Readers' Submissions

School in the West vs School in Asia

  • Written by Anonymous
  • June 14th, 2011
  • 8 min read


Stick recently asked the question of which is better: Schools in the West or Schools in Asia. Given my childhood, this is an area where I can contribute my experiences, at least with respect to schools in the 1980s. Unfortunately, I suspect some things may have changed to a certain extent in more recent times, but what I have to offer may interest readers nonetheless.

I spent all of my childhood traveling between countries. The longest I stayed in any one country was four years, which was in Thailand. I lived in Asia, Europe and Australia and experienced the education systems that each of those continents had to offer. My preference, without any doubt, is the school I went to in Thailand.

I attended ISB in Bangkok and went through grades 3 to 6. Back then it was located in Sukhumvit Soi 15, but it has since moved and its old campus is now taken over by another international school. In the 1980s, enrollment at ISB was restricted only to foreign children (i.e. those who had a foreign passport), although there were a few exceptions made to children who had parents in influential positions. As a result, the language heard in the playground was English. In fact, very few students could even speak Thai with any real proficiency, myself included back then. The teachers were 99% westerners, with Thais primarily taking on roles as teachers' aids or similar. We did have a Thai art teacher and our Thai studies teacher was Thai, but these were the exceptions rather than the norm. Most of the teachers were from the United States. There were some from other western lands, such as Germany and Australia, but they were also a minority. Of the new teachers that I saw start at the school, most seemed to have just arrived in Thailand, which suggested they had been recruited from overseas. This suggests to me that most are professional teachers, who were looking for an opportunity for some international experience, rather than people who want to stay in Thailand and use teaching as a means to this end.

Out of all of the primary (elementary) and high (secondary) schools I have attended, ISB was by far the best. The quality of education was superb. The curriculum was US-based, but still had an excellent international flavour. The material that was taught and the quality in which the teachers delivered it was far better than any other school I have been to. The school itself was very attentive to the needs of individual students. I had a slight lisp and the school picked it up in the first couple of weeks and gave me speech therapy. Solved the problem perfectly. I struggled a bit with mathematics initially and the school resolved that promptly. I was an excellent reader, and the school made sure that I was in an elevated reading group.

Class sizes were small. In elementary school, for each year, we had four to five classes, and each class had between 17 and 22 students (this is from counting student numbers in my yearbook). In addition, we would be divided up into groups for different topics and the teacher would dedicate himself to each group at different times during the week, so each student always received plenty of individual attention.

The international flavour of the school was very healthy for my upbringing. Although the school is American, there was a great mix of students coming from all over the world. Most countries that I can think of had representation. My own group of friends came from diverse backgrounds, including India, Australia, the UK, Holland, the US, Japan, Singapore, Israel, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Canada, South Africa, South Korea, Italy… you get the picture. Yes, the representation was primarily from wealthy countries and yes, most of the students I knew were fairly (or very) well off. Most parents were filling either consular or ex-pat roles and therefore on ex-pat packages. They were therefore fairly wealthy (and well educated) people and Thailand was usually not their first foreign posting. Most of the kids had therefore already lived in other foreign countries and were therefore not culturally deprived, and less ethno-centric. Having friends from many countries also meant that I had little concept of racism or nationalism. I can honestly say that, at the time, I did not discriminate against any one based on their race or the country they came from. Racism is something that I only picked up after returning back to school in Australia.

My second preference in terms of educational quality is actually Australia. I went to both public and private schools and can confirm that there is a big difference. The public schools were okay, but the private schools I went to were markedly better. My biggest complaint was more with the school environment and abruptness of teachers than the quality of education. Bullying at the time was a big issue, especially if you were a little “different” to the other students. Having a different accent and having lived overseas was a sufficient “difference” to come onto the bully’s radar, so I quickly learned how to fight. Even after I overcame any bullying issues, I still found the general atmosphere of school in Australia to be unfulfilling. School was fairly strict, the pace of studies was very harsh, a lot of homework was issued, and to be honest, I don’t think that heavy pace really gave us that much better an education. By the end of high school the expectations were to do a minimum of 2 hours of homework each night, plus a good chunk of one day each weekend. In addition, there was a very heavy focus on extra-curricular activities which took up after school time. Sure, it was good to have to do a lot of sport, but it seemed a bit too much and the coaches seemed a bit sadistic with the pace… it's not like we were all trying to be professional athletes, but the coaching regime seemed to be tailored for professional athletes.

My third preference is Norway. I spent 1½ years at public schools in Norway. I learned Norwegian (starting with a zero knowledge of the language) and was at my grade level in one year. The schools therefore did a fairly reasonable job of identifying students’ weaknesses and providing assistance. Lessons were well presented and the pace did not feel as fast as Australian schools, but I still feel like they were effective and that I learned quite a bit. We were not assigned very much homework (in high school), and apart from the occasional assignment that I spent a weekend doing last minute, I rarely had more than half an hour every second evening or so. Weekends and after school time was therefore mainly free time (although in Norway, there wasn’t too much to do most of the time). My biggest criticism of Norwegian schools is that if a student was not self-disciplined or didn’t really want to learn, then the teachers wouldn’t really push either. They might have a bit of a chat to determine if there was anything wrong, but otherwise, the students seemed to be allowed to make their own decision on how well they want to progress academically. At 14 or 15, I am not convinced that students are necessarily old enough to make that decision.

Some of you may be wondering how I turned out, being the product of four years of fun at ISB? I think I did well. I went straight to university after high school. I studied various degrees, received first class honours, worked in top firms in my field of expertise, and ultimately, became a director of an international company… and I am only in my 30s.

Interestingly, I feel like many of the skills I possess as important attributes in my work roles are in fact skills I initially learned at ISB. My reading comprehension skills and ability to think and question issues critically I certainly picked up at ISB. Similarly my attitude towards managing people (including across cultures) came from ISB. Many of my friends from the school (who are scattered all around the world) have similarly done very well for themselves. Of course, a lot of that would also have to be attributed to the well-off parents of these friends and the home environment in which they grew up.

However, please note that my submission is not intended as a glowing reference to ISB. I am not convinced that the ISB of today is the same as it was back in the 1980s. Friends of mine who finished high school at ISB in the early 1990s indicated it started changing in the 1990s and became something very different from what it was, even losing much of its original culture.

Based on the choice of schools in Thailand today, I don’t think I would send my children to school there. I think that I was just lucky in the sense of being in the right country and the right school at the right time.

As a post-script, I apologise for the unusually poor quality of my submission today. I normally try to proof read and structure my submissions but the question poised by Stick was one that I felt a strong need to contribute to, and things are busy so finding even an hour to write this was a challenge.


Stickman's thoughts:

It's great to hear that ISB gets such a positive review. I imagine it is still very, very good today. ISB and Bangkok Pattana are generally considered the two best schools in Thailand, the latter using the British school curriculum. I reckon you would get a top notch education at either school, and I should point out that these two schools – with fees that run well over $US 20,000 per year, are hardly representative of typical schools in Thailand!