Learning while having fun, PSE’s new pedagogical challenge

Find out how PSE has put teaching skills at the heart of its education programmes.

For those of you who don’t yet know, PSE is a school out of the ordinary… yes, students go there to study, but also to eat, be taken care of, play and make new friends. In short, they go there to flourish and develop. Education is at the heart of all of the association’s programmes.

Supporting the development of each child is the priority of the association; this has been the case ever since Christian and Marie-France des Pallières, PSE’s founders, started their activities in Cambodia almost 25 years ago.  It is everyone's duty, teachers, employees and volunteers, to pass on the best of themselves to the children and young adults who come to PSE every day. However, one team is better placed to do this. It is Emilie’s team, she is the manager of pedagogical team at PSE.

Soft Skills: new subject, new pedagogy

Arrived just a year ago, Emilie wants to make things happen. Specialist in coaching, she knows about communication, behavioural strategies and personal development. This knowledge allows her to bring new ideas to evolve PSE’s pedagogy. Full of hope and conviction, she decided to change PSE’s methods of learning.  “My mission is to make children smile in class” she says when asked to describe her job. For that, she has created a new pedagogy team whose objective is to develop Soft Skills at all levels in the school.

Our specialist Emilie defines the term Soft Skills as “What you do not learn in class. They are the things that make a future adult: learn how to communicate, have self-confidence, know how to work in a team, speak in public...”.  In short, Soft Skills aim to help every student shape their personalities, know their value and their importance in society, and to pass on concepts that allow them to act for future generations.

The introduction of this subject was based on an assessment of the heritage of pedagogy in Cambodia. To fully understand the current system of education, we must go back several centuries to Buddhist schools where learning was based on repetition. More recently in the history of the country, we can make the connection to the methods of indoctrination of the Khmer Rouge also based on repetition which have deeply marked this generation. “At the time, they thought that the best method of learning was repetition. The more you repeated, the more you remembered. And pedagogy in schools still works that way,” explains Emilie. “With Soft Skills, I try to show the students and also the teachers that learning can be fun, easy and attractive.” The task is not easy, but the results are slowly becoming apparent. “You cannot ask a child to change in a matter of months. I know that the implementation of this pedagogy and its impact on the students will take several years” admits the young woman, full of hope.

The Soft Skills team is made up of 12 employees: teachers, psychologists, former trainers. “Almost all of them are new” Emilie says, “except Chenda and Sopheap who are former teachers at PSE.  Sopheap is actually the most senior teacher at our school!” Emilie wanted to recruit people specialised in this field “because before it was only teachers who taught the children about their moral compass, but their teaching was very academic, and my goal is to change that” she continues.  This objective has been largely achieved thanks to applying different methods during the lessons.  I attended classes, for a week, to try to understand the new teaching method that is already causing a sensation among the students. 

One week to understand better

Soft Skills lessons take place for two hours a week for every PSE student. Each course is adapted to the needs and level of the students.

To understand the methods of the teachers and the behaviour of the students, it is important to keep in mind that many of the children who arrive at PSE have grown up in very difficult conditions.  Most of them have witnessed violence, abuse and have grown up alone without any rules or routines. “Imagine these street kids coming to PSE and for the first time in their lives, they have to stick to schedules, wear a uniform, be polite and respectful to the people around them. It is sometimes difficult, and we have to help them.” Before the Soft Skills lessons started, a similar class was given but it had a moralising objective and was very theoretical. Since the changes made by Emilie's team, the lessons have been delivered in a variety of ways: games, team building exercises, active student engagement...

During my immersion week, I was welcomed by Saream, teacher in a Year 8 class and by Somethea, teacher for students in their 2nd year of vocational training in the Hospitality and Tourism School. The specific objectives of the two courses I attended were obviously very different: “With the youngest children, you have to know how to be flexible” I am told.

To enable them to relax and get ready to listen, the children start with 10 minutes of meditation, a calm and silent moment, something rare in their hectic lives. The lesson then begins with a summary of the topics learned in the previous lesson. The pupils are free to speak, they seem happy to participate and show the others that they have understood everything. Saream then asks them to make small groups and starts a game whose goal is to think as a team. The rules are simple: the teacher asks a question, the first team to find the answer shouts “STOP”, and the team with the most correct answers wins.

Competitiveness is a key trait of Cambodian culture and everyone is keen to win the jackpot. Thanks to this technique, teachers manage to capture the attention of students from the first minute of the lesson, and therefore teach students in a fun and interactive way.

Somethea uses the same technique with his students from the Hospitality and Tourism School. There is no age limit to have fun!  The games train them to find easy management solutions. “The goal of the games in the session is to train you to find solutions quickly in a crisis situation’’, explains the teacher. A skill that is indeed essential for young people who are preparing to take their first steps in the hotel industry. Two games are planned: a team speed game and a puzzle game. Afterwards, Somethea takes time to ask the students what they have learned. Each in turn must say what they felt during the games "Teamwork", "Creativity", "Quick Thinking", ... All have their say and I am impressed by their ability to analyse. They are not shy at all and do not judge each other during the activities, qualities that allow everyone to participate without being embarrassed.  At the end of the lesson, the teacher explains that the session helps them become proactive. “I want to show that you are capable of finding a solution on your own. In companies, you will be asked to know how to manage situations and make decisions without being told to.

Somethea knows the corporate world well. Before joining PSE, he worked in the marketing department of a large Cambodian company. As for Saream, he did a master's degree in philosophy in Phnom Penh before becoming a teacher at PSE. The whole team gives their best for the students “I am a teacher, but I also work with Emilie to advance our teaching methods. This is essential for our students” Somethea told me during our meeting.

And besides, the students respond well. Meta, 12 years old and one of my classmates this week, shares: “I like Mr Saream’s class because it's fun. We play games and at the same time we learn things; it makes a change from our usual courses. The lessons are very joyful and there is bonding between the students and teachers.” Finally, the lesson could not end without a touch of humour, very important amongst Cambodians. The teams with the least points have to dance or sing a song, much to the delight of their classmates.

Responding to current challenges

The environment is a major issue in Cambodia; those who have visited the country can confirm.  At PSE, everyone tries to do their best to avoid plastic, food waste is prohibited and students have lessons to understand the importance of ecological actions. These courses are taught by young teachers specialised in the field.

During my week of discovery, I met Sophary, a young teacher at PSE. Dynamic and close to the students, his objective is to encourage students to take an interest in environmental issues and to encourage them apply what they learn to their daily lives. The implementation of care for the environment is essential. Though the goal is difficult, it is starting to bear fruit according to Emilie's observations “We have more and more youngsters participating in street cleaning days and they are always interested in the events organised by our team.

Integrated into the Soft Skills course, lessons on the environment are new and will continue to be developed in the coming years. Emilie also plans to give sex education classes. “It is not easy in Cambodia because it is a very modest society.” However, the children are already aware and gynaecologists are employed by PSE for youngsters in need. But the pedagogy team would like to apply the teaching methods of Soft Skills courses to sex education courses. “Ideally, we should implement new projects more suited to the audience and the generation we face. This should free up the dialogue and interest the students.

Emilie's techniques seem to appeal to other schools. Our pedagogy team is currently working with the Ministry of Education to use PSE teaching methods in all Cambodian state schools.