Maths in Cambodia

15th December 2015 at 15:30

In October, my colleague, Erica, and I were invited to visit Cambodia. The project was organised by the British Embassy as part of their wonderful “Education is Great” campaign, working alongside the Cambodian Ministry of Education.

The aim of the visit was to help improve the teaching and learning of mathematics, particularly at Grade 12 level. Traditionally the pass rate for the Grade 12 National Maths Exam has been over 70%. However, following a rigorous clamp-down on corruption by the current Minister of Education – he even took the step of locking the exam papers in his own house so no-one could get hold of them and sell them! – the rate has plummeted to under 10% in recent years. 

The project started two months before we left England’s sunny shores. Erica and I were asked to take the 10 main topics of the Cambodian Year 12 Maths Curriculum and create 10 diagnostic questions for each topic. These questions would be multiple choice, with one correct answers and three wrong answers, but crucially each of the wrong answers would be chosen in a way to identify and understand key misconceptions students had in this specific topic.

These questions were then translated into Khmer. So, the following question on limits:

Craig Barton, Subject Genius, Maths in Cambodia

Turned into this:

Craig Barton, Subject Genius, Maths in Cambodia

I think some of my own students would stand a better chance of answering this question in a foreign language.

We also provided guidance for the teachers about what each incorrect answer may reveal about the students’ understanding of the topic, because it is not just the case that students get questions right or wrong – they get questions wrong for different reasons, and each of these reasons needs specific support and intervention. Once again, these explanations were translated, so:

Craig Barton, Subject Genius, Maths in Cambodia


Craig Barton, Subject Genius, Maths in Cambodia

These 100 questions were designed and printed by the British Embassy, and turned into lovely packs of cards, the question on one side and the explanation on the other, and distributed to thousands of secondary maths teachers in Cambodia.

The purpose of our visit was to train as many teachers as possible, not just in the use of the cards, but in the pedagogy behind the diagnostic questions methodology. We use these kind of questions every day in our maths lessons, and so far over 1600 schools are active users on my Diagnostic Questions website.

The methodology is particularly suited to the challenges facing Cambodian teachers. There, it would not be uncommon to teach class sizes of over fifty students. The teacher going through an example on the board, explaining as best they can, and then their students having a go at similar questions themselves, is unlikely to succeed in classrooms of that size where students’ levels of understanding and the variety of misconceptions present is likely to be very wide.

Here is what the finished product looked like, together with some pasty faced maths teachers from Bolton:

Subject Genius, Craig Barton, Maths in Cambodia

So, in our workshops we tried to emphasise the importance of asking a diagnostic question, getting the students to think of the answer in silence, and vote with their fingers, 1 for A, 2 for B, etc (technology is very limited). This gives the teacher a very quick and accurate picture of class understanding, even in very large classes. 

Then groups of students who voted for each of the four options would explain their reasons in turn whilst the other students listened. Crucially, the teacher would say nothing. Then, when all reasons had been heard, the students would revote, and a follow-up question would also be asked to check understanding. The vast majority of the time this simple process helps students resolve their own misconceptions by listening to each other, explaining things in ways that they can understand.

This represented a subtle but important shift in the dynamics of the Cambodian Maths classroom. I am generalising here, but in the lessons we observed, students rarely spoke, and the onus for explanation lay solely with the teacher. We were trying place more emphasis on the students, making the point that in classes of fifty-plus students, the teacher needs all the help they can get, both in identifying exactly where students are going wrong, and calling upon different ways to help students understand. We believed that using diagnostic questions would help with both of these issues without having to radically change the way the Cambodian teachers delivered their lesson.

Each of these workshops was delivered with the help of a translator. Now, with my Lancashire accent I am difficult enough to understand in the UK, but the subtleties of the pedagogical approach were definitely lost in translation in the first hour of each workshop. But eventually the teachers began to understand the benefits, and by the end were voting, discussing, and busily writing their own diagnostic questions to use with their students:

Subject Genius, Craig Barton, Maths in Cambodia

Subject Genius, Craig Barton, Maths in Cambodia

Subject Genius, Craig Barton, Maths in Cambodia

Subject Genius, Craig Barton, Maths in Cambodia

We were also fortunate to be able to work with Cambodian students. Rarely have I seen a more focussed and dedicated group of youngsters. The level of noise in the room was quite unnerving – it is the kind of volume I only witness in my Year 11 lessons after my students have all the left the room. But when encouraged to discuss and share strategies, the students blossomed. At one point, Erica asked a student to come to the front to share his method – it was such a rare moment that the observing Cambodian teachers got out their phones to take a picture.

In total we trained over 700 teachers and worked with over 400 students during our week in Cambodia. At the official launch event we were lucky enough to meet the Minister of Education – the same man who locked the exam papers in his house – who was incredibly passionate about mathematics and education in general, and incredibly supportive of our approach. So much so that he sent his own Secretary of State to our workshop the following day, and he got involved writing his own questions.

Debating the importance of assessment for learning and student discussion with the Minister of Education, the British Ambassador, and Lord David Puttnam was a moment I will treasure forever.

There is huge potential in Cambodia. It was clear to me from our workshops with the Cambodian teachers that the subject knowledge and pedagogical understanding is there – the diagnostic questions that they wrote are some of the best I have ever seen. Furthermore, from our work with the Cambodian students, it is clear that they are hungry for learning. I am confident that with the simple strategies that we shared, together with the wonderful support of the British Embassy and Cambodian Ministry of Education, a significant and positive difference will be made to maths education in Cambodia.

To see the English versions of the questions created for the Cambodian Year 12 Advanced Maths Curriculum, please visit:


Craig Barton (@mrbartonmaths) is an Advanced Skills Teacher at Thornleigh Saleisan College, Bolton. He is also the TES Maths Adviser, and the creator of and