Educational Transformation in Cambodia?

The Minister of Education, Youth and Sport in Cambodia, Dr. Hang Chuon Naron, has a dream. He dreams of a transformed education system in Cambodia where students no longer learn by rote but use their own reason and imagination freely under the guidance of their teachers to grow in knowledge and wisdom. He dreams of classrooms, schools, colleges and universities where learning is an enjoyable and enriching human experience empowering Cambodians to choose what is best for their long-term happiness and fulfillment rather than for short-term gain.

 Fe y Alegría Education Workshop in Siem Reap

Over the last thirty-two years, I have attended many boring workshops on Cambodian education.  Yet the workshop in Siem Reap on the 19th and 20th of November crackled with energy and joy.  Carlos Fritzen S.J. had travelled all the way from Brazil in his capacity as the international coordinator of Fe y Alegría, the popular education movement that originated in Latin America.  He was accompanied by two other experts from the Spanish NGO Entreculturas, Pablo Funes and Maria Laiglesia.   The real genius of this movement is its capacity to work within the structures of Government schools to help improve them in all the countries in which it works.  They shared with us how their movement has been able to move into Africa and to help provide quality education to poor populations there.  Fe y Alegría seems to be basically a federated network of like-minded schools and educational organisations with the same aim and pedagogical methods. Over the last ten years, this movement has moved into many poor countries in Africa including several whose population is majority Muslim.

The Canaán School in Haiti is a good example of the movement’s work. ( )

After the initial presentations, the participants were asked to describe the Fe y Alegría movement in one or two words.  This is the pattern that emerged;


Thirty participants from our education networks across Cambodia attended with most involved directly in education work either through Jesuit Service Cambodia or the Karuna Battambang Organisation.  Perhaps the key insight from Carlos Fritzen was that only authentic collaboration will open the door to an effective educational movement in Cambodia.  The roots of collaboration are to be found in our common human vocation to the creation of a society where all can find their genuine human fulfillment.  However only a rigorous self-examination will enable us to discover our blind-spots in the dialogue that searches for truthful collaboration in education projects.  We often follow our own agenda rather than discern the way forward with our partners.   True discernment can only be carried out by equals.  In this way the process itself transforms the partners involved.  Perhaps we heard a challenge here.

The Vision and Mission of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport

The Minister of Education, Youth and Sport in Cambodia, Dr. Hang Chuon Naron, has a dream.  He dreams of a transformed education system where students no longer learn by rote but use their own reason and imagination freely under the guidance of their teachers to grow in knowledge and wisdom.  He dreams of classrooms, schools, colleges and universities where learning is an enjoyable and enriching human experience empowering Cambodians to choose what is best for their long-term happiness and fulfillment rather than for short-term gain.  This is why he insists on a balanced curriculum between the Sciences and Humanities and allows for the role of art and music in students’ formation.  Cambodian students must learn life skills but even more importantly they must learn to think for themselves.  Even though he has met obstacles and resistance over the last five years, he has remained faithful to this dream and now has many dedicated Cambodian Ministry staff and ordinary teachers who share it.


Teacher Education Colleges

One of the means that the Minister has chosen to reach this goal is the creation of new Teacher Education Colleges which will allow students to train to be teachers over a four-year period to obtain a new Bachelor of Education degree. Here they will discover the new transformative pedagogy. Trainee teachers will then be encouraged to apply their pedagogical skills through insertion experiences in selected schools open to change.  The trainees will change the schools.  This is the vision.  However the Ministry is also following a consultation and consensus approach in all its preparation and work for these Colleges.  For example a large number of Ministry personnel and Professors from the Royal University of Phnom Penh were involved in preparing the syllabus of studies for Mathematics and the Sciences.

The Battambang Teacher Education College

In the Battambang Teacher Education College, the new Director come from another Province while the former Director of the Regional Teacher College in Battambang becomes the Assistant Director.  While these two men come from very different educational backgrounds and traditions, they both know that the success of the Battambang Teacher Education College depends on a successful and fruitful collaboration between the two of them.  Most outside observers would be skeptical about the possibility of such collaboration.  But Cambodia is a surprising place.  In his penetrating analysis of how the traditional “Patron-client” relationship has been transmuted into the political sphere,   Markus Petersson   also points out that, on the local level, genuine concern for poor people is still shared by local leaders.( ). It is perhaps precisely the common desire to improve the quality of education for poor children that will empower both these leaders to collaborate well.

Personal Philosophy of Education

Nonetheless while the new syllabus and curriculum have strong pedagogical and psychological components, two weaknesses remain.  Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the pedagogical direction meaning that the actual subject content is weak.  The first weakness concerns the Philosophy of Education.  The Psychology course include sessions on reliability and validity of assessment methods.  However there is no course which enables trainee teachers to situate these two concepts within a wider Philosophy of Education.  What are we measuring and why?  In fact these trainee teachers will not be introduced to the long humanist tradition of reflection on the goals, purposes and methods of education.  They will not listen to Confucius, Plato, Aristotle or Augustine from ancient times or to Locke, Rousseau, Marx or Friere from more modern times.   Nor will they wrestle with the different curriculum ideologies as analysed by Schiro and others. After such a reflection, the teacher trainees would be better equipped to tease out the implicit Khmer philosophy of education hidden in Khmer literature and culture.  The poems of Kram Ngoy, Reamke, Tum Teav along with art and music all resonate with ideas about the good formation of young people.  This lack of reflection on underlying philosophies of education may leave teachers bereft of a strong foundation for their teacher vocation over the long run.  The second weakness concerns subject content. For example, the Mathematics teachers will not have courses on Real Analysis or Abstract Algebra.  As the country will develop significantly over the next twenty to thirty years, Mathematics teachers will need to be Mathematicians in their own right to stay abreast of future developments in curriculum and education priorities.  The syllabus and curriculum for the other Science subjects suffer from the same weakness.  However the new Teacher Education Colleges are creating much excitement and enthusiasm for future transformation.


The NGO Response to this Vision

Many large international agencies are supporting the Minister in this task of educational transformation.  These include UNICEF, JICA, VVOB, KOICA and many others.  This is the transformation effort from the top down.

However there is another similar effort taking place from the bottom up.  Many NGOs, both local and international, large and small, are working from their scattered bases across all the Provinces of Cambodia to make their own contribution to the transformation of the education system.  These include World Vision, Save the Children, Volunteer Service Overseas, Samaritan’s Purse, Enfants du Mekong, Jesuit Service Cambodia, Karuna Battambang Organisation, the Catholic Association and many, many others.

Jesuit Service Cambodia and Karuna Battambang Organisation

In July 2017, the Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr.  Arturo Sosa visited Cambodia.  At that time, one partner reflected that perhaps the Fe y Alegria movement could not help Cambodia as the culture here was Asian and the religion Buddhist.  However Fr. Sosa insisted that the Fe y Alegria movement was a pedagogical movement not a confessional one.  Adaptation to the culture and religion here was possible and could help us realize our dream.  This was the challenge he launched to Jesuit Service Cambodia and to the Karuna Battambang Organisation.

Khmer voices

During the recent workshop in Siem Reap, our Cambodian partners had many interesting reflections to share.  Their concern for the education of poor children in remote areas altered the focus of our reflections from the centre to the peripheries.  There is a clear call to share all the resources that we have poured into the Xavier Jesuit School project with all the remote schools of Banteay Meanchey, Oudar Meanchey, Siem Reap and Battambang Provinces.

The role of Xavier Jesuit School Cambodia

In 2013, we started our own education project outside Sereisophon, in Banteay Meanchey Province, with the motto, “Dare to dream of a brighter future”.  After three years of discussion and discernment we finally reached a consensus to launch our educational project in one of the poorest parts of Cambodia.  Our hope was that our pedagogy could then be clearly seen as humanly effective and so become a catalyst to the educational transformation of Cambodia.  The dream was that all our other educational programs involving support to remote schools and scholarships to poor students would create a synergy capable of inspiring other schools and partner educational organisations. (See ). So the Xavier Jesuit School project includes a Community Learning Centre, a Primary and Secondary School and a Teacher Resource Centre.  However the dream is losing its charm as the hoped for synergy has not been realized.  We need to understand why before we can really receive from the wisdom and experience of the Fe y Alegría movement.

Humble recognition of our mistakes

Perhaps the real difference between humility and arrogance is that one is based on the truth while the other is based on an illusion.  A rigorous self-examination may help us to realize that while we followed the path of communal discernment and consensual decision making in relation to our education project for seven years, we reverted to an authority-based decision making  model in 2017.  So, for example, in 2018, we constructed a hostel for poor girl students in the wrong place, at the wrong time and in the wrong manner. These buildings will stand as a permanent reminder of the foolishness of our collective hubris.  Instead of involving our local Khmer partners and the Presentation Sisters in the evolution of the project from the very beginning, we constructed a hostel for women designed by men without respecting the thrice revised Master Plan.  The irony is that this mistake happened while our organization underlined the importance of communal discernment and collective decision-making.  We can learn from this failure in collaboration.  Then we will be better able to collaborate with other partners in the future.

Where to now?

The final recommendations at the end of the education workshop concerned collaboration with the international popular education movement, Fe y Alegría.  This will be the first step.  Our partners suggested the appointment of either a special working group, a special coordinator or both.  The next step would be to involve all our other local partners in the dialogue.  These could include local Ministry officials and other NGOs.  It seems that the more we think we know what collaboration is, the less effectively we actually collaborate on the ground.  However, the ball is firmly in our court now.

Yet we need to be clear about the principal obstacles or risks to an effective educational collaboration.  They could be outlined provocatively as follows;

  1. Our lack of faith in the grace of the reflective pedagogy inherited with the Ignatian charism.
  2. Our inordinate attachments to “charismatic personalities”, “particular pet projects”, “reputation” and “public success”.
  3. Our inability to dialogue as equals as we continually rely on authority to make decisions for us.

The most disturbing aspect of this list of obstacles is that they are all internal.  The external obstacles can be overcome but the obstacles that are effectively blocking us are all of our own making.  The risk of betrayal of Cambodian children who could benefit from a fruitful collaboration with Fe y Alegría is thus real. In traditional Catholic parlance, this could be a serious sin of omission on our part.  How could the Jesuits pass up this chance to do so much good for education in Cambodia?



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