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Joan DeJaeghere and Vu Dao on pedagogy, equity, and research collaborations in Vietnam
Episode 611th October 2021 • The RISE Podcast • Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE)
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In this episode of the RISE Podcast, Yue-Yi Hwa, RISE Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, speaks with Professor Joan DeJaeghere and Vu Dao, members of the RISE Vietnam team based at the University of Minnesota. The conversation focuses on Joan and Vu’s work on a large-scale qualitative video study of teaching and learning in Vietnamese classrooms. Topics explored include ongoing challenges in Vietnam’s education system despite its exceptional success; how teachers can unintentionally internalise prejudices against ethnic minority students (even if the teachers are ethnic minorities themselves); why it is worthwhile to spend countless hours analysing classroom videos and interviews; and how to build strong collaborations with in-country researchers.


Publications so far from the qualitative video study of classrooms in Vietnam include:

Quantitative study from the RISE Vietnam team finding that conventional statistical indicators cannot fully account for Vietnam’s educational performance:

  • Dang, H., Glewwe, P., Lee, J., and Vu, K. 2020. What Explains Vietnam’s Exceptional Performance in Education Relative to Other Countries? Analysis of the 2012 and 2015 PISA Data. RISE Working Paper Series. 20/036.
  •  Glewwe, P., James, Z., Lee, J., Rolleston, C. and Vu, K. 2021. What Explains Vietnam’s Exceptional Performance in Education Relative to Other Countries? Analysis of the Young Lives Data from Ethiopia, Peru, India and Vietnam. RISE Working Paper Series. 21/078.

Other RISE publications mentioned: 

  • On narrowly standardized accounting vs richer narrative accounts in accountability: Honig, D. and Pritchett, L. 2019. The Limits of Accounting-Based Accountability in Education (and Far Beyond): Why More Accounting Will Rarely Solve Accountability Problems. RISE Working Paper Series. 19/030.
  • Blog interview with Janeli Kotzé (RISE Fellow based at South Africa’s Department for Basic Education) on bridging research and policy:  

Guest biographies

Joan DeJaeghere is a Principal Investigator for the RISE Vietnam team. She is an Associate Professor of Comparative and International Development Education in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches courses in international development and education; comparative education; and gender, education and development. Her scholarly work and professional practice are concerned with education, development, poverty and inequalities, and particularly gender, socio-economic and ethnic inequalities in education. She has served as the Principal Investigator on multi-year, multi-country studies funded by The MasterCard Foundation and CARE. She has also worked on education projects with UNICEF, USAID, Aga Khan, the World Bank, and the Department of Labor, and conducted research in Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Honduras, and Australia. She was a Fulbright Scholar in 2013 with the Academy of Policy and Development of the Ministry of Planning and Investment and a Fulbright Specialist in 2014, with Vietnam Institute of Education Sciences under the Ministry of Education and Training. She served as a board member of the Comparative and International Education Society (2013-16) and as an associate editor of International Journal of Educational Development (2013-16). She has published widely in journals including Comparative Education Review, International Journal of Educational Development, Comparative Education, Progress in Development Studies and Critical Studies in Education.

Vu Dao is a member of the RISE Vietnam team and a graduate research assistant at the Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development Department at the University of Minnesota. She is an experienced research assistant with a demonstrated history of working in the higher education sector. She is skilled in nonprofit organizations, educational technology, instructional design, English, and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). Her Master's degree was in Comparative and International Development Education from the University of Minnesota, College of Education and Human Development.


RISE is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Programme is implemented through a partnership between Oxford Policy Management and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. The Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford supports the production of the RISE Podcast.


RISE Programme 0:04

Hello and welcome to the RISE Podcast series, where we aim to explore the stories behind education, research and practice as part of the multi-country research on improving systems of education and funded by UK Aid, Australian Aid, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host 0:23

Hello, my name is Yue-Yi Hwa. I'm a research fellow at the RISE Programme where I focus on synthesising research on teachers and management. Today, I'm speaking with Joan DeJaeghere and Vu Dao, who are both at the University of Minnesota where Joan is a professor of organisational leadership, policy and development. And Vu who is a PhD student in comparative and international development education. Vu is also a former teacher in Vietnam herself, which is relevant because today we'll be discussing a qualitative video study of Vietnamese classrooms that Joan and Vu were involved in. Among the things we'll be discussing today are some of the challenges but the really big benefits of doing very detailed qualitative analysis of what really happens in classrooms, along with some of the practical and policy implications of that. Joan, Vu, thank you so much for joining us, and welcome to the RISE podcast.

In your qualitative video study. You look broadly at teachers’ pedagogical practices, but you have at least two quite distinct and different areas within that, right. So how teacher practices support student learning competencies, and also how teacher practices and beliefs reinforce learning inequities between students of different ethnic backgrounds. So can you talk a bit about sort of where these two focus areas came from.

Joan DeJaeghere 1:50

So first, overall, the RISE research program in Vietnam, is to try and understand how Vietnam's education system produces good learning outcomes. So, one of our aims is to actually examine those teaching practices in the classroom for the ways that learning is produced. And of course, we're looking at learning beyond just what are test scores or outcomes, we want to understand particularly the current reforms that are focused on competency-based learning, meaning that the current reforms of Vietnam are trying to shift both the curriculum and the pedagogy to focus on sort of competency outcomes, things like communication, creative thinking. And so, the learning outcomes we're examining are not only those test outcomes, but what students are actually doing in the classroom. So, we're analysing the study for that. But while we have been analysing that we found some really interesting findings related to teaching and learning outcomes in the classrooms. And that includes that these inequities actually exist between how teachers teach in classrooms that are mostly Kinh majority versus those that are more composed of different ethnic groups. And certain ethnic groups in Vietnam have long had less schooling. And less completion in schooling. But there's been less concern around and less research done around how teachers actually teach in the classroom. So, this was another analysis that we undertook for a paper that was recently published in Compare (journal).

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host 3:29

That's great. And we'll put the link to the paper in the show notes for anyone who's interested in that. So, some of the findings in your study — so that, say, some Vietnamese teachers don't actually use pedagogical practices that support some of the competencies that you're describing. And also, that there are deeply entrenched inequities between Kinh majority and minoritised ethnic groups. Some of these might surprise people who are only familiar with the shiny newspaper headlines and graphs showing or Vietnam over performs in PISA relative to GDP so much. So, to outsiders, I think a lot of this is surprising, but to what extent do you think people within Vietnam's education system would be surprised by this?

Vu Dao 4:17

r reports such as a report in:

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host 5:51

Yeah, thank you very much for that, Vu. And that's such a good reminder that things are often a lot more complex than they look on the surface. And so, would either of you have any thoughts about how to bring in some of these, sort of below-the-surface complications and nuance and granularity, that actually comparative education is really good at? Yeah. Do you have any thoughts about how to bring some of this granularity into sort of a public version of international education, awareness? Whether like idealistic thoughts, or really practical ones?

Joan DeJaeghere 6:32

So, Yue-Yi, thanks for the question. I think that it's important to recognise that policymakers, both in government, as well as those working in international organisations, and donors, are really responsive to these bigger narratives that they can sort of grasp easily, and that they want to be able to respond to problems at scale. So, for example, a problem like completion at Grade 9, that's not difficult to kind of grasp, we can see it easily in the quantitative data, what percentage completes, what don't. But it's more nuanced to look at who actually completes and who doesn't. So for example, in Vietnam, completion at Grade 9 actually is an issue for some ethnic minority groups. But the data in Vietnam actually show, or I should say that data are generally collected and analysed with regard to who belongs to an ethnic minority group (as an aggregate) and who belongs to the majority group. And overall, if you look at all the 53 groups who are classified as ethnic minority, you can sort of lose some of the detail around who's not completing Grade 9, because there's lots of variation between those ethnic minority groups. So some people within the ethnic minority groups, like the Hoa, or other groups might actually do quite well with completion of Grade 9, and even in learning outcomes. And other groups like the H’mong, for example, we know, or Khmer, may not do as well. So we actually need to dissect that data around ethnic minority groups, to really look at what's happening in these diverse schools and classrooms. So I think international organisations and researchers are really remiss if we don't actually look at some of these outliers, or the nuances in the educational system around what kind of learning is being produced for whom. And so I think we need to ask, how can we actually achieve education and equity for all if we don't actually look at all of these issues?

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host 8:44

No, that makes a lot of sense. And this is slightly tangential, but it strikes me that that's interesting that similar conversations are happening in other areas of public interest rate, like see, with COVID transmission. It's not just that average, but the distribution of infection rates across age groups he or with conversations about Asian Americans, and how once you disaggregate the data, there's actually a lot of variation there that should affect how people understand issues and act. So maybe in an ideal world, we'll see a shift toward greater public statistical literacy and also a greater interest in the narratives underlying those patterns. But as I said, that is a tangent. Another thing I wanted to ask is that, so in my role in synthesising RISE research on teachers and management, one area I've been thinking about a lot recently is about norms within teacher practice. So, by norms I mean things like sort of dominant perceptions about what good teachers do or shouldn't do, what should be prioritised in classrooms. And sometimes these are explicitly articulated. But sometimes they're tacit, and people don't even realise that they're there necessarily, like you said, about some of the perceptions that can majority teachers hold about minorities, minorities, student groups, or in your other study on higher and lower performing classrooms. If I remember correctly, you found that teachers in these classrooms tend sometimes have different beliefs about how children learn how to think, and learn how to think about their thinking. So could I ask you to speculate a bit about where these perceptions and beliefs, why they're so sticky, why they can become so widespread, and so durable, and also what it would take to shift them toward more constructive beliefs.

Vu Dao:

Yeah, I will talk about our paper about ethnic minority students. So in our paper, we partly discussed the reason why teachers hold such beliefs about ethnic minority students' cognitive level. First, I think, stereotype about ethnic minority people in general, still persist in a society where social hierarchies dominate almost all social relations, and where a lack of appreciation for diversity and pluralism is still manifest. And stereotypes even exist in the discourse of policy. Professor DeJaeghere actually has a paper on how ethnic minority people are discursively framed as [having] lower status than the majority group in policy in Vietnam. Secondly, I think Vietnamese teachers have been trained, and trained really well, to follow hegemonic curriculum. And that affects their belief. And this study and past research show how it is a source of prejudice, perpetuated in a way that even ethnic minority teachers internalise and use them unintentionally.

Joan DeJaeghere:

I'd like to add here briefly that, you asked about how we might begin to shift these towards more constructive norms. And as Vu said, you know, these norms are long and enduring as they are in any society. It's not just Vietnam. But in a recent think piece that we're working on right now, one way we talk about shifting these norms is trying to have more open dialogues, which doesn't actually occur very frequently within the Vietnamese society among, say, policymakers and teachers themselves. And I think there's a need for teachers to be able to actually ask questions, and not feel penalised for asking a question or not feel like they are being watched, or could have some sort of retribution. If they ask a question around, well, maybe we're not doing so well, in terms of our learning for these groups of students. And what should we be doing? What does learning look like for these different members of society? So actually, having those kinds of open dialogues would allow for teachers to think more critically about their own practice, as well as help shape new norms and help encourage a conversation with others about what to do differently.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

That's, that's really exciting. And I mean, exciting to me both on a sort of analytical level and also on a personal level because, as you know, I come from Malaysia, which is probably at least as hierarchical as Vietnam and when I was a teacher in the civil service, see the standard civil service sign-off in an official letter is "Saya yang menurut perintah", which translates to "I who follow orders". And as teachers, there are certain sensitive topics about politics and religion that you're just not supposed to talk about. So, if Vietnam can have dialogues like this, I would be really excited to see whether they can translate to Malaysia.

Vu Dao:

One more thing that I would like to add is that they should train student teachers about socially inclusive pedagogy, you know, how to teach how to support and encourage ethnic minority students without minoritising them. And the last thing is that curriculum should be more inclusive and engaging with culture and knowledge of different ethnic studies, not just like, majority groups.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

Another thing I wanted to ask you was that, so, video studies are just notoriously labor intensive to code, to analyse. I know people who chose their PhD dissertation topics based on whether or not they have to do video study analysis or not. So, from your perspective, what made it worthwhile putting in all of those hours of like observation and data preparation and analysis?

Vu Dao:

Okay, I can answer this question. Our quantitative research can do many great things, right? But there are aspects that only a qualitative approach is able to provide deep understanding. For example, from quantitative survey, we would know that the instructional activity that teachers use most was group work, for example, but how do we know how such activity happened in class, how much student engaged and participated in the lesson, what kind of learning happened during the activities? What teacher’s intention is, and when, you see, when they use group work, and whether they achieved the objective that they plan for group work. So such questions can only be answered by deep analysis from qualitative video study and interviews. And qualitative video study also provides like different data points that show how different teaching practices interact with each other in class. So I think qualitative study has the advantage of accurately portraying the reality of teaching in this natural setting, which cannot be attained in studies, you know, largely adopting quantitative research methods.

Joan DeJaeghere:

So, I just wanted to add that you pointed out the amount of time or how labor intensive it is. Yes, it is labor intensive, to code and analyse, and we have hundreds of videos, as well as interviews with teachers and principals, and even students. But all data analysis eventually takes a lot of time. Quantitative does too, and so does qualitative. It just takes a lot of time to code it. But I think Vu pointed out a really important point. And that's, you know, what's the, what's the additive element that we can get from the qualitative and the quantitative. And I think what's also interesting here is to point out that Vu is actually coding or will be coding some of our video data quantitatively using things like CLASS or Teach. And we're also coding and analysing them qualitatively because there is this real question from our quantitative analysis, which is: when they've done the quantitative analysis at the primary level, and even the secondary, there aren't a lot of variables that actually explain what are some of the differences and learning. And so then the question becomes, are we actually measuring what really matters? And can we even measure in quantitative ways what matters? So even when we're quantitatively analysing, as Vu said, things like the kind of teacher activities in the classroom, we can say one thing. Whether it's explanatory enough, is another question. When we look qualitatively [at the data], we can say a lot more about the type of group work, as Vu was saying. So, I think that's why it's also really important to think about the additive value of qualitative data.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

It seems also to me that there's almost an exact parallel between what you've been saying about research and what some of the things, other things within RISE, you've been saying about accountability, like how accountability in the sense of accounting, like keeping track of numbers, is important for to ensure a sort of baseline standardisation, like teachers need to show up in class. But that's the baseline. But then you really need to go into sort of thicker, context-specific narrative accounts, to know of the really multi-dimensional aspects of education that people value are actually happening or not to know the justifications for choices in the moment in the classroom.

Joan DeJaeghere:

That's a really good point, actually.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

For this project, this massive many-houred project, you worked closely with colleagues at the Vietnam National Institute of Educational Sciences, and I'd be curious to hear about some of the benefits and challenges of the spirit of collaboration, as well as any tips you might have for facilitating the sort of collaboration.

Joan DeJaeghere:

Well, that's a really good question. And I'm gonna say something I think that might be quite obvious, but we don't always think about or maybe put into practice and that is, collaborations really take time to build trust, to understand the needs as well as the strengths of different researchers in institutions. So, I started working with the VNIES, the Vietnam National Institute of Educational Sciences, back in 2006, actually, on a different research project, and have worked with them on and off over the years. So, when we started working with them again, for this RISE project, they knew my prior work with them. And there was some element of relationship and trust. And I think that's really critical, especially in the context of the Vietnamese society where they really want to have ownership of their own work. And so having these sort of outside funded projects really need to be internally owned. The other thing is, I think that a benefit of our research is that it's better informed, then, by the Vietnamese policymakers and educators perspectives, because we work with them so closely. And hopefully, it means that some of our research can be taken up differently and used by them. Although that's also always a question when we have outside research, especially in the Vietnamese context.

Vu Dao:

I think some benefit from the collaboration for the RISE project is that the VNIES staff, they are very familiar with working with teachers. And they have a wide connection with schools, which is an advantage for data collection. And for their benefit, I like Professor DeJaeghere's idea about giving back, meaning joining this study provides opportunities for them to be trained in doing qualitative research. So we've been organising training on research ethics, data collection, how to use software to code data, and how to analyse data. And we hope to turn our findings back to schools to benefit our participants as well. Some tips about collaborations I think, like we should communicate clearly the purpose of the study, so team members know what what they will be doing and why they do it. And communication is key, you know, and we, we often organise team meetings to address any concerns that our team members have during the data collection process and analysing and everything.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

That's, that's all great to hear. And I think I also remember one of our RISE fellows, Janeli Kotze, talking a bit about the research-policy connection, of course, she was talking about researchers sort of parachuting in to government and to schools and just talking to the stakeholders on the ground at the point when, “Hey, will you let us into our schools”, then they parachuted in again, at the end to be like, “Okay, this is what we found”. So, it's exciting and encouraging to hear that in this project, you've really made a point to maintain the connections along the way, and to help build capacity as part of that process. So, our very last question is, what is one thing you wish that other people knew about the education system in Vietnam?

Vu Dao:

Well, I would like to say that the education system in Vietnam is not as outstanding or successful as people may think, when they look at international assessment reports. Because as you say, Vietnam still has so many things to do for better learning and teaching and closing educational gaps between ethnicities. However, it is not as hopeless as many Vietnamese people may think. Because through our analysis, we can see that teachers attempt to integrate their teaching practices. We can see that they try to move towards more active learning, they try to teach metacognition and encourage students to co construct knowledge. So, we definitely see some very positive signs from our analysis.

Joan DeJaeghere:

I just want to add that I think one of the things I find interesting and fascinating, and I wish we could explore more in this study is the attention that the system gives to what they call sort of ethics and aesthetics. These are two actual competencies that they want young people to acquire. And I just think — and this isn't only found in the Vietnamese system, but we also know that these kinds of issues get lost in a lot of other school systems. And quite frankly, I think they also get lost in Vietnam as well when the pressure is on teaching language and math to perform particularly on the tests because that's what's tested. Ethics and aesthetics are not (tested), but I do find the way that they've (Vietnamese policymakers and educators) thought about it, and the way that they try to incorporate it through the different subject areas is very fascinating. And I think we have something to learn from that as well.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

Thank you for those two lovely notes to end on. From Vu that there's still a lot of challenge, but also lots of rays of hope, and from Joan that the learning should go from the South to the North as well, and that other systems have a lot to learn from Vietnam, and not just about the high PISA scores that other people see on the surface. So, thank you very much to both of you. It's been a pleasure. I have learned a lot.

Vu Dao:

Thank you for having us.

Joan DeJaeghere:

Thank you so much for having us. We've really enjoyed being able to talk about this RISE research study and the qualitative component of it. Thank you very much.

RISE Programme:

Thank you for listening to our podcast today. And if you liked it, be sure to check out our research at RISE or follow us on social media at RISE Programme. You can find links to the research mentioned and other workshops under the description for this podcast episode. The RISE Podcast is brought to you by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme through support from the UK's Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.