In the course of training preschool teachers, Lily Wong, EdD, periodically makes field trips to early childhood centers throughout Southeast Asia. Comparisons between the educational systems of cities such as Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Hanoi, Vietnam, are inevitable. Cambodia's system was completely destroyed during the war and a new system had to be built with government support and aid from UNICEF and the World Bank. In Vietnam, on the other hand, the system did not need to be rebuilt, and the government is very supportive of teacher training and curriculum improvement. Following are Dr. Wong's vivid descriptions of her visits to these two fascinating places.

A Visit to: Phnom Penh, Cambodia for Teacher Training & Education

The State Training Center for Children and Education is just outside of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Like the rest of the buildings in this dusty city, the outside of the Center looks tired and worn, but inside, the hope and enthusiasm of the future shines in the faces of the preschool and child care teachers.

There are 100 teachers in training. The program consists of basic courses in teaching methodology and is a full year program. An outside agency fully subsidizes fees, lodging, and training for the entire group of teachers, approximately $1,000 a month. The director of the training institute is paid $30 per month and the trainers are paid $20. Materials and resources such as books, paper, and teaching aids are limited.

The teacher trainees work at a laboratory school for the city children, which is attached to the training center and is supported by the Japanese government and a private company. It is quite nice, with a paved floor, mats to sit on, and storybooks in the Khmer language. Three- to 6-year-olds learn alongside those who have special needs. No fees are collected because the children cannot afford even one dollar a month. In fact, the center also feeds and cares for them.

After the year's training, the teachers go out to the state schools. One teacher was observed teaching between 85 and 100 children in a little room with a dirt floor, the children sitting three deep in a U-shape. She had to make do without books. Each child has a little blackboard and a small piece of chalk, along with a piece of rag to use as an eraser. Pebbles, stones, and river shells from the Mekong are creatively used to practice the Khmer alphabet on the floor.

"He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has. -Epicletus

A Visit to: Hanoi, Vietnam for a Day at School

The school day starts at 8:00 a.m. with children arriving from all over the neighborhood. The little ones look well-fed, healthy, and happy. They like school and are anxious to get going. Like a starting bell, the sound of a big drum signals the commencement of school. Children settle down for the day's briefing.

At a single drumbeat, activity begins. The children are divided into groups. While they use tables for writing, the floor is used more often-for play and for small- and large-group activities, as well as other individual learning experiences. One corner of the room is dedicated to books and reading, but few children use it.

Instead they prefer to get the picture books and browse at their leisure on the floor all around the classroom. One teacher reads aloud to a small group. Another reads to a larger group. The rest of the children are exploring their world free-style. One child reads aloud to himself. Other children are silently concentrating on the pictures. Some just sit quietly watching the other children.

Classes in Vietnam are less organized than in other Asian countries. Children are allowed to play, draw, sing, and create their own learning experiences under supervision. They are given a lot of time for individual activity as well as small group work. The routines, rituals, and transitional activities are not as regimented, but several times a day the entire class comes together for organized activities. Besides eating lunch and taking a nap together, they also exercise and "go potty" as a group. (Older children go to a common outhouse, while younger children use special basins at the back of the room.)

The curriculum is still in a state of development and flux. Where there is some reading, writing, and math, there is hardly any enrichment in health, science, social studies, or other civic studies. Children are taught to comb their hair but not how to brush their teeth.

The classes are large, ranging from 35 to 60 students to be managed by two adults, one of whom is a certified teacher. No, this does not meet western standards in student-teacher ratio, but early childhood education remains a privilege rather than a right or a necessity. (Teachers are trained at three levels: certificate, diploma, and degree. Preschool teachers are compensated in the same way as elementary school teachers.)

Schools are run by the state government, rural authorities, and private operators with different degrees of sup port. It is not necessarily the level of affluence but the dedication of the teachers that determines the quality of learning.

This article originally appeared in the November, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.