How to Teach, and Why

My friend Patrick recently returned from three months in Vietnam, where he helped half a dozen students pass their English finals. It’s a wonderful story, on many levels, and it shows why the rest of the world is catching up to, and surpassing, the United States.

Pat was traveling solo, and solo travelers are easy to approach. Five or six times, he told me, 10-year-old children approached him in Hanoi and asked if he could help them take their final exam in English.

Young scholars in Hanoi. (Courthouse News photo)

Ten-year-old children in Vietnam are expected to be fluent in English. One of his students was in college, perfecting her knowledge. Others, young and adult, approached him on the street just for practice, and keep in touch by email.

For their final exam, 10-year-olds are instructed to approach a tourist and interview him or her in English. The student records the interview and turns in the recording as his or her final. Often, Pat said, the schoolteacher was there, filming the interview.

If the student passes — and it sounds like all of Pat’s did — the teacher sends the video and audio to the student’s parents, so they can be proud of their son or daughter.

Pat’s students keep in touch with him with emails, some of which I have seen. For instance, this one, from an adult:

“Yesss! Happy New Year to you too. I came to my house from Friday to today and we have a small party. But we don’t take picture.

“I like so much for friendship with you. And hope meet you again soon.

“Now, I have a girlfriend. … I will send to her of hello’s you.

“This time, I’m lazy for learning English. … What do you do when you go to USA? I like the Democracy in America.

“Take care! ❤❤❤”

Now, imagine that a public school district anywhere in the United States told its community, and parents, and children, that the kids would all have to learn Spanish by age 10, and prove it by interviewing a Mexican on the street, and recording it, and submitting it as a final exam.

Can you imagine the outrage that would be unleashed? Even in south Texas, where most people speak Spanish anyway?

But imagine what would happen to a well-meaning schlub who suggested such a thing in any of our 50 states.

“You’re going to force my 10-year-old daughter to interview a Mexican? On the streets? In Spanish? Are you out of your mind, or a Communist? Or both?”

Imagine someone running for school board in Iowa or Kansas on such a platform. She’d have to hire armed guards.

But what’s wrong with that idea — excuse me — I mean, that “learning platform”?

(Go ahead, shoot me now, I don’t care.)

Pardon my jocosity. There is nothing funny about this. So far as language skills go, Vietnam’s education system is light years ahead of ours.

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