"Learning means knowledge, and getting a job", said 10-year-old Phoudthalith, sitting under the shade of a tree outside her small classroom in Vientiane.
For Phoudthalith, and many of her friends, the priority is getting good grades in Lao language and mathematics, learning by rote from the blackboard. When asked about what the most fun part of learning is, Phoudthalith looks uncertain about how to answer.
Across Southeast Asia, teachers, schools and governments are trying to move from a knowledge-based curriculum to one based on competency, with a focus on critical thinking and developing skills that can be transferred outside the classroom. Lao PDR is in the process of transforming its primary school curriculum, improving teacher training and placing resources where they can best help student learning outcomes.
But to do this, Governments need to know where they are at right now and how to develop strategies to improve.
One of the key tools for this is the Southeast Asian Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM), being of UNICEF and Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (SEAMEO), in close collaboration with the Ministries of Education in the region.
Put plainly, SEA-PLM is a regional learning assessment - the large-scale collection of data on student learning outcomes from schools across Southeast Asia, and the use of that information to inform curriculum development, teacher training and education policy.
Collecting this data in line with standardized practices in places like Lao PDR presents many challenges for the teams charged with coordination and communication.
From calling hundreds of schools to ask for up-to-date student lists to training and organising 216 test administrators to travel to schools across the country, the Lao technical team based at the Research Institute for Educational Sciences (RIES) in Vientiane have learnt many valuable lessons when it comes to planning and communication. These are skills that not only apply to SEA-PLM, but can be used in the design and management of national assessments.
Just as a microscope is adjusted to the correct lens to see specific cells, so does the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM) provide the tools and criteria to meet a more dynamic approach to learning. Students complete assessment booklets in the areas of reading, writing, mathematics and global citizenship, engaging in both knowledge and competency based questions.
But SEA-PLM goes deeper than this.
Test administrators also have parents, teachers and principals complete questionnaires to gain an understanding on the context in which children learn. What was the level of pre-reading before entering school? Is gender an issue? Are students being supported to do their homework and do they have access to learning material at home? SEA-PLM enables deeper level analysis of why students are and aren't learning well.
The Lao technical team have been working in collaboration with the UNICEF Lao Country Office and the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) to prepare for the collection of data for many months now. From the 30th April until 8th May Lao PDR implemented data collection for SEA-PLM.
Now, the Lao technical team members will begin marking and coding the written answers in the booklets into a code that can be compared against tests in other countries and other languages. The results from all six Southeast Asian nations involved will be compiled in one unique and complex regional database to allow reliable analysis on the level of student outcomes and equity at the regional, national and sub-national level.
The learning assessment will give an empirical snapshot of how countries, schools, pupils are faring in specific areas according to their environment for instance, type of difficulties in reading comprehension between socio-economic backgrounds or how girls and boys are learning.
For each country, the data will provide the opportunity to make informed decisions on how to shape policy and where to place resources.
For the individuals involved in the data collection and analysis, there will be specific skills learned that can translate to other areas of research and hopefully, a broadening of their understanding about what education could and should look like in cities and villages across Lao PDR.
And for children like Phoudthalith, and perhaps her children in the future, the idea of learning might be less about remembering what gets written on the blackboard, but how to learn and where that might take them.