Cambodia all but wiped out its teachers in the 1975-79 Khmer
Rouge genocide. In a curious twist of fate, many of the senior cadres and
architects of the revolution had been teachers and many of prisons were former
schools, including the notorious S21 in Phnom Phen. Think of it –being a
teacher would most likely get you killed. Think of the problems they’ve faced
after this holocaust; no schools, no books, no professional teachers, no
cultural capital around teaching and a generation of people left illiterate. The
numbers are shocking. Soviet sources state that 90% of all teachers were killed
by the Khmer Rouge. Only 50 of the 725 university instructors, 207 of the 2,300
secondary school teachers, and 2,717 of the 21,311 primary school teachers
The Khmer Rouge took away the very things the people held
dear; family, religion and work. Children were separated from parents, husbands
from wives. Intellectuals, teachers, monks and eventually even city dwellers
were seen as the enemy. It was ‘dialectics’ picked up by intellectuals who had
studied Marxism in France, taken to surreal extremes.
This is very recent
history (1975-79) and it’s never far from the surface when you’re in Cambodia.
My tuk-tuk driver’s head hung low when he told me that both his older brother
and father had been killed at that time. It was the saddest and most poignant
moment of my whole trip. This is still a country of graves and landmines, and seeing
people daily with missing limbs is a blunt reminder. Landmines are an evil and
make no mistake, if you sell them, you should hang your head in shame, as
you’re part of that evil.
I’ve reported from schools in Africa, China and the Middle
East and always try to get a feel for education on the ground when I travel but
this was different. We’re talking ‘Year ZERO’ here. Let me tell you one
anecdote. A teacher I met in Cambodia told me of a parent who didn’t want to
send her daughter to school “as they’ll
all (teachers) be killed some time”. However, this is rare. Cambodia and
Cambodian parents are now almost obsessive about education, partly because they’ve
been through so much.
I met Sue in Siem Reap market where she was buying a few
dozen pirated DVDs. In her seventies, she’s worked in rural Cambodia for the
last three years. This polite woman from the Isle of Wight came here on holiday
and decided to devote the rest of her life to teaching the rural poor. As she
said, “When I’m gone, I just want to make
sure I’ve left a legacy that works”. After losing her money on an ill-fated
attempt to buy land for a school, she persevered and the local MP has given her
some land. The main problem here is that it is difficult for foreigners to buy
land (understandable for other reasons) and the difficulty in erecting
permanent school buildings (NGOs often have to build collapsible structures).
She’s here for good and clearly loves the children, people and Cambodia. “I’ve learnt a lot about life since I’ve been
here” she said, a lovely role reversed line from a dedicated teacher.
Sue’s scalable technology
Sue has a computer and dongle which she uses for email and
to keep in touch back home but when it comes to technology in her school, she
was smart. The reason she was buying so many bootleg DVDs was that she wanted
to expand her children’s knowledge of English. English is the aspirational
language here, as it is everywhere else I travel. She’s also careful to teach
them Khmer, as they need to read and write in their own language to progress at
school. So she gives them a treat every Saturday, which is ‘movie night’. She
has a TV but is after a projector, as she wants to show movies to 100 people at
a time. Her rationale is that this is scalable solution taps into their natural
motivation to learn English, but expands their knowledge, cultural and
linguistic, in all sorts of ways. Instinctively practical, she knows that the
choke point is the limited sockets and electricity. This is smart thinking.
Another issue is cultural context. Although these are
western movies, she had lots of David Attenborough and National geographic
stuff! She explained that displays of affection, even kissing on screen, can be
seen as shameful, so she carefully views and selects the programmes she shows.
All in all, she was building a sustainable, scalable
solution by fitting the technology to her scant resources with a fair amount of
cultural sensitivity. This is exactly what I presented at Online Africa, and
why I’m so critical of many of Sugata Mitra and Negroponte’s ‘parachute
projects’. Innovation should not trump sustainability. Innovation is only
innovation when it’s sustainable.
Monk and me teaching
While poking around in a Buddhist monastery, I had a second
illuminating experience. No, not religious enlightenment. I came across a monk,
who was teaching English. His kids were not monks but local children, many who
had been sent here by their parents. He invited me into the classroom, which
had no walls, a dirt floor and I did a little teaching. The roof was less than
6’ and I’m 6’4” which led to some hilarity, as I had to cock my head to one
side. They were a lovely and lively bunch, keen to chat and ask questions. They
continued talking to me after the class, keen to extract as much ‘English’
practice as they could. The sad thing was the awful national textbook they were
using, written, it seems, with the intent to prevent you learning English, an
awful, grammar-laden affair full of sentences, no real English speaker would
ever utter. It made me aware of the fact that some schools may be doing little
to actually teach English, just going through the motions.
Then a shock. In a room next to the open classroom was a row
of computer screens all still wrapped in the plastic they had arrived in,
covered in dust. They had never been used as they lacked sockets and electricity.
Once again, my point about sustainability was confirmed.
They had been kindly
donated but no one had really thought about the support resources and how they
would be used. Interestingly, as I was doing my bit in the classroom, one kid’s
mobile went off. Like kids everywhere, they love their mobiles. Everywhere I
went, cheap mobiles were being used to text, make calls and listen to music.
In practice, most people learn their language skills in
work. This is important. Time and time again I met young people who had really
learnt English on the job. Necessity is the mother of language learning. Even very
young kids were picking up languages through selling. This tiny 5 year-old could
count to twenty in three languages and challenged me to a game of tic-tac - for
money! She wasn’t in school but she was as smart as a squirrel.
In my hotel, this young girl, a waitress, was allowed to use
the computers when she had finished her work and no guests were around. She was
doing lots of useful things. I watched her use Google earth to view Angkor Wat,
Facebook and message away. She was constantly reading, writing and picking up
IT skills useful for her future work prospects. E-learning, in Khmer, to learn
English and other practical, vocational skills, would be a godsend.
Schooling not enough
In speaking to young Cambodians, it became clear that some
learnt a little English in schools, but not much. There are real problems with
the quality of teaching, materials and lack of teachers. Teacher attendance in
state schools was also appalling in some areas. Sue had been to schools where
the kids were there and were getting on with learning but the teacher hadn’t
bothered to turn up! To be fair the salaries are between $20-50 a month. Many
teachers have themselves, failed to finish their secondary education, teacher
training is poor and some need to work to supplement their salary.
English is their passport to further education, work and
prosperity. Tourism is growing at an astonishing 25% a year, and I can see why.
Angkor Wat is a dream cultural destination but the country still has that laid
back feel, with good food, cheap accommodation and charming people. What these
people need is some formal learning, in basic English, then support in a
vocational context. An interesting addendum was Sue’s comment that she was
looking for a good local person who could also teach Chinese, as this was the
big growth area in visitor numbers.
So what did I learn from this? First, Cambodia has much to
teach us, as the madness of killing teachers has not gone from our modern
world. I had to cancel a trip to central Nigeria twice this year because of the
threat from Boko Haram (translation: Western Education is bad) and in some
areas of the Islamic world, education is war, with teachers and even pupils
being targeted by religious zealots.
Second, Cambodia certainly needs more good teachers and
schools but it has recognised that vocational training needs to be its main
focus. Sure it has Universities, all private, with fees at $360 for the first
year and $400 thereafter but they’re all in the cities, so travel and
accommodation expenses are a problem. The quality is low and there’s the
usual aloofness and lack of alignment and relevance. But the main focus is,
rightly, on the idea that people need to 'learn to earn'.
Third, what I witnessed was ‘schooling for the sake of
schooling’. The English textbook was ridiculous, teaching hampered by a lack of
training, irrelevant tests and so people were in classrooms going through the
motions. What these countries really need is not more ‘schooling’ but better
‘teaching and learning’. They need curriculum reform, teacher training and a
reboot of the system. I saw lots of great work done by volunteers like Sue but
the sheer scale of the problem, means that a radical shift is required. The
good news is that young Cambodians are getting on and doing it for themselves.
This is a young and vibrant population in a country of micro-businesses. The
problem seems to be the age-old politicians, corruption and their lack of