Thai students and the fine art of copying

I couldn't believe what was going on in the classroom

Even after completing a comprehensive 6-week TEFL course in 2003 I was not prepared for what I witnessed take place in the first school that I taught at, as well as each one I have subsequently worked for.

In my course I learnt how to structure a lesson, how to present and how to maintain control of a classroom. No one told me to expect my students to blatantly copy the answers to my carefully crafted exercises from other students and even go so far as to photocopy the answers to their homework.

In at the deep end

At first I thought it was someone's idea of a practical joke but to my continued disappointment it appeared to be not only widespread but ingrained into the Thai education system and, most disappointingly of all, something which Thai teachers turn an absolute blind eye to.

I come from a society and a culture where the copying of anything in or out of a classroom is simply looked on as cheating. Not only cheating the whole idea of education but cheating oneself out of any possibility of learning, not to mention a total disrespect of the student who goes to the trouble of learning the correct answers in the first place. So I was appalled beyond measure when I saw my first example of copying in my classroom at my first school in Phuket.

As a beginner teacher and having been given no guidance on what to teach my students, I decided to concentrate on the three major problems that Thai learners have with the English language that I had identified at that time: plurals, past tense and pronunciation. The three Ps.

I enjoyed helping the students understand that time and knowing when are very important to English speakers and explaining how the tense system worked. As the Thai language has only one form of any verb (the present form) I could sympathise with my students why it is so difficult for them to consider the many verb forms that we have and I totally understood why they revert so comfortably to always using present tense no matter what time they are talking about (this goes for almost every Thai English teacher when they speak, too).

Guiding the students

So I gave the students model sentences to refer to, drew timelines to indicate time, explained completed actions and encouraged them to think about which verbs to use in a series of exercises that also drew on their knowledge of rote-learned past-tense and past-participle verbs.

The exercises were fill-in-the-gap ones that the students had to complete by choosing the correct verb from a list of those in the present tense, change them to past tense and write the complete sentence. I was pretty happy with this activity and after I had written the list of verbs and the sentences on the board I asked the students to begin and then wandered around the room. I won't easily forget what happened next.

I naturally expected and assumed that the students (who were in muttayom 4) would read the sentences, identify the correct verb to use and then write the correct sentence into their notebooks. They'd carefully consider the correct answer and then begin writing.

What's going on?

I was very surprised to see them copying everything I had written on the board including the instructions into their notebooks, neatly ruling red lines where the missing verbs needed to go. "That's a very strange way of doing these," I remember thinking to myself. But it was what happened next that floored me. As soon as the students had finished copying everything from the board some of them began wandering around the room and sitting next to other students and blatantly copying their answers from them!

One girl in particular merely held her notebook up in the air until another student came to her and took it away. I followed her and watched in amazement as she began filling in the answers for her! I looked around to see another girl with a small pile of notebooks on her desk, busily writing the answers for several other students while they sat and talked or went to sleep.

Eventually the exercises were all done and the notebooks were all placed in a stack on my table at the front of the room, signifying an end to their ‘work'. I was deeply upset and took this incident very personally, quite unaware at the time that it was not anything to do with my subject, my nationality or anything. It is simply the way most Thai students complete their ‘work'.

Luckily for my mental health I quickly found that it was better for me not to fight ‘em but to join ‘em and so I caved in and allowed the students to continue doing as they had always done.

Demoralised and confused

I cannot begin to describe how demoralised I felt watching these healthy, bright young Thai children with so much potential and ability simply perform the same tasks, never thinking, never considering, not using their knowledge or even entering into discussions with their classmates.

I had come to Thailand hoping to help Thai students begin to understand and master my complex and confusing language, to try to make a difference, to assist them in ultimately improving their lives and all I saw was a bunch of robotic kids just transcribing English words into their notebooks and not even knowing what the sentences meant, let alone being able to use them when they spoke or wrote. It was a particularly tough time for me.

In one of my other classes I had a boy whose father was from Switzerland. This student communicated extremely well in English and I developed a very good bond with him and discovered so much information from him, much more than if I had relied on any of my Thai colleagues.

In his class he would complete his work almost instantly (not that he even needed to do any) while his good buddy sat next to him staring into space. When the exercises were completed the notebook was handed to his buddy and he then copied all of the answers into his. I asked my student if he thought his friend was learning anything by just copying the answers from him and his frank reply was, "Of course not." My next question to him was, "Well then, why do you do it?" He replied that he had no choice in the matter because he was his friend.

Part of the culture

Just as we would unquestioningly lend one of our friends money for their lunch, he was compelled to do the same thing with regards to schoolwork. "So it's all about respect for your friend, then?" I asked. "Yes, that's right. I respect him and I must help him", he said. I told him that in my country if my friend truly respected me then he would never even think about copying my work. "Yes, my Dad told me about that", he said. "It doesn't work like that here." I definitely learn more about Thailand from my students than from just about anywhere else.

This different approach to respect helped to explain to me why students allowed other students to copy from them but it's something I can never accept, even though I have tried to do so many times. I cannot believe that a country would place respect above learning and I cannot believe that educational authorities are happy knowing that even though the students who they have been entrusted to educate are not learning very much at least they are being respectful to each other. That's something I will never get my head around.

As recently as this morning I saw the usual sight of students at my current school sitting outside my English Department office busily copying words from someone else's notebooks into theirs. Thai teachers walk past them every morning and say nothing.

It would appear that the attitude is not one of, "Oh no, those lazy students are copying their homework answers again!' but, "How lovely to see students offering their answers to their friends as a sign of respect. What a wonderful world this is!" I know this is quite a cynical view by yours truly but it helps me to deal with this incredible phenomenon.

What are the answers?

I cannot do anything about the amount of copying done in schools and universities in Thailand. I cannot speak to any Thai person in authority anywhere and plead with them to do something about it because as an outsider it is not my place to do so.

What I can do, however, is gently guide my students towards the right thing to do, not by constantly criticising the Thai education system in front of them but by asking them if they believe they will actually learn anything by copying. I ask my students why they come to school and eventually they answer "to learn". In fact the Thai word for school is literally "a place to learn".

If I can appeal to my students to consider how they can learn and whether copying should be a part of that (without mentioning which education system is better than the other) I find I can go a long way towards getting my students to gradually start thinking for themselves instead of the usual practice of looking around the room to see who has the answer ready to copy.

It's not much but for the sake of my stress levels and to obtain any sense of worth or satisfaction it's the best I can do.


Tony Mitchell


Comments

I don't want to dive too deep into the topic right now, but I notice exactly the same habits in my students. And all age groups and learning levels as a matter of fact. I am 22 years old, and I have just completed my first week teaching here in Thailand. I came here thinking I would be able to actually teach these kids a thing or at least two, but I was so disheartened when I saw that every time I had the students write something down or answer a question, that they would result to copying each other. At first I was so confused, thinking, "how could they all be copying each other? Even to copy their favorite pet or age?" After my second day, I kept my happy face on and continuously walked around the class room, and when I saw five heads all huddled over one student, I knew that the one student in the middle had finished and the others were "copying". I would walk over to them with a smile, and slowly pull away at the finished worksheet, or journal entry from the student and would then be glared at by the other students. I just smiled and let out a little chuckle to let them know I was not mad or angry, and surprisingly they smiled back. This has worked in most my classes, as I am slowly taking away their so-called "resources", and has forced students to actually think. I love when I see a student with both of their hands on their head. It reminds me of myself in a difficult situation, and those, you can only learn from.

By MItchel, Rayong, Thailand (2 years ago)

I thought I’m just alone facing the same kinds of problem in the classroom of teaching Thai students. I can’t describe or define the meaning of the educational investment of Thai students in the classroom. The impact tolerance and reluctant capacity of their academic world in education has never attuned to the reality. I told my m3 students to do their responsibility being a student but they don’t care, thus they don’t want to do the worksheets, don’t want to take the test or if possible just copying from the classmates, and attending their classes late. When you give them a speaking drill exercise some students are going to ignore the activity. Very passive learners and it is frustrating effort that your profession has just wasted by them.

Christoph

By Christoph, Bangkok (4 years ago)

While I sympathize with you and the subsequent commentators about the endemic system of classroom cheating, there's one thing that is being overlooked:

Initiative isn't a natural ability... it's like everything else... something that is taught.

YOU see copying answers as wrong... (so do I!) but the students and some teachers don't see it that way. They see it as 'getting the answers'... which it is!

Let me ask you this... After you have taught a class of students, does the standard of English improve because of the test at the end of it?

No it doesn't. It improves because of the lesson preceding it!

The test just affirms whether or not a student has paid attention in the classroom.

Teaching 'initiative' in Thailand takes a huge amount of tolerance, patience and understanding... and it's not YOUR job to take on the whole task of doing it.

Just do what you can to inspire, motivate and educate them and leave 'the system' for Thailand to deal with.

By Mark Newman, LOS (4 years ago)

I feel your pain.

By Jeremy, Udon Thani (4 years ago)

Interesting comments. In Thailand students prepare for test they don't study to gain knowledge. And one little point nearly all the tenses are present in one form or another in Thai or can can be expressed. Don't fall into the Thais don't understand English grammar because it doesn't exsist in Thai.

By John, Bangkok (4 years ago)

Good on you, Chris! That's a great attitude to have and perhaps if more teachers adopted your approach we might see a bit of change, not only from the students but also from the Thai teachers. Well, maybe.
I'm really disappointed at the neglect of technology in Thai schools, too. It seems that there is no concept of maintenance and understanding that electronics must be looked after for it to be of value. Once it is installed it seems to be left for dead and is rarely repaired because it "costs money". I intend to write another blog about this, with pictures.
I've taught in three schools that had expensive sound labs installed and none of them worked. Such a shame and the students deserve better.

By Tony Mitchell, Pathumthani (4 years ago)

It is sad but true, this is the situation in my school also. I have a large sign in my class room above the white board it reads... " When you copy for you friend YOU learn to copy, you do not learn English! You learn from YOUR mistakes, not the mistakes you copy." I have also explained to all 740 of them that this is cheating and most of the time they are in fact copying incorrect answers. it is improving, all be it slowly. I have after school tutor classes for about 110 students and because their parents are paying for this they seem much better and far more attentive for the duration of the 2 hour class. It is far more rewarding ( for the soul and financially ) than my classes at school. The school is fairly easy going and i have tried to instigate changes. I attend the school gate every morning and afternoon, say good morning / goodbye to every student (1,850 ish) ensure that helmets are worn and locked. I have placed about 50 vinyl posters around my classroom, other teachers classrooms and department. There was a disused (2 years) English lab with 25 computers (15 not working at all, lucky for the school i am very handy around PC's) i now have that up and running with interactive software and it is being well used. I still firmly believe that i can and will make a difference and plan to stay there for a few more years yet.

By chris miller, Thailand (4 years ago)

Thanks for your advice Jonathan and I'm glad I could shed some light for you, Rachel.
Copying is something that I refuse to ever accept or condone and I will never allow it or tolerate it in my classes. I try to use every opportunity I can to remind the students that copying is not learning and that they are only wasting their time and mine.
Just yesterday I had a student completing 'work' from her computer class - she was transcribing every word from a thick handout into her notebook. She felt guilty that I caught her doing it but seemed relieved when I was sympathetic to her for being ordered to do it. It's a disgrace that the Thai system encourages this practice and orders its teachers to do it.

By Tony Mitchell, Pathumthani (4 years ago)

Thank you for writing this article and providing that insight. I don't have any students that are able to communicate this with me but I was visiting Ajarn because I was feeling down about my perceived failings as a teacher here. I teach Pratom 1 and some of the kids actually block their answers from the classmates (the active learners who sit at the front) but generally they pass their books along to their friends to copy. I will sometimes physically return the books back to the original owner but then the kids just shut down and sit there doing nothing. The same goes for tests. They will raise their hand and point to a blank expecting me to give them the answer. If I show them a pattern earlier on the page, they think that is the answer and just copy the word I pointed to. This article was really helpful for learning to work within the system. My kids are pretty behind but I will try to explain that learning element to them before their next exam. Thanks for writing!

By Rachel Diamond, Chon Buri, Thailand (4 years ago)

Unfortunately this is what it's like in an education system which is geared to passive rather than active learning. With reference to the TESOL course these are just courses to redirect you and help you with teaching English as a second language, I don't think any are particularly geared to teaching in Thailand even those run here are generic.
I'm a little surprised how badly you have taken your first encounter, without being harsh I think it's probably a case of little investigation into what you were heading into.
The key thing is not to be too disheartened, it is the same in every school, even some international schools who operate purely for profit and not necessarily for the benefit of the students. I have experienced working in the international school environment and was told not to bother with articles and only teach 9 of the 12 tenses "because they will hardly use the other 3".
In every class you will find in most cases a small hard core group of active learners, concentrate on those to keep yourself sane. In reality I have found that doing this a lot of the time, despite the laziness, some of the other students do pick up English from their never ending copying. Also in nearly every class you will have a dyslexic student and others with different emotional or mental problems, Students don't get filtered out and taught separately so maybe try and do a little extra for them, they may or may not appreciate it but you will feel that your making the effort.
As the whole system is flawed don't be surprised at the Thai teachers attitude they have been brought up with this system and generally their "teaching" is geared to the passive, write down copy and repeat and that's about it.
Don't beat yourself up over all these little niggles it's the same everywhere in Thailand but rather embrace the few that want to learn and in some cases, not all, the masses will follow at various speeds.
When exam time comes don't make it hard work for yourself. I give what I consider a fair exam and it does require them to think a little but I structure them in such a way that there are easily recognizable clues throughout the exam that they will recognize. I teach approx 800 pratom 4 5 and 6 students and in the main it goes relatively smoothly. There are hiccups and the inevitable missed lessons due to the holidays last minute practicing and other things. This term is particularly bad for these interruptions.
All I can say is enjoy what you do help those that want help to be helped and don't feel you aren't making a difference, it may not be noticeable but you will be making an impact on some students life sometimes and a small way sometimes in a big way.
What is certain about Thailand, until they change the whole system which in all fairness will be a hell of a challenge the schools will be the same. Active learning needs to be embraced and get the students used to thinking for themselves, at the moment everything is done for them so until that changes just do your best.

By Jonathan, Thailand (4 years ago)

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