Posted by: viaprograms | March 8, 2010

Teaching in Vietnam

Vietnam volunteer Mary Gallagher with some of her students in Vietnam

Last year, I decided to stay with VIA for a second year when the opportunity came up to teach computer science (CS) at Hanoi University. It was a chance to live in my favorite city in Vietnam and, perhaps, to pass on my enthusiasm for CS and programming to some students. Along the way, I’ve discovered that just knowing your subject does not a good teacher make. A lot of the time I’ve felt like Sisyphus — trying to teach programming to students terrified by the mere prospect of having to write computer code. Figuring out how to get a student past the “deer caught in the headlights” stage to some degree of confidence has become my mission!

“Teaching depends on what other people think, not what you think.” That was a quote that really resonated when I read “Building Better Teachers” in this week’s New York Times Magazine (How did people ever manage without the internet?!). It reminded me that learning is about gradually adjusting one’s mental model of the world to fit a new and different paradigm. So, a good teacher also needs to know about the ways in which students misunderstand. My own mental model of what a teacher does just made an important adjustment!

Getting inside a student’s head to “understand his misunderstanding” is especially difficult in Vietnam where most students are reluctant to think out loud. Asking them to do it in English makes it even harder for them. Faced with these difficulties, I’ve fallen into the easy but relatively ineffective practice of just telling a student that something is wrong and correcting the mistake.

This week, though, I had a small teaching epiphany. In my tutorial, a student suggested solving a problem in a way I knew would not work. Rather than just telling him the correct way to do it, I took him to the whiteboard and we worked it together (I find working at a board helps in the exchange of ideas. I just wish i had a classroom with a huge wall of whiteboard!). It was really cool watching him gradually “get it” and come up with an alternative approach to the problem that was viable. His solution was not ideal, but it was good enough for me to use as an example for the rest of the class. And it got him engaged and talking.

The next day in lecture, he came up with another idea. Again, not the best, but I could see where it came from. So, the idea is up on the board along with the other student ideas. We’ll watch what happens to it as the students continue to work on the problem. Being willing to live with what I see as a mistake is a big step for me! My students aren’t the only ones growing.

This whole teaching thing is fascinating. Trying to crack it is – perhaps – even more interesting than getting to live in Hanoi for a year!

-Mary Gallagher, Vietnam volunteer 2008-2010

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