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 survived
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.
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 vision.