The project “Teaching English in Laos” has come a long way.
I remember when Prof. Martin told us about her first visit to Laos during my first semester in the winter of 2015/16 in her lecture on foreign-language teaching methodology. She had just started the pilot-project in Laos with Team I and shared impressions and even some curious food with us. Ever since, Laos and the project got stuck in my head. I then got more first-hand information when started to work for her as a tutor in the following semester. Ever since I became more and more involved and attached to the project and the ideas behind it.
It first started out with a visit of AfC to the PH Karlsruhe and then five graduates who were chosen to be part of the first team. The “teach-the-teacher” project expanded quickly. Right now, we are in Team VI, and a lot has happened.
Additionally to supporting the English teachers, the project leaders were asked to include the science teachers in the programme in 2016. Therefore, a new plan was devised, which AfC instantly agreed to sponsor as well. Team IV therefore had the new task of introducing the Science teachers to the project. In the academic year of 20176/17, supporting the English teachers of the Lao-German Technical College was a new challenging task added to the programme.
Now, in Team VI, I was asked to take on the next new task, i.e. working with the mathematics teachers to help develop their lessons, because there was a need and because my other main subject next to English is mathematics. Right now, I am working with the mathematics colleagues Ms Toukham (grade 1), Ms Chanpen (grade 4), Mr Noy (grade 2) as well as the Computer Science teacher Ms Nalee (grade 2). Additionally to the tandem and observation lessons each of them has with me, they now also get English lessons from my co-volunteer Julia.
In the beginning, it was quite difficult to sit and observe a Lao maths lesson without understanding a word of what was said. I could now fully understand what Veronica and Rebecca (Team IV and V) told me about their start with trying to help the science teachers.
After the first week, though, I felt more comfortable and optimistic. Surprised and fascinated by how much I was able to understand only by observing and seeing what happened in the classroom, I gave each teacher individual feedback and examples to show my ideas about how their lessons might develop. (We communicate in English, but when we cannot understand each other we use body language or modern technology to help out.) As the universal language in any maths classroom is mathematics, I could grasp the topic without speaking the Lao language or being able to talk to the pupils.
My feedback is based on what I see during my hospitations and job-shadowing, and the upcoming lessons are based on the book that is used in class. The Lao mathematics books are set by the Ministry of Education and written by the RIES (Reseach Institution of Educational Sciences), under the auspices of the Ministry. These books are mandatory and the only ones to be used at school. Looking at the examples in those books I was positively impressed by how much content and how many nice examples they contain.
A good book is important. How it is used in the lesson, however, is the crucial requirement for good mathematical education. If too much time of a lesson is misspent by pupils copying content either from the book or the board into their exercise book without understanding what they are doing, then the best book will not produce the desired results.
One of the first recommendations I gave to my tandem-teachers was therefore always to consider the question “why?” when they prepare a lesson. In my opinion the teachers’ job is to show the pupils why something is the way it is. This question can be examined by looking at the school book. Theoretically, a pupil has all content in his/her possession with said book. Theoretically, it would be possible to work through it alone and absorb all the knowledge. But what if there are questions or something is not clear by just reading it?
This is when the teacher becomes indispensable. The role of the educator is to guide the pupils and provide them with the essential tools to understand new content. The magic of mathematics unfolds itself in using known facts to prove new ideas. Take a look at geometry for instance. First the pupils learn the basics about a general triangle, and then they can use this knowledge to prove more facts. One example: The pupils learn how to use a compass to find the absolute middle of a line. Once they know how to do this, they can find all of them in all triangle sides. The point where those three lines meet has the same distance to all corners of the triangle and is therefore the middle of the outer circle triangle. In order to wake the pupils’ interest and tickle their inquisitive minds, teachers should make use such spiral teaching techniques, i.e. building, deepening, and then building up on knowledge. This way, mathematics can be a great joy for both pupils and teachers.
This is what I wanted to achieve with my work here: Helping my tandem-teachers to get away from the habit of only referring to the book and the same basic lesson structure of
– teacher writes content from the book on the board while pupils read in the book
– teacher explains the content
– pupils copy the content
I therefore decided to work on this:
– interaction between teacher and pupils (classroom management – rules, how to engage with pupils, how to activate pupils)
– lesson preparation
Interaction between teacher and pupils
During observation time I found that there is not much interaction happening between teacher and pupils. The teacher reads and explains what is written on the board and the pupils answer or repeat, usually loudly in chorus. This goes on for 50 or 90 minutes.
In Germany, teachers complain about full classes with 25 to 30 pupils – here, each class has about 50 pupils. This is very different and also difficult to handle. I usually sit in the back while observing a lesson or sometimes walk through the rows to get a better idea of what the pupils are doing. Some pupils pay attention to the lesson and the teacher – the majority, however, is either talking to their neighbors, sleeping, or doing work for other subjects. In my opinion this happens for two reasons: Firstly, there is a lack of classroom management, and secondly, lessons are teacher-centered and therefore not very interesting for pupils to follow, especially as there is also not much variety between the different subjects.
When I think back to my education in mathematics, a large part of a lesson consisted of a direct teacher-pupil conversation, especially the question: “Why is it like this?” – either initiated by the teacher or a pupil. That was what awoke my love of mathematics and my enthusiasm for it. This is what I want to teach my pupils.
Surprisingly for us Westerners, typical curiosity in children to connect up with is not a big part of the teaching culture in Laos. The pupils are not encouraged and therefore not used to thinking for themselves – let alone critically – about content, but only told to absorb it.
In order to improve the interaction and create a more productive learning scenario during a lesson, I would like to help the teachers to engage in conversation with their pupils. Instead of writing on the board until it is full and then have the pupils copy that content, I advised to do only one example at a time, explain it, answer questions and then give the pupils time to copy it. This way the new content can be thought about and dealt with in a more structured and sizeable way.
I would like to tell you about one noteworthy example that one of my tandem-teachers came up with to improve her lessons regarding classroom management. She asked me what she could do about a pupil who told her that he just does not understand mathematics and has a hard time of it in her lessons. I advised her to get general feedback from the whole class by handing out little pieces of paper to them. This way, the feedback is anonymous and nobody is in danger of losing face – and this is one of the most important values in Laos, which makes it more or less impossible to have an “open and honest conversation” about “problems” – as we Westerners would approach this.
The result was that the pupils did not understand the content because – they wrote – that they talked to each other instead and were distracted.
As a solution in the next lesson, my tandem-teacher handed out the little papers again and told the pupils that if they felt like talking to each other again, they should write the topic down on the paper and save it for recess. The pupils were much quieter in that lesson. I am very proud of my tandem-teacher to have come up with such a great idea and to have followed it up!
About this project, Ms Toukmam says: “The first of all I would like to say thank very much for this project to make other teacher develop us. Last team they’re made me got more knowledge to know the English with my object [and now] the volunteer teacher they make material with me they help me everything with lesson.”
With Mr Noy, one of my other tandem-teachers, we are going to try out flashcards to enforce different rules, as “Be quiet” and “Listen”. With 50 pupils in a room it is very demanding for a teacher’s voice to talk to them loud enough for a period of 90 minutes.1 Other flashcards can also be used to test the pupils’ knowledge and memory skills.
Especially in grades one and two I find it necessary to do a little “wake-up call” in the middle of the lesson to get their attention back. 90 minutes is a long time for anyone to just sit, listen and write, for pupils anywhere in the world. Apart from that, it is hot in Laos. In order to show to the teachers what I mean, I did one or two “waking-up activities” in a maths lesson. Therefore we decided that the teacher would give me a sign during the lesson when (s)he thinks it is time for it and I would do the activity with the pupils. I started a little collection with such activities for the secondary school that I handed out to the teachers.
Here is a little list and sample video of a wake-up call:
- ” […]
- Mexican Wave: Teacher starts a Mexican wave from somewhere in the classroom
- Color touch: Say a color and a body part; pupils have to find a thing in the classroom in that color and touch it with the chosen body part
- Teacher says: […]”
In our “teacher lessons”, we talk about the content and topic of the next lessons. By asking some questions about the examples in the book, I found that sometimes the teachers themselves did not fully understand the topic they were going to teach. So we talk about the content, I explain it to the teachers and encourage them to think about the examples and how to explain it best to the pupils. I also ask them how we could improve some examples from the book. The book is a great basis for lessons, but it should not be the limit – so I want them to use more, and if possible real life examples to make it easier for the pupils to grasp the topic in question.
Just two weeks ago I started to introduce the idea of lesson plans in the individual teacher lessons. This can help the teachers to get a better overview and structure of the lessons coming up. My tandem-teachers had already heard about the concept of lesson plans from the English teachers, but they had not tried to use it themselves yet.
Especially for hands-on topics like geometry it is crucial for the pupils to construct structures – e.g. triangles – themselves. Thanks to the Angels for Children Foundation and a donation by Rebecca from Team V, the school has sets of triangles and compasses that can be used in lessons. There are also the oversize ones to use on the board. However, those items were put in storage and then half-forgotten. Now, all mathematics teachers use those materials in their lessons whenever feasible.
We also have a lot of colored chalk and the teachers are starting to use that more often as well now. I gave them pointers and explained how to use them in a way that makes sense. My tandem-teachers are very motivated to do so and improve their teaching.
Additionally to my work with my tandem-teachers I also started a “Maths Club” twice a week during “Activity Time” for the pupils.
Ms Toukham is generous enough to come with me to translate for the pupils every time. Most of the pupils there are in grade one, which means they are ca. 11 years old. I try to do content that is related to what they deal with in their lessons right now. When I started we did some exercises about scale. We measured some pupils’ heights and converted the measurements so we could draw them in our exercise books.
My favorite lesson so far was when we “travelled through Laos”. I brought a map of Laos for each table on a sheet of A4 paper. We started by talking about what we see on the map. Then I asked the pupils about the little box on the bottom left and what it could mean. They found out that on this map two centimeters stand for 100 kilometers. Afterwards, I asked them where they would want to travel first, starting from Vientiane. The majority voted for Luang Prabang. Then they had to find out how long the direct distance was between those two towns. They had a great time working with the maps – the pupils are not used to having their own working material to use. Together we did all the calculations. Mental calculation is not a strong suit of the pupils to date, as they have a hard time to come up with content by themselves and are also really afraid of failing.
Now we are working with compasses and triangles. I really enjoy working with them. The club is also a little showcase for my tandem-teachers to observe my lessons and see how I teach. Ms Toukham, for example, already uses some of my ideas and taught her class with the Lao map.
On Tuesday, 20 March 2018, I also offered a workshop for the mathematics teachers on how to correctly use the triangle and compass. I created a geometry booklet to work through and my goal is for the teachers to use it in class with their pupils. Ms Nalee helped me to translate all the exercises into Lao so all teachers and pupils can benefit from it.
I could go on and on about all the great moments I have already had in the lessons and all the interactions and the improvements that I can already see, but this is best elaborated in an academic paper at a later stage.
For now, in a nutshell: I thank my tandem-teachers for the trust and motivation they bring with them. Kop chai lai lai!
I can only help them by providing suggestions, advice, and ideas – but they are the ones who do the work and effect the changes!
Let me finish with a quote by the great Albert Einstein. “In [a letter from] 1943 he answered a little girl who had difficulties in school with mathematics. ‘…Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.’ “
Text by F. Stober, I. Martin, with comment by T. Chanthavong
Photos & videos by F. Stober
1 Editor’s note: A university colleague from NUOL informs me a teacher needs to fulfil 3 formal conditions to become a “state teacher“: He or she needs to have a teaching certificate, a loud voice, and cannot be shorter than 1,60 m.