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The challenge of the school system in Thailand

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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5 thoughts on “The challenge of the school system in Thailand”

  1. I would say that my observations in Thailand confirm what you’re saying, at the same time I see a system in the US that has many of it’s students drugged with Ritalin or Adderal so that they “fit in.” Our education systems like our health care systems (everywhere) need a paradigm shift.

  2. I agree Mark, the educational system in the US is certainly not the perfect model that I am comparing the Thai system with. And you hit the nail on the head with your last sentence that ” Our education systems like our health care systems (everywhere) need a paradigm shift”.

  3. Shama ….3 times true !!
    Maybe there is even another bug in the system !
    My experience is that thai teachers have poor knowledge of the english language themselves.
    I know some thai teachers in the area of Isaan. It’s hard to have a conversation in english with them. One exception is my thai cousin ( a teacher too ) who is capable of leading a discussion in english after some glasses of lao kaow !!

    I have started to talk english with my nieces ( 15 and 16 y.o.) some years ago. By the internet and face to face the short times I am in Thailand. Its amazing to see the improvements !!!

  4. Peter, from what I have seen, if the kids have a Thai English teacher, they learn next to nothing, it is all rote memorization and no real talking or conversation. If they have a western English teacher, they learn much better. So I agree with you, Thais generally don’t make good English teachers and their English skills are mostly subpar, so how are they going to teach the kids then? This is the obvious reason why “farang” English teachers are in such high demand.

  5. just found this message:

    BANGKOK (AFP) — High school test results in Thailand have revealed a failure rate of more than 80 percent in mathematics, biology and computer studies — among the teachers.

    The failure rates for teachers who took exams in their own subjects were about 88 percent for computer studies, 84 percent for mathematics, 86 percent in biology and 71 percent in physics, the education ministry said.

    And almost 95 percent of about 37,500 secondary school directors did not score a pass mark in English and technology, according to the ministry.

    The poor results have ignited controversy in Thailand about educational standards.

    “Even teachers fail, so how can we raise the quality of students?” Education Minister Chinnaworn Boonyakiat was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post newspaper.

    More than 84,000 teachers and school directors took the exams, the first of their kind.


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