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.