Marching Boldly Backwards Into the Past!
*Disclaimer* The following piece talks about some of the inner machinations of the Thai education system. If this is not your cup of tea, feel free to read no further. Head back to the main menu. Perhaps there is a juicy, ahem, “travelogue” or a “She done me wrong” tale of woe that is more to your liking. I must say though that although nominally about my school, it does give some insight into the Thai thought process …or lack of!
An alternative title to this piece might have Like Lemmings to the Sea, because it has to do with the lock-step mentality that seems to permeate most Thai institutions. It doesn’t matter if a policy makes sense or whether it’s right or wrong. Once a Thai employee receives his/her “marching orders”, there is no other option than to click your heels together, put a smile on your face, and head on down the road… even if it leads over a cliff.
My school although non-religious in its teaching, is run by a Catholic order; specifically The Brothers of St. Gabriel. There are a dozen schools under their auspices here in Thailand. The curricula at all of them are not surprisingly put together by them.
Over the past few years, realizing the importance of learning English, my school, along with all the others in the system, have tried not only to promote it as a language course, but also to integrate English into other subjects as well; specifically math and science.
English as a second language begins at the Anuban or Kindergarten level, where your humble narrator has happily ensconced himself for the past few years. The teaching of a foreign language to young children is a very progressive idea, since it is well proven acquiring a foreign language is accomplished more readily at an early age than at any other time in a person’s life.
At the Pratom level (elementary school) the I.E.P or Integrated English Program is introduced. Here, in addition to a traditional course of English instruction, students begin to have their math and science classes taught in English. This year Social Studies was added to the program.
The I.E.P. program continues into Mathiyom (Junior High and High School), where our “young scholars” bask in their success in mastery of the English language, right? Excuse me, I am almost doubled up with laughter at the very thought of Thai students mastering anything, with the possible exception of lunch, playing computer games and chatting online. Whatever accomplishments Thais can make claim to, scholarship is not one that comes readily to mind.
I’ve written more than a few pieces on that subject, so I won’t bore you with an in depth analysis. Let’s just say that the very idea of studying does not seem to come into play during your average Thai’s tenure in school.
I have only brought this up to shed some light on the dismal success of the I.E.P. program. Students are shuffled along year after year, whether they have learned the English language material or not. No Thai student is ever allowed to fail, and no remedial courses are ever required to matriculate to the next year. It’s no big surprise then that the vast majority of Mathiyom students have not learned even fundamental English. If you have not managed to master the Question Words, what, where, when, why, which, who and how, it is hard to imagine that they could possibly understand the challenging vocabulary of math and science. The students’ exam results accurately reflect this graphically…or they would reflect this graphically if not for one tiny fact. Because this is Thailand, students who can’t pass their exams are given the opportunity to take them a second time…after of course they have a chance to learn the correct answer to every single question! These answers are conveniently posted outside of the classrooms. Believe it or not many students are so lazy to look at the answers that they fail the test a second time! The tests are all multiple choice, and are not at all difficult. Hell, teachers tell students everything that will be on the exams. All that’s required is to take a few minutes to actually look at their notebooks. That is of course never happens. If life were a cartoon, moths would flutter out from between dusty pages on the golden day a student ever opened a notebook to peer into the Ancient History contained within. By ancient, I mean going back a few weeks or gasp, months!
Okay, having set the stage with a look at the past state of English education at my school let me spin you a tale of how The Powers That Be decided to “improve” the curriculum.
The changes began in Anuban, where it was decided to offer an English intensive Mini I.E.P program in one of the seven K-3 classes. I should mention that kindergarten extends over three years here, with K-1 and K-2 being what you might call pre-school, although at the K-2 level, students have an extraordinary amount of material to learn. If you think kindergarten is all about finger-paint and blocks, think again. Old Sawadee hardly attended a one room schoolhouse built of logs, but preschool and kindergarten were certainly less intense back then.
In the course of their time here in K-2 and K-3, these young children will learn the Thai alphabet, which has 44 letters…and those are just the consonants! They will learn the English alphabet and learn quite a lot of vocabulary and conversation. They will begin to learn how to computers and learn addition and subtraction. Nearly all of my four and five year old students can answer the following 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? What’s the weather today? What color is this? What shape is this? What time is it? What is this? (Using their acquired vocabulary)
Not a bad start eh? I certainly think so. Anyway, when news of the optional intensive program came out, I honestly didn’t think that all that many parents would enroll their children in it…at least not at 30,000 + baht! That is a lot of money for kindergarten, especially for Thailand. This is a pittance when compared to what parents will pay at a private school in Bangkok, but it is a tidy sum up here in the north. To my amazement, the available spaces filled up almost immediately! Wow! It is good to know that many parents do see the value in their children. There is also a certain cachet in having your son or daughter in an accelerated program. All parents, whether in Thailand or Farangland, like to brag about their children.
I was not asked to teach this class. Instead, the school brought in a woman from Ireland. She is one of many new Farangs hired this year. For the past few years, I was “THE” Farang. Oh, there were quite a few other foreign teachers, but they from the Philippines. Their English is certainly light-years ahead of the Thai teachers…and they are willing to work for half the money that Farangs are willing to work for. We now have new native speaking representatives from: America, Australia, England, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand, with a woman from Germany thrown into the mix for good measure. Hmmm, for some reason, Canada was left out of the mix, at least for now. That’s a lot of pale-skinned, big nosed foreigners at a single shot! Oh, one other note about the Filipinos I work with. Although generalizing about a nationality from a small sampling is not always correct, I must say that the dozen or so Filipino teachers here are first rate. Their education is far superior to their Thai counterparts; they have a highly professional attitude, and are great people to work with. I am happy to call these guys and gals my friends.
Last year I taught all three levels of Anuban. This year I am teaching only K-2. That sounds great; since I am able spend more time with a single grade level. Unfortunately, the school’s administration decided to “improve” the quality of instruction throughout every grade, K-1 to M-6. Their brainstorm was to use new standardized textbooks. Here is where things begin to get dicey.
Okay, let me pose an interesting question to you. If you wanted to develop an English language curriculum, where would you look to find textbooks? These textbooks should help your students read, write and speak English. Well, the primary countries I would choose (in no particular order other than alphabetical) are America, Australia, and the UK. I am not slighting Canada or New Zealand. I personally would not hesitate to use any material from either country. I know that they would be top-notch. It’s simply that they are not quite as common a destination for people looking to learn English.
So where did the Thais at my school turn to for English textbooks? Would you believe India? Hey, I harbor no prejudice against Indians…well except for a small number running the ubiquitous tailor shops around Bangkok. Certainly the British bequeathed India a tradition of learning English, although it can be argued that when they were a colony, Indians had little choice but to learn the language. In any case, the English that comes from India is not what I call “contemporary standard” English. There are many anachronisms in vocabulary, usage and idioms that you simply will not commonly find anywhere else. Here are a few examples from the textbook I was given to use. Note: the pictures are my own.
What do you call this? I call it a pitcher. I have asked Thais, Brits, Australians, New Zealanders and Filipinos the same question. They also call it a pitcher. The Indians call it a jug.
What do you call this?
I, and everyone I showed it to call it a dress. The Indians call it a frock. A frock! What the hell? Is this the 19th century during the reign of Queen Victoria?
I could give you dozens of other examples; “tin” instead of can, “cot” instead of crib, and “biscuit” instead of cookie. Yeah I know that some of you out there might refer to a cookie as a biscuit, but I guarantee that any Thai child you show an Oreo will call it a cookie.
Am I a cultural chauvinist? I sure hope not. Okay, we might debate what is or is not “standard” English vocabulary, but let me show you something that is beyond debate.
Take a close look at this textbook page. Do you find anything wrong with it? No? Well, there are no grammatical errors. The spelling is fine. There is in fact is technically nothing wrong with it at all… if you were teaching a second grader. However this book is intended for K-2. These children are four years old! Were you reading at four years old? I doubt it. I wasn’t. Four year old children are just beginning to learn the alphabet. These kids have two alphabets to master. They will not begin learning how to put two or more English letters together until the first grade! My kids can’t read in Thai, so why would anyone expect them to be able to read in English! Yikes! Talk about a truly presumptuous presumption!
Equally ludicrous is the idea that these Thai children can learn 8-10 new vocabulary words every week. <I would suggest they could in fact absorb many more than that! – Stick> Yes, that is what the lesson plans call for. I’m not allowed to either teach half that amount per week, or spend more than one week per lesson. I’m simply supposed to roll right along so that a box can be ticked off that says. “We have learned lesson # 37B”. It doesn’t matter a hoot that no one has learned anything! The box has been ticked, and all is right with the world. Welcome to Thailand folks! I’ll be returning to this theme later on.
Things go quickly downhill from here. All of the exercises in this book require the ability to read. Sometimes the children are asked to tick off a box of the correct word next a picture. Sometimes they are asked to circle a picture with the correct word. Sometimes they are asked to draw a line from a picture to the correct word. These are all wonderful exercises…if you have the ability to read! They are all utterly useless if you cannot. Did I miss something in the news? Is there a race of Indian child prodigies out there, who have abilities far beyond everyone else on the planet? I seriously doubt it. Are the Indians such extraordinary teachers that they are able to do things the rest of us poor mortals cannot? Once again I doubt it.
Intelligence is not the primary factor to consider when developing a curriculum for young children. The state of a child’s cognitive development is. Children simply cannot learn something until their minds can process the information. This processing ability develops through definite stages, base on physical maturation. Yes, there are exceptions. Prodigies do exist, but I’m talking in terms of the general population. This is not to say that children should not be challenged. On the contrary, it is important to expose young children to all sorts of new ideas. They should have a chance to discover music, and art. They should have opportunities to develop their physical coordination. Young children are capable of absorbing more than you might imagine, but trying to push them beyond what they can comfortable learn is counterproductive, and indeed can be considered cruel. You are simply not going to turn children into little Einsteins by trying to shove information into their heads. You might in fact actually turn them off from ever wanting to learn!
If you think the text book for K-2 is overly ambitious, you should take a gander at the one for K-1. They also are full of exercises which assume the students can read. Most of these children are still three years old! I would love to know what the folks who wrote these books were smoking, ‘cause I wouldn’t mind a toke or two. I’m more than ready to take a trip down the rabbit hole too! I’m also willing to bet some hard cold cash that these brilliant “educators” never had to actually teach what they are asking everyone else to teach.
To make matters worse, in terms of teaching the material, our class schedules took a major turn for the worse this year… all in the name of progress of course! Last year I would see each class four times a week for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes is just about the right length of time for instructing children of this age. Their attention spans are extremely short. After twenty minutes, their minds have had enough stimulation. They really do need a break for a little R & R.
This year’s schedule has me seeing them twice a week for forty minutes. Unfortunately after the first twenty minutes, their minds are far, far away, so that the second twenty minutes are basically a waste of time. To have even a prayer of having them learn the weekly vocabulary, I really do need to see them for short, frequent periods of time.
In the end, the academic load has gone up, while the number of periods for learning has been cut in half. Any guesses on how successful all of this is likely to be? Well if the first three weeks of school are an accurate indicator, the answer to that would be not very successful at all.
Now I should mention that the Thais I work with in Anuban are not any happier than I am about all of these so-called “improvements”. Neither the Anuban director, nor the teachers for whom I have the highest respect like what they are now being required to do. Oh, yes, the Thai teachers have an enormous amount of new things that must be done as well. There is a veritable mountain of paperwork that must be filled out each day, with the Thai equivalent of “dotting every I and crossing every T”.
I should also mention no teacher, was ever consulted about the new curriculum. All decisions about academics were made by administrators, who have no classroom experience at all. Isn’t that always the way of things? People with no experience in the real world arbitrarily tell everyone else how to do their jobs?
Here in Thailand, anyone working for a large institution knows better to question authority. Even constructive, well thought out suggestions may get you labeled as a “trouble maker.” As for moi, I learned long ago to Keep My Fat Farang Mouth Shut! No one is interested in a foreigner’s opinion. I confine my grumbling to a few close friends…and of course all of you highly, ahem, highly intelligent folks! It is therapeutic to blow off a little steam once in a while, as long as it doesn’t devolve into ranting.
It is tempting though to rant about the new and “improved” lesson plans that we are all required to fill out. I certainly have no objection to writing lesson plans. I do need to document how I am spending my time in the classroom. The administration does need to what I’m teaching, how I’m teaching it, along with an accurate evaluation of how students performed. Now maybe you would assume that these lesson plans should be written simply and clearly in language that anyone could understand. Well I’m sorry to say that is not how lesson plans are written here in The Land of Smiles.
For some unknown reason unknown to me, Thais insist on taking 1000 words to what could easily be expressed in a declarative sentence or two.
For example, instead of saying, “The teacher will have the children sit in a circle”, they might choose to say, “The teacher, having made sure that the center of the classroom is free from any encumbrances, will direct the students to stand up, making certain that their chair have been placed a fully forward position so that the back of the chair is in contact with the side of the desk facing the students. The teacher will then instruct the students to proceed one by one into the center of the aforementioned room. Each student should sit facing the center of the room, leaving a space not to exceed 20 centimeters between him or herself and the students on either side of the said student. Note: the teacher should check the conformation of each student, making certain that their legs are crossed at a specific angle. Extra caution must be made to ensure that girls’ under garments are fully covered by their skirts. The diameter of the circle shall conform to the standard requirements of circle building. See appendix 109B, section configuration of student groups, subsection D, sitting versus standing.”
I know that I am exaggerating to make a point, but I’m sure that many of you have seen plenty of instances of this style of writing. Anyone who has served in the military probably has a few favorite examples of mangled English to relate. Academia seems especially prone to this sort of nonsense. I’m sure Korski could give me some examples from his experience at the university level.
It’s difficult enough to make heads or tails out of official documents when they are written by a native English speaker. Lawyers writing a contract and politicians writing a pork–laden appropriations bill come readily to mind. The purpose of their “style” of writing is of course is to deliberately confuse anyone who attempts to decipher anything. You and I would have better luck puzzling out Babylonian cuneiforms etched into clay tablets!
For the Thais, especially for those whose style of writing in English is verbose, the intent it seems is to impress the reader that, “Wow! These guys sure can use some pretty fancy words!”
While I tend to write these submissions in a style that conveys quite a lot of imagery, my basic style of writing for the real world is generally plain and unadorned.
Here is an example of a lesson plan I wrote for last year.
Lesson Plan # 13
Subject: English Conversation Level: Kindergarten 3
Semester: 1 Week: 13 Dates: Aug 17-21, 2009
Topic: Delicious Fruit
Objective: Each student should:
1. Become comfortable listening to a native English speaking teacher.
2. Become comfortable standing and speaking, “one on one” with the foreign teacher.
3. Gain confidence in speaking clearly, and with correct pronunciation.
4. Learn the names of fruit commonly found in Thailand.
5. Learn the spoken English alphabet.
6. Learn new English vocabulary as presented.
7. Learn the meaning of simple classroom commands.
8. Enjoy learning English!
1. Daily routine:
Greeting: “Good morning/Good afternoon”. “How are you today?” “I am fine thank you, and you?”
“What is your name?” “My name is________.”
“What day is it today?” “Today is _________.” Teaching aid: sign board with the days of the week song.
2. Sing the Alphabet (ABC) song.
Weekly vocabulary: fruit, mango, rambutan
Supplementary vocabulary: commonly found Thai fruit: Mangosteen, Longan, Durian etc.
Teaching aid: pictures illustrating new vocabulary. After learning the English names for these kinds of fruit, students will be asked, “What is this?” “This is a/an______.”
Alphabet words: S is for snake, T is for tiger
Supplementary Activity: The Apple Song
4. Classroom commands where appropriate: stand up please, sit down please, quiet please, sit/stand in a line, sit/stand in a circle, repeat after me, raise your hand please.
5. When the new vocabulary is appropriate, students will be asked, “Do you like________?” “Yes I like_________.” Or “No I don’t like _________. Teaching aid: Smiley Face/Frowny Face sign board.
Evaluation: Students will be evaluated orally individually each week, mid-semester, and the end of the semester. Marks will be given based on clarity of speech, fluidity, and pronunciation.
Okay? Clear as a bell? I sure think so. My fellow teachers and the director thought so. I said exactly what the goal of the lesson was. I was free to make changes as adjustments as desired. I might choose to read a story book instead of sing a song. It was up to me. My department gave me a list of weekly themes they wanted covered. I shared my thinking with everyone and came up with lesson plans. Teachers might ask individually to modify things as needed. No problem. I received high marks for my classroom teaching. The kids were happy, and they learned a hell of a lot. What needed improving? Well, apparently everything. Every teacher, at every level now has to use this little template.
Subject: … ………… Subject code: …. Term: …
Unit: …Topic: ……. No. of hours:….
Week:… …. Day:……. Month: Year:…….
1. Learning Outcome
2. Main Concept
4. Learning Competency
6. Learning Objectives
9. Measurement and Evaluation
10. Assessment Strategies and Tools
Head, Integrated English Program
Signed: ……… Signed:
Head, Elem./High School Curriculum Section Head, Academic Affairs
12. Teaching Outcome (Reflection/Problems encountered/Solutions)
a. Evidence of Deep Knowledge acquired
b. Evidence of relating knowledge to real life-situations/other fields
c. Characteristics/Values acquired
d. Ways to improve teaching-learning
So, Everybody got that? Easy as apple pie? Well, some of it is. Some parts are clearly redundant. Some of are utterly absurd. For # 5, we are supposed to dream up a moral lesson that is to be learned. What is Deep Knowledge? What does “evidence of relating knowledge to real life-situations” mean? What does that mean for 4 and five year olds? Give me a break! The one no one could figure out is # 10 Assessment Strategies and Tools. Everyone made an apparently simple request to the person who was in charge of all of this. Would please give us concrete examples? What is it that you want? In the end, the woman in charge of implementing this whole thing, and who was demanding that we rigidly adhere to every point, turned out to be incapable of explaining anything. Yes welcome to Thailand!
Well let it never be said that Sawadee doesn’t know when the fix is in. I may bitch and moan privately, but I’ve learned over the years, that all “pissing into the wind” is going to do is get me wet and smelly…especially here in Thailand. So, like a “good Farang”, I sat down at the computer and regurgitated exactly what was required of me. So here is a sample of one of my “revised” lesson plans.
Subject: English Conversation Kindergarten 2
Subject code: Term: 1
Unit: …1…Part B Topic: A Cup and a Saucer
No. of hours: 1 ½ Week: 2
Month: May Year: 2010-2011
5. Learning Outcome: Students should:
1. Learn the names of items commonly found in a kitchen.
2. Become comfortable listening to a native English speaking teacher.
3. Become comfortable standing and speaking, “one on one” with the foreign teacher.
4. Gain confidence in speaking clearly, and with correct pronunciation.
5. Learn the spoken English alphabet.
6. Learn new English vocabulary as presented.
7. Learn the meaning of simple classroom commands.
8. Be able to answer the daily “warm-up questions.
9. Enjoy learning English!
6. Main Concept: Students will learn the names of items commonly found in a kitchen
1) The kitchen items to be learned are as follows: a pot, a pan, a stove, a spoon, a knife and a fork.
2) The phonics of the English alphabet.
3) The daily warm-up questions are as follows:
a. How are you today?
b. What day is it today?
c. What is your name?
d. How old are you?
e. Where do you live?
f. What is the name of your school?
g. What’s the weather today?
8. Learning Competency: Students will demonstrate their learning capacity by:
answering questions without prompting, speaking clearly, speaking with fluency, and with proper pronunciation.
Correctly pronouncing each letter of the English alphabet.
A. “Practice makes perfect!”
B. Always try your best.
C. Don’t be shy!
12. Learning Objectives:
When shown illustrations of the lesson’s vocabulary words, they should be able to answer the question, “What is this?” with the response, “This is a/an __________.”
The lesson will begin with daily warm-up questions: Each day the teacher will greet the students and ask the following questions:
1. How are you today?
2. What day is it today?
3. What is your name?
4. How old are you?
5. Where do you live?
6. What is the name of your school?
7. What’s the weather today?
Students will be encouraged to speak clearly and with feeling.
Vocabulary drill: New vocabulary will be presented in the following manner. The teacher will hold up an illustration and say the word. For example: “pot”. The students will repeat the word. If and when necessary, pronunciation will be corrected. The teacher will repeat the word three times. The teacher will say, “This is a pot”. The students will repeat. This will be done three times. Finally, the teacher will ask the question, “What is this?” The students will answer, “This is a pot.” Students will be asked to follow along in their work books, and place their finger on each illustration as the teacher reads the word. The teacher will drill the students 2-3 times until proficiency is demonstrated.
Vocabulary games: “Show me”
The teacher will line up the pictures of the week’s vocabulary words on the board and ask, “Show me a pot.” The teacher will then chose a student to go the board and point out the picture of a pot. The teacher will then ask the student, “What is this?”
The teacher will have the students sit in a circle and place flashcards with pictures of the week’s vocabulary words face down in the center of the circle. A student will be chosen to pick a card and show the picture to the rest of the class. The teacher will ask the question, “What is this?”
1. The teacher will tap on a tambourine and begin the following chant: “What is the sound of “A”? The sound of “A” is “aeh”.
A-aeh-ant.” The students will respond by chanting “A-aeh-ant”!
The teacher will point to each letter and illustration throughout the chant until finishing with “Z-zeh-zebra”.
2. The teacher, pointing to each letter on the alphabet chart will say: “A-aeh”, B-Bah” etc. The children will repeat in unison.
3. In the last step, the teacher will say the name of the each letter, and the children will make the sound of that letter. For example, the teacher will say “A” and the children will respond with “aeh”.
For every new vocabulary word there is a large colorful illustration. Each one has been chosen to catch the children’s’ interest. Whenever possible, these reflect something that they are familiar with in Thailand. For the English alphabet, there is a large chart displaying images of the associated “alphabet words” used in Thailand: A-ant, B-bear, C-cat etc. There are also alphabet flashcards that can be used as part of a game. A tambourine will be used to establish a rhythm for an alphabet chant
4) Measurement and Evaluation
Students will be orally evaluated individually “one by one” twice each term. The teacher will ask a series of questions. There will be two types of questions. Some questions will be based on the daily questions asked at the beginning of each class. For example, “Where do you live?” or “What is the name of your school?” Other questions will be based on vocabulary learned during the term. The teacher will hold up a series of pictures and ask the question, “What is this?”
Scoring will be determined based on: the student’s ability to correctly answer the question, his or her fluency in speaking, the clarity of speech, and pronunciation. A score of 5 means excellent or very good. A score of 3 means good to okay. A score of 1 indicates “improvement is needed”. A separate score for pronunciation will be issued”. A score of 3 = excellent. A score of 2 = adequate. A score of 1 indicates “improvement is needed”.
The above refers to formal evaluation. In addition, during each class, students will be informally evaluated in groups and individually to re-enforce the acquisition of material, and to offer corrections in pronunciation where needed.
14. Assessment Strategies and Tools:
The students can answer questions with little or no hesitation. Their answers are spoken clearly, and with correct pronunciation.
All the material that the evaluation is based on will be reviewed in the classroom prior to
Assessment. Informal assessment will be done individually and in small groups. Formal assessment will be done one by one.
Ability to speak clearly and with confidence.
No special resources will be used. The specifics used in assessment were determined through collaboration between the teacher and the Anuban director.
Same as assessment tools
15. Comments/Suggestions: An in depth, critical look at My English Companion for use at the Anuban level is called for.
16. Teaching Outcome (Reflection/Problems encountered/Solutions)
e. Evidence of Deep Knowledge acquired:
They can remember the material at the end of the lesson and retain it by the following lesson, and more importantly at the end of the school year.
f. Evidence of relating knowledge to real life-situations/other fields
g. Characteristics/Values acquired
A. “Practice makes perfect!”
B. Always try your best.
C. Don’t be shy!
h. Ways to improve teaching-learning:
1. Lessons should be restructured from two 40 minute periods per week to four twenty 20 minute periods per week. There are two reasons for this. First, students of this young age cannot focus their attention for so long a time. After twenty minutes they cannot concentrate on the material being presented. They need time to rest their minds and absorb new vocabulary. Secondly, short frequent periods of learning are more effective in helping students to remember new vocabulary.
2. The amount of new material being presented should be reduced. Even with frequent drilling, the students simply cannot remember so many new English words. There should be no more than four new words presented each lesson.
I will be the first to admit that I shoveled a whole lot of ขี้ ควาย (B.S.), especially for Assessment Strategies and Tools, but, what the hell! It’s not as though anyone is actually going to read any of these damned things. Every one of these lesson plans is instead destined to a long and moldy existence in a dark, dank basement in the Ministry of Education in Bangkok…but, a box will be ticked off that I did submit the required paperwork in a timely manner, and that’s all that counts. I may even earn some Brownie Points by gussying it all with some colorful glossy covers, complete with the school’s logo, and if I’m really in the mood, laminating the whole thing! Oh, it is extraordinarily easy to impress the Thais with something bright and shiny!
Now I know what some of you must be thinking. “Why all the bitching? Hey, things aren’t that different back in Farangland. Bureaucracies are bureaucracies. There is plenty of buffalo dung to be shoveled and useless reams of paperwork to fill out everywhere on planet Earth.” Absolutely! In Thailand, there is a unique character to all of this busy-work. Here in the Land of Smiles, the illusion that things are being done is much more important than the reality that in fact little or nothing is being accomplished at all. If all that’s required is the appearance, why bother with substance?
An analogy I like to use concerns what I like to refer to as an alleged cake. I use the term “alleged”, because one generally assumes that a cake worthy of the name can safely be called edible, if not always delightful. In Thailand a cake could be toxic, could be so full of botulism that anyone who eats it will quickly be running for the closest toilet. Now, a group of Thais attend their boss’s birthday party, where this dubious confection is served to one and all…except to the boss, who for some mysterious reason declines a slice. Perhaps it was the fact that the cake didn’t smell very fresh. The boss did not however pass on the opportunity to have himself photographed cutting the cake, surrounded by his loyal staff. Yes, another social triumph to be displayed in a scrap-book! Certainly no one is going ever let the fellow know that everyone spent to next twelve hours curled up in a fetal position…not if he or she values their job!
Thai teachers are not paid a whole lot, especially when you consider what they have to do. Still. Teaching is a well respected career, and one which after many years of hard service, will provide a pension. In a land where the very concept of a social “safety net” doesn’t exist, a person would have to be crazy to do anything to jeopardize even the modest pension that they might receive. The result is a culture, where people keep their mouths shut and follow orders to the letter. Throw into the mix the fear of losing face, and you have a situation where there is no room for even the possibility of an honest evaluation. So begins the march of the lemmings to the sea.
Is it any wonder that when forced to take standardized tests, Thais perform very poorly compared with other Asian countries? Does anyone in a position to change policy care? As long as the boxes indicating that “learning” has taken place continues to be ticked, and everyone involved pretends that this in indeed so, I think Thailand can expect year after year of “improvements” in the education system.
Ironically, I sincerely believe that my school’s administrators thought they were instituting a worthy program. Unfortunately the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What they wound up doing is buying a package, lock, stock and barrel, without doing their homework to see if any of it made sense. If they had bothered to consult the folks who actually do the teaching, a number of red flags would have been raised as to the content and suitability of the material. Now, having adopted this tar baby, the people in charge can never admit even the possibility of acting hastily. Nope, all you will hear when teachers raise valid concerns, is the sound of indignant stuttering. I should mention that is the foreign teachers, including the Filipinos, who are voicing these concerns. Despite the poor test results that will inevitably pour in at the end of midterm, anyone who is holding his/her breath waiting for a re-evaluation of the teaching material would be well advised to get themselves a tank of oxygen, because change will not be forthcoming!
Now I would never seriously consider calling
myself a fire breathing revolutionary, let alone counter-revolutionary, but when faced with a truck load of lemons barreling down life’s highway towards me, I quickly run out and buy all the sugar I can lay my hands on and get ready to set up a lemonade stand pronto! I may be forced to go through all the appropriate motions in terms of teaching “by the book”, but I have a secret weapon up my sleeve… that my friends, is simple enthusiasm for what I do. I really do look forward to getting up in the morning and teaching. With a song in my heart I continue to do my best to make learning English fun. I encourage my young students to do their best, and never make them feel stupid if they have a problem remembering a bunch of unfamiliar words in a foreign language. The amazing thing is that for the most part this approach seems to work! The children are happily learning to the best of their ability. There isn’t snowball’s chance in hell of them mastering all the material that has been set out in their textbooks, but that is the least of my concerns. My goals are simple. I want them to feel comfortable being with me and speaking English. I want them to learn a relatively modest amount of vocabulary. Most importantly I want to prepare a solid foundation for their future study of English. Will I succeed? I honestly think I have a pretty good chance. The students who I had last year, and who have gone on to Pratom 1 are doing very well. Their English teacher has told me how impressed she is with what they know. In the end, I will continue my covert campaign, at least as long as I can continue to bluff my way through the system.
A very nice and indeed very accurate portrayal of parts of the education system in Thailand.
The next time someone asks me why I got out of teaching I will point them to this article!