Lifelong learning, an alien concept in Vietnam

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When people hear about my graduate school plan, they often say: "You've learnt enough. You've graduated from university and have a secure job. Girls your age don't need to study further."

My question is: How much is enough? When is too late? Should I stop learning new things and skills because I have a university degree and because I am a woman who has reached the age of 30?

The world is developing a wider concept of learning - lifelong learning where everyone is encouraged to engage in all kinds of learning at all stages of life.

In future we may use machines that are cleverer than computers. New knowledge may come from anywhere. Lifelong learning is vital to prepare ourselves for the unknown. The traditional concept of learning will not prepare us for this.

In this context, it is important to ask this question: Do Vietnamese students have the inclination to pursue lifelong learning despite the lack of social support?

There are two characteristics that define a lifelong learner: the desire to learn new things and having the skills to do so.

The desire to learn increases one's curiosity and courage to explore knowledge without fear of uncertainty, complexity and challenges. Those with an inquiring mind are likely to approach the world with an attitude of "what's that?" "how does it work?" and "let's find out why." They are passionate about trying out different tools and sources of information to get underneath the surface, while investigating the pool of knowledge with an open mind.

Vietnamese students are often described in research on learning in Vietnam and Asia as "sitting still" and "waiting for teachers to give out some knowledge." The "inactive and closed mind" is, according to researchers, influenced by the cultural context. Students are thought to be badly behaved if they interrupt teachers without permission, lack understanding if they give answers that are different to their teachers', and are slow learners if they ask lots of questions. Therefore, the vast majority of boys and girls in school would rather listen quietly to show off their good side than "nag" their teachers about what they do not understand.

Often they approach a new area of knowledge with an attitude of "that's easy to understand," "that's complicated to remember," "that's not important to learn as my teacher skipped it," and "will it be asked in the exam?"

Learning Matters is a monthly column aiming to provide useful thoughts on learning and education in the hope of informing the broader discussion of educational development in Vietnam. The column is written by the Learning Skills Unit at RMIT International University Vietnam (www.lsuvietnam.com).

Readers' feedback and questions can be sent to learningmatters@thanhniennews.com.

This cultural context has gradually eroded the courage and curiosity needed for a lifelong learner.

Many people may argue that Vietnamese students do have the motivation to learn. After all, besides going to daytime classes, students also crowd evening and private classes. But the motivation for attending these classes is to pass exams, from primary school all the way to university. At these places, students learn to take exams by writing tests. After the exams much of the knowledge will not be used.

Lifelong learners also learn how to learn so that they are ready to imbibe new skills and knowledge whenever and wherever possible, whether it is at a training course, university, or workplace or under any other circumstances.

These skills include, among others, communication skills, an ability to work with others, critical thinking, problem solving, and evaluating and analyzing information. It is difficult to develop these skills except in the educational context. It means learning styles, teaching methods, learning outcomes, and assessment need to be considered in developing these skills.

I believe there is an absence of learning skills development at Vietnamese universities. Teachers provide only technical or specialized knowledge, considering themselves outsiders in enhancing these skills among their students. Universities do not offer support services to help students develop learning skills. The assessment method is mostly test-based with few assignments or study projects given to assess students' skills. So there are very few opportunities to challenge their knowledge, judge ideas, make arguments, and experience the most rewarding part of learning to develop these skills into mental habits.

This means that when they are given the chance to learn in an open environment and the freedom to express their opinions, they feel scared and confused. They find this way of learning new and are reluctant to adapt. Research in 2010 to assess the effectiveness of new teaching methods at some Vietnamese universities found that a majority of students and teachers saw teamwork activities as no better than traditional methods.

According to the research, students are more confident with reproducing lectures and information from textbooks to succeed in exams. This contrasts with what is expected of a lifelong learner who has the courage to take up a challenge and view it as a chance for self-improvement.

To develop the characteristics of a lifelong learner, students should:

l Realize that learning is a process of exploring, experimenting, examining, evaluating, imagining, and connecting, and not a process of receiving, copying, and memorizing information.

l Everyone is equal in learning. Therefore, do not be afraid of expressing your personal opinions, asking questions or rebutting what you are taught.

l Learn how to learn. Come see a learning skills advisor at your university and ask about transferable skills such as critical thinking and effective reading. If your university or school does not have a learning support center, look for books or relevant Internet sources.

l Reflect on what you learn. When you learn a new thing think about how it relates to what you read, what you learnt in the past, and your personal experiences; why it matters to learn; what questions or assumptions you have; where and how you can apply what you learn.

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By Van Truong
 The writer is with the Learning Skills Unit, RMIT International University Vietnam

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