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An Education in Thailand – A Concerned Parent’s View



As some of the longer term readers will know, this old buffalo is here for the long haul. I do re-surface from time to time on Stickman’s site to provide a personal slant re: observations of life in general in Thailand. Most of my ramblings revolve around everyday life, work and family. I don’t discuss politics – it’s a bit of a minefield, that. Nor do I talk about mongering, as there are other contributors to this site who are in a much better position to espouse on the subject. I personally keep an open mind on this.

Now, when the kids come along, one does not think immediately to the distant future. Rather, with the responsibilities of being a new parent, you get caught up in the juggle of working hours, waking hours, unholy god-knows-what hours, it's-your-turn hours and trips to and from the babysitters’ place. It was the last thing – trips to the babysitters’ – that made me throw in the towel and buy a car, as radio taxis had not been invented back then. Not forgetting that taxis did not have meters either, it was up to the driver’s whim and fancy to charge you what he felt would have been appropriate at that time of the day.

It is not too long before you realize that the kids would soon need an education, and that this would have to happen somewhere. And that somewhere would just happen to be…

Kindergarten.

A look at what was available turned up a few surprises.

At the bottom of the list was the temple kindergarten. It was basically free, however the only thing that happened there was that the kids would hopefully learn how to dress themselves, use the toilet properly and at the correct time, use eating utensils, and not a lot else. Note that this was done for the benefit of the part time maid’s son.

The privately-run kindergartens were much better; they had learning activities and taught some basic language; this included English. It was eventually what I opted for. The reason being…

There were / are some big-name schools that pride themselves on the results of the kids they turned out. People actually line up and are prepared to pay big bucks just to have their kids in. The application form had a section labeled ‘donation’ with check boxes that started at fifty thousand baht and increased in those increments. I certainly didn’t (wouldn’t!) check any. We left our kid for a couple of ‘trial’ lessons; he never came back looking particularly happy, and was soon developing all kinds of excuses not to go back. I soon found out that they were trying to ram a primary one education down a three-year old kid’s throat – no wonder he didn’t want to go back. That trial was terminated very abruptly. By me. My wife pulled a long face, but hey! You’re only a kid once, and a happy kid is a healthy and balanced one.

When it was time for the kids to go to primary school, I managed to secure places for them (without the donation! aka ‘pah chiak’) at a reasonably decent co-educational mission school. By this time, English was a required subject from primary one, so coupled with me speaking English some of the time to the kids they did quite well.

I have personally found that the mission schools give the best all-round education as long as you leave religion out of it. (Another subject I prefer not to discuss) The majority of the students would be Buddhist anyway, so I think the mix balances itself out nicely. Note that this is a personal opinion and you’re welcome to agree or disagree.

Some changes came with secondary school, where the elder was entered in a full English program. Every single subject, including the texts, were taught in English. Though initially daunting, he started to cope with the change after the initial month or so. His form teacher was a bit of a dragon, but she meant well and the parents were kept in the loop. He did well.

Interestingly, the so-called ‘English Program’ was really a pilot program at the time, run in only a few select schools. There was(is?) no provision for this at university level – as such the entrance examinations to local universities have to be taken in Thai language with Thai subjects – thus limiting the choice of further studies to local universities that run international programs.

Perhaps Stickman would be so kind as to comment on this? <I taught in one of the top English programs in Thailand for a number of years, which was part of a "big name" high school. Most subjects were in English but Thai, Buddhism, PE, Music and Art were not, so the kids still used their native tongue quite a bit at school. Perhaps this English program was an exception, but in terms of entrance to the best universities in Thailand and abroad (including the likes of MIT in the US), that the kids had had 6 years education primarily in English did not seem to be an issue at all. Those who applied for university in Thailand invariably got in to Chula or Thammasat and those applying abroad were accepted into big name unis. The bottom line seems to be that so long as the quality of the education was good, they have no problems in Thai or sitting exams in ThaiStick>

Much to my consternation, my wife put the younger in a well-known government school also running an English program of sorts. Perhaps she had this worry of the university entrance examinations at the back of her mind.

Well, there are English programs, and there are English programs.

This is where one learns that sometimes the programs are little more than lip service and that some schools are run as business entities trying to get as much from you as they can. The students are just the means to that end.

Now, when a student who has been at the top end of his class before starts getting grades that begin to plummet at alarming levels, you know something is not right. So how is this dealt with? The wives (yes, why is it always the wives?) get together and organize a meeting with the school administration. Agenda: why are our kids not getting good grades? After a couple of sessions (and I would think a lot of hot air) a Parent-Teacher get-together is planned. I have managed to avoid these in the past but sometimes one must accept one’s fate.

It goes like this.

1. Book a room at a local restaurant near the school. Make sure you have a buffet that includes soft drinks. Set up an overhead projector.
2. When people start arriving, interact to ensure you know where you are in the pecking order. Bow. Scrape. Wai. Oh, you’re her husband? Nice to meet you.
3. Some teachers are in attendance. For an English program, the absence of any foreign teacher is quite noticeable. Wonder if they were even invited, or were hiding in the teachers’ common room? I stick out like a sore thumb.
4. Play a video of the school administrator apologizing for his absence at your party. Clap at the end.
5. Eat and play silly games.
6. Go on stage and play keep-up-with-the-Jonses. My son has done piano grade five. Clap-clap-clap. My daughter did ballet. Clap-clap-clap. All this, obviously, has nothing to do with the agenda at hand

Appropriate action to be taken by self:
Apologise for not really being able to participate in their meeting and leave before you throw up. Make it clear to the wife that you will not, under any circumstances, ever attend another of these meetings. Find a place to have a beer to recover.

(Okay, maybe it’s a bit contrived, but it’s not far from the truth)

I have a long chat with my son about the school, and this is what he told me. I am inclined to believe him. I am sure this exists to a greater or lesser degree in most places.

1. This school has a fairly high turnover of foreign teachers. Those who come later will just teach the same stuff as has been done before. Most are not really interested anyway.

2. The teachers who are dedicated do not last long. This is because they make claims for teaching materials – photocopies, etc. Oh, and actually teach the students something. This, in some way, seems to frighten the administrators. Those who couldn’t care less are kept on, apparently as they don’t rock the boat.

3. He showed me a copy of the text they’re using. It contains almost nothing of substance*. Some teachers have borrowed the textbooks from us as they are more informative. This then leads to the situation as outlined in 2.

4. They are examined on some stuff that is in the curriculum but has not been covered. Remedial classes then have to be attended.

* Nothing of substance: He read from the Thai texts an example: – ‘nutrient’ – it is food for plants. Without it the plant will die. He then pulls out the English (our) texts, and there is much more detail in this.

He did mention one dedicated teacher who would stay back on his own time to help the students, and appreciated the time and effort. To that teacher, if you’re reading this, Thank You. (You know who you are)

_____


Right. Although I’ve been fairly critical of the educational system here, a lot of things have actually changed, and definitely for the better. It used to be that English was taught only in Secondary school, but it is now a compulsory subject from primary one. It is being actively taught at kindergarten level as well.

I do remember in the not too distant past when I had to have a form filled out in Thai at the Transport Department to apply for a driving licence. There was no provision for English at all, and I would have to pay some person at a desk set up in a corner ten baht for him to do so. Today, both languages go hand-in-hand; the latest computerized Thai driving licences have both English and Thai.

It’ll take some time for general acceptance and fluency of both languages to trickle down to the education system. But I am confident it will happen.

For some of you who are still skeptical of the education system here, it does work. As with any country, the education will usually be in the language of the country itself first, before some other prevailing international language is used. While the system is still a bit of a dinosaur, I’ve managed (and so have a lot of other people) to get around its failings by getting additional tutoring for my kids. To be fair, staffing and equipment levels are rather mediocre compared to the more developed countries, but given dedication and a willingness to learn wonders can be achieved.

As an aside, if I’m employing locally, I’d rather hire a locally educated person than someone who has been educated overseas. As employees, the overseas educated persons tend to have a bit of an attitude as compared to their locally educated compatriots. The overseas educated persons are much better off if they’re running their own businesses and such where interaction with a much broader contact base is required.

A prime example would be my son. He spent a year at a decent high school in the US as an exchange student. While he marveled at the well-equipped science labs and such amenities that the schools over there had to offer, he did come back with an attitude. What kind of attitude, you may ask. Well, it’s a little strange when you see him after a year and his English, while improved, is American-accented. That wasn’t the problem. What I found was that while his confidence levels seemed to have improved, he had become very sensitive to criticism of any sort, so any situation out of the ordinary would entail a ‘don’t pull that kind of sh** on me’ comment. To me that smacked of negativity, and my opinion is that negativity and creativity do not co-exist. Believe me, that attitude did not last long.

So, to put things in perspective, think of two groups, one with a collection of rag dolls, sticks and string, while the other has the keys to Toys-R-Us. As learning is a process of the mind, would the group with the rag dolls learn less? Given some creativity, I am more than confident either group would do just as well as the other. Think about it. Can you conjure up an image of Pythagoras with just a stick and a patch of sand to scratch on, and what has been attributed to him? The mind boggles.

Learning is an ongoing process. It never stops. At least not till you keel over and croak. To end on a more positive note, I’ll pose a question.

What have you learnt today?


Stickman's thoughts:

The over emphasis on testing from grade 1, teachers with poor subject knowledge, teachers who don't know how to and don't feel a need to motivate or be engaging, a flawed system where every student must pass, comfort with rote learning, poor resources, a questionable curriculum in some subjects, poor or untrained foreign teachers in some schools….the list could go on and on and on.

I think anyone sending kids to school in Thailand needs to monitor their child's progress closely!