New methods of teaching? : refroming education in Lao PDR

Abstract: This thesis is about the recent education reform in Laos as a global and a local process. When the economy was deteriorating in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), the so called New Economic Mechanism (NEM) was introduced and the country opened up for global donors and markets. This also had an effect on the education system. To get hold of financial support there were demands on Lao PDR to replace the previous strong centralised governing of education with more decentralised strategies. There were further demands to replace teacher-led lessons and rote learning with more student-centred classroom practices. The research questions asked in this thesis are: How are education reform and the new methods of teaching governed in policy and through the formal education organisations from ministry level to school level? How do teachers and students in teacher education respond to the education reform and the new methods of teaching? What attention is put to gender and ethnic minorities in these matters? The thesis is inspired by Gita Steiner-Khamsi’s global perspectives on education reform; consensus, conflict and culturalist perspectives. It is also based on a local understanding taking its starting point in a pragmatic approach and a mosaic epistemology and a qualitative inductive methodological approach. The empirical findings are based on 36 documents that govern the education reform, 119 individual interviews with teachers and students in social science and science at teacher education, some observations and a contextual analysis of education, gender and ethnicity in Laos. The findings show that there is a consensus with the international community about bringing education to all people in Lao PDR. However, the political understanding is in conflict between neoliberal and socialist traditions. Democratic centralism is the foundation which built the governing system in Laos; information flows up through the system and decisions down. Even though the system leaves 20 percent autonomy to teachers to develop local curricula in line with the new methods of teaching, there are yet no major signs that such curricula exist. Teacher educators and teacher students understand new methods of teaching mainly as group learning and individual learning with only small variations between the two subjects. According to current policy the goal is to improve access to education for females and ethnic minority students. The ethnic minority students regarded individual studies as difficult because of language problems. They preferred group learning because they could be supported in language issues. Females also felt supported in group learning. However, because of old gender traditions especially females from the dominating Lao Loum group also found individual learning supportive. In individual learning females got opportunities to show individual capacities without being constrained by societal norms. The thesis ends up in a pragmatic tradition where possibilities and constraints with the education reform in Lao PDR are commented on.