Thai students routinely cheat but they think of it very differently than we do.
My background is in corporate training, not K-12. Most of my jobs had the words "course developer" somewhere in the title but in that capacity I also did classroom training, or as we called it, instructor-led training. My students were all adults. They all had professional jobs and their employers had paid big bucks for them to have the privilege of sitting in one of my classes.
They were highly motivated to learn whatever I was teaching. The classrooms were clean, the class sizes were small, and the students were well-behaved. We had support resources an EFL teacher could only dream of after a late night drinking Hong Thong and soda.
In Silicon Valley a well-designed training program culminates in an assessment activity followed by remediation. Adult students in technical training courses take these assessment activities very seriously.
When I worked for Rational Software (now a division of IBM) I briefly managed their Certification Program. That was an eye-opening experience. People who took those certification exams were extremely serious, almost fanatical, about their scores. If they passed they would proudly advertise that fact on their resume. If they failed, in some cases by only a few points, they would send us angry email and contest every word in the questions they answered incorrectly.
Training assessment is about collecting data and gathering feedback which is used to improve the next version of the course. This is called iterative development, and it's a cornerstone of course development in the IT industry. As a course developer I want to know if the course I'm developing is effective. I want to know where my students are having difficulty so I can improve the course. I want everyone to succeed.
In the classic paradigm students are given a pre-exam before the course starts then a similar post-exam after they've completed the course. (In reality this is rarely done but that's what they teach you in instructional design classes.)
By looking at the average pre/post delta we can gauge a course's effectiveness, and by implication, the dollar value of the course. My yearly performance evaluation (translate: pay raise) also came in part from my manager's sense of how effective my courses were. My success depended on my students' feedback. I was passionate about developing good courses so I wanted good data and useful feedback about any new course I was working on.
And now I'm here
Fast forward 20 years to a different universe. I'm working in an un-airconditioned office where the temperature is 35°C and the humidity is 80%. Dust balls roll across the floor. Birds and mosquitos fly through open windows with no screens. The bathrooms have squat toilets. The ancient copy machine only works on Tuesdays. Sometimes I would stare out the window and think WTF did I do to end up here?? Is this some sort of hell for teachers who committed heinous crimes against humanity, or is this the embodiment of the phrase ‘no good deed goes unpunished'?
I learned a long time ago to not expect Thai people to think or behave the way we do in California. Their culture is enormously different and their history is much longer - that's part of the attraction for me. When I first came here I marveled at those differences. Seventeen years later I'm still marveling at those differences.
Over the years I've come to realize the futility of trying to impose Western values on this ancient culture. My survival strategy is to adopt the role of a cultural observer, not a cultural fixer. This is the mental shield I use to get through the hot, humid days of frustration at the local high school where I teach. Observe, don't fix.
"Observe, not fix"
This last semester I was asked to proctor some exams. If you work in a public school here you've probably been asked to do the same thing: sit in the back of a classroom all day while Thai students take exams which determine their grades for that semester. If you've been here for a while you know they're going to cheat. My wife told me she cheated on her exams when she attended the same school where I was teaching. She even told me some of the creative ways in which Thai students exchange information surreptitiously, so I was curious to see this in action.
California Accent offers free training materials (courseware) which can be used to teach English to Thai students. These training materials are free for parents and teachers to use as long as they are not resold or used for commerical purposes. New materials are being added to this site every week as they are developed and tested by the author.
I knew this was the reality of education in Thailand so from my vantage point in the back of the room I decided to observe, not fix. It was fascinating. I saw scraps of paper being handed off. I saw nodding heads and silent hand gestures. By the end of the day the communication grew more overt as the Thai teacher in the front of the room kept her head down, her gaze focused on the papers of her desk, apparently oblivious to the behavior of the students who by now were whispering to each other.
Sometimes they would glance at me, the tall farrang in the back of the class, but as it's been said before on teaching forums, farrang teachers aren't taken seriously by Thai students. They see us as entertainers, not educators. My presence didn't deter them from exchanging notes or leaning back to expose their exam to the person sitting next to them. I observed without interfering. I was an anthropologist, not a policeman.
I'm not overly concerned about rampant cheating during exam week. The worst part was the sad realization that this is how poor students who should have failed were going to get passing grades and advance to the next level, thereby making the job of the next teacher more difficult. There's a great deal of stigma about failing in this culture and it's viewed as the fault of the teacher, not the student, so I understand why the teacher who kept her head down during the exam was not motivated to stop students from helping each other.
If I had the authority to make drastic changes to the Thai educational system, in other words to fix it, I would absolutely put a stop to the practice of letting poorly performing students sit in the same classroom as the high-performing students. I firmly believe we're doing a huge disservice to both populations when this happens.
I also gave my own exams to my students in Mattayom 3 and 6. Like most EFL teachers, I was asked to teach "conversation", not basic English skills. My academic background from the late Pleistocene era was behavioral psychology where there was a big emphasis on quantifying behaviors. Consequently, my oral exams consisted of asking each student a simple question like "What did you do this weekend?" and counting the number of words in their response.
Could I stamp out cheating?
Overall this strategy worked fairly well but the ubiquitous cheating was contaminating my data. As soon as the first few students learned how to get high scores by putting long strings of words together, I realized they were coaching each other and saying the same things.
Now I was not so sanguine. Now I was emotionally invested because I had spent a lot of time and effort to develop the course and administer these exams. This is MY course, this is MY exam, and you kids are contaminating MY data! How can I improve my course if I don't get good data? I need to fix this! Stop cheating!
While testing individual students I noticed the poorly-performing ones would laugh nervously and look at their classmates for help when I asked them my standard question. Often other students would stand nearby and supply additional vocabulary for the student who was unable to speak more than a few words of English. I told one overly helpful student to stop it but the disappointed look on his face surprised me. Didn't he understand that he was helping the other student get an undeserved score?
I made all the students leave the classroom and only let one at a time come in for the exam. That didn't help. I could hear them outside yelling at each other and frantically trying to memorize a response that had proved successful. As soon as one student answered my question and got their score, he or she would run outside and share their results with the other kids. They adopted a hive mind, a collective intelligence. They were like the Borg, assimilating and adapting.
Successful or not?
That's when I had a realization: I think they're cheating but they think they're helping. I noticed they were trying to memorize successful responses as fast as they could. I saw the smart students teaching the slow students. My so-called assessment activity had turned into a learning activity. In that sense it was successful.
In terms of collecting good data it was less successful, but in the long run it doesn't really matter. I got a qualitative sense of how well my course worked even if I didn't get reliable quantitative results. Hey, I'm not writing a graduate thesis - I'm just trying to teach English conversation to a bunch of bored teenagers.
My lightbulb moment was to stop thinking of this as an assessment and appreciate the fact that for a few minutes they were actually practicing simple conversation. They were learning. I was learning. Observe, don't fix.
If you want to see some of my exams you can download them from a website I'm building: california-accent.com. The ones I mentioned above are in the CON 202 and 203 courses.