Introduction and overview
What started in October 2015 as a pilot project between the Angels for Children Foundation and Prof. Dr. Martin of the University of Education Karlsruhe (Pädagogische Hochschule Karlsruhe [“PH”]) quickly developed into an institutionalized Lao-German teacher-training programme on a medium-term basis. Following the availability of the graduates and students of the PH, two team phases were set up per academic year: Teams I, III, V, etc. would stay in Laos for one semester, between September and January/February, immediately followed by their successor teams II, IV, and VI, who would stay until April. One volunteer from the winter team would stay on a week or two to help the new spring team find their feet both in Laos and the project, and one or both of the project leaders would come to visit them shortly after to deal with any remaining organizational hitches, open questions, or unexpected difficulties. This way – and because of their intensive preparation at home – the new teams would not start from scratch each time, but would be able to build upon the work of the preceding team more or less immediately.
Our graduates need to be back in Germany for the beginning of February because this is when their 18-month traineeship period begins at their schools, and our university students need to be back for their summer semester by mid-April. In Lao schools, an intensive exam phase begins in May – before the 3-month break during the rainy season – so this arrangement has worked very well for both sides.
The first two batches of these teams – Team I from October 2015 to January 2016 and Team II from February to March 2016 – did pioneering work implementing and testing the four-tier cascading teaching structure designed by Prof. Martin. They attended several preparatory workshops, received guidance and supervision before and during their time in Laos, and used the project leaders’ weekly feedback given by email to their weekly reports.1 By reflecting their observations and experiences in their final reports, and by discussing the outcomes and challenges of the pilot phase with the project leaders in the half-day “Closing Conference“, Team I and II made substantial contributions towards the design of the next – now medium-term – project framework.
The design and scope of the most essential elements and structures of the programme were set and adjusted during this time:
- daily English lessons for the Lao teachers of English (and other subjects);
- model- and tandem-teaching in the two tandem-partners’ classes, with feedback and suggestions;
- workshops for all teachers on specific methodological topics;
- “English Activities” for the pupils in the afternoon;
- playful English lessons for the pre-schoolers (“Mopsies”);
- responsibility for a “Special Task” (housekeeper, blog master, librarian, media manager, Didactics Room manager, chemistry lab manager, etc.);
- academic blog posts for documentation, reflection, professionalization, dissemination;
- weekly reports (consecutive documentation);
- final report (reflection, dissemination);
- information session for future volunteers at the PH;
- Closing Conference.
In the 4-month pilot phase, the project leaders visited the volunteers three times so as to be able to follow the development first-hand and help resolve the many issues and puzzling questions that kept appearing, and also to liaise and cooperate with the local authorities in education.
For these reasons, the next team – Team III from September 2016 to February 2017 – worked in a much more settled framework and environment in the second project year. For starters, they were the first to move into the very comfortable villa, which made daily life a lot easier for both them and Madame Engel and Ms Bouangeun Hanthavong. The spacious living-room with its cozy sofas also allowed the team to consult one another and prepare lessons together quietly in the evenings, which was regarded as most valuable.2
This team also accomplished pioneer work. Due to the project’s open and flexible design, new fields of work and commitment were identified. Team III was asked by the project leaders to
- integrate the “Non-English” teachers at the Lower Secondary School in Ban Phang Heng into the programme because they had asked to be included,
- to extend the “Lending Library” by the new material bought/donated in Germany in the meantime,
- and out of their own initiative they installed new “English Activities” for the pupils and
- designed and organized a Didactics Room, modelled on the Didactics Room at the University of Education Karlsruhe.
Another big achievement and comprehensive pioneering task was to integrate the Lao-German Technical College as a new cooperation partner – besides the three schools supported by Angels for Children – into the programme framework. With an enlarged team of seven volunteers at the original schools, two volunteers at the Lao-German Technical College, and two (self-funded) volunteers at the private Sunshine School in Vientiane, the impact and scope of the project work increased.
It was Team III that first organized a seamless transition from one team to another on site. As Ms Silja Schaefer and Ms Anika Broghammer planned to stay longer than Team I did in the previous year, they could pass on all their experience and knowledge to Team IV in Laos. Although such a smooth transition was not possible at the Lao-German Technical College, the three volunteers who continued the work of their two predecessors helped to settle and adjust the programme framework at this College, as had been done one year before in the three state schools which are supported by the Angels for Children foundation.
Lessons learnt #1 – adjusting and fostering the project during the third team phase (Team III September 2016 – February 2017)
When continuing the work of their predecessors, the volunteers in the three schools quickly developed a close relationship with their Lao tandem-partners, two each. This special relationship, which begins professionally on a mutual (!) learner/teacher level and then develops personally into friendship – plays a vital role for the success of the teacher-training programme. Joint exchanges of expertise and knowledge not only enables both teacher groups to improve their foreign language skills and teaching methodology, it also enables an ongoing intercultural exchange between the participants, who are roughly the same age and have interests in common. This process is held and supported by the clear programme formats, e.g. the English “teacher lessons”, the didactic and methodological “tandem-teacher” lessons, or the model “English Activities”, which showcase communicative L2-teaching to pupils. This framework helps to create a common basis of learning, understanding, and teaching.
Due to our experiences in the first project year, new materials and textbooks were ordered which would fit the needs of Lao learners and the requirements of Lao classroom situations better, and which were then introduced by Team III. Researching, finding, testing, adjusting, and improving teaching materials was one of the more time-consuming tasks for the project leaders. For this purpose, close contact was made with several Lao governmental institutions of education, mainly the Research Institute for Educational Sciences (RIES). When the practical cooperation started in November 2016, Ms Anika Broghammer and Mr David Schrep were invited to present some ideas regarding the methodological enhancement of Lao English teaching materials to staff members of the RIES, thereby sharing experiences they had made while working closely with their Lao English tandem-teachers and their pupils. In the course of this developing cooperation, the RIES requested support for the recording of the English CDs for class 1 and 2 for Lao lower secondary schools, and we were happy to oblige. A new and important milestone was reached thanks to this cooperation. Teacher-training, teaching materials, and the curriculum need to be developed together as a foundation for sustainable long-term changes.
Raising the interest in and the motivation for learning the English language amongst the group of Lao pupils is one of the main goals to be reached in this project. By developing the Lao English teachers’ lessons both linguistically and methodologically, their pupils will benefit and start to be willing to learn to speak English, too, rather than just copying English words from the blackboard into their notebooks. In the afternoons, the wide-ranging “English Activities” offered by the German volunteer teachers further supported this newly emerging motivation. To this end, a new “club” was established at the Lower Secondary school in Ban Phang Heng, the English Conversation Club . On the pre-school level, the offer of “Mopsy Activities” was enlarged so that more groups of 10-15 pre-school pupils could start to make first contact with the English language – with a foreigner and his English-speaking puppet “Mopsy”.
Next, newly developed and improved infrastructure was to enable the regular conduct of better lesson preparation and lesson planning for the Lao English teachers. In the Lower Secondary school Ban Phang Heng, a new Didactics Room was set up, and the Lending Libraries were extended. Several workshops supported these measures.
In the Team III phase, another comprehensive pioneer task was tackled as well. After having done intensive work behind the scenes in the pilot phase, the project leaders received a request from the Lao-German Technical College (LGTC) as early as February 2016 to support English education also in the vocational training sector. Prof. Martin went along to assess 53 teachers in short interviews to gauge the levels in the spring, and then the first two project volunteers chosen for the LGTC – Ms Denise Burkhardt and Ms Lena Wink – set up regular English courses for teachers and trainers of the school in the autumn. They also joined the LGTC English teachers’ English lessons and tandem-worked on methodology, following the project framework developed in Ban Sikeud and Ban Phang Heng. Likewise, by offering “English Activities” in the afternoons, they were also in close contact with the apprentices/students at that school.
This vocational sector opened up whole new world of work both for the volunteers and the project leaders. It turned out to become a most interesting and diverse environment of learning, teaching, and intercultural progress. As a visible token of their work together, the volunteers, their tandem-teachers, and some of the apprentices submitted a short movie to the 2017 Vientianale Film festival, which showed their project work and goals by telling a compelling story: “Don’t miss your chance”.
The biggest honour and crowning events during the Team III phase were two high-ranking political visits.
The German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Dr. Gerd Mueller, visited the foundation and BHS Corrugated in Germany in October 2016, and in January 2017 the Lao Minister for Education and Sports, Mrs Sengdeuane Lachanthaboune, visited the schools in Ban Sikeud and Ban Phang Heng. Both visits and meetings aimed to foster a closer cooperation between the project and governmental bodies in both countries. Improving English education in Laos not only enhances the children’s ability to speak English, of course, but, in the larger picture, also helps towards the economic and cultural integration of Laos in the ASEAN region – a major goal of Lao PDR and a major pillar of German aid to Laos.
We were also honoured by the visit of Ms Angela Bauer-Seekings, Head of “ELT Germany, Austria, Switzerland” at Pearson Deutschland GmhB, who came to see our work at the schools and at the LGTC. Ms Bauer-Seekings stayed with us for several days to job-shadow the tandems and learn about the teaching of English in Laos. She held a workshop for the English primary teachers herself towards the end of her stay, “Jump into Action!”, in which both the German and Lao teams – and the Director of the school! – had tremendous fun and learnt a large number of new language games and activities. Prof. Martin also invited her along to get to know the English Departments of the National University of Laos and the Vocational College in Vientiane.
Pearson Education is the largest publisher of English teaching materials in the world and has supported our project with any teaching materials that we wanted to try out ever since we started. Prof. Martin had initially written to all major publishers in the field of ELT to ask for sample teaching material, received several donations, and then different teams tested different textbooks. The cooperation with Pearson has since developed into the most fruitful and effective one, thanks to Ms Bauer-Seeking’s unfailing support and the excellent teaching materials we keep discovering.
Lessons learnt #2 – extending pioneer work and achieving closer insights (Team IV February – April 2017)
Despite the seamless transition from Team III to Team IV, a lot of work lay ahead still in terms of organization and the realization and taking-over of new responsibilities. Especially the pioneering territory of the LGTC presented the three new volunteers with great challenges. Due to changes in the college management, parts of the programme were affected: It meant an undesirable reduction of lessons and contact-time, as many teachers of the LGTC had to take over a number of new, other obligations in the spring of 2017. For the project leaders, this was another instalment of one of the more regular intercultural lessons about Asian communication culture: Changes are not always announced or addressed in time, and they are not always passed on to the partners who would need the information to plan their own work. Nevertheless, Ms Amelie Reiling, Ms Christian Morlock, and Ms Stephanie Schulz were able to find ways to continue the work of their predecessors. New situations require new structures and frameworks, and the intercultural lessons learnt on both sides were taken seriously for our future cooperation.
Significant progress was also made in the support of the natural science teachers and their lessons at the Lower Secondary school in Ban Phang Heng at the same time. Ms Rebecca Dengler and Ms Veronika Golla set up Science Activities for the pupils in the new science laboratory, which turned out to be a huge success, motivating the pupils to study the natural sciences chemistry, physics, and biology in the afternoons, after the regular classes. The pioneer work of Team III was thus extended and gradually took root. Of course, not only the pupils benefitted from this, but the main target group of the project – the teachers – did, first and foremost, and in this case it was the natural sciences teachers for the first time. Interest in improving their teaching skills in their science subject led to an interest in developing their English speaking skills to begin with – in order to have or even start (!) some sort of communication with the volunteers. This happened to quickly that both volunteers visited their tandems’ science lessons (held in Lao!) in order to try and understand what went on – or needed to go on – in those classes, and then they eventually applied to become part of the following team as well, to make sure this promising process would take root.
Due to the rising interest of the pupils to have more intercultural exchanges and contact with the German teachers and therefore the English language, the ABC Club and the English Games Club were established. As these are purely voluntary clubs, it shows the fast progress the project made also on the small-scale level. Due to the diverse and entertaining offers the volunteers of Team IV made to the pupils every afternoon from 3 to 4 p.m., their interest in learning new skills was fostered and never disappointed.
Triggering and then maintaining motivation works by making learning fun and involving the learners.The pupils of the three schools can now easily improve their English skills by engaging with their foreign English teachers, and they can also broaden their knowledge in the natural sciences and conduct experiements themselves. They permanently get in touch with new concepts and perspectives on learning and eventually develop more self-confidence when it comes to finally answer a question in English all by themselves.
In their regular classes, Lao pupils are confronted with instructivist “chalk-and-talk” teaching, which means the teacher copies contents from the coursebook onto the blackboard and then the pupils copy that into their notebooks. This is done in every lesson and in every school year. This is of course one feasible way of teaching and produces certain outcomes.3 With their tandem-partners, our volunteers, however, strive to explore faster, more effective, and more entertaining ways to encourage the young Lao learners to develop their talents. The pupils’ interest in the diverse afternoon activities seems to indicate that – once discovered – there is a need.
Continuing the workshop formats for Lao teachers (which were started by the previous teams) made progress possible in another area of learning – the learning progress of both the Lao and the German teachers. Besides the weekly reports of the volunteers’ work sent to the project leaders, the workshops brought more insights into the mutual learning processes on both sides.
A completely new way of presenting the project was also developed during the Team IV phase, but this was actually ongoing work also before and after the time spent in Laos: Pageflow (“Live documentation”). Pageflow is a tool which allows multimedia storytelling; videos, photos, audio files and text can be embedded in one page. Users can scroll and click through these files and get a more interactive insight into the project. The new pages were installed by Ms Veronika Golla, developed by Veronika and her work partner Rebecca, while all Team IV members contributed to the tool. This way our readers and viewers can get a more immediate impression of our school life, but also leisure time and the country Laos in general.
Conclusions – and new plans for the next project year
At the end of the second project year conducted with the support of Team III and Team IV, many programme features are more or less settled now, or approaching that state. New elements were tried out, new experiences were made, and new elements were incorporated in the programme framework all along. Through countless hours of work and thought and talk, the “terra incognita” Laos had become a more navigable environment for the course leaders, who were thus able to pave the way for further planning, development, and the preparation of Team V and VI.
By finishing each team phase with a half-day “Closing Conference” at the University of Education Karlsruhe, a continuous and comprehensive assessment and evaluation of each phase was possible. Many new and diverse posts were written by both teams in the second project year, many workshops were conducted, many teacher-lessons were held, many tandem-teacher lessons, too, and many English Activities offered to the pupils and students – not to speak of the manifold private activities and events shared by the German and Lao teams.
In some notorious cases we wished for less volatile timetables and more reliable working conditions, but developing the project together does not only mean working on teaching methodology, material, and the curriculum, but also very generally on the circumstances – which are sometimes not easy for any of us at all. Nevertheless we are not deterred from our goals, continue our work and build up on the project’s success so far, always bearing in mind all the many wonderful past developments…
… which you can do, too, dear reader, by continuing to read the extensive documentation on this blog. There are many new plans and developments to share with you next!
Text by J. Zeck & I. Martin
Photos by Team III & Team IV
1 A new page on this blog featuring a representative selection of those reports is in preparation.
2 Working better or longer hours in an agreeable place with comfortable furniture, good lighting, absence of noise, and easy access to a kitchen and air-conditioning is clearly a Western condition.
3 In some subjects, the level can be surprisingly high (by Western standards), e.g. in the math book for secondary school, while it remains unclear (to us) how much of this the pupils actually really understand. In others, the children appear to be in an artificial coma most of the time.