Have you heard the story about the frog in the well? Well, for Chantha Poeng this Khmer proverb perfectly illustrates why School in the Cloud is so important for Cambodia.
The Frog in the Well (Kong Keb Knong Ondong) knows nothing of great oceans and has a very narrow view of the world. He is king of all he sees and never jumps out; the well is ‘good enough’ for him.
“I want these children to stop being that frog – to get out and experience what life is like elsewhere,” explains Chantha. “This is a chance to experiment, to know and learn new things and have a conversation with the outside world.”
Chantha is the teacher at the School in the Cloud just outside Battambang. It’s the first time we’ve ‘virtually’ met and yet we spend a lot of our time laughing on Skype like we’ve known each other for years. It’s easy to see why the children are so keen to learn with her.
But she has a serious side too: she challenges the young people who come through these doors, encouraging them to be more than they ever thought possible. This approach is a sharp contrast to the country’s traditional, authoritative teaching methods which focus on teachers giving the answers and students learning by rote.
The School in the Cloud, which is run through the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), is based in a fantastic recycled classroom which includes glass bottle walls and painted tyres and is designed to inspire children to think differently about their education.
Just two weeks ago the Granny Cloud started to ‘beam’ into Cambodia for the first time, bringing much excitement and confusion along with it. Chantha tells me how the children ran to the wall, desperately searching behind the big projector to find where the granny was hiding, as they had never seen anything like it.
For the children who know a little English, they are able to talk with the grannies about the subjects they study at school and what they do in their free time, but for many others, it’s still very hard for them to communicate, although they all love a good sing song!
There are about 10 children at a time in the School in the Cloud, ranging from nine to 16-years-old. They choose their own topics and Chantha sets a Big Question.
When they first join, the children are asked what they want to be when they grow up and who their role models are. This question will be asked again at a later date to see if there are any changes. “Many say they want to be a teacher because that’s all they can think of, but we want to expand their aspirations through the School in the Cloud,” explains Chantha. “This is a new way of learning and we want to encourage them to explore it.”
To begin with, many of the children constantly turn to Chantha for help, but gradually they find their own way as she tries not to tell them much at all about the Big Questions they are tackling. “Suddenly, they say to me ‘teacher, I can do it without you!’ and I say ‘yes, you are doing it – now do you believe you can do it without me?!’” she says. “They are starting to understand it a lot better.”
Attempting a new way of learning is difficult for most people, but many of these children are from nearby slums where good quality education is hard to access. However, Chantha has already seen them start to change their minds. “They are moving from passive to active learning,” she explains. “They thought they could only learn from one computer per person but now realise that’s not true and are getting better and better at working in groups.”
The children are now talking to each other, collaborating, starting to build relationships and changing their behaviour. Where before they fought to solve a problem, now they are more likely to communicate instead.
“This is such an inspiring project – it is a first for me and for this country and I’m excited to be part of bringing about a whole style of learning, not just for Cambodia, but for the whole world,” says Chantha.
The Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) is a secular non-profit NGO helping children to break free from the cycle of poverty to become educated, ethical and empowered future leaders of Cambodia.