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Vietnam’s obsession with academic medals is spoiling its talents

Students do classwork at a high school in Vietnam.
Students do classwork at a high school in Vietnam.

While Vietnam is hugely successful at international science competitions, experts are concerned the country’s education system might be headed in the wrong direction with its focus on tangible achievements rather than nurturing raw talents to become useful humans.

All 38 Vietnamese students who participated in regional and international Olympiads in 2018 were medalists, including 13 gold medals, 14 silver medals and 11 bronze medals, according to statistics from the Ministry of Education and Training.

Over the past ten years, Vietnam’s performances at such competitions have seen some major improvement, the ministry noted.

Between 2009 and 2012, Vietnam only managed to claim around 30 medals each year, with very few gold medals, but since 2013 Vietnam’s yearly medal count at science Olympiads has significantly improved to 35-40 medals, with an average of about ten gold medals each year, according ministry statistics.

Most Vietnamese contestants are chosen from ‘schools for the gifted’, a system of classifying schools in Vietnam where gifted students are grouped into ‘selected classes’ with those who possess similar academic strengths.

The gifted schools system has existed since 1965, when then-Prime Minister Pham Van Dong launched the initiative with a goal in mind to nurture the country’s raw talents.

A Vietnamese student (second right) is welcomed home after winning gold medal at the 2017 International Mathematical Olympiad.
A Vietnamese student (second right) is welcomed home after winning gold medal at the 2017 International Mathematical Olympiad.

More than half a century on, this system of classifying schools has strayed far from its initial purpose and become basically cram schools that train their students with the primary purpose of succeeding at competitions, according to Dr. Nguyen Vu Luong, research supervisor at the High School for Sciences under Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

“Not all talents are medalists, and regional or international academic awards are only one of many parameters on which talents might be judged,” Luong said.

In the past, parents preferred gifted schools because they offered a good environment where students can feel happy about studying and are given favorable conditions to develop naturally.
“Nowadays, the viewpoint that if you study at a gifted school, you must be selected to participate at competitions and must win medals is spoiling young talents who might have other unique strengths,” Luong said.

Currently, students snatching gold medals at international competitions enjoy numerous benefits, including a monetary reward worth up to 50 times the base salary in Vietnam and an opportunity to be admitted to the university of their choice without sitting an entrance exam.
If such policies are not revised, it is unlikely that we will see major changes in the mindset of schools in teaching their students, he asserted.

Above all, he added, a true talent must also possess the ability to integrate and share their knowledge with the community, to cooperate and lead others on the path to create a better society.

“Without a good personality, one cannot contribute to their society and their country no matter how academically excellent they might be,” Luong said.

Contestants discuss their answers after a national exam for gifted high school students in 2018.
Contestants discuss their answers after a national exam for gifted high school students in 2018.