HANOI – In certain respects, the dialogue around education in Vietnam isn’t all that different from that in the United States. In both places, the people on the ground in and near schools complain about the restrictive governmental policies from above, and the people in the government complain about the unwillingness of those on the ground to change.

In my meetings with administrators and teachers in schools the last two days in Hanoi, as well as with a couple NGOs on the ground, people expressed particular frustration at the national curriculum in Vietnam that they said blocks innovation.

The national curriculum is exacting. Unlike the Common Core state standards in the United States, it is a uniform, time-based curriculum. There is one textbook for each required subject for the entire country. On any given day in any school around the country, students receive the same lesson taught from the national textbook. It’s challenging to even think about implementing competency-based learning within that context.

On top of that, secondary public school students in Vietnam tend to attend school for only half a day. As a result, covering the required national curriculum takes up nearly all of their time in school and leaves little time for other subjects, extracurricular activities, or innovative ways of teaching and learning.

Vietnam is a young country—the median age is 26, and 26 percent of the population is aged 0 to 14—and many people have moved to Hanoi in the last decade because of the explosion of available jobs in urban areas. This has created significant pressure on the public schools, which have not had the resources or facilities to respond to the population increase.

As a result, there has been a boom in private schools in Hanoi—particularly at the primary level—which has led to some innovations in education. But even private schools must follow the national curriculum in Vietnam. To create more opportunities for students, the private schools often offer a full day of schooling, complete with several meals for students and transportation, so that they can offer English starting in Grade 1 and other subjects and learning experiences outside the national curriculum.

One school I visited expressed great interest in adopting blended learning, but said that it would need the permission of the national government to do so.

Another person I talked to who works at an NGO spoke about her organization’s efforts to create meaningful field trips for schools, but how difficult it was because even activities are controlled from the top down. For example, the central government requires schools to have one field trip a year, she said. To check the box and comply, schools will often send all of the students to a museum on the same day, which makes it impossible for any meaningful learning to occur. Even as her organization has worked with museums to create learning programs for schools, it is hard, she said, for schools to build in time for field trips. The schools struggle to understand the educational value of field trips because they have not been useful historically, nor are they written into the national curriculum, which means that students aren’t directly tested on what they might learn during these trips.

That said, many schools did say that the Ministry of Education was keen on having teachers change their teaching methodology to move away from teacher-centered lectures toward a much bigger concern with what students were learning. This shift means adopting new methodologies, including more active discussion-based learning with students to move toward more student-centered learning designs. There were questions as to how well schools could do this because of the national curriculum and, in particular, the national tests that, I was told, focus closely on memorizing what is in the textbook, but there was at least an awareness that the national government would like to see innovation in the schools.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss the push for innovation about which I learned from my meetings with officials in the central party. Despite the qualms people seem to have on the ground with national policy, that policy does appear to be changing in potentially positive ways. And in the private schools I have visited so far, I have seen classrooms that are not being conducted in a strict lecture-based model and bear many resemblances to a traditional United States classroom.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.