NGO Class Focuses on Rarely Asked Questions

What are our goals in life, and for our society? And are we reaching those goals, or are we moving backward?

Important questions, though they are ones that many of us rarely ask ourselves. And they are ones that the Cambodian educational system rarely asks of its students, some experts say.

One local NGO is trying to change that, with classes that specialize in getting university students to ask the big questions—and to come up with their own answers.

Nhem Chanthea provides the 22 students in his class at Youth Resources Development Pro­gram with a list, including such categories as family, money, religion, nation, health, peace, dignity and friends. Then he asks students to rank them. Which of these do you value most? he asks. Which least?

He tells his students a story: If someone gives you $1 million to take a drug-filled piece of luggage down to Sihanoukville, would you agree? The students spend several minutes discussing the good, and bad, that could arise from such a situation. They examine it from all points of view: The courier, his family and society as a whole.

“When I was a student, children were not taught to define their own values,” Nhem Chanthea said after the class. “Here, they’re learning to define their values and how to respect others. We want them to learn from their own experiences and do more things for themselves.”

During most classes in Camb­o­dia—and in many developed countries—students sit in rows facing their teacher. In Nhem Chant­hea’s classroom, they sit in a circle. Students are encouraged to ask questions and discuss issues with each other.

“We are learning how to work in teams, asking who we are in life, learning about our values and aims in life,” said Ros Redy, 21, of Banteay Meanchey province. “We are learning critical thinking and communication. We will use these to advise ourselves and pave our way in life.”

The classes are designed to go against the grain of many classrooms where teachers expect rote memorization, said program adviser Jean-Marie Birsens. In such classes, teachers see asking questions as a threat to their authority, he said.

“In general, pedagogy in Cambodia is limited to the stick,” said Birsens, a Jesuit priest who has lived in Cambodia for 10 years. “The teacher says, everyone repeats, and if you don’t repeat you get hit by the stick. Even up to the university level it’s about repetition.”

By discussing moral values, the students begin to make connections between their own actions and those values, he said.

“We go from discussing general ideas to asking what are you going to do about them. At the end they come away with the feeling that they want to do something…. They say cheating is bad. But we ask them, are you cheating? And they say of course.”

The tuition-free program, started in 1992, has proved a hit with students, boasting a 150-student waiting list, said Cheang Sokha, training coordinator for the program. The students hear about the classes through word-of-mouth, and are admitted first-come, first-served; the program runs three workshops of 22 students at a time.

In recent years, education officials have tried to move toward so-called student-centered learning, in which students actively participate in their own development, Cheang Sokha said. But that reform is still incomplete in many Cambodian classrooms, he said.

Critical and analytical thinking are abilities that employers quietly complain are lacking in many Cambodian job applicants. In workshops on democracy, love and marriage, human rights, the NGO provides a rare forum for analyzing Cambodian society, Birsens said.

The students hear stories and watch videos and then learn how to analyze them. They learn what kind of questions to ask about a situation—the classic who, what, where, when and why used by journalists and other professionals—and explore the steps involved in making a decision, such as interpretation, explanation, judgment and action, Nhem Chanthea said.

With private universities popping up every day with an almost exclusive focus on business, the NGO helps students think about how they might use their skills to make a positive contribution to society, Cheang Sokha said. It also hopes to create students who are interested in social change, he said.

“Nowadays, youth have low morality and critical thinking. They only focus on skills. Maybe they will use those skills in a way that has a bad effect on society—only for themselves, or their family.

“Youth are very important for social change. Society will not change unless youth are involved.”

Inspired by the social issues they discussed in class, students have formed 14 volunteer youth groups to work on such causes as the environment, AIDS and drugs, Cheang Sokha said. One, Youth for Peace, has become a full-fledged NGO. Other groups have set up phones and desks in the garage of the NGO’s office in Tuol Kok district.

“We let students know these issues will affect them, their family and their society, that society’s problems are like their own, so they can decide how to act themselves,” Nhem Chanthea said. “We don’t want them to think that government can eliminate [problems].”

“The class has helped me to learn more about myself, and prepare me for decision making,” said student Khy Sao Ny, 20, of Kampot province.

(Additional reporting by Nhem Chea Bunly and Kim Chan)


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