David Ayers' article "Education: Tradition and Modernity" was very timely,
coming as it did in the same edition of the Phnom Penh Post in which the shameful
state of spending on education was revealed on page 2. Ayers' analysis of the educational
crisis, particularly the account of the historical reasons behind it, was most useful.
Also his recommendation that the "middle path"- the blending of tradition
and modernity-be followed surely shows us the only possible way to go.
Although it seems obvious that Cambodian students need to be introduced to modern
curricula, teaching texts and teaching methods, it is not at all obvious how this
should be best achieved. The present methods of teaching, which demonstrably do not
work, are solidly entrenched, and are going to be very difficult to change. It is
very true that, as Ayers expressed it, the teachers talk and the students listen,
but it is very hard to do anything different. After five years of attempting to teach
physics here at a very low level (with a singular lack of success), I have yet to
master the art of getting a single student to ask a single question in class, yet
at examination time it becomes crystal clear that only a small fraction of the material
covered was understood. Why, when the teacher pleads for questions if the lesson
is not making any sense, is there zero response when clearly none of the lesson makes
Educators attempting to introduce modernity into education here, particularly in
the teaching of science and technology-including mathematics-face the following problems
(and many more):
- Rote-learning-that is, the practice of gaining knowledge without understanding-is
a waste of time; it doesn't work, yet it's firmly embedded within the present teaching
- Rote-teaching-that is, the teaching of material that the teacher her/himself
doesn't begin to understand-is a fraudulent practice. It's a waste of time; it doesn't
work and it's crooked. If the material is too difficult for the teacher to handle
get rid of it; let the teacher teach material that she/he does understand.
- Much of the material being "taught" is excessively academic, as evidenced
by the content of the grade 12 exams. Also, there is a serious lack of the foundational
material that is essential for any kind of understanding of the more advanced material.
The sequence of topics introduced in many subjects seems quite arbitrary.
- There is a vicious circle in the teacher-training programs that has to be broken-somehow.
Who trained the teachers who are now training the teachers, and where were they taught?
- There is such a dearth of modern teaching texts in the Khmer language that at
some level-the level at which the modern textbooks are being produced-foreign textbooks
have to be used as a reference. The Cambodian teachers who are preparing the new
textbooks must be trained in the use of the foreign textbooks.
- The curricula and textbooks being produced now will have to be evaluated, but
by whom? Probably by overseas specialists, very few of whom would be sufficiently
competent in the Khmer language to work without a translator.
- In the sciences it will eventually be necessary to set up laboratory teaching
programs, but how many Cambodian teachers have been lucky enough to see the inside
of a school laboratory?
- Of course the bottom-line problem, which is a political one, is that the teachers
are miserably paid, and until this problem is seriously addressed none of the above
Readers concerned about the state of education in Cambodia should attempt to get
hold of David Ayres' condensed Ph.D. thesis on the subject, already published and
available in Phnom Penh, titled "Tradition and Modernity Enmeshed: The Educational
Crisis in Cambodia, 1953-1997."
Jerry Walter, Phnom Penh