National Elections Shake Cambodia

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picture courtesy Jacek Piwowarczyk

On July 28 parliamentary elections took place in Cambodia with 123 assembly seats up for grabs. Since the first, post-Khmer Rouge, UN-supervised elections in 1993, the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) has steadily increased its grip on the country, securing a sound 90 seats and 2/3 majority in the previous elections in 2008, allowing it to form a government and make constitutional amendments without interference from the opposition. The CPP’s self-proclaimed strongman, Hun Sen, has been prime minister for 28 years.

This time, things did not go completely as planned.  The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), galvanized by the return – under international pressure – from leader Sam Rainsy from self-imposed exile in France, obtained 55 seats (+23) according to preliminary results.  Despite the fact that the CPP maintains a handsome majority in the National Assemby (68 seats on 120) there is little reason for cheering at the CPP headquarters.  First, the CNRP obtained the majority in the capital Phnom Penh, and populous provinces such as Kampong Cham and Kandal.  Due to limited resources, the CNRP didn’t campaign in some of the more remote provinces. Significantly, the opposition drew most support from the young and urban population. Cambodia has a very young population with a bulge between 20 and 29 years (see graph). Urbanisation has been fast in recent years, driven by growing export-oriented industry such as garment factories. The rise of social media, notably Facebook, seems to have been another help to the opposition, undermining the CPP’s dominance of the traditional media.  Movies of supposedly indelible ink being washed off made rounds and stories of people unable to find their names in voter records quickly surfaced.  The young seem less impressed by the traditional CPP recipe focusing on stability, economic growth and infrastructure.  The CNRP has done well on pounding on the widespread land grabs, rising inequality and pervasive corruption.

For now, the CNRP has rejected the result, claiming that widespread fraud has distorted and possibly reversed the result. It calls for an independent commission to investigate the results.  Prime Minister Hun Sen has not yet formally commented on the result. The situation on the street is tense. The coming days may see mass demonstrations with risk on clashes and violence.  Access to the area around the prime minister’s residence is blocked by armed forces. The opposition’s vitriolic anti-Vietnamese discourse raises concerns and fear with the numerous Vietnamese in Cambodia.  People have started hoarding gasoline and instant noodles. Traffic is unusually calm and many shops are still closed.

The key seems to lie with the CPP’s reaction the coming days. They may remain calm and try weakening the opposition by contacting individual members of the opposition.  However, they may also face an internal power struggle. Optimists hope the weakened CPP will feel the urge to reform and make concessions to the opposition. Anyway, Cambodia’s political landscape seems to have waken up, which is arguably a good thing.  Good additional coverage on the elections’ aftermath from Sebastian Strangio (Asia Times) and The Economist.

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Too Hard To Measure: On the Value of Experiments and the Difficulty to Measure Lesson Quality

Interesting article in The Guardian (from some time ago, I’m a slow reader) about the overblown importance attributed to doing experiments during science lessons.

The article reminds me of my experience in Cambodia, where experiments are also frequently espoused as proof of a student-centred lesson.  In reality experiments in Cambodian classrooms are often a very teacher-centred activity:

  • the teacher demonstrates and students (at best) trying to observe what happens.
  • students do the experiment in large groups, by adhering to a strict series of steps outlined in a worksheet.
  • students work in large groups, in which usually only one or two students do the work, The others are merely bystanders.
  • the procedure, observations and interpretation of the experiment are laid down in detail beforehand.

The article touches upon two interesting elements.  First, there is the questionable educational value of many experiments in science classes.  secondly, there is the challenge to measure lesson quality beyond ‘ticking off’ the occurrence of activities such as experiments.

The article refers to ‘The Fallacy of Induction‘ from Rosalind Driver.  Her book ‘Making Sense of Secondary Science’ is an excellent book on misconceptions in science education and has been an important inspiration for me.  

“Driver doesn’t dismiss practical work in science, but argues that ‘Many pupils do not know the purpose of practical activity, thinking that they ‘do experiments’ in school to see if something works, rather than to reflect on how a theory can explain observations.” (Driver et al, 1993, p.7).

She raises two main arguments.  First, practical activities are often presented to students as a simulation of ‘how science really works’, collecting data, making observations, drawing inferences and arriving at a conclusion which is the accepted explanation.  It’s simplistic, and pupils happily play along, following the ‘recipe’ in the ‘cookbook’, checking whether they have ‘the right answer’.  In 

reality, science rarely works this way:

“For a long time philosophers of science and scientists themselves have recognised the limitations of the inductive position and have acknowledged the important role that imagination plays in the construction of scientific theories.” (Driver, 1994, p.43)

The second argument is that pupils don’t arrive in class with a blank slate, but with a whole range of self-constructed interpretations or ‘theories’ on how natural phenomena work. These ‘preconceptions’ require more than an experiment to change, as children tend to fit observations within their own ‘theoretical framework’.

Observations are not longer seen as objective but influenced by the theoretical perspective of the observer. ‘As Popper said, ‘we are prisoners caught in the framework of our theories.’ This too has implications for school science, for children, too, can be imprisoned in this way by their preconceptions, observing the world throught their own particular ‘conceptual spectacles.’ (Driver, 1994, p.44)

“Misconceptions can be changed if they are made explicit, discussed and challenged with contradicting evidence.  After this ‘unlearning’ phase, children may adopt a different framework.  Driver concludes: ‘Experience by itself is not enough. It is the sense that students make of it that matters” (Driver et al, 1993, p.7).  

Discussion activities, in which pupils have the opportunity to make their reasoning explicit and to engage with and try out alternative viewpoints, including the ‘scientific one’, need to be central (cognitive conflict). Practical activities can be complementary to these discussions, instead of the other way around, when discussion and conclusion are quickly reeled off at the end of the practicum.

 

Measuring lesson quality

However, the love for experiments while neglecting the question whether and what students are actually learning also touches upon the difficulty to measure adequately lesson quality.  Limited time and resources result in a focus on outward and visible signs. However, these:

  • deny the complexity of teaching and learning;
  • deny the individuality of students’ learning and understanding;
  • steers teachers and programme staff towards focusing on these outward signs, as they know they will be evaluated on these criteria. 

Collecting valid and reliable data on lesson quality is hard.  Self-assessment instruments are notoriously prone to confirmation bias. Lesson observations don’t give a reliable everyday picture of lesson practice.  They suffer from the fact that teachers pull out special lessons when visitors appear for announced (or unannounced) visits.   Conversely, as Cuban describes beautifully, other teachers tremble and panic when an evaluator walks into their classroom and the lesson becomes a shambles.

Evidence-based evaluation is often touted as the way forward for development projects.  Randomized trials in health have been useful to collect a body of knowledge on what works and what not. In a randomized trial a group of students where teachers received pedagogical training is compared with a group of students where teachers didn’t receive training.  Comparisons can be made with test scores, student satisfaction or drop-outs.


However, test scores are unsuitable as exams are notoriously prone to cheating and questions focus on recollecting factual knowledge, the opposite of what we want to achieve.  A self-designed test could be a solution, but there’s the risk that programme activities will focus more on the test than on improving teaching skills.  Student satisfaction scores are prone to the aforementioned confirmation bias.  Drop-outs are hard to use as they are influenced by many interrelated factors such as geography, economic growth and government policy.


Ownership by the direct target group on the evaluation is part of the solution in my opinion, as well as using a variety of data sources.  In future blog posts I plan to write more on how we try to measure lesson quality.


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For more detail see this available study from Prof. James Dillon (pdf) on the value of practical work in science education.
Dri­ver, R. (1994) ‘The fal­lacy of induc­tion in sci­ence teach­ing’, in Teach­ing Sci­ence, ed. Levin­son, R., Lon­don, Rout­ledge, pp.41–48.

Driver, R., Squires, A., Rushworth, P. and Wood-Robinson, V. (1993) Making Sense of Secondary Science, Routledge.

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.
References
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.