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By nancyApril 29, 2021In Articles

Applying Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy & Ambitious Science Teaching in Computer Science Education in Vietnam

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

There is a serious lack of quality CS education in Vietnam (See more here). Simultaneously, the trend of internationalization and borrowing curriculum is increased popularity to replace the outdated curriculum and help students keep up to date with the latest technology (Tran et al., 2018). The imported curriculum can address students’ understanding of the modern world. However, it was built in a different culture where Vietnamese students did not have the same context. In addition, the curriculum will also support the dominant culture where it was created and blur the cultural characteristics of Vietnam. Thus, educators should carefully consider the method of applying imported curriculum to help students get the best of it and also sustain Vietnamese culture. Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy will be a suitable model to solve this problem.  


Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy is an extension of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. In Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, there are three main goals that teachers need to aim for. First, teaching must help students to develop necessary academic skills to become active participants in a democracy. Second, while focusing on academic achievement, students need to build ethnic and cultural identity. Third, teaching must support students “to develop a border sociopolitical consciousness that allows them to critique the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social inequities” (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Based on Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Gay (2010) developed Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, which focuses on teaching strategies. In Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, teachers use “the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them” (Gay, 2010). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP) not only inherits characteristics of both Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, but it also expands it. In terms of students’ cultures, it not only needs to be maintained but also remains as a “resource to honor, explore, and extend” (Paris, 2012, p.94).


In order to use the CSP to improve the problems CS education in Vietnam faces, I suggest three principles in designing Culturally Sustaining learning environments. First, teachers need to invite and encourage students to bring their own culture into the classroom. Second, teachers must help students to sustain Vietnamese culture while catching up with the dominant imported culture. Third, teachers need to be aware of themselves as racialized cultural humans to be thoughtful with their teaching activities.

Principle 1: Invite and encourage students to bring their own culture into the classroom.

Each student has their own background and culture. It is their family, their community, their religion, their interests, and experiences. These factors shape the way that students think and understand the world around them. Delpit said, “In order to teach you, I must know you” (2013, p.162.) Thus, teachers should invite all of these factors in class to understand more about their student. More than helping teachers understand students, encouraging students to bring their own culture into the classroom has much more meaning for students. First, students’ culture is the background that helps students construct new knowledge. “The construction of new knowledge begins with our observations of events and objects through the concepts we already process” (Novak et al., 1984, p.4). Thus, if students cannot bring their life contexts in the learning environment, they could have trouble making sense of their learning. Similarity, if education forces students to fit in with one dominant culture, it also cannot help students to learn, it will lead students to rote learning. That is the reason why traditional education, in which one teaching method fits all students, has been shown to be ineffective. Second, when students can bring their culture to the learning environment, students can be themselves and confident to show all of their competence. Students who do not feel comfortable with the learning environment mean they are not being motivated to show what they have (Pittman, 2020). Thus, to maximize students’ thriving, teachers should encourage students to show what they have and be proud of it. When students are given the opportunity to show their culture, they will gain more access and power (Paris & Alim, 2014, p.87). That will lead to achieving higher learning results and success (Ladson-Billings, 1995).

When using imported curriculums to apply in Vietnamese education, bringing students’ culture in specific and Vietnamese culture in general into the classroom become more important. Because the context of the foreign curriculum cannot match with Vietnamese students, it can be hard for them to understand. For example, to explain the algorithm concept as a set of steps in doing a task, a popular example in the U.S. is to list all the steps to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Most U.S. students are familiar with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but it is not the same situation in Vietnam. In Vietnam, students might be familiar with cooking instant noodles rather than making sandwiches. However, that is one of my assumptions based on my culture. Rather than giving assumptions about what students are familiar with, teachers should ask students to talk about their familiar activities and analyze steps in those activities. With this question, teachers do not impose any assumptions on students and also can encourage them to bring their own culture into class.

An effective way to invite students’ culture in CS class is encouraging students to find problems in their communities and solve them. There are many problems in students’ daily life that can be improved by technology. For example, one of my students wants to help her grandmother to drink medicine on time, so she created an application on smartphones to remind her grandmother. She also recorded her voice and used it as a unique reminder. Another student said that he needs to feed his dog on time with the right amount of food, but he cannot be at home all the time. To solve that problem, he created a smart bowl that will release a fixed amount of food at the pre-set time. When students can bring themselves and their own problems into the classroom, the learning process will be more engaging and meaningful for them.

Principle 2: Help students sustain Vietnamese culture while catching up with dominant culture.

Dominant culture always has a big impact on many aspects of the learning environment. The choice of content, the skills and attitude that are promoted are all deeply influenced by the prevailing culture (Bates, 2019). Indeed, focusing on CS education also is a way to adapt to the dominant culture in the world, where all the developed countries focus on technology. In addition, using imported curriculum from other countries also makes dominant culture have a bigger impact on Vietnam’s education. However, it is necessary for students to access the dominant culture to keep updated.


In CS classes, the most prevalent aspect that students can access to dominant culture is language. Most of the programming language was developed in English speaking countries, so the coding syntaxes are based on English. Although some kid-friendly programming languages offer Vietnamese translation, students must learn and use programming languages in English for more professional CS learning. In addition, when students need to search for more information to troubleshoot their problems or research new technology, most of the sources are also in English. To update with the newest technology in the world, they cannot wait until all the documents are translated into Vietnamese to learn it. So, access to the dominant culture is important for students to have a bigger chance to develop their skills.


There is no doubt about the importance and the effect of dominant culture on education. Knowing about the dominant culture helps students have a broader perspective about different cultures in the world and be updated with them. However, as I mentioned in Principle 1, student’s culture should be more focused on education to help them maximize their ability. Students should know about the dominant culture to be aware of it, get the best of it, and not be dominated by it. In other words, the learning environment always needs to support students to develop their belief and their own value, as well as their culture. It never should force students to follow the dominant culture for any reason. 

Principle 3: Grow awareness that teachers are not neutral cultural humans.

Teachers are human so teachers have their own culture. This culture can affect their whole teaching process such as activity selections, choosing examples, noticing in class and also interpreting their noticing. It is really hard to become a neutral culture human because bias is nature. There are two forms of bias: explicit bias and implicit bias (Greenwald & Krieger, 2006). Explicit bias can be aware through reflection (Starck et al., 2020). However, implicit bias is trickier because it is “the automatic cognitive association or affective predisposition” (Starck et al., 2020). Thus, people have limited awareness and control over implicit bias (Starck et al., 2020). Awareness about culture affect and bias are very important in education. Teachers’ cultures and biases can create inequitable access for different groups of students. For example, one normal bias is to teach less content for poor or urban students. This thinking does not help those students get better in learning; it deprives the equal learning opportunities. Teachers need to believe that students are capable of academic success (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Self- reflection and focus on encouraging students’ cultures will be the key ideas to help teachers to minimize their bias in teaching.

Ambitious Science Teaching

Another problem with Vietnamese education is that students are learning passively. As I described in the History of Education in Part 1, Vietnamese education was modeled after the system of the Soviet Union. Thus, the education system is firmly controlled and directed by the Ministry of Education and Training (Trines, 2017). One of the requirements is that teachers need to cover everything in the textbook. The combination of the teacher-centered model and following textbook requirements have led to rote learning in students. Rogoff (1994) argues that education based on the idea of acquiring or experts transmitting prices of knowledge makes learners have more difficulty understanding (p.209). Indeed, if the science idea does not come from students and they only take it and mimic it from the textbook, they will have a hard time making sense of it.

Ambitious Science Teaching (AST) can improve the rote learning situation in Vietnam. The AST model’s main focus is students’ sense-making and reasoning (Windschitl et al., 2018). This pedagogical model frames the act of science teaching through four core practices: (1) planning for engagement with important science ideas; (2) eliciting students’ ideas; (3) supporting ongoing changes in thinking; and (4) pressing for evidence-based explanations (University of Washington, 2018). These practices allow students to have intellectual engagement through understanding important science concepts and creating evidence-based explanations. Besides, it also gives students an equitable learning environment by encouraging all students to share their ideas and supporting them to have more sophisticated thinking (Windschitl et al., 2018). Thus, AST will resolve passive learning and provide an equally accessible learning environment for all students.

Windschitl et al. (2018) suggest eight different fundamental themes in the AST learning environment. However, in this article, I will focus on the three most essential principles to creating the AST learning environment in the Vietnam Education context. First, teachers need to encourage students to make their thinking visible and construct their thinking by making claims and evidence-based explanations. Second, all the learning activities should build toward cumulative understanding and help students to see their development in their thinking. Through all activities, students will have a more sophisticated understanding of the problem and have more evidence to support their claims or restate their claims if needed. Third is equality in the classroom environment. All students should have an equal opportunity and proper support to contribute to the project. Students’ ideas have equal value, and all of them should be used as learning resources. There should be no dominant ideas in the classroom.

Windschitl et al. (2018) proposed a critical factor of the AST learning environment: learning is oriented around complex and puzzling phenomena. However, with the firm control of the Ministry of Education and Training, this principle will require a long time to change the whole national curriculum. Thus, I will focus more on the principles that help teachers to change the way they teach. Instead of waiting for the complete change in the curriculum system, they can use these three principles to improve their teaching process with the current textbook’s topics to avoid passive learning and pay more attention to equity in education.

Principle 1: Encourage students to make their thinking visible and construct their thinking by making claims and evidence-based explanations.

In the traditional classroom, students rarely have a chance to talk. Most of the class time is a teacher giving a lecture. Thus, in the AST model, teachers need to change their teaching style and encourage students to talk to make their thinking visible. Research shows that talking is a form of thinking (Ambitious Science Teaching, 2015). Before speaking, students need to gather all related information to prepare for the talk. When the conversation happens, all of this information is gathered together and forms students’ thinking. Thus, students can show their conceptual understanding and reasoning through speech. Talk helps students develop their thoughts, but it also helps teachers understand students’ current knowledge (Ambitious Science Teaching, 2015). Knowing students’ existing knowledge is very important to teachers. It helps teachers to form the next learning activity to adapt to students’ needs. Without this information, the following learning activity will likely have a significant chance of not bringing any value to students. Besides, by listening to their peers, students can have more ideas to form their thoughts and strengthen their ideas by critiquing others’ ideas. Indeed, Porter et al. (2011) suggest that students have a comparable exploration of peer values and even expand their knowledge via discussion in computer science classes. For example, it has been shown that 85-89% of students can benefit from peer discussion (Porter et al., 2011). Consequently, instead of giving students all the science ideas and reasoning from the textbook and asking them to accept them at face value, teachers should encourage students to talk and build their ideas.


Besides encouraging students to talk, to make sure it is an effective discussion, teachers should guide students’ speech to make a claim and then provide evidence-based explanations. Forming an argument by claim and evidence will be a real challenge for Vietnamese students. Traditional history frames students’ thoughts on accepting everything from the textbook and teachers without questions. Students sometimes just follow the instructional steps and do their work without understanding the process. So, this switch might make students feel confused and uncomfortable with some questions about evidence and reasoning, such as “why do you think that?” However, teachers should keep encouraging students to provide more evidence-based explanations because it is authentic disciplinary discourse and gives students accountability for using multiple sources of information to construct final explanations (University of Washington, 2018). In other words, the process of making claims and finding evidence-based explanations will help students create their own scientific ideas and make sense of their learning.


Thompson et al. (2016) suggest that teachers should use multiple forms of responsive talk to elevate the rigors of learning. There are three different forms of responsive talk: building on students’ science ideas, attending to students’ participation in the learning community, and folding in student’s lived experiences (Thompson et al., 2016). First, building on students’ science ideas means teachers use students’ ideas as learning material. Teachers can ask questions to clarify the ideas or require students to have deeper thinking about their ideas. For example, to investigate a solution for a problem in CS, teachers might ask students to think more about the case that your solution has not been handled yet. These questions are not only for the idea provider; teachers’ questions also are given to all students. The whole group may discuss together to criticize and add supportive ideas to help each student finalize their own ideas.
Second, students need to participate in a learning community. As I described above, there is an undeniable importance of working together. Thompson et al. (2016) also suggest that “the function of classroom talk is connection building, in which a community of speakers joined makes meaning as they link ideas together” (p.9). Thus, teachers should create multiple opportunities for students to share their ideas in groups. However, teachers also need to keep in mind the respect norms in the discussion as well as the norm giving an idea that includes evidence-based explanations to keep discussion efficient.


Third, teachers should help students to connect their lived experiences to the lesson. Research shows that knowledge built on students’ life experiences is meaningful for students because it provides authentic learning contexts (Thompson et al., 2016). Thus, to help students provide more evidence-based explanations, teachers can encourage students to include their life experiences as evidence. This will help students have easier access to evidence and connect learning knowledge with their normal experiences.

Principle 2: Activities build toward cumulative understandings, helping students to see the change in their claim and evidence.

The second principle relates to how teachers structure their lessons. Based on the AST model, all activities need to be built toward cumulative understanding (University of Washington, 2018). The first activity is usually an introduction to the phenomenon or the problem. Students will model the problem through this activity and use their prior knowledge and lived experience to make their first claim and evidence. After that, based on what students already know, teachers will provide follow-up activities to provide students with more information and experiences related to the main problem (University of Washington, 2018). Through these activities, students will collect new evidence and improve their claims. Thus, all the activities should be selected based on students’ current situations and structured in a suitable order to help students gradually explore the sophistication of the problem and develop their thinking.


The AST model is different from traditional education because it allows students to explore knowledge like scientists gradually through a sequence of activities. All the science ideas come from students; they are not passively received from the textbook, teacher, or dominant students. Their prior knowledge and experiences in the classroom environment connect together to help them build up their own ideas. In other words, a set of class activities is a process to help students to accumulate their understanding.


In computer science classes, teachers can apply this principle to reveal each layer of complexity. For example, with a coding problem, there are so many different test cases for it. At the first time, students might not be able to handle all the situations. By various activities, such as giving more data about other conditions, exchanging test cases with peers, or discussing different concerns, students can improve their solutions. Research shows that the types of sense-making talk, even orchestrated by the teacher, will improve students’ reasoning and learning (University of Washington, 2018). Thus, these activities help students develop new ideas, provide more evidence-based explanations, and strengthen their claims. This is the typical learning process in the AST model.

Principle 3: Promote an equitable classroom environment.

When teachers create learning activities based on the first principle to make students’ thoughts explicit, teachers will have a big chance to notice students’ engagement. By observing the discussion, teachers could find students who strongly engage and who are less active. In that situation, the AST model suggests that teachers should investigate the reason why students might be less engaged in the class and provide good scaffolding ideas or encouragement to support these students (University of Washington, 2018). This action matches two core practices in the AST model: eliciting students’ ideas and supporting ongoing changes in thinking. So, noticing equal access and participation in the classroom is an important role of the teachers to understand how to motivate students and sustain broad-based activity (Hand, 2012).


In computer science classes and many different subject classes, it is easy to find that some dominant students will lead all class activities. If teachers allow this situation to happen, it is a risk for other students because they may not have a chance to express their thoughts. When students refuse to participate and accept the dominant ideas, it is similar to passive learning, even though there is a discussion in the class. Students cannot make sense of the new knowledge if they do not create it, add on it, or critique it. Therefore, teachers need to keep in mind the equal opportunities for students to participate and access the learning materials. The AST model is successful when all students can make sense of their learning, not just the dominant students.

Compare and Contrast: Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy and the Ambitious Science Teaching in Computer Science Education in Vietnam

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy and Ambitious Science Teaching both aim to solve the problem of inequality in education. However, each model has a different assumption about equality education, and, therefore, different approaches. In the CSP model, to achieve equality, students, especially marginalized students, need to be supported to increase their access and power in society (Paris & Alim, 2014, p. 87). Thus, CSP focuses on bringing students’ cultures to the classroom to promote and sustain them. Through this method, the classroom environment will gain more students’ trust and students will feel more comfortable to express themselves in the classroom. Feeling a sense of belonging within the classroom leads to two important results. First, students from different cultures will gain more power in the classroom because the dominant culture is not the only valued culture in the classroom. All different cultures and the individuals represented within those cultures are valued equally. Second, students are more likely to experience academic success (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Indeed, when classrooms support multiple cultures, students will have more access to learning opportunities, leading to more achievements.

In the AST model, the assumption about equality is a little bit different. The AST model promotes equality by ensuring instruction is rigorous and equitable for students from all backgrounds (Windschitl, 2018). By understanding the differences between each student, the AST model focuses on helping students build their own arguments and guide them through different activities to find evidence to strengthen their scientific ideas. Prior knowledge is used to support students in building their understanding. Thus, students have equal chances to make sense of their learning in their own ways. Students are not required to admit ideas to learn by heart without understanding because those ideas come from the dominant culture.

Besides the differences in approaches to solving the problem of equity, each pedagogical approach has unique insight into how to improve Vietnam’s educational system. Vietnam, a small developing country, cannot have enough funding and researchers for doing research and create whole new curriculums for all subjects. Thus, importing CS curriculums, especially STEM subjects, from developed countries is the quickest way to improve the education system. In that situation, the CSP model will be a suitable method to foster and maintain Vietnamese culture while helping students access the world’s dominant culture. The AST model helps improve teaching methods and eliminate rote learning in Vietnam. Students will learn to use their minds to create scientific ideas and look for evidence to explain them. In order to replace the outdated teaching system with this new method, it will be a huge challenge for both students and teachers. However, AST has proved that it improves student participation and learning (University of Washington, 2018), so it is worth it for teachers and students to integrate this method.

Although there is a difference in the approach of each model, there is no conflict in applying both these two models in one learning environment. Thus, if education leaders can consider both models and inspire teachers to use both of them, it will yield the best outcome. Vietnamese students can keep up with the most technology in the world while understanding and applying it to their own background and cultures. This will be a significant revolution in the teaching and learning process.


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