giving blood

Students line up to give blood at registration: campus life outside the classroom

The TOP 100 aspiration is not just about TDTU.

“In November 2013, the Communist Party issued a Resolution on Fundamental and Comprehensive Education Reform that aims to develop education in Viet Nam to become an advanced education system that meets regional and international standards by 2030 with curriculum renovation for the period after 2015 as one specific objective set out to be achieved for general education.”

This Resolution includes higher education.

An “opinionated analysis” in a paper from the Ash Institute (part of Harvard’s Kennedy School, says, “It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the challenges confronting Vietnam in higher education. We believe without urgent and fundamental reform to the higher education system,Vietnam will fail to achieve its enormous potential…. It does not bode well for the future that Vietnamese universities lag far behind even their undistinguished Southeast Asian neighbors” (Vallely and Wilkenson 2008). They list number of patents and number of published papers by Vietnamese universities.  Patents for Vietnam: 0, compared with Republic of Korea, 102,633. Papers in peer-reviewed journals: Vietnam, 96; Seoul National University, 5060.

Vallely and Wilkenson view this as a crisis and recommend a “change in governance.” They suggest the establishment of a new university with new forms of governance “in the DNA.” I do not think that change they had in mind is faculty governance, but never mind. In 2015 a new university did appear in HCMC, the Harvard Fulbright University.

This background, provided for me by a member of the XMCA (Mind, Culture and Activity) discussion list, helps me understand what is motivating the changes at TDTU. This is not something taking place here in isolation. It is part of a national effort to upgrade higher education.

I also note that the paper is from November 2008. That was a big year in both in the US and globally, with the financial crisis ( In Vietnam, it was a year that climaxed the rising wave of wildcat strikes following inflation( One response to the strikes was the attention paid by the ILO to training employers and the union in social dialog; we just showed one of the ILO films this morning, in a class with the Cornell students.

Cornell st and ILO video

Cornell students plus Nghia and Giang watching ILO video

So  a variety of outside observers are looking at Viet Nam, with its booming economy,  7% economic growth rate and frequent wildcat strikes and saying, “This country needs to upgrade and stabilize its institutions, fast.” Higher education and labor relations are just instances of that. I’ll bet that if I looked at the World Bank I’d see some other “systems” that were being targeted for upgrades.

At TDTU, the Labor Relations and Trade Unions faculty was founded around this time in 2009, two years after TDTU became an autonomous public university (a change in governance).  The  partnership agreement that links the three labor universities was signed in 2011. So there have been a lot of efforts to smooth out, sew up and stabilize the institutions that are supposed to keep things moving forward together and working smoothly. One effort is TDTU’s plan to emulate a TOP 100 university by 2037 (the date seems to flex a bit) measured by the QS Star system  (

Which brings me around to the task in front of me and Joe, which was to prepare a paper about teaching methods. Our two short papers on elite education were something I had to get off my chest —  the whole thing about emulating prestigious institutions disappoints me. But then our assignment changed and we’re supposed to talk about what to do in the classroom.

The elephant in the living room is the fact that everything has to be in English, so I put out a question on the Vygotskian discussion list called XMCA (Mind, Culture and Activity) that is based at UC San Diego, California, USA. A lot of people on that list have long experience with teaching in different cultures. I used the numerous responses to shape the article that I will insert below. Apologies for its length, but this is  where the rubber hits the road. I have written enough in previous posts so that you understand the way teaching at TDTU is constrained presently, so I won’t repeat that. Instead, here we go:

What teaching methods could be adopted at TDTU so it would provide an education like the Top 100?

 A few weeks ago, we were asked to produce two short papers on teaching at Top 100 universities based on our experience in the United States. In those papers, we focused on elite institutions, their resources and the market for elite education. We were then asked to focus on good teaching methods, regardless of whether they are found in elite institutions. That request led to this paper.

TDTU is an astonishing young university that has accomplished a lot in a very short time. To walk down the clean, shiny hallways at TDTU, teach in the well-lit classrooms with clean windows and look out at the well-maintained campus is a pleasure. The students love it, too. But like every other university, it struggles with resources. Some of our suggestions – like class size and teacher load, for example – are costly. But we propose them seriously. If TDTU wants to emulate a Top 100 university, the teaching and learning experience is what matters.

TDTU Piano

“Open pianos for use” scattered around the campus

Therefore we begin with physical and material support before talking about course content, the role of the teacher, students and research, the use of writing, tests and exams, and finally, the crucial challenge of teaching and learning in English when teachers and students alike have English as a second or perhaps third language.

The most important idea in this paper is that teaching should become student-centered. TDTU is already very student-centered in its campus life outside the classroom, but since we are talking about academic excellence, we have to talk about what students do in the classroom. How can the classroom, and what takes place in it, become more conducive to learning?

the Autumn Moon festival

TDTU students at the Autumn Moon Festival at Hoc Mon

 Class size, teacher load, other resources

There should be smaller classes: 20-30 students in each class. If a larger class was necessary, there would be teaching assistants or tutors to convene those groups.

Lecturers would teach no more than two-three courses per semester. Students would take no more than five classes per semester.

Teachers should have offices in which they can meet privately with students. There should be easy communication between students and teachers, via phone and email or a well-functioning Learning Management System (LMS). Teachers who are doing research should engage students in that research while it is going on through labs, field work or library work, so that a continuous flow of new knowledge is both produced, learned and taught by the university as a whole.

Books, handouts and other materials should be available at the beginning of the semester. Each student should have books. If physical materials are not available, they can be made available electronically via an LMS.

Course Content

A class does not study just one single book. Three or four would be assigned. Books and articles should represent more than one perspective on the subject in the class. At least one assigned item should contextualize the main subject: what is the history of the main subject in this class? Is this a new or an old discipline? What is its current state? Others should demonstrate the range of the discourse about the subject, including articles that are critical of the way the main reading presents it. The goal is to enable the mature student to enter the discourse and contribute to it.

The teacher encourages an attitude toward assigned readings or other material called critical thinking. The tools of critical thinking are questions. Familiar critical thinking questions are: For whom is this intended? Who produced this? What is its purpose? And: Is it accurate? Is it complete? Is it consistent? Is it good or worthwhile? Students may draw different conclusions from the material and may not agree with what the teacher concludes. Then even the process of critical thinking (on both sides) becomes what is studied critically. Critical thinking is a process of understanding the meaning of something, reflecting on it, analyzing it and drawing conclusions, but never taking it “as scripture,” or unquestioningly.

The outcome of critical thinking is a well-reasoned, complex argument, a theory or a new perspective. Memorization cannot produce this outcome.

 The role of the teacher

The teacher should act more as facilitator rather than an expert. He or she is the person who organizes and structures the learning opportunities for the students. It is the responsibility of the teacher to create that structure. This is not the same as delivering content. Some structures sort students (allow some to succeed and others to fail) and some structures enable the whole class, both weak and strong, to learn together. A structure that only sorts is not a teaching practice, it is really a testing practice. An opportunity structure that really teaches requires a great variety of teaching techniques because students learn in different ways and through different kinds of experiences.

All these learning opportunities involve interaction with students, teachers and course content, and all of these interactions take place using language. The uses of language – reading and writing, listening and speaking – are all actions. When students perform actions, they learn from what they have done. Therefore students have to read, write, listen and speak frequently. The majority of class time is occupied by students using language under the guidance of the teacher.

Examples of things the teacher does to create these learning opportunities:

Get to know the students. Do a questionnaire. Ask them about anything that might affect their performance in school, the background that they might bring to their studies. What languages do their parents speak, what languages do they speak? Do they have a job? Give feedback on what you find. Get on Facebook. Make sure that students meet with the teacher privately in the teacher’s office at least once per semester.

In class, get students to perform by posing problems, comparing efforts to solve problems, developing questions that lead the class discussions, and requiring presentations, reports, or debates. A top student can be put in a “hot seat” to answer the questions of other students.

Get students to interact by pairing them up, forming small groups, organizing group discussions, creating teams, playing games, urging them to meet in study groups outside of class.

Get students to teach each other by pairing up students who have different abilities to read each other’s papers, edit them, ask each other study questions, talk through difficult concepts. Using the concept of “zone of proximal development” (students working closely with a more advanced students), enable students to perform at a level of their potential rather than actual ability.

The teacher conducts the class by setting the pace of the class, guiding the integration of new content into the class, and training the focus of the class on difficult or important issues and concepts. This may be done with short lectures, media presentations, etc. The teacher may model desired student behavior in analyzing course materials. All this activity draws on a foundation of preparation done in advance by students outside of class.

The teacher may assign study questions to be answered in writing about readings or have them write a set of study questions themselves and use them as the basis for discussion in the upcoming class. The purpose of study questions is to push students to think critically about the reading. Students may be asked to write exam questions.

The role of the students

Reading assignments should be completed before class. Students should be expected to be ready to discuss the issues raised by the materials when the class starts. The class does not consist of the teacher repeating what is in a book; the students are already familiar with what is in the books and should have an opinion about what they have read.

Students practice carrying the ideas found in one assignment over to compare or apply them to ideas found in another source. They do the same with material they have learned in other classes, whether general education classes that prepare them for society or major-specific classes that build knowledge toward their specialty. They make analogies across disciplines, perspectives, periods of history, cultures, etc. and test them to see if they have value.

Assuming students have done the assigned reading and preparation, their next job is to question what they are learning. They do not memorize and regurgitate. They test what they are learning by talking about it in the classroom. If they have prepared properly, they are not afraid of making a mistake since the whole class is engaged in a process of building knowledge and mistakes are part of clarification. Students should be able and encouraged to challenge the view of the teacher without repercussions.

Just for fun: A teaching method

Let the teacher pose a really hard question to the class, a question that can be debated and answered multiple ways. The first speaker volunteers to come to the front of the room and responds. Teacher, to the class: “Can anyone add anything?” The next student also comes to the front of the room and adds something, maybe a dissenting view or a problematic implication. Anyone else? A third person steps up. A really good “hard question” will require 10 or 11 people to come and respond before all views on the topic have been contributed. No one can speak twice until everyone who wants to has had the opportunity to speak.

This is a good way to get all the knowledge in the class out into the conversation. When the class cannot bring any more points up, the teacher knows how much the class knows about something. That can be good or bad.

A weakness of this game is that only the high-status students will volunteer and will talk too much. The teacher can avoid this by putting a time limit on each speech (or saying that a speaker can only use one sentence) and by choosing speakers by tossing a soft ball into the class and letting the person who catches it speak.

The role of research

Research is the creation of knowledge and should be a part of every teacher’s practice. When a whole university is engaged in self-transformation, research into that process itself is of great interest to the rest of the world of higher education. Therefore one type of research would be a coordinated self-study by the faculty about how this transformation is taking place. This research would be called “participant action research” and is highly “publishable.” But every other discipline has its own history and its own new horizons. Teachers should have release time to perform research, either individually on topics of their choice, or in groups or teams formed within their faculties. “Visiting experts” should not be doing research in isolation, separate from the university faculties. A good role for visiting experts or highly-rated researchers would be to coach a team of young researchers toward doing cutting-edge work. Students should always be a part of whatever research a faculty is doing.

The use of writing

 In order for a teacher to know if the student understands something, the student has to say what they understand. But in class, only one person can speak at a time (except in a choral response situation, which has its uses). Therefore most of the assessment of student learning takes place through writing.

In the Humanities and Social Sciences, we give short assignments. Students may answer study questions, write a journal that reports the progress of their understanding or produce a portfolio of key subject-matter related documents at the end of the class, among other things.

Again in the Humanities, longer assignments will be papers or the final exam. A 15-week class will have at least 3 short (5-10 page) and 1(over 20-page) papers. These papers will reflect extended reasoning. The kinds of arguments that a student will need to be able to produce in professional life after university are long and draw from multiple sources. Students need to practice writing long form arguments, meaning arguments that gather information from a variety of sources, sort it, critique it, place it in other contexts and draw conclusions. In order to write extended arguments, they need to have practiced reading them and critiquing them.

Science and Technology programs have their own classic forms of writing that differ in length and the use of symbols. The use of writing to make an extended thought process permanent and visible for the purpose of sharing is equally key in those fields. Vocational fields would write about cases and problems.

Of course, many students these days copy written papers from the internet and do not understand how serious plagiarism is. Assigning a question that requires a complex response is one way to prevent this. Also, if a class is small enough so that the teacher understands the mind of each student, a teacher will be able to quickly identify a paper that was written by someone else.

Tests and exams

The overall purpose of a test or exam is to let the teacher find out if the students are learning what she or he thinks they are teaching. The teacher will then adjust their teaching to accomplish the goal better. This means that the teacher must write and grade the exam.

A test that does not also serve a teaching purpose should not be given. A test can be given a teaching purpose by asking questions that make students think about what they have learned in a new and different way. They might apply a core concept in a new context, or put several readings together and compare them, or relate something they have learned in class to their own personal experience.

Exams are often extended essay responses to complex question. in teh Humanities,“extended” may mean 30 double-space typed pages. It also means a complex multi-part rhetorical structure. These would be take-home exams.

A pop quiz that enables the teacher to learn if the class has understood an assignment should not occupy much class time. A pop quiz can be answered with a choral response.

Because speaking and writing are harder than listening and reading, active teaching methods that involve lots of student participation are a challenge for students speaking a foreign language. Active teaching requires students to do what is hardest for them. However, participation – “expressive competence” – is more important than correctness. Students and teachers must adapt to accepting contributions that have meaning, even if they are not expressed correctly.

This leads us to the next topic: teaching in English.

Teaching in English: Some suggestions for transitional practices

Ton Duc Thang is attempting to become a university where the language of instruction is English. Current research in the US about teaching and learning for students whose first language is not English is that they learn best when they learn in both their native language and English at the same time. Not only do people need the subtlety of a native language to grasp complex concepts, but negative emotions created by forbidding speech in a native language may hamper a person’s ability to carry on extended thought processes.

Therefore, here are some possible strategies for designing instruction for non-native English speaking students when they are being taught by non-native English speaking faculty. These could be seen as transitional activities that will “scaffold” the students and faculty as they become more adept at English. These suggestions came from academics around the world who belong to XMCA.

The teachers at TDTU who teach English as their job should be used as a university-wide consulting team to advise on adopting any of these strategies or others.

The “formal” part of teaching such as lectures and textbooks could be presented in English. Since these can be prepared in advance and read, studied and revised, handed out or even presented more than once, there is less risk of losing students or creating misapprehensions because of language problems. Then the “informal” or tutorial part of teaching could be in a combination of English and Vietnamese in order to make sure that students grasp concepts that do not have a one-to-one match or meaning across languages.

A class could be conducted with one teacher speaking English and one speaking Vietnamese. Apparently this has been done at Stanford.

A Shizuoka University in Japan one colleague teaches in English while an advanced upperclassman student participates with her, also in English, in the front of the class. The assistant asks clarifying questions, suggests examples, etc. Students in the class who can keep up will be able to engage and process what is going on directly. Others will use the co-teacher as a mediator. This is also a very good situation for the advanced student to learn from.

One colleague from South Africa suggests that given TDTU’s 20-year goal, the shift to English instruction could be done in 5-year chunks, with a review of progress each five years. This could be part of a university-side research project. Part of the first stage would be making sure that teachers and students had a good grasp of academic Vietnamese. Each faculty could create a dictionary unit that would present the terminology of that discipline (“terms of art”) in Vietnamese and English.

Informally, at the same time, there would be tutorial sessions (small groups with a tutor) that would always start off a topic in Vietnamese and then move to a review of the session in English. At least for the first decade of the transition, students should be free to code-switch.

Universities all over the world are hastening to become part of the English-speaking academic community. This is a necessary survival strategy. Success will bring Vietnamese students and teachers into communication with their colleagues around this world. However, there are examples of failure as well as success, and instances where plans have had to be dropped and expectations changed to fit reality. The surest way to move forward without risking making a mistake is to make sure that teachers have the support and opportunities to do their job right.


The changes suggested in this paper would be costly and difficult and would require a less top-down, more teacher-centered support and governance approach to managing the university. This is indeed a change in governance. In addition, the working conditions that are conducive to good teaching can be negotiated through a collective bargaining agreement which would spread a commitment to the change throughout the teaching faculty. As a union-sponsored university, TDTU could be an exemplar in a negotiating a contract that established good working conditions for teachers.This would also make TDTU as truly student-centered  in the classroom as it is in campus life, and would have the effect of providing a real TOP 100 education for our students.



Andy Blunden, University of Melbourne, AU (retired)

Bella Kotik-Friedbut, Hadassah University, Jerusalem

Hans Lambrecht, Belgian Development Agency, Hanoi

Le Pham Hoai Huong, M.S.

Bosco Li and Anna On Na Shum, The University of Hong Kong

Carol A  Macdonald PhD, Department of Linguistics, Unisa (Pretoria, SA)

Diane Potts, University of Lancaster, UK

Asmalina Saleh, on Hongkong, Thiland, Maylasia and Singapore experience in bilingual education

Elinami Swai, Open University of Tanzania, on the attempt to transition to English from primary to university levels

Valerie A. Wilkinson, Shizuoka University, Japan


Vallely, T. J. and Wilkinson, B. 2008. Vietnamese Higher Education: Crisis and Response . 79 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138: ASH institute


Tiger economy

And finally, a snapshot of current plan at TDTU:

In order to become the equal of any of the top 100 universities in the world: identify them based on various ranking  lists, go on line to see what they teach, copy the syllabi as much as possible, and buy one book in English for each class and build sets of power points to “teach the book” through. This is how the new curriculum that will will start in October is being created. It  is intended to draw international students from around Southeast Asia, whose common language is English.

One aspect of this, part of the worldview that includes it, is respect for the authority of the text. Find the text, teach the text.

This respect for the text infuses the culture of exams, too.  We are trying to write the midterm exams right now. We have to write two versions “in case something happens.” This exam is worth 20 percent of the final grade. The rest of the grade comes from a 70 percent final exam (one hour) and a 10 percent exam. We have to write out the answers to each question, because we won’t be grading the exams ourselves. They will be graded anonymously by someone else. Also, all the answers have to be in the handouts (I guess if the students had the book, they could be in the book.) That means that if it isn’t in the handout, it can’t be on the exam. So it’s all regurgitation. No asking students to combine or compare things and do some analysis. No questions that ask, “What do you think about such-and-such?”

The test is supposed to produce grades that form a bell curve a little to the right of the middle. “5” out of “10” is passing.

Doing an exam this way does constitute a sort of quality control measure. There won’t be any cheating, I guess – at least not in the sense of a teacher giving a favorite student (or a paying student) a better grade. So it’s a guard against corruption. That apparently has been a problem, going way back in history to the mandarins in Confucian Viet Nam.

Another thing in its favor is that this exam method completely dis-associates learning from testing. If the tests don’t measure learning, then learning is not what is being tested. Testing measures something else.  I’m not sure what, but it’s not learning. So learning can go on undisturbed by these testing events. Like your annual doctor’s visit that is completely separate from living a healthy life. So it’s really my mistake, to think that the learning of these students is what gets measured by these tests. No wonder I keep getting the feeling that the kids are way ahead of the system – smarter, more conscious.

Actually, what I think the test measures is the teacher’s ability to write a test that will produce the hump in the chart that peaks out at “7.” So it’s the teacher’s ability to guess where the class is.



We actually gave this material as a talk to the lecturers at TDTU. We were supposed to do it in 15 minutes, but I went over. They seemed very interested and the event actually produced some follow-up discussion which was, however, in Vietnamese so I didn’t understand what was being said. But the sight of some real back-and-forth and even joking was an eye-opener, because mostly, discussion does not happen. Here we are posing with many of the lecturers after the talk.

Lecturers at Jn26