Stickman Readers' Submissions March 5th, 2009

Academic Daze

It’s 4:00PM? Do you know where your kids are? If you are Thai, the answer is increasingly likely to be, not hanging out playing video games or yakking on MSM, but at an after school academic program. The world of after school programs is big business all over Thailand, including my adopted home of Lampang. I can think of a dozen or so places off the top of my head here that purportedly are in the business of supplementary education. I use the words “purportedly” and “supplementary” with some caution. In regards to the first term, frankly many of the places clearly are incompetent at best, and are in fact border on being downright dishonest as far as claiming to be capable of teaching anything to anyone. (Owing to the absurd libel and slander laws here, I won’t be “naming names”, except for one program that I feel does an exemplary job at delivering precisely what they promise.) As far as the second term, that my friends goes to the heart of why these education themed “chop shops” are springing up faster than mushrooms on a rotten log. The sad fact is that much of what is being taught in these places (whether well or poorly) is basic knowledge that should have been learned in school, but in reality is not.

Many parents know that little Samchai and Somporn are getting a pretty piss-poor education. Although government schools are right at the bottom of the barrel, often private schools aren’t doing a hell of a lot better in imparting the bare minimum of learning. This being Thailand, where the fear of losing face is paramount, parents are not about to go complaining to their school about poor performance. Instead each afternoon, their kids are hustled off for a few hours of remedial no nonsense, nose to the grindstone studying. If the kids are lucky, they will find a program where there is an honest to goodness curriculum and the instructors know what the hell they are doing. If they aren’t so lucky these kids will wind up in an expensive program that is all flash and no substance, run by some enterprising Thai who is ready to cash in, but is reluctant to put out.

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So what subjects are being taught these days? The two most popular courses seem to be math and English. Obviously anyone who is looking to pursue a career in engineering, technology or science needs to be well grounded in math. As for English, at this point in world history, English is the premier international language. In another generation or two everyone might be hustling to learn Chinese or Russian, but for now, English is the “must know” language. Thais looking to get into a top ranked university, (such as they are here, let alone one abroad) know that a good score in math and English is essential. Of course if all else fails, a thick envelope can work wonders, but that is another story altogether!

Let it never be said that Thais are lacking in sheer audacity when it comes to dreaming up names for their businesses. I don’t know about other places in Thailand, but here in Lampang the word Academy is used with abandon. The place in question may be a hole in the wall, with a few dog-eared out of date papers in a stained loose-leaf binder, but pronounce yourself an Academy, and suddenly you are soaring majestically above Olympian vistas. Alas, even with loft sounding names, the Thai equivalents of Socrates or Plato are nowhere to be found there enlightening young minds thirsty for knowledge. No, the staff running these “Academies” usually consists of underpaid Thais with little or sometimes even no clue about the material they are supposed to be teaching. In addition, sprinkled about like raisins in a pudding you’ll find a few Thai teachers picking up some extra money, and yes a Farang or two. There being very few foreigners living here, for all essential purposes, I am The Farang.

Not surprisingly, most of these places are clustered near schools. I believe it was Bugsy Segiel who once quipped when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is.” There are a half dozen or so within a stone’s throw of my school’s back gate. Every day around 3:45 a steady stream of students can be found making their way down “Academy Alley”. The vast majority of them are headed to my little “home away from home”.

For the past few years I have been working at Kumon four afternoons a week. Without sounding like a commercial endorsement, I am extraordinarily impressed with their program. Franchises can be found worldwide, with quite a number here in Thailand. You have probably seen their decidedly goofy logo without knowing what it represents.

Started fifty years ago by a Japanese educator, the Kumon method of learning is the antithesis of what you will find in Thai schools. That is to say that it is organized and disciplined to the nth degree. Parents are told right from the very beginning that that their children will be expected to attend every class and that there will be homework to be completed every day. The overall philosophy is based on students learning “how to learn”, and becoming self motivated. Indeed, much of the work is self guided. I must say that my mind was blown the first time I saw four and five year old children walk in and: go to a cabinet and take out their folders, take out their workbooks and complete an assignment, go over to a CD player, take out their CD, put it in, put on their headphones, listen to that day’s lesson, (and repeat out loud)…all by themselves! Wow! Was I still in Thailand?

Although a lot of kids are learning English here, even more are studying math. In both subjects, everyone is working their little butts off from the moment they sign in to the moment the leave. In both subjects there is a hell of a lot of repetition. There is no moving on to “step # 2” until “step # 1” is mastered…cold! Each step is just challenging enough to encourage thinking, without creating stress. Every minute bit of work is recorded, so that parents can know exactly
how their children are progressing. Every student is working at his or her own speed, not forced to keep up or slow down with anyone else.

I actually don’t do any “teaching” there at all. What I do is called Oral Checking. After students have completed their written work and listened to their audio lesson, they
come over to my table to have their pronunciation checked. They open up that day’s lesson and read it out loud to me. If a word has not been pronounced correctly, I circle it. These words will need to be practiced before the next lesson. It
is more demanding than it sounds, because you need to distinguish between a Thai accent and actual mispronunciation. Sometimes you need to factor in minor speech impediments. The fellow I work for has told me to be extremely strict in demanding perfect
pronunciation, and so I am one smiling gentle martinet! You won’t be surprised to learn that L’s and R’s are a big challenge. If someone can pronounce the word “really” correctly, they will get an extra big smile
and a “well done” from me. I can sympathize with kids who struggle to reproduce sounds not found in their language. Try as I might I may never be able to make that Thai “ng” sound that comes from somewhere inside
your throat!

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The whole idea of what is “correct” English pronunciation is a matter of debate. You have British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, and American pronunciations, and even within each of these countries there are regional variations. On a trip to the UK I once picked up an audio tape giving examples of dozens of such variations in the Great Britain. Having spent quite a lot of time traveling there, I know that a Yorkshire brogue is nothing like what you’ll anywhere else in the world! The original settlers to America came mostly from Britain. How then did the Southern drawl develop? Inquiring minds want to know!

One of the problems in teaching pronunciation is that students simply do not know how to create the right structure within their mouths to make certain sounds. I’m talking about where to place the tongue and the position of teeth and lips. Did you ever try to explain to someone how to whistle? When my wife and I were living in Massachusetts, she went to our local library to receive some English tutoring. Her instructor lent her a video which showed an animated cross section of the palette. Each consonant, vowel and was illustrated, and clearly showed what to do in order to create that sound. It really helped my wife’s pronunciation. If anyone out there in cyberspace knows the name of such a video, please let me know. I would dearly like to use it with my students.

If numbers are anything to go by, this program is a big hit here. In addition to the facility near my school, there is another across town near a cluster of schools. Both are packed to the rafters.

Does the English program work? Well let’s put it this way. I see Pratom 2 (Second Grade) youngsters with a grasp of English superior to many Matayom (Junior and High school) students! Even though I will be teaching my little boy English, I intend to send him here eventually, both for English and math. Let me say that I am not one of those misguided parents who think there are going to turn their child into a genius. I would however like my Sam to experience the joy of learning…and perhaps by exercising his grey matter be better prepared for school. Of course this program (or indeed any program) comes cheap. That is also of course why so many places are attempting to cash in. It’s good that many parents are actively concerned with their children’s education. It is sad however that what the schools provide is so poor that remedial work is an absolute necessity. It is also sad that some parents are pushing their children much too hard to excel. Some kids shuttle from one program to another seven days a week. Childhood is all too short. There is a long, long life of adulthood just a few years down the road. Children should really be allowed to enjoy life while they can. That being said though there are waaaaay too many Thai students who could stand to get off their butts and study at all! There are certainly more than a few “Academies who would welcome them with open arms.

Stickman's thoughts:

Comments to follow.

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