The Teacher’s Middle Way

The Teacher’s Middle Way

Blending Thai and foreign curricula

The Thai Basic Curriculum (TBC) for Foreign Languages of 2008 (BE 2551): If you are a foreign teacher at a government school or an English Program school in Thailand you will have to deal with it at some point.

Those that have worked with it will know how different it is compared to what we may be used to back home. Not only that, there is little in the way of English language research and journal articles available to ground your interpretations of it.

Consequently, the basis for this article is instead observations on improvisations and the tone is more coffee table than peer reviewed (comments section not withstanding). That said, when it comes to using the TBC and planning effective lessons for learners there are some hidden benefits to working with it. Even to the point where it can be synthesised with foreign curricula so students both learn skills that are useful and perform well in traditional exams.

The best of both worlds and having your cultural khanom/cake and eating it too, or as I like to call it the foreign teacher's middle way.

When it comes to meeting the learning objectives of two pedagogically and culturally different documents it can initially seem daunting. However there is a silver lining to this cloud of confusion. The Thai Basic Curriculum of 2008 is different to what western trained teachers will have encountered before. Organised into four level of three years a piece (Year 1 to 3 for example) some, but not all outcomes may be only touched once per level. Or once every three years that is.

As the TBC for foreign languages is designed for two hours of English as a Second Language (ESL) format lessons in a government school it's easy for English Program (EP) schools to meet all outcomes with five or more hours per week, a much better student - teacher ratio and generally higher student proficiency in English.

In the year level I am responsible for we had met the all of the TBC's outcomes based on the strands and standards by the end of Term 1. The structure of the TBC does raise some concerns. If concepts are not scaffolded each year (especially true for Maths and Science) is the knowledge internalised or merely surface learning? Is an entire term of enrichment viable and if not what to do in Term 2?

In contrast the National Curriculum in England (Key Stages 1 and 2) should be something foreign teachers are much more comfortable with even if you haven't worked with it before. It's logically scaffolded skills based approach makes objective and outcomes seem more concrete and therefore quantifiable.

In the interests of staying concise I won't expand on this but there's a link below for the curious. However, I will just add the self absolving caveat that there are no English language professional journals for teachers in Thailand. Nor is there much in the way of education research papers produced in English either. This leaves us with little choice but to cobble together a methodology that works for us in the Thai context by trial and error (and the occasional classroom baptism of fire).

Essentially the approach of both documents couldn't be more different and the sanest approach is to embrace that very fact: Vive la différence. It's in the western mindset to make order from chaos and do so as consistently as possible based on evidence. It may be more constructive however to view this from another way. Anyone who speaks some Thai and has taught here for a while knows the story of the middle way.

Briefly, so the analogy goes, a musician was on a boat going downstream and told his student "If the string is too tight it will break, and if the string is too slack it will not play." The future Lord Buddha heard this, and the philosophy of ‘The Middle Way' as a path of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification and the rest is history. This works for foreign teachers planning lessons in line with curriculum in Thailand as it is a naturally occurring solution in a Buddhist society.

In short don't try to reconcile the two approaches, synthesise them into what works for you. If the TBC has sparse outcomes that are quite achievable in one term at an EP or bilingual school embrace that and extend the children's learning through adding foreign curricula. California, England and New South Wales all have great curricula. There's probably more than that, I just haven't worked with them yet. However, it's best to just choose one per school for the sake of consistency.

In the Thai classroom social collectivism (Prpic and Kanjanapanyakom, 2004) is a reality no matter what kind of school you work in. A sense of security is gained by feeling part of several larger groups from school to city to religion to nation. Risk-taking by learners in the classroom is possible; but it needs to be a carefully crafted experience if a child could lose face in front of the group they so value.

So how to navigate the above minefield while meeting the learning need of the children? For any lesson plan or full scheme of work (whichever approach you prefer) have the TBC objectives be your base competency objective. This allows them to gain face, confidence and basic competency which in the thai context allows risk taking to take place without losing too much face.

Typically at lower primary level this can be the first 20 minutes of a lesson. Often as long as they can focus for anyway so a win win. Given this, the foreign objectives/outcomes can extend the lesson and be where the risk taking takes place (and often the deep learning). This can be the second 20 to 30 minutes of your standard 50 minute lesson. Now would be the appropriate place to show you a lesson or unit of work illustrating this but they remain the intellectual property of the school under Thai law.

An entirely hypothetical example could be if you were starting by using a text with a thematic unit the TBC objectives would support the text work:

Thai Strand 1: Reading Standard T1.1:

1. Accurately and fluently read aloud words, texts short stories and simple verses.
2. Explain meanings of words and texts read.
3. Pose questions and give logical answers about what has been read.
7. Read explanatory paragraphs and follow instructions or suggestions.
Thai Strand 2: Writing Standard TH2.1:2. Write to describe things clearly.
Thai Strand 3: Listening, Viewing and Speaking Standard TH3.1:
2. Give the main ideas from what they listen to and view.
3. Pose questions and answer questions about what they listen to and view.

The foreign curriculum, in this case from New South Wales could support any pairwork, groupwork, creative writing tasks or oral presentations that extend the lesson when students are prepared for a little risk taking.

NSW EN2-9B Uses effective and accurate sentence structure, grammatical features, punctuation conventions and vocabulary relevant to the type of text when responding to and composing texts.
Reading and Viewing Understand how texts vary in purpose, structure and topic as well as the degree of formality.
Spelling Integrate a range of spelling strategies and conventions to accurately spell most words, including words of many syllables, when composing imaginative and other texts.
Writing Identify and use a variety of strategies to present information and opinions across a range of texts.

If you teach both mathematics and science in this context there is also a hidden bonus of cross curricular data collection. If alike units line up (such as graphing and weather for example) you can save a lesson here or there (valuable if there are many ceremonies or morning activities at your school) by covering one skill in two subjects at the same time. This meets two sets of TBC outcomes at once (albeit not in the Foreign Language section so it's another kettle of fish) and is compatible with one type foreign approach.

This is not a uniform consistent approach to planning lessons. It's not research based because there isn't any available. It's simply doing what teachers the world over do: improvising. That with a dash of baptism of fire, a bit of cultural sensitivity and you too can cobble together a reflective teaching practice that works for you and more importantly, gets your students involved. If a participatory society is desirable (Pollard, 2002) then a participatory classroom is a necessity.

Jay Maxwell


Department of Education (2013). The National Curriculum in England Key Stages 1 and 2 Framework Document. [online].

Ministry of Education, Thailand. (2008) The Thai Basic Curriculum. Bangkok: Basic Education Commission. 

Pollard, A. (ed) (2002) Readings for Reflective Teaching. London: Continuum.

Prpic, J. K & Kanjanapanyakom, R (2004). The impact of cultural values and norms on higher education in Thailand.


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