for teachers are outdated and unimaginative, at the consequence of which trainee teachers develop a mindset that favors repetition. This prevents them from thinking outside the box when the time comes for them to become real teachers.

“In the shoes of a learner, I came to deeply understand the most important thing: rather than establishing a dominant attitude in regard to their students, teachers should look to inspire and lead. With the traditional method, teachers only stand on the classroom platform to give lectures, much like a referee controlling the class, an authority figure dispensing knowledge. Meanwhile, Dr. Ian Bickford (Fulbright faculty provost and facilitator at the workshop) shared some very useful tips for teachers to better interact with their students, such as joining the students at their desks to instruct and discuss the lesson, which will create a democratic atmosphere and erase the boundary between the teacher and learners, encouraging students to take ownership of their education,” Ms. Thao added.

Innovation starts from the teachers

Workshop participants had a chance to experience new teaching methods firsthand via some exciting activities. For instance, during the “Writing is Thinking” class, participants were given an excerpt from a classic literature piece and assigned with a reading exercise comprised of four steps. One activity involved participants taking turns to choose a random phrase from the text and read it out loud to the whole class. By following the flow of the text and read in succession, their voices connected harmoniously and rhythmically to each other.

The “Writing is Thinking” class by Dr. Ian Bickford

With 13 years of experience working as a teacher and education manager, Mr. Tran Minh Luan said he always seeks innovations and enjoys intriguing his students in every lesson. Yet he was astonished by this small yet effective activity.

“I was truly touched listening to everyone in the room read the literature excerpt together. In a serious classroom atmosphere, you could feel as the voices were raised one by one. In that moment, we all harmonized and connected with each other. That feeling helped us focus highly on the lesson.”

Ms. Vu Thi Lan, who has a background in mathematics and has dedicated her entire career to teaching this subject relates her experience:

“I have never learned to write like this. This method helps make sure no student is left behind in a class. Each student has their own strengths. Gifted students always stand out easily, but there are others who are more timid. A class that encourages everyone to express themselves and raise their voices will help them gradually develop a sense of self-confidence.

As teachers, we keep in mind that gifted students will probably excel no matter how they are taught. Most importantly, we must bring reserved students out of their shells. Success should be measured by the teacher’s ability to do so.”

Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu engaging with the audience at PEN 2019

Ms. Hoang Thi Thao confirmed she would share and demonstrate these methods to her colleagues. However, not all methods introduced at PEN are universally applicable. Although teachers will need to remain flexible dependent on class or subject, in their essence, these methods will help students institute suitable mindsets for successful, active and lifelong learning.

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