Harvard-trained Vietnamese professor teaches kindergarten math in home country

A Vietnamese math professor who earned his doctorate at Harvard University has found joy in educating children in his home country

Assoc. Prof. Le Anh Vinh teaches math to kindergarteners.

“How can we categorize these pretty little shirt buttons?” a bespectacled man asked his five-year-old students.

“By color; there are red, blue, purple and yellow buttons,” one student answered, followed by another who said the buttons could also be grouped by size.

It was in this way that the children were introduced to the Venn diagram, a visual representation of relationships between different data sets.

It just so happens that their teacher is Assoc. Prof. Dr. Le Anh Vinh, 33, dean of the Teacher Education Faculty at the University of Education (UED), Vietnam National University-Hanoi.

Assoc. Prof. Le Anh Vinh teaches math to kindergarteners. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Think slower

Vinh’s private kindergarten math club, ‘Learn math with Jenny,’ was named after his daughter who gave him the initial idea of opening a class that could activate logical thinking and a love of math in young children.

In his club, math problems are illustrated via games, stories and real-life applications, methods Vinh said he learned from modern education models employed in Russia, the U.S. and Singapore.

The 33-year-old professor said he wanted to change the common perception of ‘smartness’ in Vietnam, where children who are quicker at solving problems are often perceived as smarter than slower ones.

Vinh wants his students to “sometimes think slower” but deeper, as fast-thinking is not always a sign of smartness, but could rather result from a lack of critical thinking.

“Some kids learn fast in grade school, but start to fall behind in high school and college,” Vinh explained. “The ‘rubber-stamp’ style of teaching has deprived them of any chance to think differently.”

The math professor recalled occasions when his students had given up on a problem without even trying, simply because they had never encountered the type of question before.

“How can they like math if they don’t see the beauty in it?” he said, raising the same question he had been asking himself.

Assoc. Prof. Le Anh Vinh teaches math to kindergarteners. Photo: Tuoi Tre

A scientific responsibility

At 22, Vinh graduated from the University of New South Wales in Australia with the best scores ever recorded at the university. The scope of his undergraduate thesis was viewed by examiners as comparable to that of a doctoral dissertation.

With such outstanding academic performance, upon his graduation Vinh was offered full scholarships for doctoral programs at a number of the world’s highest-ranking universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Yale University, Harvard University, Cambridge University and Oxford University.

After opting for and earning his doctorate at Harvard University, Vinh worked at a number of foreign research institutes and universities before making the life-changing decision to return to Vietnam in 2011.

At the time, Vinh was the youngest-ever Vietnamese to have been appointed Associate Professor, an academic title he held alongside his teaching and researching position at UED.

Having penned over 40 articles in academic journals, the young professor is often asked whether he finds it a waste of time and talent to teach kindergarteners.

His unfailing response is that he sees educating the country’s young as his own scientific responsibility, an outlook he said he had acquired from Russian academics.

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