Every mid-May in Thailand students go back to school after their summer vacation. In the morning the students, dressed in pristine uniforms, form perfect lines and sing the national anthem before walking to their classrooms. It is quite a sight. Everyone looks ready, disciplined and determined.
However, our education system has not been exemplary. Back in the olden days, children went to temples to learn. Monks taught them to read, write and count, among other subjects. Rote learning was practised since there were neither books nor note pads. All matters were taught on a slate board and then wiped out so that things could be memorised. Back then, young ladies learned to cook, clean and create beautiful things at large estates.
Neither schools nor universities existed, so if someone wanted to further his education, he could either become a monk to learn about old languages and religions or go to a larger temple, like Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimolmangkhlaram or Wat Pho, behind the Grand Palace. This place used to be called Thailand’s first university, a place where one could study languages, botany, herbal medicines, massage and more.
In 1885, a French missionary established Assumption College, the oldest school in Thailand. This is where many prominent Sino-Thai families sent their children. King Rama VI founded Vajiravudh College, a boarding school à la Eton, in 1910. At the end of the 19th century, King Rama V, realising the importance of a modern education, built several schools, including Chulalongkorn University as Thailand’s first official university. Temples also set up more formal temple schools. From the last century to the present, many more schools and universities have been opened, including international ones.
New educational systems, curriculum and languages have all been applied but do today’s students know about their own local heritage? Thailand has been known to adopt foreign influences easily. Sometimes, we assume them without knowing their essence and sometimes we adapt them and mix with our own style. With learning, our literacy rate is high but our educational system lags behind both regionally and globally. There are smart Thai kids out there and many of them have won awards and competitions for their academic prowess and creativity.
But why don’t our average students make the cut? With our poor foreign language skills and subpar education, are we really ready to be part of the Asean Economic Community?
Several factors, from school administrations to society, need to be held liable. Where are the budgets for schools, libraries, learning centres and student lunches? How do we teach the new generations about the value of learning? After studying for a long time, I became an educator.
There are many models of teaching and learning. In her book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley presents three educational models. Similar to Thai parents, South Korean parents pressure their children about their grades and scores. This is known all over Asia as the pressure-cooker model. It may work well to some degree but these kids might end up lacking social interaction skills.
On the opposite end, in Finland, is what Ripley calls the utopia model. This is where schools invest in quality over quantity. While students have less homework, they still achieve in maths, science, reading and critical thinking. Their revered teachers are selected from the most elite universities, bringing with them the advantage of a strong education themselves. This also makes it easier to teach higher-order thinking.
The surprise comes from Poland, and their metamorphosis model. In a country with high child poverty and many past troubles and traumas, Poland has radically improved its educational outcomes over the past 10 years. There is hope for change even in tough places.
Thai education policy makers could learn and apply some good points from these models. Our future generations represent a significant part of our development as human resources. What they study is how to earn a living, but what they realise is how to live their lives. Lessons are learned in classrooms and also in life. Each lesson prepares us to be ready for the next challenge.
As Confucius said: “Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous.”