I recently spent ten days in Cambodia accompanying students on a service trip where they developed their cultural understanding and spent time improving the environment of a local school. While laying pavers and digging a ditch I had a chance to reflect on the difficulties facing education in a country like this. I came away with questions and few answers.
For the children of Cambodia education is critical to their future success. As the country races to move past the legacy of its recent history and build a stable economy and political structure its people recognise that education is going to be the key to success. Moves are afoot to get more children into school, off the streets and away from a life of begging and selling trinkets to tourists. Schools are replacing orphanages and organisations that focus on keeping families together are having success. By creating conditions that allow children to attend school while the parents earn a sufficient income to support the whole family, change is taking place.
Children are learning to read and to write in Khmer and in many cases in English. They are developing fundamental skills in numeracy and are learning about their country, the world and their place in it. When you visit a classroom, you see the very familiar scene of students sitting in rows of desks, the teacher at the front of the room delivering the lesson, asking questions, taking answers. The students have text books and readers. There are a few computers scattered around the school, there is a small library with a minimal collection of books. To meet demand the school runs on two shifts. One set of students attend in the morning, the second shift attends in the afternoon ensuring the school is able to serve the largest number of students.
Although the fundamental architecture of most schools might have changed little in the last century, digging beneath the surface shows that these classrooms have more in common with classrooms that were the norm in Australia and America in the early 80s.
What you don’t see are students engaged in project based learning, inquiry, independent research, problem solving or creativity. Learning here is about providing access to the essential skills and fundamental knowledge that the students need and only have access to when it is delivered by their teachers. Without ubiquitous access to free-flowing information from the internet, with limited access to information in books and literature the role that the school plays is not the same as it is in contemporary western nations.
The challenge is one of scale. How does a school system that is so stretched by demand that it must run two shifts each day, six days per week adopt modes of teaching that are more time consuming and require access to abundant resources? How do schools justify to parents programmes that are not tightly focused on developing essential skills in reading in numeracy or that do not match a model of schooling that is valued on the basis of its alignment with the perceived model of what school should look like? These are challenges facing progressive educators the world over but in Countries like Cambodia the pressure is enormous.
Clearly Cambodia needs an educated workforce if they are to compete in a global market, but what should the focus of that education be. It is difficult to argue against a focus on literacy and numeracy but what besides this should be taught. Perhaps more than anything else Cambodia needs a population adept at creative problem solving. A youth empowered to look at the problems facing their communities and see in these new opportunities. Will reading, writing and counting be sufficient for this?
Change is undoubtedly coming. Thanks to mobile internet access to information is exploding across the country. Here scale and growth are working in favour of the people. The cost of data is being driven down by demand and with this comes new possibilities for education. Currently a significant inhibitor of access to education beyond school or beyond the narrow curriculum schools can deliver is the cost of text books. Access to low cost data will overcome this barrier and bring with it opportunities for a greatly expanded curriculum. With cheap data comes access to a world of learning fueled by online courses and MOOCs developed for the western nations and available globally. Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLES) become a possibility and bring further opportunities for learning.
What changes will need to occur within Cambodian schools so that they might maximise the benefits that mobile internet will bring? How will teachers be provided with the skills they need to transition from being dispensers of knowledge to facilitators of learning in an internet enhanced classroom? How will schools continue to be havens of learning and places of safety where children can focus on having their needs met when learning moves into the cloud and can occur anywhere, anytime?
Cambodia is one example of a nation confronting these challenges. Its recent history brings the unique challenge of a population that is disproportionately young (Average age is 25.3 years compared to Australia at 38.7 years). These challenges are occurring across the entire developing world, millions if not billions of people demanding a brighter future where the fruits of education translate into a world of work that rewards smarts, not physical effort alone. How will education meet this challenge and does a contemporary education focused on creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication scale to the extent required?
by Nigel Coutts
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