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Crunching the Numbers




“Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is – oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

During the 1970’s my work required me to do a lot of public speaking. Although shy by nature, I actually got to be quite good giving lectures. After a while, I could walk cold before an audience of hundreds without a single butterfly in my stomach.

On one occasion my presentation made use of a variety of graphs and charts to illustrate some points I was trying to make. I also quoted some statistics. All in all, my presentation was well received. There was one fellow however who was decidedly not impressed. I can still picture this guy all these decades later, because he made one hell of an impression. He was at least six feet six inches, had a shaved head, was built like a refrigerator, and had a deep booming voice like Isaac Hayes. “My man”, he said, taking issue with a point I had made. “There are three kinds of lies; a lie, a damned lie, and a statistic!” I seriously doubt that he came up with that pithy saying by himself, but he sure did make an impression on young Sawadee! I never forgot those words.

To this day, I do not take statistics on face value. I’m a dedicated skeptic now, and my inquiring mind wants to know, who gathered the data and how was it processed to come up with the “facts” being presented? Being objective is not always easy. Many time data is skewed from honest error. Other times, the conclusion is pre-determined, and the data is created to prove it. In the U.S. often said that a District Attorney (a prosecutor to all of you non-Yankees) can, if he wishes, “indict a ham sandwich”. Throughout history it has been a common practice to hang ‘em first…and have a trial afterwards! “Facts! We don’t need no stinkin’ facts!” When it doubt, in the absence of facts, hell just make it up to suit yourself! Hey, it’s worked for Faux, I mean Fox News! Whether it “works well” for the Thai news media, is open to debate. Owing to the libel and slander laws here, I shall of course not mention any names.

Okay, by now you are probably wondering how Sawadee is going to tie any of this to Thailand. Well, to come right to the point, it’s the end of the first term of this school year, and like every other teacher here, I am up to my eyeballs in page after page of the data I need to calculate grades. Coming up with grades is anything but an easy straightforward process…even back in Farangland, but here, in The Land of Smiles, you really need to be prepared to take a trip down the Rabbit Hole. I’m not kidding you! You need to enter a Twilight Zone-like alternate reality where 2+2 = 5…or even harder to believe, 0+0 = 100!

Before leading you through the Bizzaro-Land of the Thai grading system, I should probably confess that I am probably the last person of planet Earth that you want to consult when it comes to Mathematics. I am ashamed to say, but I am absolutely dreadful at Math. Naturally this is not due to any deficiency in my brain! Oh no, I am going to shamelessly going to shift all blame to a succession of piss-poor math teachers, who had little patience with young Sawadee’s seeming inability to comprehend such arcane topics as long set theory. These said piss-poor teachers, if any are still living, undoubtedly would in turn blame “The New Math”, which was all the pedagogical rage in elementary and junior high schools in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Instead of teaching me simple arithmetic, which was what I needed, instead this curriculum attempted to put the simplest things in terms so abstract, that they were incomprehensible… at least to my young mind. Not surprisingly, I came away with a severe case of “Math Fear”, which alas I’ve never completely overcome. I managed to squeak through Algebra, and actually did quite well in Geometry, but as for Calculus etc. I was always over my head. Ironically, I have always had the keenest interest in science. If I had had any real competence in Math, I undoubtedly would have pursued a career in Astronomy. Oh well, in the end, the path I ended up on did lead me here to these Jasmine-scented shores. So I suppose I can’t complain!

Actually, I can complain about the metaphysical equivalent of doing backward somersaults through a burning hoop that is required to give a Thai student his or her grades. On my very first day, at the first high school I taught at in Thailand, I asked about the grading system.

By nature, I like to do work as I go along, whether it’s cleaning pots and pans or entering data. This avoids a massive amount of work that needs to be done in the end. My lovely Thai wife adopts a different philosophy. Use every pot, pan, dish and utensil in the house. Let all these dirty things pile up in the sink and every available surface, and leave until sandblasting is needed to clean it all.

My innocent inquiry about computing grades was dismissed with a casual, “Don’t worry. There’s a very simple program that you will be given soon to do this.” Fast forward to the end of the term. I, and the three other Farang teachers still had not received the needed database. Finally, after much pleading, we each received the program on data drives. Problem solved, right? The Excel program was completely in Thai, which none of us could make heads or tails of. What the hell were all these columns and rows for? What exactly were we supposed to enter, and where? No Thai teacher, including the head of the English department seemed inclined to want to offer assistance. Hell, all we needed was a “dummy sheet” with English translations. Even I can enter data, if I know what I am supposed to do, and how to do it. Reluctantly, someone took pity on us and gave a rapid-fire explanation that was clear as mud, and left us plod on.

In addition to the straight forward information, such as quiz and test scores, there were ten columns of scores to be given for things like attitude, moral integrity, etc. WTF? No one ever told us that we needed to be noting down this kind of information. If I had known, I could have jotted down pertinent information such as: Student # 24681 Somchai Wattana. Laziness (10), Alertness in class (1) Co-operation (1) Sullenness (10) Ability to do his own work with out copying either from another student or the internet (-10). We were “advised” to give every student high marks in that regard. Heaven forbid that any student’s family should lose face! As for calculating actual grades, I found it necessary to dive in through the Rabbit Hole to Wonderland I alluded to earlier. In case you aren’t aware, here in The Land of Smiles, the Ministry of Education has decreed that No Student is Allowed To Fail. No, means NO! NADA, ZIP, SOON! (That last word by the way is Thai for zero.) No matter how poorly a student has done, they MUST be given a passing grade.

That term I had over 700 students. Over 90 of them had not even come close to passing. I mean these boys and girls scored almost zero on every quiz and test, and had never turned in a single homework assignment. (I must add that I was a pathetically easy grader.) Hell, a fair number of them had never showed up for a single class! They had no scores to enter! How does one give any score, let alone a passing one to a F***ing ghost? I defy anyone to come up with a rubric (a scoring tool for subjective assessments) for that! Welcome to Thailand my friends!

This being my first teaching assignment in Thailand, I was still “wet behind the ears” as far as how things worked. Here I am naively trying to give grades based on merit! What a fool I was for thinking that merit has any place in society. It didn’t take long to learn that it is the appearance of success that is important. As long as there is plenty of smoke and mirrors giving the impression that

someone has achieved anything, all is well. Woe be it to anyone…especially some “know it all” Farang, to point out the machinations behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain. In the end, despite the bitter taste in my mouth, all the failing students received passing grades, including the ghosts. I should note however that I told the head of the English department to enter those passing grades herself. I would not do it, nor would I sign my name on any the official grade list. Needless to say this did not win me any friends. I was considered “unreasonable” and “uncooperative”. I was told that the idea of requiring students to actually study was “old fashioned”. Sigh, I suppose that is true, which is most unfortunate for Thailand.

This particular school had several other “tricks” for making sure that the “right” numbers were entered into the computer. A close friend of mine was teaching English to the equivalent of the senior class. Almost everyone failed the final exam. The school’s solution was ingenious, to say the least. The answers to the test were posted in the hallway for a week, and then the test was given again. Miracle of miracles! Everyone scored 100%! Guess which score was recorded? No wonder the officials in Bangkok think this is such an exemplary school.

The other “trick” for improving as student’s grade was the time-tested passing of a thick envelope from a parent to the department head. It’s amazing what you can learn when everyone around you thinks you can’t understand a word of Thai! When I departed from this school at the end of the year, you won’t be surprised to know that there was no love lost on anyone’s part!

Last year I taught Mathiyom 1, 2, and 3. (7th. 8th and 9th grades) Computing the year’s final grades took way too many hours. I needed to calculate all the formative scores, which were based on the following: three quizzes (10 points), five drills (20 points), five recitations (15 points), and four group presentations (10 points). Add to this a midterm exam (20 points) and a final exam (20 points). Add it all up and voila! Here is your final score.

80-100 Excellent

75-79 Very Good

70-74 Good

65-69 Very Satisfactory

60-64 Satisfactory

55-59 Fairly Satisfactory

50-54 Poorly Satisfactory

0-49 Needs Improvement

Folks, I am not pulling your leg. I did not make up this “developmental scale”. The Thai idea of what Needs Improvement means is extraordinary.

So, how did my young scholars do? Why every blessed one passed of course, although there were not all that many who scored Excellent or Very Good…or Good for that matter. Oh well, being older, and presumably a little wiser, I have stopped trying to play Sisyphus. I refuse to roll that boulder up that hill any more. Let the damned thing stay where it is! All I can do is my best, and I do give 110% each and every day.

This year I have been teaching Anuban (Kindergarten). Although the idea of giving grades to four-six year olds might seem unnecessary, it is useful to gauge how effective my teaching is. Who is doing well, and who might benefit from additional attention. This term I have taught these children, among other things, to answer some questions. How are you today? What day is it today? What is your name? How old are you? Where do you live? (I live in Lampang.) What is the name of your school? At midterm and at the end of the term I tested every boy and girl, one by one. What I was evaluating were Fluency and Pronunciation. This is how I scored everyone.

Fluency

1 point Frequent and long pauses cause difficulty in communicating.
2 points Communicates even though there are some pauses.
3 points Communicates effectively without pauses.

Pronunciation

1 point Pronunciation makes comprehension difficult.
2 points Acceptable, easily comprehensible pronunciation.
3 points Very good pronunciation.

How did my kids do this term? Brilliantly! Most of Them scored all 3’s, including many who at the beginning of the year, where so shy they could Barely open their mouths and mumble.

Even though I am mathematically challenged does mean I am not in awe of how the universe can be actually be comprehended through numbers. I recently downloaded via bit torrent something from my long ago childhood. Does anyone out there remember Donald in Mathmagic Land? There are still two numbers that I am curious about. The first is, the number of foreigners who are victims of crime, especially violent crime. I doubt we will ever know, which is just the way the Thai government likes it. The second number, which I’m sure all of you are just dying to know is, the amount of money pumped (no pun intended) into the Thai economy by foreigners playing with the local ladies. Would just love to know that figure? Who is ready to crunch those numbers?

Stickman's thoughts:

Ah, there are some things I really do not miss!