Changing Physics Education in Cambodia: Beyond the Workshop

Last week saw the organisation of a workshop on physics education for teacher trainers in Cambodia at the regional teacher training centre in Kandal province.  All Cambodian physics teacher trainers were present, what makes around 20 people.  The workshop lasted 5 days.   Each day we discussed a different part from the curriculum.  There were days we focused on sound, mechanics, pressure, optics and electricity and magnetism.  The last day participants collaboratively made a lesson plan using materials they’d learned.   There was a strong emphasis on low-cost experiments, but also attention for simulations and animations and student-centred approaches.  

The concept underlying the workshop – and actually the whole programme – is the TPACK concept (Mishra and Koehler,2006; Koehler and Mishra, 2007; Abbitt, 2011), an extension of Shulman’s idea of pedagogical content knowledge.  This is knowledge of pedagogy that is applicable to the teaching of specific content.  TPACK extends this idea with technologies.  The core idea of TPACK is that the use of technologies in education – and in Cambodia analogous technologies such as experiments, posters or cards play a much larger role than digital technologies – should be considered in relation to content and pedagogy.  Just using an experiment or an animation just for the sake of it, without thinking about how it will make your lesson better is not useful. This may seem obvious but many interventions seem to do just this, introducing certain technologies (blogging, wikis…) or pedagogies (concept mapping, learner-centred methodologies…) without detailed consideration of the curriculum content teachers actually have to cover.


The workshop is the result of three years of preparatory work with a wonderful team of teachers and teacher trainers from the college in Kandal.  Since 2008 we’ve worked with them to select materials and activities for those curriculum topics they found most challenging, try them out in their lessons, develop accessible manuals and short experiment videos (See for example this experiment video on toilet rolls and pressure) and learn to facilitate the activities themselves. 

Manuals have been officially approved by the Cambodian Ministry of Education, an important milestone in Cambodia, as it means that they can be distributed and endorsed nation-wide.  Although we do hope that these manuals by themselves are inviting, an official stamp of approval is likely to act as an extra stimulation.  It’s great to see teacher trainers themselves facilitate the workshop without much involvement of us.  Above all, they enjoy it as well to explain all these experiments and activities to their colleagues as well.

The downside of involving all stakeholders is a very long development cycle.  Getting from a first selection of content until the final, approved product has taken us several years.   Having a first edition published sooner would have enabled us to envisage a second edition within the programme lifetime.  

However, our objective is not to organize great workshops, but to improve science teaching.   Whether our workshops will have a strong effect on the ground remains to be seen.  There are quite a few hurdles between a good workshop and improved learning by grade 7-9 pupils.  Teacher trainers may feel insufficiently comfortable with the materials to use them, support from college management may lack, an overloaded curriculum and recalling-based assessment may favour rote learning.  Student teachers may misunderstand techniques, fail to see any benefits or be discouraged by their school environment.

Targeting teacher trainers has been a deliberate decision.  As they teach future teachers the potential impact is very high.  However, the adopted cascading strategy bears the risk of a watering down the content.    Measuring impact is notoriously difficult, perhaps even more so in Asia, where stated preference methods are prone to response and cultural bias.

Despite continuous M&E efforts we don’t have a clear insight yet into the impact of our activities at teacher training level on the pupils.  The main reasons are the fact that measuring impact is time intensive, that an observable impact may take time to manifest and that a clear impact of the programme within the messy complexity of teaching and learning in a crowded donor landscape is hard to distinguish.
Abbitt, J.T. (2011) ‘Measuring Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge in Preservice Teacher Education: A Review of Current Methods and Instruments’, Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 43(4).
Koehler, Matthew J and Mishra, Punya (2005) ‘Teachers learning technology by design’, Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, 21(3), pp. 94–102.
Mishra, Punya and Koehler, Matthew J. (2006) ‘Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A Framework for Teacher Knowledge’, Teachers College Record, 108(6), pp. 1017–1054.

Student-Centred Approaches for Science Teacher Trainers

This week we organize the first in a series of workshops on student-centred approaches for science lecturers and Ministry of Education officials in Cambodia.Integrating student-centred approaches has received support from the Ministry of Education in recent years.  It has been integrated in the revised curriculum for teacher training and teacher trainers are regularly stimulated to move away from rote-learning and adopt a more active approach.Below I include the presentation I gave during the opening session, which provides some background on the concept of student-centred learning as an introduction to the more practical sessions of the workshop.

A main point in the presentation is that student-centred learning is not the same as working in groups. It means that students take more responsibility over their learning.  Some techniques that are introduced in this workshop focus on self-assessment, critical thinking, identifying misconceptions and active reading & writing, all techniques that can be done as individual activities.This workshop is only the first step in a change process.   Curriculum and assessment remain overtly content-oriented.  Follow-up activities are necessary to guide and stimulate teacher trainers, but are time-costly.  School directors, ministry officials and inspectors need to be convinced of the benefits as well, in particular in a hierarchical society as Cambodia.  

Adult Learning and Professional Development in Cambodia

Workshops and trainings are favourite instruments of donor organisations to develop capacity with their target groups.  Also VVOB Cambodia regularly organizes workshops, usually trainings on pedagogy and multimedia geared towards teacher trainers and government staff.  Measuring their success is notoriously hard.
Workshop evaluation sheets are invariably positive, and heavily affected by response and cultural bias.  Response bias means that participants write down what they think you would like them to fill in (‘the facilitator was great’) or what they think would be most beneficially to them  (‘We need more workshops’).  Cultural bias refers to the non-western organisation of Cambodia society.  Hofstede developed a five-dimensional model for describing cultural differences.  There’s a fair amount of critique on Hofstede’s model for over-generalizing individual differences and being based on a non-representative sample of highly-trained corporate workers.  Personally, I find the model useful as an attempt to make cultural differences explicit, and Hofstede’s book on ‘Culture and Organisations’ is on my reading list.

Hofstede’s 5 dimensional model of cultural differences

Berkvens et al. (2012) have made an analysis of Cambodia’s cultural position on Hofstede’s 5 dimensional model.

Briefly, Cambodian culture can be summarized as mainly collectivist with a small in-group and some individualism, extremely large power distance, including strong hierarchy, which people are willing to accept as long the country remains at peace in return, high uncertainty avoidance and a strong short-term orientation. (Berkvens et al, 2012)

The challenge is then to integrate this cultural analysis into the learning design. The article lists some suggestions and I add a few more:

  • need for safe learning environment in which trust is established among participants  and between participants and facilitator.
  • work collaboratively over extended period of time
  • explicit endorsement by people from higher hierarchical level
  • provide time for dialogue
  • create support system that allows for shifts in responsibility
  • discuss objectives and intended learning outcomes at start of workshop
  • determine collaboratively specific targets for follow-up at end of workshop
  • evaluate workshop not only at end of workshop, but also after few months (w/ interviews, survey…)
Guskey’s model for evaluating professional development initiatives

Guskey (2000) has developed a model for measuring the success of professional development initiatives.  It provides a template for evaluating workshops, urging evaluators to look beyond participants’ reactions immediately after the workshop.  I plan to try out the model during upcoming training initiatives in 2012.


Berkvens, J.B.Y., Kalyanpur, M., Kuiper, W. and Van den Akker, J. (2011) ‘Improving adult learning and professional development in a post-conflict area: The case of Cambodia’, International Journal of Educational Development, 32, pp. 241–251.


Thinking positively

In Cambodia VVOB focuses on student-centered approaches in science education in teacher training institutes.  Teacher trainers are guided towards adopting approaches to teaching that involve students, stimulate them to think and engage instead of passively noting down and regurgitating what the teacher declaims.

Some student-centred approaches focus on stimulating students’ writing skills.  Writing and the skills that accompany it (collecting thoughts, filtering, structuring, creativity, conciseness…) are arguably important 21st century skills.  To extend writing in science lessons beyond copying teachers’ notes we introduced techniques such as 3-2-1 sheets, 2-minute papers and creative writing (link to my presentation on these).  These techniques aim at stimulating students to write about what they have learned in their own words.

There may be unintended benefits as well

Interestingly, New Scientist refers to a study from David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon University that revealed that letting students write about what they have learned, stimulating qualities such as creativity and independence, gives them ‘self-affirmation’ that enables them to perform better.  

‘Compared with a control group, students who ‘self-affirmed’ in this way had lower levels of adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones in their urine on exam day.’  (Health Psychology, vol 28, p 554, quoted in New Scientist, 27 August 2011)

Apart from letting students re-interpret what they have learned, these writing exercises may also – if well designed – contribute to improving students’ sense of self-worth.