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Oddball Questions as a Means to Educate and Energize New World History Teachers: Vietnam, a Case Study

David Pickus and Hoang Thanh Tu


     Is there an exercise that would strengthen the morale of world history teachers-in-training? One that would also help them develop more incisive and imaginative pedagogical skills, while deepening their knowledge of substantive scholarship? This exercise would supplement, but not replace a full history course, and be a booster, but one with an ongoing payoff for the teachers. We feel there is, and have given this exercise the name: "oddball questions." To try it, we tested it on several students of education and history in Hanoi, Vietnam. The following pages describe our experiment, the evidence we have assembled and the conclusions reached. Though not without missteps in execution, and pitfalls in application, we feel the experiment met with enough success to merit wider consideration, particularly as it is relevant not only to Vietnam, but to any place where the teaching of world history is taken up without any specialized pedagogical or disciplinary training.

     "Oddball" refers to historical questions that the rising teachers themselves did not expect to field, but which, once posed, strengthened their sensitivity to the past, and to the ways that students likely perceive it. Our starting point is that the more intensively and fruitfully novice teachers undergo an intensive training in the asking and answering of significant historical questions, the more their future pupils will benefit.1 World history instructors must be in a strong position to reflect on the value of what is being asked and answered in historical literature.2 Yet, it is not easy to internalize these skills, and it is all too easy to declare that instructors should acquire such aptitude, without demonstrating how they are to do so. Part of the problem, much commented on, is the difficulty of reconciling conflicting demands for increased specialization with general knowledge.3 Yet, even if new teachers in Vietnam are made well aware of these challenges and difficulties, they still need everyday models of how to ask and answer historical questions, as well as requiring practice integrating this questioning into the historical chronology they are seeking to impart.

     Our experiment was conducted among students participating in a new, and, for them, unconventional program. They are a graduating class from a "3+1" venture, whereby undergraduates spend three years studying history and historical methods at the Vietnam National University of Humanities and Social Sciences, and a final year on intensive pedagogy at the University of Education.4 This innovation aims to produce teachers both skillful and knowledgeable, enabling these graduates to contribute more adeptly and flexibly to Vietnam's developing society. Once they achieve their degree of "Bachelor of History in Teacher's Education," the hope is that they should not only be prepared to teach history in primary, secondary and vocational schools, but will be able to apply these skills to work in administration and business, as well as advanced studies.

     June of 2014 marks the first graduating class to receive such training, generating a somewhat larger willingness among undergraduates to reflect on the ends of their education. As they finish, they wonder where this combination of traditional historical study and educational theory will lead. In conversation, they express concern about how national and world history will be combined in practice, as well as the scope they will have to apply their own ideas and innovations. In this context, we assembled a focus group of about a dozen students and asked them to keep an open mind while writing answers to questions that came to them from unexpected intellectual directions.5 These "oddball" questions were as follows:

1. Who have been the most physically secure people in history; that is, free from any violence or threats of violence? Why have they been so safe?

2. If you wanted to preserve a piece of writing for ten thousand years what would be the best way to do it?

3. Where are most people physically located when they exchange their first kiss? Why there, and not in some other place?

4. What animals are most important to humans? Has this changed over time?

Why choose these questions and what do the answers reveal? Clarifying this also explains why this exercise holds promise for improving teacher-training for Vietnamese world history instructors.

Methods and Context

     The experiment proceeded as follows: first, students were asked to provide written answers to the questions above. Following a debriefing, they were subsequently asked to contribute a written evaluation of the exercise itself. The total process generated about 25 pages of text. This is a limited amount, but it generated enough qualitative data to draw some meaningful conclusions, even if they must be further tested in a wider scope and a more controllable manner. Our primary focus was to analyze the historical sensibilities implicit in the students' answers, and to reflect on the implications for their future careers. Hence, we concentrate on the students own words, and wish to quote them (in translation) amply. We make some alterations in grammar to bridge the language difference, but do not smooth out their writing in order to capture the immediacy of their thinking. We aim to show that as students participated in the exercise, the questions lost their oddness, helping them think more incisively about the educational vocation awaiting them.

     Some words on the wider pedagogical context in Vietnam are necessary to set the scene. Though students answered the questions without much context, we introduced our efforts by stating that we also realize that teaching world history requires highly developed skills in drawing comparisons and connections. Following Antoinette Burton, we agreed that world history syllabi and courses should present a fundamental, underlying structural design that, "leaves students with a skill set for apprehending the world, past and present, that is adaptable to both their larger pursuit of study and their lives as twenty-first century citizens."6 Yet, simply announcing these concerns is insufficient. We must consider how ideals of this sort look from the standpoint of the crowded courtyards and stairwells of an education school in Hanoi. Anyone who has visited a Vietnamese university recognizes the sight of students huddling in groups, pouring over their notes or scanned and photocopied texts. The issue here is what they make of their studies, beyond any directives they receive. What will happen when they are alone with a class?

     Unquestionably, the literature on teaching world history contains many rich suggestions for conveying linkages and multi-dimensionality, but this presumes that emerging teachers have cultivated an aptitude for doing just that. Yet, if this is difficult to do in a resource-rich environment, it is doubly difficult in a developing pedagogical field.7 Consider these students' place within Vietnamese society. Challenges do not only come from the fact that, on the whole, they receive less formal training than in wealthier countries. Their flexibility is also constrained. It is common for a recent college graduate to remain at the same school for a career, adapting to the prevailing milieu. Mentoring programs, while growing, are comparatively undeveloped, and likely do not reach those settled in. Young teachers are most likely to retain habits and methods acquired in early training. The situation for those with advanced degrees does not differ significantly. Much instruction at Vietnamese universities is given by those with MA's. While they are commonly on the books as PhD students, in reality their heavy teaching load and general financial situation keep them at the task, sometimes for a career. The help they can offer younger students, while real, is limited. Hence, the point to be emphasized is that BA education truly is formative pedagogically. Exposing undergraduate students to fruitful forms of strategizing has the potential to reverberate positively throughout their teaching career.

     Thus, we turn back to our oddball questions with an eye toward showing how they can jar teachers in training to richer, more pedagogically effective, historical thinking. To start, we explain our aims in selecting the question, followed by an analysis of the student answers. In conclusion, we propose a preliminary verdict on the value of the exercise itself, outlining a path for future research and engagement.


     Each question was designed to evoke a field of historical inquiry. What did this indirect approach accomplish and what do the student responses reveal about their participation? To answer, we evaluate each question in turn. The explanation of the first question is slightly longer, as we use it to further clarify the pedagogical logic of our questions as a whole.

1. Who are history's most physically secure people?

     Pedagogical Logic. We chose this question as a way of investigating the understanding of what Norbert Elias calls the "pacification process," 8 along with the Hobbesian argument that violence is only subdued when a sovereign power emerges to hold all others in awe. We understand and acknowledge that it would be less coy to sit the students down and say simply "This is Norbert Elias and here is what he wrote." However, even at well-apportioned universities, it is not inevitable that an undergraduate would read his work, or register its significance if assigned. Asking students about the conditions allowing people to live in safety thus serves as an invitation to inquire into something that all high school history teachers must address, even if anecdotally and informally, namely the origins of personal and collective security. This question is an important bridge to other branches of the social sciences, since, guided properly, it also leads students to think about what Steven Pinker calls "The Better Angels of our Nature,"9 and the reasons humanity only sometimes succeeds in suppressing or channeling its impulse towards violence.

     Student Response. The answers fell into two categories. The majority picked rulers, kings, etc. Another student said "no one," and a final student said it was those who love world peace because "They are safe because in their thoughts and way of life, violence and war don't exist."

     Pedagogical Verdict. We consider the responses productive enough to make it a successful question. Although the notion that rulers are the safest clearly fits some historical contexts better than others (think of Roman emperors in the third century AD), the student answers provide direct occasion to theorize what previously was unreflectively accepted. As these emerging teachers reflected on this question, they showed willingness to think about the difference between periods when common people are left to survive (if possible) and times when the conflict exists between elites, since "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." In addition, disputes about relative degrees of safety admit no easy resolution, if at all. And, while in other contexts such ambiguity may be a hindrance, within an oddball question it is helpful because it presses student to define their notion of safety more precisely and relate it to the historical record. Consider the poignant response of one student who declared that though some people were safe, nobody could be considered the safest, and then wrote (in English), "Even the Jews with a gentle nature could not get out of the Nazi's clutches and even the dead didn't escape the brutal revenge of their enemy, so who can (be) free from any violence or threats of violence?" The point is not that this particular answer expresses a final word, but that the fact that students spent some time considering it "primes" them to think about more sharply defined historical questions like "Why were Cromwell's remains exhumed and desecrated?" along with macro ones like "Under what conditions are minorities safe or unsafe?" Finally, the oddball questions provide occasion to elicit more introspection on the part of the student. Thus, students who answer this question by referring to those who are safe in their minds could be asked if they have been influenced by Buddhist ethics and the impact on this value-system on history.

2. If you wanted to preserve a piece of writing for ten thousand years what would be the best way to do it?

     Logic. This question was designed to provoke reflection on the history of media and communication, and to prepare them for absorbing the insights found in a book like James Gleick's The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood,10 or even Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction.11 A question sparking the realization that all media have their strengths and limitations can form the basis of an inquiry into the history of interactions between media and society.

     Student Answers. This question generated answers like carving words into rocks, or saving them in digital form. The relative brevity and superficiality of these responses at first led us to conclude that our question was either misguided or ill-formulated. Yet, just when we thought we must reformulate entirely, one student wrote: "The safest and most durable place to preserve something is in the human memory and hearts. Even the most durable material will be defeated by time." This poetic insight into the "victory" of time is also a historical one. It raises the question of how transience has been conceptualized by different civilization, and the strategies used to ward off oblivion. Hence, for some students, a question about preserving memory can be a first step toward devising curricula about its cultivation. The same student perceptively added that "a preserved product or object that is kept for a long time but is not known by people is no better than something that doesn't exist. Therefore, to preserve a document in 10000 years or more is to let as many people as possible know about it." The valuable questions that follow from this insight are what documents to publicize, and how to make the contents of what is publicized endure.

     Verdict. Our feelings about this question are mixed. It may be "too oddball," in that the steps leading from it to sustained historical inquiry are too involved or remote. However, archaeology is a recognized part of history education in Vietnam, and young students are introduced to the problem of reading inscriptions from Vietnam's early kingdoms. There will probably always be some teachers in training that feel the poignancy of humanity's ultimately losing effort to preserve records in the face of time, and this question may serve as a vehicle allowing historically informed lessons to emerge from a heightened sensitivity to transience. Alternately, the students themselves can likely come up with new and better questions for sparking reflection on the historicity of media. An awkward oddball question may open a path to a more apt one.

3. Where are most people physically located when they received their first kiss? Why there, and not in some other place?

     Logic. The pitfalls inherent in this exercise most emerged in this question which sought to bridge reflection on the history of intimacy with considerations of differing geographical conditions and changing standards of space and design. Our hope was that a student would imagine couples located in different places in different societies and eras, sparking consideration of what changes in courtship, etc. As a model we had in mind works on the transformation of affective bonds like Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.12 Yet, while the students showed a willingness to think historically, we discovered they did not necessarily think along the same historical lines.

     Student Answers. The question, as initially devised, had a kiss between lovers in mind, not between parents and children, etc. We only became aware of our implicit assumption when the majority of students interpreted the question to mean a sign of affection a small child received from an elder family member. We are still not sure if there was something about the phrasing of the question in Vietnamese, or a simple reluctance to speak about an erotic topic to an unfamiliar audience, but most students seemed hesitant to write much about anything else. At the same time, a few proposed answers like "Under a tree, a beach, a rooftop or a sky full of stars," meaning the question could be understood with our intention in mind.

     Verdict. Put bluntly: mixed. This question effectively revealed the limitations of presuming there will be a graceful, non-stumbling leap from an oddball question to a fruitful lesson in history. Of course, the students were right to point out the various meanings of the term "kiss." If explicated further, the question could be used to investigate why societies interpret gestures of affection in different ways. Likewise, the question also invites consideration of the relationship between the physical environment, dwellings, cityscapes, etc. along with emotional life. This topic could spark informative lesson plans in the future. Still, we feel we should focus on what we did not accomplish. This failed—or only partially successful effort—is useful because it shows that the "jolt" or strangeness of the oddball question works in another direction: the questioners' assumptions will be challenged as much as the questioned. While unintended, this is also a desirable outcome, since one of the advantages of asking an oddball question, as opposed to announcing the purpose in advance, is that it opens a spontaneous space to alter inquiries and even redirect them back at the questioner.13 In this case, the question for Hanoi students would be whether they see something about the social meaning of the kiss that someone from a Western society would likely overlook. Likewise, in a wider sense, the problems with this question also warn not to copy other people's oddball questions without due reflection. They might not always work as desired.

4. What animals are most important to humans? Has this changed over time?

     Logic. We designed this question to integrate student understanding of social and political history with environmental and natural history. We had in mind books like J. R. McNeill's Something New Under the Sun.14 To be sure, we did not necessarily expect that the students would form a grand theory, but would offer some reflection on how humanity's relationship with animals has changed over time. This is sound training for future teachers who are increasingly expected to clarify the complex linkages between economies, ecology and history.

     Student Answers. The results were interesting in that this particular group did not seem to be especially intrigued by the question. Some stated accurately enough that there is no such thing as "one" most important animal. This is true, of course, in the sense that humanity has always interacted, and depended on, many animals. But a history of the water buffalo in their own country would show that a single animal can be centrally important to a civilization, as much as the camel in the Arabian Desert, or herring or cod in the North Atlantic.15 In a few other responses, some students suggested that dogs were most important because of their role as pets and companions, though they also mentioned the dogs' place in the local cuisine.

     Verdict. These few responses cry out for a larger sample size. However, should they be representative they suggest that as Vietnamese world history instructors learn more about the ways that humanity's relationship with animals has changed, they would be able to incorporate more interesting perspectives into their teaching practice. The question is still valuable to us as raising it opened a discussion of what they know of the natural world, leading to the wider question of what they intend to incorporate of this knowledge into their teaching. These larger issues will be analyzed in the following section.

Context: Training in Connectivity

     Why are these results promising? To answer, we must step back and consider the larger context in which these students inaugurate their careers. No one doubts that education is central to Vietnam's future development. This is recognized by the government, which outlines large and ambitious goals in its Education Development Training Strategy for 201120. Vietnam is "one of the leading countries in South-East Asia in terms of the proportion of GDP allocated to education."16 But the effort is not only top down. Families simultaneously invest a large percentage of their own resources to education, often at great sacrifice.17 Visitors to urban residential neighborhoods easily notice the large number of tutoring and test preparation services. Yet, practically no one is satisfied with the status quo, and "The quality of teaching and curriculum in Vietnam is widely viewed as being inadequate. The kind of teaching that is widely practiced encourages students to focus more on mastery of theory and the acquisition of memorized knowledge than on the development of analytic, problem-solving and communication skills."18 Adding to these problems is the "'tyranny of testing' that is evident in the education system.," meaning that due to the ongoing cramming, students "become passive learners, which is contrary to the thrust of new training programs recently introduced."19 Of course, these problems are not unique to Vietnam, but it is worth letting the gravity of the situation sink in, as these challenges will shape the subsequent experiences of these young teachers.

     Placing world history on the curriculum provides them with a special opportunity and challenge, as world history by definition revolves around grasping wider connections, conflicts and relations. Teaching world history thus requires making what Antoinette Burton calls "connectivity"20 meaningful, and greater cognizance of and reflection on connectivity energizes education itself. But to return to our main question, how are young instructors to translate this goal into actual practice? There is no obvious way to integrate it into the curriculum as one skill among many. It is a habit of thought that must be carefully cultivated. To see the problem from the perspective of these students, let us return to some of Antoinette Burton's suggestions as to how to cultivate consciousness of connectivity. She proposes that world history instructors could:

Use the Red Turban revolt of 1351 to create your narrative of the rise and fall of the Ming dynasty. Screen images of the Johnston flood of 1889 and work backwards and forwards in time and space to take up the question of geophysical patterns and "disasters" either as a one-off unit or as part of a global environmental history syllabus. Begin with someone's birthdate—Lorenzo de' Medici, Harriet Tubman, or Ho Chi Minh—and conjure their worlds from there.21

These ambitious prescriptions certainly have merit, and there is no reason to presume this practice could not be taken up effectively in a Vietnamese classroom. For instance, an overview of the environmental problems currently facing the Mekong Delta could become a starting point for a multi-dimensional investigation of Vietnam's place in world history.22 Any number of fruitful topics could be raised from the Indian Ocean trade to French imperialism and the establishment of Cochin-china to the interactions of the nations that currently rely on the Mekong for a border, and their own vulnerabilities in the face of the wider world.23 Ho Chi Minh's birthdate could well be used as a focal point.

     Yet, again we must return in our minds to the courtyards and stairwells where these future teachers study. Burton's suggestions begin with the assumption that the instructor is familiar with multi-dimensional conceptual weaving. Even though they readily agree that the imaginative drawing of connections is a desirable pedagogical goal, their most common question is how to learn to do it. There is no easy answer to this question. Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that these new teachers will be required to teach the national curriculum, at either a basic or advanced level. This does not mean that teachers have no leeway. They have significant choice in how to structure the textbook's lessons and to devise different strategies for illustrating the wider points.24 This only underscores the centrality of developing the skillful art of asking and answering questions, which is central to their development, as well as to the subsequent development of their pupils.

     This is why the "oddball question" exercise is valuable: it jars students into seeing more connections than they saw before, allowing them to enhance the ways they teach connectivity to their own pupils.25 How do we know this? For this question, we should turn to words of the students themselves.

Student Feedback

     These questions are not ends in themselves. What matters is the ways students use them for further inquiry and learning. They are incomplete without ongoing interaction between those asking the questions and those answering them. Students should understand what historiographical issues are at stake, and be able to relate them to their other pedagogical and intellectual interests. To this end, we consider the student feedback on whether they found the exercise useful and how it might affect the ways they ask and answer questions as a teacher.

     No one surveyed expressed dissatisfaction or regret at participating. In fact, they all liked trying to answer the questions posed. At the same time, they all saw that there was no easy path to transform these questions into everyday practice. The questions reminded them that the practice of drawing connections requires much knowledge and imagination. As one student voiced openly, "When I read those questions, I spoke out loud: These questions are not questions, they are challenges."26 Would they accept the premise that such challenges are useful? The student's subsequent response to her own observation reads as follows:

Truth be told, I had thought that some questions are not relative to how to teach world history better, such us the third question about the first kiss. I tried to use all of my knowledge to answer these questions. When I found out the answers, I realized that to get the best answers I need to gather knowledge about world history, have critical thinking, and the condition to do that is having a deep, detailed knowledge about world history in an objective view. (BA student)

In the end, this exercise was a productive surprise, as the student felt the unusual questions made her more aware of the limits of her understanding. In a small way, this feeling can inspire her to make intensive question-formulating a part of her teaching vocation. She did, therefore, grasp and accept the challenge we gave her.

     Of course, there are myriad forces that dampen the enthusiasm of young teachers, and channel them into resignation and conformity.27 The students also discussed this prospect openly when considering whether or not they would adapt some version of this method for their own high school classrooms. About one quarter voiced the opinion that Hanoi students are not especially interested in studying history and regard the task of memorizing names and dates for the university entrance exam as onerous and anxiety provoking. For that reason, they expressed a desire to improve their skill in clarifying and making more relevant the questions raised by historical study. As another BA student wrote, posing these open-ended queries helps teachers "avoid questions that require student to study textbooks by heart." This view was seconded by a peer as "The state of worrying and being afraid will make students lose interest in studying historical materials...there should be questions for students to think and argue with another classmate's opinion." A third student tried to go beyond the everyday problem of instruction to concentrate on what he saw as the underlying task of history instruction:

Answering these questions pointed out issues that need to be improved in order to improve historical understanding. The past and present has an inherent and developing relationship. I can't fully and accurately explain or assess the problems of the present without comparing and contrasting with similar events in the past. (BA student)

Not all students were so articulate, but the general consensus was that the unusual questions had the desired effect of sparking more reflection on pedagogical goals.

     Furthermore, participating in this exercise seemed to cause some meaningful changes within the students. One commented: "I was embarrassed when I answered the questions. I didn't know how to answer them with knowledge of history, by the perspective of a history learner." She added, "To have the best answers, the learner as well as the teacher has to research by themselves. The more we know about history, the more we love it." Perhaps she will act more on this sentiment. Another student who joined the study commented:

The questions really surprised me. At first I thought I would receive questions relating to significant knowledge and events. But the questions were about practical knowledge, about social problems that really interest me. Those problems still exist in everyday life and we rarely question or answer them. While I was answering the questions, I found that improving my historical knowledge is really necessary. (MA student)

Again, we do not know if this conclusion will transform itself into action, but it does seem a resolution for change. Finally, the same student who said that our questions were really challenges described an overlap in her approach to teaching. She tutors a pupil in a local high school, and

I can say my student had had zero knowledge about history and before I taught him truly hated studying history. But the questions he asked me made me surprised, such us: Why are many Western countries are very developed and rich but most oriental countries are not?, Why does North Viet Nam have many different characteristics in comparison with South Viet Nam? Or something like that…I asked my student to tell his ideas before I told him the answer. To answer these questions like that I often make links from the past to present, between world history and Vietnamese history, and use the knowledge in different fields. This way, my student understands my ideas rapidly and now he likes learning history. (BA student)

In sum, passages like these lend weight to our belief that the exercise was helpful to students. Given the evidence collected, what conclusions can we draw?


     Undoubtedly, these questions alone do not bring clarity or answers. On the contrary, unless done with proper explanation and modeling, the project will remain a gimmick, and an unhelpful one at that. The point of giving the questions to these teachers in training is to show that they indeed rise to the occasion, providing thoughtful answers and a willingness to apply new creativity to their own question-asking. We recognize that the small-scale and relative informality of the qualitative questions do not settle the larger issues relating to the study. Our hope is that this first step can build momentum to study the 3+1 students' responses to these questions in more depth. It also is an opportunity to work more closely with the Faculty of Teacher Education at the Vietnam National University. The point is not just to produce more data, but to support and encourage student enthusiasm for the art of questioning altogether. We break down our conclusions into three questions of our own:

     Why not substitute direct instruction for the indirect approach of these questions? The answer is that the best-formulated of the oddball questions overcame passivity and invited students to imagine actively what they needed to know to answer them fully. What made the questions productive was—as the students themselves noted—the challenge to the listener to form their own connections. This is the habit we wish to instill.28

     In this context, further disseminating the notion of oddball questions also alerts students to scholarly trends in history. For example, a question about the possible impact of a sudden change in climate could be an opportunity to publicize some of the central arguments of Geoffrey Parker's Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century.29 While it would be ideal if students read the work in its entirety and commented on it in depth, that is not to be expected even in wealthy countries with well-stocked libraries and heavy subsidies of e-books. As these questions are discussed, opportunities will arise, especially for MA students, to help the final-year undergraduates learn about the content of new works. This has the potential to create its own upward momentum, and its own sense of community, should BA and MA students internalize its goals and methods.30

     How to distinguish a productive oddball question from a tendentious, confusing or trivial one? Successful questions must buy in to something pedagogically sound, and something that complements and enriches their standard historical education. Only the participants can decide what fully meets these criteria. The simple answer, therefore, is that as students and teachers participate in the process of devising their own questions and producing informative and creative ways to answer them, they should also take it upon themselves to guarantee its integrity. We find it heartening that the students responded to the questions not only with interest, but with a desire to think critically about their purpose and impact. For this reason, we believe that if involved with the process further they would not treat it as a passing fad. As the experiment grows in sophistication, we are optimistic that ways can be found to correct its false steps and more productively incorporate feedback from participants.

     What to do next? These students are at a critical moment in their professional development. As they disperse to take positions in different schools, look for work, or try further study, they run an evident risk of losing their commitment to developing their skills and knowledge as world history teachers. This danger comes precisely at a moment when Vietnamese education as a whole needs more effective innovation. What we hope to do next is expand the experiment to remain involved as they formulate questions for their own pupils. This expansion will enable the collection of more data and the advice and involvement of others interested in the technique. But, above all, more oddball questions can fuel enthusiasm for reflecting on questions posed and answers given. This is a means for cultivating an aptitude for "connectivity" so vital for teachers of world history,31 and so meaningful for those embarking on their new careers.

     Furthermore, this process knows no boundaries. A study of how young Vietnamese teachers respond invites comparison to other countries, and opens new opportunities for cross-national pedagogy. The future consequences of both the exercise and the academic study of it cannot be scripted. It depends on shared interest and effort, and future investigation may provide revealing insights as to how Vietnamese response compare to others. To be sure, oddball questions may need to be shaped and altered to fit the educational environment in countries other than Vietnam. However, there is nothing particularly culture-bound about the process of asking and answering questions. And once this process starts there is no telling where it takes both instructors and students. This open-endedness is indeed the point.

David Pickus received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1995 in German intellectual history. He is currently an Associate Professor of History at the RenMin University of China in Beijing. His current research interests include the interaction between European and Asian civilizations and the impact of globalization on education and value systems.

Hoang Thanh Tu is a Doctor of History Education at the University of Education-Vietnam National University, Hanoi. She received her Ph.D. in History Education from Hanoi National University of Education in 2011. She teaches courses on methodology and technology of history teaching, program development of history education in high school. She has published essays on history teaching methods and techniques. She is especially interested in developing history curriculum for Vietnamese history textbooks.


1 Our thoughts on the importance of question-formulation were sparked by some thoughts put forward by Bernard Bailyn in On the Teaching and Writing of History: Responses to a Series of Questions (Hanover, N.H.: Montgomery Endowment, Dartmouth College, 1994) ed. Edward Connery, especially, 18.

2 See Theodore K. Rabb, "Teaching World History: Problems and Possibilities," in Historically Speaking, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Jan. 2009), 15.

3 Almost all commentators mention this point. L. S. Stavrianos' half-century old paper is still valuable because it shows how concerns about appropriate content remain the same. "The Teaching of World History," The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 31, No. 2 (June, 1959), 110–17.

4 In Vietnamese: Chương trình chuẩn đào tạo trình độ đại học ngành Sư phạm Lịch sử, Trường Đại học Giáo dục Đại học Quốc gia Hà Nội (Ban hành kèm theo Quyết định số 4480/QĐ - ĐT ngày 24 tháng 12 năm 2012 của Giám đốc ĐHQGHN).

5 For an extended defense of the need for the unexpected in pedagogy, see Jonathan E. Adler "Surprise," in Educational Theory 58, no. 2 (2008), 149–73.

6 Antoinette Burton, A Primer for Teaching World History: Ten Design Principles (Durham and London: Duke University Press Books, 2012), 2.

7 Take, for instance, a suggestion by Dwight Gibb that students of world history "Write a hypothetical history of the Caribbean, describing an arrangement that could have met European needs while providing better conditions for agricultural laborers." This is a fascinating question, but also one that assumes students are well socialized in to the art of asking and answering historical questions. See his full approach in "Interior Dimensions of World History: A Process Approach," Teaching World History: A Resource Book, Heidi Roupp, ed. M.E. Sharpe, Armonk and London, 1997, 56.

8 See the sections on the civilizing process in Norbert Elias on Civilization, Power and Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), ed. and introduced by Stephan Mennell and Johan Goudblom, 49–109.

9 Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (New York: Viking, 2010).

10 James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (New York: Pantheon, 2011).

11 Andrew Robinson, Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction (New York, Oxford University Press, 2009).

12 Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking, 2005).

13 This spontaneity is not meant to be a mysterious quality. It is a feeling that ideas and concerns are shared and appreciated. There is a growing body of pedagogical research on the importance of empathy—the feeling of being understood and appreciated—in fostering pedagogical engagement. See Bridget Cooper, Empathy in Education: Engagement, Values and Achievement (London and New York: Continuum, 2011).

14 J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

15 For general information, see Kenneth F. Kiple "Water Buffalo," in The Cambridge World History of Food, (Cambridge, U.K., Cambridge University Press, 2000), 583–607.

16 Martin Hayden and Le Thi Ngoc Lan, "Vietnam: The Education System—A Need to Improve Quality," in Education in South-East Asia (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) ed. Lorraine Pe Symaco, 335.

17 Jonathan D. London, "Education in Vietnam: Historical Roots, Recent Trends," 3.

18 Hayden and Le, "Vietnam: The Education System," 337.

19 Hayden and Le, Vietnam: The Education System," 337. See also London, "Education in Vietnam," 32.

20 Burton, "Primer for Teaching World History," 26.

21 Burton, "Primer for Teaching World History," 72.

22 Another example of this approach is Thomas Anderson's "Teaching the Indian Ocean as World History" in World History Connected, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Feb. 2014).

23 For the wider content, see Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, Vols. I and II. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988 and 1993).

24 London notes that Vietnam's highly centralizing Ministry of Education no longer has the control it once has, "Education in Vietnam," 22.

25 In Jonathan Adler's words, "The best surprises awaken us to what we take for granted," in "Surprise," 153. Teaching connectivity also requires that we no longer take them for granted, but express "surprise" or some jarring push.

26 Her emphasis.

27 It is interesting to note that a study of teachers who remain engaged noted that they had a "preoccupation with starting points." Judith McEnany, "Teachers who don't Burn Out: The Survivors," The Clearing House, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Oct. 1986), 84. Exercises that ask new teachers to keep thinking about the purpose of history education are especially useful in the Vietnamese context.

28 If effective, the habit of formulating oddball questions would run parallel to the approach taken by Jack Zevin and David Gerwin in Teaching World History as Mystery (New York: Routledge, 2011). For instance, they ask student compare various depictions of Incan royalty (including a modern dress-up version from 2002) in order to spark wider reflection on the question of authenticity in history, 123. Or, they let them compare the manifestos of various secret societies, demanding students to reflect on their appeal and effectiveness, regardless of what they think of their moral standards (151–85). In every case, students are given something unfamiliar and attention-grabbing, and asked to integrate it into a larger historical context.

29 Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

30 One of the reasons elite institutions are held in such esteem is that they promise an ongoing sense of connection to those who are making and shaping key theories and ideas. The resources and personnel of an elite university are not easily reproduced elsewhere, yet in an age of cheap and rapid communication, the sense of excitement and involvement that comes from the continual sharing of valuable ideas can be cultivated in new communities, including informal ones. For the importance of this everyday interaction, see Rasmus Gjedessø Bertelsen, Dai Ying and Greta Solinap "Learning when you are not Learning: Artistic, Scientific, Professional and Political Culture at Leading Universities in Britain, France, USA and China," in Teaching and Learning Culture: Negotiating the Context (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers), eds. Mads Jakob Kirkbæk, Xiang-Yun Du and Annie Arup Jensen.

31 Even very well established scholars begin their path to global history by following a connected path of questions "thrown" at them by their personal and academic experience. An interesting example is Kenneth Pomeranz, "No Great Divergence? Reaching Global History Through East Asian Studies," in Architects of Global History: Researching the Global Past, Kenneth R. Curtis and Jerry H. Bentley, eds. (New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 81–106. Someday history teachers at Vietnamese schools may also write about their paths to global history.


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