The 15 year old daughter of a Thai friend of mine had basic English lessons in a school in Thailand for five years, and she is not able to say a single sentence in English. How is this possible? I took her under my wings and started talking with her and had her say words and sentences in English. Within a few weeks she could carry on a simple conversation in English. What happened here?
Imagine sitting in a classroom where the teacher is talking at you constantly. Culturally it is considered inappropriate to ask questions, come up with creative ideas or suggestions, and there is no active, lively exchange between teachers and students. It is a one way lecturing style of education.
The Thai educational system has some bugs in it. One is the authority concept in Thailand. The teacher is an authority figure and as such should not be asked any questions since that could be seen as challenging. Nobody wants to admit not knowing something. So the student does not want to show that he does not understand, and the teacher does not want to feel that she is being put on the spot. In order for no one to lose face, asking questions is often seen as an inappropriate challenge and is to be avoided.
Teaching is one of the few professions in Thailand that benefit from a retirement pension. Teachers are respected authority figures. They are not in danger of losing their jobs, even if their performance is below standard, and the system is set up for them to maintain an unchallenged authority position.
Losing face is a big issue in Thailand. Nobody can ever be put in a situation which requires one to admit any wrong doing. Nobody can be criticized openly. Nobody can be challenged. Nobody can be told directly that they are wrong. The right thing to say is whatever allows everyone to save face, even if that does not correspond to the facts.
The children in school are not encouraged to actively participate, but rather just listen passively. Questions are seen as provocative, and a real exchange between teachers and students is rarely happening. Many older teachers don’t want to see any change, and the sometimes more open minded younger teachers are up against the seniority and authority of the older ones who want to preserve the status quo.
Here is another bug in the system. Often the children in Thailand’s government schools don’t learn enough, and this has spawned a flourishing industry of after-school tutoring. Those tutors are mostly the same teachers from the schools pursuing a lucrative second job.
Teacher pay for tutoring is considerably better than for their school job. Therefore it is more profitable for teachers to provide quality education after hours in private schools than during regular school hours in public schools. The strange situation exists that it pays to not teach the kids as much in school in order to keep their profitable after hours jobs in the tutoring industry.
Here is the third bug in the system: blatant cheating. In western schools this is not acceptable, but in Thai schools it is quite the norm. Everyone is copying from each other. It is not seen as anything bad. The children don’t feel compelled to really understand the material since they can freely copy homework or test questions from someone else.
My friend’s daughter often had quite difficult English homework and she had no idea how to go about it. So her mother, who speaks good English, did the homework for her. I asked her how the other kids who did not have English speaking parents could do their homework assignments. She told me that they could not, but they simply copied it from her daughter who had it done by her mother.
Thais are by nature shy people and children are not encouraged to express spontaneity or creativity or inquisitiveness. The status quo is maintained as long as everyone gets to save face, the teachers maintain their authority status, the kids manage to hand in their copied assignments, and the parents pay for the after-school tutoring.
Private schools are generally better than the government schools, but they are considerably more expensive. On the positive side the cultural attitude towards authority in Thailand prevents many of the excesses of aggression and even violence that sometimes take place in western schools. Despite the challenges in the Thai school system, there is a younger, and often more open-minded generation of teachers who hopefully will slowly tweak the system to a better performance.
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