For decades the Thai government has attempted without success to reform Thailand’s education system and better prepare Thai students for the demands of the modern professional workplace. This failure continues to impact all areas of Thai life, and is among the root causes of recent political instability.
The frustration felt by those government officials in charge of reform was illustrated a few months ago by Thailand’s Education Minister Chinnaworn Boonyakiat, who on hearing recent teacher test scores wondered publicly, “Even teachers fail, so how can we raise the quality of students?”
Writing for the Bankok Post, Dr. Sawai Boonma (a former economist at the World Bank) recently offered one answer, stating that now is the time for Thailand’s wealthiest citizens to stand up and contribute substantially to education reform and social development, much in the way Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Star Wars’ George Lucas have done in the United States.
Such private intervention is undoubtedly needed when we consider the inability of successive Thai governments to enact and enforce meaningful education reforms. It has been over a decade since Thailand’s National Education Act (1999), which aimed to finally make the break from traditional Thai educational norms, such as lecturing and rote activities, to embrace a more creative, questioning approach to learning. The Act also set out to decentralize finance and administration, giving individual teachers and institutions more freedom to set curriculums and mobilize resources, which in turn would increase accountability and ensure that funds are targeted in the right areas.
In reality, little, if anything, has changed in Thailand’s education system since 1999. Rote learning continues to be the norm and schools rarely have freedom when it comes to curriculum and the allocation of funds provided by the national government. More often than not funds are required to be used for building projects and the purchase of hard assets such as buses, even when such projects and purchases are unnecessary.
The failure of the National Education Act to result in any fundamental changes in the Thai education system is often attributed to resistance among teachers and administrators, as well as a lack of training in new teaching methods. When training sessions are conducted, they are usually simply cut and pasted (and translated) from material used in the West and do not take into account Thai culture and the unique hurdles which Thai students and teachers face.
Education reform is obviously a complex issue that involves many factors. But there are some simple things which could be done to get the ball rolling. At the Ysaan Institute, we suggest that serious education reforms should begin with the following: 1) The establishment of new teacher training programs; 2) The creation of meaningful incentives for teachers and administrators; and 3) The recruitment of skilled teacher trainers and new teachers. We refer to this as a three prong TMR (Training, Motivation, Recruitment) approach which could be conducted rather easily with help from the government and private sector.
TMR: Training, Motivation, & Recruitment
- Current problem: The failure of past teacher training in Thailand is due to the fact that real training has never taken place. In many cases, teachers have only been handed books on new teaching strategies—ones which have simply be translated or copied from English texts, with no thought as to how they can be adapted to the unique Thai classroom setting. In other instances, teachers have attended workshops delivered by Thai trainers who spend most of their time lecturing on theoretical issues rather than providing the practical tools that teachers need to become better educators.
In all cases, the vast majority of teacher trainees (being products of a failed system themselves) lack the thinking and language skills to fully understand what they are being taught and how these new teaching theories can be applied in their classrooms.
- Suggested solution: All teacher training programs should be activity based rather than lecture oriented. These activities should not only surround the implementation of new teaching strategies but also on the development of 10 Basic Thinking Skills: 1) Observation and Recall, 2) Comparing and Contrasting, 3) Grouping, 4) Labeling, 5) Classifying, 6) Sequencing, 7) Inferring causes/effects/qualities, 8) Predicting, 9) Imagining; and 10) Questioning.
Trainers should be hired who do nothing but travel their province training teachers. Training sessions at one school should last a minimum of two weeks (depending on the size of the school) and include two parts. The first part of the training should involve activity workshops for teachers. The second part should involve the trainers observing the teachers implement what they have been taught in the classroom, providing helpful feedback and assistance when needed.
An online teacher training forum should be established where teachers can seek further advice from their trainers online after they have left the school. This forum will also be a way for trainers from different provinces to discuss their experiences with each other and develop new ideas.
MOTIVATING TEACHERS & ADMINISTRATORS
- Current problem: There is an old adage that says, “Without necessity, nothing budges.” This is especially true of human behavior. For education reform in Thailand to succeed, teachers and administrators need to feel that reform is a necessity—not simply because their students truly need it but because they need if they want to succeed in their careers and keep their jobs. Currently that feeling of necessity does not exist. In fact, the situation at most Thai schools is quite the opposite. Many young teachers who are reform minded are either ignored or quickly brought into line by their colleagues, while others simply quit and leave the teaching profession altogether. Meanwhile, foreign educators are often viewed simply as token figures, and thus rarely are involved in decisions related to curriculum development, much less awarded leadership roles.
- Suggested solution: Increase competition between schools by attaching funding programs to 1) the implementation of education reforms and new curriculums; 2) improved student results; and 3) increased academic and extracurricular competitions between schools at the provincial level.
Offer fast track associate professor and professor status to university teachers who develop innovative curriculums that are proven to enhance thinking skills and creativity in Thai students. Additional teacher rewards should be given to those teachers who write truly original textbooks designed specifically to meet the unique needs of 21st century Thai students.
Credentialed foreign teachers who make long term commitments to Thailand should have full access to all the rewards and professional advancement opportunities allotted to Thai teachers.
- Current problem: On starting employment at a school, new Thai teachers have three primary complaints: 1) The salaries are insufficient to meet their basic needs; 2) They are overworked due to excessive administrative duties and have little time to prepare classroom activities; and 3) Classroom sizes are so large and unruly that it is impossible conduct the teaching activities they learned while at university. Due to these three factors, more young teachers are quitting and fewer new teachers are entering the workforce—talented education majors often choosing to enter a business related field instead. With regards to foreign educators, many who arrive hoping to make a positive impact leave after a year or two, disillusioned by the knowledge that they likely will always be treated as an outsider and never be treated as an equal colleague with equal professional opportunities.
When it comes to the administration of Thai schools, the main problem is the tendency among administrators to create a cushy and unaccountable existence for themselves, one that is detached from student results and first-hand experience of what is happening inside the classroom.
- Suggested solution: Salaries should be increased to the point where non-professional service and retail jobs do not look like attractive alternatives to new teacher candidates. Additional financial incentives should be attached to the creation of unique education materials that encourage thinking skills and creativity. More part time and full time teacher assistants (no university degree required) should be hired to handle simple administrative tasks and disciplinary measures, thus providing teachers with the necessary time to develop classroom activities and learning materials.
The government should create an inexpensive, fast track path to permanent residency for credentialed foreign educators who make a long term commitment to Thailand and achieve intermediate skills in reading and speaking the Thai language. Equal professional opportunities and rewards for these foreign educators should also be guaranteed, as well as long term open-ended work permits.
New administrators should be recruited by attracting professionals who possess strong academic credentials and a track record of success in the business world, including those who may have retired from their business careers and are looking to “give back” to their communities. All financial bonuses should be directly attached to school/students achievement levels and the successful implementation of reforms.
How can Thailand’s private sector help?
As Dr. Sawai Boonma mentioned in his Bangkok Post article, it is time for Thailand’s wealthy citizens to become philanthropists and help education reform become a reality. They could begin by funding a Thai Teacher Training Institute to send Thai and foreign trainers at no cost to schools and universities across Thailand. They could fund financial incentive programs for the creation of new curriculums and innovative textbooks that focus on the development of thinking skills and creativity. They also could fund innovative “new school” projects like the GREEEN School initiative. Lastly, retired business professionals could donate their time by becoming teacher trainers themselves or donating their services to the administration of local schools undergoing reform.