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Pushing primary education into the future

The grade 4 class at Northbridge International School

Koam Sarun teaches her grade 1 students at East West International School

Although the vast majority of Cambodian children are studying in the public school system, there are some exciting things happening at the country’s private schools, and these are exposing the younger generation of Cambodians to a new way of learning.

The country’s private schools include international schools that cater mostly to foreign students, but a growing number of less expensive schools that are engaging Cambodia’s middle class in more progressive styles of education are also available. While the work being done at these schools has yet to change the way that the majority of Cambodians receive their education, in generations to come, the lessons learned by students at these schools might change the way the entire country learns.

“In the long term, the impact of our school will be that we produce great thinkers,” explained Sandra Chips, who has been the principal of East West International School since its inception almost four years ago. “Our students will have the opportunity to see many different points of view.”

The main difference between public schools and the country’s more well-financed private schools is the method of education that better funding allows. At East West and many of the other private schools in the country, inquiry-based and student-led education have been embraced, meaning that students have the chance to pursue their own interests and investigations within the context of classroom learning.

“It is very different here,” explained Mon Sothy, a 25-year-old TA at East West who was educated in the public school system. “We ask the students what they think about what we are talking about. It is not just writing what is on the board and filling out workbooks.”

Mon Sothy, who teaches grade 5, admitted that teaching in this way can be difficult. But he said that he is happy to do the hard work because he believes that it will make the students more excited about learning and successful in their studies. “It is really cool. Our students love experiments and enjoy learning.”

The idea of having students in charge of their own experiments has also been embraced by students and teachers at Northbridge International School.

The grade 4 class, which has 24 students, 10 of whom are from Cambodia, undertook a number of investigations and actions related to pollution in Cambodia. The class observed the reality of the situation, taking a field trip across the city and onto the Mekong River, and discovered, as most people do when they drive around Phnom Penh, that pollution was a major problem.

After their field trip, the students decided that they needed to do something. The group paired up and wrote letters to the government suggesting ways in which the pollution problem could be solved. The main suggestions were to put more public toilets in the city, more garbage cans and garbage trucks, and also begin to pass more laws related to clean living.

A week after the letters were sent, the government passed a law against throwing rubbish on the streets. The students agreed that it might have just been a coincidence, but who knows?

According to Sambo Ngorn, who used to study at a public school in Cambodia, there are a number of differences between his experiences at the two places. “At Northbridge we learn about science and stuff,” he explained. “In Khmer school we just learned about the Khmer language. And the teachers in Khmer school were much more strict.”

Koam Sarun, another TA at East West, agrees that the behaviour and rules in her classroom now are much less strict than in those that she was educated in, but she thinks that the freedom for students to guide their own learning is more important than following rules. “In Khmer school students can memorise lessons, but do not understand what they mean,” she explained. “Here students understand so much of what they learn.”

Even though she didn’t intend on becoming a teacher coming out of Mekong University’s English for Business programme, she says she now realises the importance of teaching. “Teaching is very important because good teaching makes good citizens.”



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