In 1995, some 20 years ago, a comprehensive study of cultural, linguistic and racial diversity in early childhood education was conducted in Canada (Bernhard, Lefebvre, Chud & Lange, 1995). The study included 199 teachers in the three cities of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, plus many families and 78 faculty from three provinces. The study found that administrators and teachers were positioned as “experts” and transmitted a standard, “one-size-fits-all” model of early childhood education. These “experts” were expected to, and did indeed, transmit a “dominant culture and language to the children and families” (p.67).
It is not difficult to see how this can be problematic. When someone is positioned as an expert, there is invariably someone in the equation who is not an expert. This can reduce the collaboration that one assumes is necessary between teachers, families… and children! It also increases the likelihood of misunderstandings and judgmental attitudes. Adopting a standard model of early childhood education can lead to teachers assessing children based on “North American textbooks and journals” (p.67). Parents and teachers with different cultural frames will inevitably have different goals for their children and dissimilar expectations of each other.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I thus ventured with some anxiety to Phnom Penh in March 2014 with a small team of staff members from Wee Care Singapore. I had been asked to assist in training community teachers from the Care for Cambodia NGO network, many of whom I was later told had travelled from many different provinces to attend the training sessions.
But where can or does one begin to train without assuming the position of an “expert”? It was my heart’s desire to give the local teachers as much of a voice as possible during the sessions. But one constraint became evident within the first few minutes of meeting them. They were so quiet. They had come to listen to me and I was expected to share nuggets of information and knowledge to help them become better teachers. This disequilibrium in the enforced social statuses between us – I was told their culture demands it of teacher and student – seemed insurmountable. I had been told they would respect me, but I sincerely wanted them to respect me less.
We played a few icebreaker games and I launched into sessions about educational philosophies and learning theories. My goal was not to task them with remembering the information but to get them thinking: What does this worldview mean to me, my country, my people, my students? Is it valid? Will it work? Can I use it? In the process, I knew I was pushing the boundaries of taken-for-granted assumptions about teaching and learning. I was also fighting symbolically against memories of their history and the economic and political pressures of their present and future. The world has constructed and positioned Cambodia as a country in need and the Khmer people as people in need. They probably believe this of themselves. In the race for global competitiveness and economic wealth, there can only be a few winners and Cambodia is no where in the front. Moreover, how can a theory be useful at the practical level? Can I, an Other, fully understand what a political ideology has done to this country?
But one must begin somewhere, I reasoned, possibly with naïve courage. Otherwise, there is nothing to say or share. In retrospect, although I was probably not very successful in meeting my overall teaching aims, I yet hope that the teachers took something back with them to their community schools. We role-played teaching and learning Khmer words using different theories – perhaps they will remember with some laughter how bad a student I was! We set up pretend play scenes of a “river” for fishing, a “home”, a “clinic” and “rice fields”. I encouraged them to use everyday materials and whatever they had in hand including paper, cardboard and marker pens.
The story went something like this: One day, a man went fishing and caught lots of fish. He brought the fish home and had dinner with his family. Unfortunately, he fell sick because the river was dirty. His family took him to a clinic where he received treatment. When he recovered, he told his family he did not want to be a fisherman anymore. So, he became a rice farmer!
It was so gratifying to watch the teachers engage with the children in collaborative play. It was obvious that they loved the children. I was told a few times by different Care for Cambodia staff that many of the teachers hold a few jobs so that they can keep going as community teachers. But importantly too, collaboration in play and learning reduces the distance between adult and child, between teacher and learner.
At the debrief session, one of the teachers asked me (I am paraphrasing), “What will the government teachers and people outside think of us and our students if they (the children) have so much freedom in our community schools and classroom?” My answer to this gentleman was probably inadequate, but he had hit the nail on the head. Cultural differences are deep and what I was offering in terms of varying educational perspectives – even the manner in which I was training and engaging with them in the training sessions – may not be so easily accepted.
And certainly, I conclude, at the end of the day, national and cultural change must start from within and only if the space and opportunity is given for change… and if that change is desired. The hope abounds in my heart that these teachers will be the foot soldiers of a quiet, peaceful but persistent revolution in schools in Cambodia. But a revolution of what? Of their goals and aims for the common good, of what they want for themselves and the children of their nation; objectives hopefully that are free of cultural and economic imperialism, however idealistic that may be.
Having a Voice in Creative Thinking and Problem-Solving in Cambodia
The biggest highlight for our team in Phnom Penh was engaging with the children in the Care for Cambodia home. We had asked what would be helpful for the children and had been told that encouraging more creative ways of thinking and some instruction in numbers would be valuable.
We performed Goldilocks and the Three Bears with the few props that we had brought from Singapore. We then divided the children into three groups to rotate across a number of learning stations. At one, we wanted the children to problem-solve: What would I do if I were lost like Goldilocks? At another, we encouraged creative thinking: How else could the story have ended?
At the last station, I had planned to teach about numeric place value – 3, 13, 30, 33, 333, 303, etc. – but found myself without a translator so I had the children match and sort beads along two criteria instead (shape and colour).
The children were active learners! They talked, they thought, they thought and they talked. They enjoyed dramatizing the story of Goldilocks themselves, and I needed to remind them not to be impulsive when matching/sorting. They were like children anywhere! In fact, a few little boys took the plastic plates from the Math activity and used them as frisbees afterwards – now, that’s creative thinking!
It was a happy way of closing our time in Phnom Penh, especially when Yan Jie Lao Shi had gone ahead to buy the children a variety of balls, hoops and weighted feathers the day before at one of the local markets. A week after our return to Singapore, we received photos of the children playing with the equipment. If there is ever a time when children have a voice, when they think creatively and when they problem-solve, it is when they play. So here’s to play – in Cambodia! ☺