Yes it's exam time once again, and considering how poorly my students did on their mid-terms, I can well understand why Somchai and Somporn looked less than thrilled as I pass out today’s exam sheets. Actually I gave my students oral exams last week. This week they will be taking written ones for not just English, but for Thai, Math, science, social studies etc. The whole exam process has the air of a military operation. Every student has a pre-assigned seat, separated to the millimeter from his neighbor. Each row of students comes from one of two different classes. Students have their picture IDs in the upper right corner of their desks for inspection. They also have to sign in before taking each test. The tests themselves are brought to each classroom by uniformed couriers, and each teacher has to sign off on their delivery. Gee, do you think the school thinks these guys might actually be tempted to cheat? Well considering that corruption is part of the warp and weft of Thai society, such assumptions are well warranted. Actually it’s not until after exams have been scored that you’re likely to see any “fiddling” with grades, although I don’t believe that happens here at all at this school. At the first school I taught at, I actually saw envelopes of money get passed to have grades changed. It’s amazing what you can learn when the Thais around you think you can’t understand a word they’re saying! Anyway, back to the exams. Silence (for one shining moment) is strictly enforced. If things were this quiet during actual classes, these students might actually learn something, but this being Thailand, silence in the classroom is anything but the norm. Sometimes the cacophony of noise is beyond belief.
I don’t know if the students visited their local wat lately, but many of them will require some kind of Divine Intervention to pass these exams. This is largely because the concept of “study” is a completely alien concept. In the end, many of these students will resort to the Thai version of Eenee, Meeney, Minee, Moe to choose an answer to the multiple choice questions.
The oral exam I gave last week actually required a minimum understanding of the English language to pass. No guessing will work here kids! Actually my exam was pathetically easy. That didn’t prevent many of my young “scholars” from failing miserably though. Okay, I’m talking about Matayom 1, 2 and 3, which is the equivalent of 7th, 8th and 9th grades. These kids have been nominally “studying” English since Pratom 1 (first grade). So why then could so few students answer such “softball” questions such as: “Where do you go to school?” “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” or “What do you like to eat?” <It must be your American accent they can't understand! Hahaha! – Stick>
Now I should say that I actually do have some genuinely bright kids, and they aced the exam. They of course are segregated in the “bright” classes. For those of you who are not familiar with the Thai education system works, students at each grade level are divided into classes based on ability. For example Mathiyom 1 has m/1, m/2, m/3 etc. In my school, the bright classes are the /1s and /2s. Everybody else is in a class from /3 to /6. My exam, according to each Mathayom level, consisted of 10 questions. Some were strictly “personal information” questions, others were based on material covered in class. For the weeks leading up to this exam I had been urging, pleading with my students to look over their notes. The answer to every question was there. I told them that I would be only too happy to go over anything they did not understand, either before school, during break times or after lunch. Needless to say I had no takers. Needless to say many of my students could not construct a simple three word sentence such as, “I like Som Tam.” In case you are wondering, yes I asked my questions slowly, and enunciated each word clearly. I also repeated them many times. Oh, and each student was tested individually in my office, to eliminate the embarrassment factor. I should also say that except when it comes to discipline problems, I am a complete “teddy bear”, with a broad smile on my face and a twinkle in my eye. I went to great lengths to make everyone feel comfortable. Hey, I know what it's like to feel so nervous that your stomach is in your mouth! Because this is Thailand, every student received two points out of a possible ten just for showing up. I also was extremely generous with the answers I was willing to accept. In the end though, the overall results were just plain awful. What the hell should I do?
The answer of course was a no nonsense “back to basics” approach. The first step, before actually teaching anything factual, was to teach Study Skills 101. These principles are not “rocket science”, but apparently no one ever bothered to tell these kids these fundamentals.
1. Listen carefully. If you are talking with your friends, or you are drawing pictures, daydreaming or actually sleeping, you cannot hear what is being taught.
2. Take good notes. Unless you have a photographic memory, you need written notes to review what was presented in class. I certainly do!
3. Look at your notes…..at least occasionally! Your notes are useless unless your actually open your notebook and look at them! For God’s sake look at them at least once before your exam!
4. Practice makes perfect! It is impossible to learn any skill without practice. Whether you are talking about learning a language or playing a computer game, there is no substitute for practice. Many Thai parents think that merely having a native speaking Farang teacher will miraculously make their children into instant marvels. Unfortunately we live in the real world, not in a fantasy realm. Practice and lots of it is the only Key to Success! Unfortunately in Thailand the Key to Success is suspiciously shaped like an envelope stuffed with cash!
5. Flashcards are a great tool for learning a language! I know that from personal experience in learning Thai. I’m the first to admit that at this stage of my life, my memory is poor. Much of the Thai I have learned has been one word at a time, using flashcards. Making flashcards is simple. Using them as a study aid is easy. I’ve already started showing a few classes how to make them. On one side you write an English word. One the other side you write the Thai word along with an English sentence using that word. Make yourself a set of 10 words and practice again and again (and again!) until these words are etched into your brain. Then go on to a new set of words. Keep them handy so that you can “play with them” when you have a few minutes to spare throughout the day. Believe me it works! When it comes down to it there is still a place in modern education for rote memorization……provided that it is coupled with actual understanding of what the hell you are memorizing! Every stinking Thai word I have mastered has been learned this way. Of course my memory is truly miserable at my age; each word has learned is a major personal achievement. (Someday I will have to write up my story of learning the Thai alphabet!) I must admit that I’m more than a tad envious of those who can soak up language like a sponge (like my two year old son Sam!).
Once students have a “toolbox” full of learning skills, they will be prepared to learn anything! Of course all this is predicated on the presumptuous assumption that they are even remotely interested in learning something. Motivation in Thailand is a whole other topic of discussion.
I would hope that my Mathayom 3 students would have at least a little motivation, since their entire future depends on the results of an exam that they will take at the end of the academic year. It’s not just English being tested here, but every academic subject. Students who pass this test will be allowed to continue studying next year in Mathayom 4. As for the others, it’s bye-bye, so long and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. These kids will have to look elsewhere for an education. A lot of them (if they’re lucky) will attend a vocational school. Some unfortunately will look forward to digging a hole or other such occupations.
From what I understand, only a small percentage of the students from m 3/3 to m 3/6 passed this exam last year. I seriously doubt that this year’s students will fare much better. Not many academic luminaries seem to be on the horizon here, despite the fact that these children’s parents have paid a lot of money to send them to a private school. Can we as an institution do anything to improve the situation? There is if we have the will to take some much needed steps. Tomorrow I will be presenting some concrete proposals at a special meeting called by the school’s director. I’ll report on how it goes in a separate submission.
In a country where education is SUPPOSEDLY valued, the lack of effort made by Thai students is horribly discouraging. A teacher has a responsibility to make things interesting, but there are some aspects to learning a language where you simply have to roll up your sleeves and do the hard yards, so to speak. In this respect, Thais often let themselves down.