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Webinar Recap: Thoughtful Leadership - Effective Strategies for Student-Centered Learning

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

On January 20th, following the previous discussion on high-tech, high-touch education, ClassIn held its second event of the Thoughtful Leadership webinar series on Effective Strategies for Student-Centered Learning. Through an in-depth interview moderated by ClassIn’s Lingyue Zheng, Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu, CEO and Co-Founder of IEG Global, shared actionable strategies, alternative modes of assessment, and existing challenges for students across different age groups.

Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu holds degrees from the London School of Economics, Stanford University, and the University of Oxford. For the past decade, Dr. Hieu has grown himself into an expert in the education sector as he sets up and transforms 100+ K-12 schools, colleges, education institutes and non-profit organizations, ranging from boutique models to big-scale systems, in multiple capacities: school model design, new school creation, school restructuring, product research and development, professional development, general management, corporate finance & strategy, system operations.

The Transition from Economics to Education

Q: Prior to joining the field of education, you had numerous preeminent practices in economics, so what is the specialty you have brought from economics to education?

“I think education chose me first, rather than I chose education,” Hieu said.

With 10 years of training in economics and finance, Hieu highlighted the analytical and systematic mindset he developed to inform better decision-making in education. For various institutions and organizations, big or small, he looks at “How can we draw plans that touch on all the stakeholders in the education system or landscape that we are dealing with? How to build data collection systems that we consistently have data on student performance and achievements to help school leaders make decisions on a day-to-day basis, from student learning to development, from students’ mental health to their joy?”

Implementation of Student-Centered Learning (SCL) and Character Development in Different Grades

Q: You have taught a truly vast range of students, so what do you think of the differences between K-12 education and high education? How do you think about the intrinsic, unchangeable quality of education?

Drawing from his teaching experiences, Hieu outlined a trajectory where

  • Primary school students exhibit natural curiosity and creativity, which should be nurtured to encourage their enjoyment and interest in learning.

  • Middle school is a place for students to establish their egos, and they are more inclined to listen to friends and take risks. Instead of applying rigorous curricula, teachers should first build trust with them and overcome conflicts.

  • High school is tricky as students are bombarded by academic demands and at the same time perplexed by questions of life, death, future, time, and goals. Thus, we need to pay attention to the tough problems in their souls along with the pursuit of academic performance.

  • College students should dive into the real world as much as possible instead of being restricted to courses and exams.

As for the common denominator of education, Hieu emphasized students’ need for characters, which also aligns with his personal philosophy. “What I can do with them is to help my students develop characters, such as persistence, optimism, kindness, gratitude, self-control, self-discipline, so that wherever they are and whatever they do, they have the characters to succeed and find happiness,” Hieu asserted.

Q: How do you design your curricula to develop the character of high schoolers, middle schoolers, and higher education students?

Under the framework of national curricula for major subjects, Hieu pointed out that in each school, we should formulate pedagogies and assessment systems with attention to the real competencies students want to achieve.

First, whether it is through challenges, workshops, exercises, or projects, students have to be exposed to real-life scenarios where they have to use the characters. “You can’t teach a student to be empathetic and kind when there’s no setting in the classroom for them to practice kindness,” Hieu explained.

In addition, Hieu stressed the importance of customizing the goals to individual students and cautioned against blindly following teaching trends. For instance, to foster persistence, he recommended setting daily goals and year-long projects.

Assessment in SCL: Formative Assessments and Debate

Q: What are the standards you employ to evaluate your students? What’s your suggestion for designing an appropriate assessment standard?

“Vietnam loves testing…For me, any tool of assessment or educational approach is neutral. It serves a practical purpose. The thing that makes it a good tool or a bad tool is how we use it and how we approach it.” Hieu believed the tools are only beneficial when we use them moderately at the right time and right place.

“I’m more of an advocate for formative assessment…At the end of every day, I love to give ten minutes of silence, and you have to write something about the lesson, about what you are going through…I’m really thinking about challenges and projects that I can read and see individuality in each student,” according to Hieu.

"I’m really thinking about challenges and projects that I can read and see individuality in each student."

Q: When you promote student-centric teaching, what are the adversities or difficulties you have encountered?

“I think the biggest one always comes from parents,” Hieu laughed, giving a nod to fellow teachers in the audience. “In the beginning, not a lot of them liked that sort of things – ‘I need a score. I need a number’, which seemed more certain and confirmative than two pages of writing.”

Despite initial discouragement, Hieu realized that “In education, you don’t just educate the students but parents as well…I remember when I held the parents’ meeting, before I gave them the summative scores, I gave them a portfolio of students’ writing. And their heart started melting – ok, I didn’t see my kids could express this kind of thinking.”

The second challenge resides in students themselves. For students who are already used to the traditional ways of teaching and testing, Hieu observed that they often felt awkward – while enjoying his classes – having to switch between divergent teaching modes.

“I started as a full-time teacher…but I realized that in order for something good to be systemized, I had to take a leadership position so that I can build and enforce a system where teachers start to follow the same pedagogies and approaches, so that throughout the system, students can get reinforced in the approach to learning and assessment,” Hieu stated.

Q: Other than a leader and administrator, you were also a judge for debate competitions. Do you think debate is a student-centric form of education? Why do you encourage this kind of pedagogy?

“I’ve been with them [the debate team] for four years now…I started to see the growth in the students – the confidence to express their thinking, their logical approach to problems and argumentations. They also developed critical thinking, team collaboration, and strategic approaches. The thing I enjoyed the most is that they started to learn more about the world than they do from the curricula.”

However, Hieu cautioned that debate can be very student-centric if only done in the right way. “We give the students the power to scaffold their own thinking, to come up with ideas and think about the problems deeply first…before we let them go on Google and help them find good sources of information,” he said.

Q: When you are leading the student-centric type of class, how do you balance the teacher’s control of the class and the student’s domination of class activities?

“I rarely thought of myself as the controller of the class but more as a facilitator in the class. I meet the students where their learning needs are rather than what I want to teach them,” according to Hieu.

Reflecting on a recent class where he faced students of different levels and abilities, Hieu landed on questions about identity to implement SCL. “We need to think less about the answers but more about questions we can ask students because that is when we start to extract information out of each student’s head. And I am often pleasantly surprised by the amount of information I can get out of the students’ head either about their understanding of the world or their understanding about themselves.”

“The answer lies in your head. The answer doesn’t lie in my mouth,” Hieu spoke to his role in the classroom.

“The answer lies in your head. The answer doesn’t lie in my mouth.”

On the other hand, he mentioned that he would step in if students behave unethically or immorally. “This is not something I want in this class. Let’s think about alternative ways to express yourself,” Hieu suggested.

At the Heart of SCL: Discovering Identity and Nurturing the Self

Q: There is an emphasis on identity and self in your classes. In the journey of exploring identity, what are the means to nurture characters and formulate self-efficacy?

Hieu contextualized the question in that improvement of our education systems and teaching quality has created an overemphasis on academic objectives, giving rise to overachievers who do not have a sense of themselves.

“They are vulnerable and easily lost in the big world…the students today are overloaded with academic information, but not a lot of teachers and parents focus on building an understanding of their rich, peaceful inner selves,” Hieu said. “When they find what their values are, what anchors their decisions, what they want versus what others want for them, and find peace among so many expectations and pressure forced upon them…that’s the beauty of education.”

Q: You once used a vase metaphor that everyone is a vase, and you only need the necessary fragments, without the things society has forced upon you, to complete your life. How do you separate the attributes from what really matters to you?

“For me, the thing that separates short-term attributes from your fundamentals is time…what stands against time is my fundamental, and what changes over time is a short-term attribute,” Hieu explained why he often gives the same questions to students over the years.

Shedding light on his own fundamentals, Hieu stated that “My fundamental in work is students’ benefit… The reason why I can go fast and go far in education is because I always place students’ benefit above anything else.”

"The reason why I can go fast and go far in education is because I always place students’ benefit above anything else."

“In life, I just want to be happy, peaceful, and kind. I don’t pursue much about money and status. I’m happy with a coffee in the morning on the street of Saigon,” Hieu smiled.

Audience Q&A: Philosophies, Projects, and Challenges of SCL

Q: It seems that when we were undergraduate education students in college, we were taught about the different philosophies in education. I'm a believer in idealism and pragmatism. As a teacher that pushes forward student-centric learning, what philosophies guide you?

Instead of adopting a single view or method, Hieu described himself as a chameleon who continuously learns from various schools of thought.

“This is the question I keep asking myself. what is the main problem that the student is facing? If I don't have all the time in the world and all the years with the student, if i can only do one thing for that student to help him or her address the major problem, then I would do it,” Hieu specified his take on SCL.

Q: Student-centric learning is a proactive move to innovate the way we teach in such a way students will feel that they are the "stars." However, can you cite the downsides of being student-centered?

“I’m not sure if this is considered a downside, but it’s more like challenges and obstacles. The first thing is that it takes tremendous efforts of teachers…The second one is the ability of the teachers. They are good at what they do, which is teaching the subjects, but sometimes they do not have the interpersonal skills to solve problems beyond their academic comfort zone,” he elaborated.

Hieu also reminded everyone that SCL is at odds with standardization as it implies that students should advance at their own pace.

Q: The concept of "one project for all subjects" is interesting, but it may be hard to conceptualize. Do you have examples of project ideas that can be applied to all subjects?

“I sit on the board of academics of six different schools…Instead of letting each individual head of department come up with a project, I asked, for example, all teachers of grade seven to sit together to design an interdisciplinary project,” Hieu said.

Based on a real in-class project where students tried to solve problems in a remote region of Vietnam, Hieu advised the audience member that “try to integrate what we want to do academically with what the real world needs…I recommend starting with the problems your community is facing, and maybe the ideas come from there.”

Closing Remarks

Inspired by the book The Collapse of Parenting, Hieu found that “If parenting is the happiest job in the world, then teaching is the second happiest job in the world… Just like any source of happiness, we let it go through problems, challenges, tough times, dark times, issues. But that’s just a testament to how happy this job is.”

“Every kid needs a teacher who doesn’t give up on him or her. And I hope you have found the perseverance, determination, motivation, but also the joy, happiness and inner peace to carry with this job. Whatever the world and other people say about us, screw them. They don’t understand what it means to be a teacher in the classroom. So keep doing what we are doing,” Hieu concluded the event with a heartwarming note to all the teachers in the house.

"Whatever the world and other people say about us, screw them. They don’t understand what it means to be a teacher in the classroom. So keep doing what we are doing."

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ClassIn software enables interactive classrooms, in-school social app, lesson scheduling, homework management, and school management dashboard, which start free and scale up to meet our customers' needs at any stage of teaching. Today, thousands of schools and institutions around the world benefit from ClassIn's powerful and easy-to-use tools to teach online and offline.

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