The pursuit of lifelong learning for Vietnamese students

By Truong Thuy Van, LSU

This is Van’s article that appeared in Thanh Nien News and Vietweek News on 2/11/2012.

When people hear about my graduate school plan, they often say ‘You’ve learnt enough. You’ve graduated university and have a secure job. Girls at your age don’t need to learn more’.

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 reaching the age of 30?

Meanwhile, 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 coming years, we may use cleverer machines than computers. New knowledge may come from anywhere. Lifelong learning is vital to prepare ourselves for the unknowns. The traditional perception of learning will not prepare us for this.

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

There are two characteristics of a lifelong learner[i]: having the desire to learn new things and having the learning skills to do so.

The desire to learn raises 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 in 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‘[ii]. The ‘inactive and closed mind’ is, according to many researchers, influenced by the cultural context. Students are considered badly behaved if they interrupt teachers without permission, lack understanding if they give different answers to their teachers and are slow learners if they ask lots of questions. Therefore, the vast majority of school boys and girls 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‘ or ’That’s complicated to remember‘, ’That’s not important to learn as my teacher skipped it‘ and ’Will it be covered in exams?’. This cultural context has gradually demotivated the courage and curiosity needed for a lifelong learner.

Many people may argue that Vietnamese students do have motivation to learn hard. Clear evidence is that besides daytime classes, evening and private classes are often crowded. In fact, the motivation to learn in these classes is to pass exams, from primary school all the way to university. There, students learn to take exams by doing previous tests. After exams, much of the knowledge will not be used. As a result, most students would not have the patience and motivation to learn throughout their lives.

A lifelong learner also learns how to learn so that they are ready to attain new skills and knowledge when and where possible, whether it is in a training course, at a university, in a workplace or in other diverse contexts. Those transferable skills, among others, include communication skills, an ability to work with others, critical thinking, problem solving, evaluating and analyzing information. It is difficult to develop these skills separately from the educational context where students are centered. It means learning styles, teaching methods, learning outcomes and assessment need need to be considered in developing these skills.

From my observation, I believe there’s an absence of learning skills development in Vietnamese universities. Teachers provide only the technical or specialized knowledge, considering themselves outsiders in enhancing these skills among their students. Meanwhile, universities do not offer any support services to help students develop learning skills. The assessment method is mostly test-based and only a few assignments or study projects aim to assess students’ skills. Therefore, there are very few opportunities to challenge their knowledge, judge ideas, make arguments and experience the most rewarding part of learning – to develop those skills into habits of mind.

This means that when they are given the chance to learn in an open environment and the freedom to give 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 to 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:

  • Realise that learning is a process of exploring, experimenting, examining, evaluating imagining and connecting but not a process of receiving, copying and memorizing information.
  • Everyone is equal in learning. Therefore, do not be afraid of expressing your personal opinions, asking questions or rebutting what you are taught.
  • 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 centre, look for books or relevant Internet sources.
  • 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.

[i] See Livneh & Livneh (2009) cited in Bath, DM. & Smith, CD. 2009, The Relationship between Epistemological Beliefs and the Propensity for Lifelong Learning, Studies in Continuing Education, July, vol31, no.2, pp.173-189.

[ii] See Pham, THT 2010, Implementing a Student-Centered Learning Approach at Vietnamese Higher Education Institutions: Barriers under Layers of Casual Layered Analysis (CLA), Journal of Future Studies, September, vol 15, no. 1, pp. 21-38.

See Nguyen, PM, Terlouw, C & Pilot, A 2012, Cooperative Learning in Vietnam and the West–East educational transfer, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, vol. 32, no. 2, pp.137-152.

See Nguyen, MH 2011, ‘Challenges to Higher Educations: A University Management Perspective’, in JD London (ed.), Education in Vietnam, 1st edn, Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore, pp. 237-258.

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2 responses to “The pursuit of lifelong learning for Vietnamese students”

  1. Jacqueline Langton says :

    A really great article Van. Your writing always has such a unique voice.

    • truongthuyvan says :

      Thanks Jacqui. You are very generous in your compliments 🙂

      I was inspired to write this long ago. One reason is that the story I told at the beginning happened to me repeatedly, not only from elderly but also from some others at my age. Also, many young people I talked to show their boredom with schooling. This boredom affects their motivation to learn outside classrooms and after leaving schools, because learning to them happens only in classes, interacting with books and teachers, exams and marking. Some said that is because of their teachers, other said they don’t know what to learn and where to begin without teachers’ instruction; some even said they have nothing to learn. So I think it’s important to awake their desire to self learn and learn wide about many interesting things around them.

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