There are lots of problematic issues associated with old age. One of the less serious but more annoying issues is that you tend to start of lot of one-way conversations with the phrase "I remember..." I remember a nice old guy at the Berkeley Physics Department who once told me in a very serious tone of voice "Don't get old". Sagely advice indeed. He's dead now.
Unused and unloved
I remember when Sun workstations were the coolest computers in the world. I helped Berkeley Physics get a grant from Sun for a couple dozen of their latest machines. Sun workstations were described as personal supercomputers the size of a color TV set. Back in the late 80's they were technological status symbols. They had magical powers because they connected to each other through this thing called The Internet. They took advantage of remote resources on other machines called "servers". Wow.
I eventually got a job at Sun Microsystems as a SysAdmin. I remember someone there told me about another charitable grant Sun made to a research institute in Moscow as a way of getting a toe-hold in the Russian market. Sun gave one of their top-of-the-line workstations to this prestigious institute with the expectation that it would be used for all sorts of cool projects.
In return Sun hoped to get good PR collateral and a few glowing testimonials. So a couple of months after the workstation was delivered a Sun Sales Rep visited this institute to see how their baby was being used. As the story goes, he was shocked and bewildered to see the brand new machine sitting on the desk of one of the institute's administrators, unplugged and unconnected to the network. It was just sitting there like an expensive desk ornament.
So the sales rep asks the administrator the polite equivalent of "WTF?" The administrator replied that it was very important for him to get respect from the scientists who worked for him. It didn't need to be turned on - it's mere presence was enough to generate gossip throughout the entire Russian scientific community he worked in. "Did you hear about Sasha Koralof? He has a Sun workstation!"
Last Friday I was drinking beer with a couple of farrang teachers and we agreed that our role is similar to that superficial Sun workstation. We're expensive desk ornaments. We were hired so word will spread throughout the local community about the school with a valuable resource - native English speakers.
Our mere presence enhances a school's reputation but that's about as far as it goes. We're superficial. We're non-functional. We feel this way because the grades we assign to our students are trivialized. It doesn't matter if we want to flunk a student because he or she will be promoted to the next grade anyway.
We're not invited to participate in planning meetings. The established Thai teachers and administrators would never think about asking our advice about curriculum. (I'm referring to public schools now; the situation may be different at the hundreds of private schools that have proliferated to meet the demand for quality education.)
What makes a good farang teacher?
Thai teachers are quite sure they know how to teach English even if they can't speak it very well. Their idea of a "good" farrang English teacher is an older man who wears a jacket and tie, someone who speaks softly and politely.
It's all about respect: men get more respect than women, older men get more respect than younger men, and well-dressed older men get the most respect of all. The advice I would give to any new ESL teachers in Thailand is to dress nicely and don't make waves. The Thai educational system, like most of Thailand's social institutions, is not a meritocracy, it's an oligarchy.
Unlike that lonely Sun workstation, we farrang teachers are not "unplugged and unconnected". We communicate with each other, while drinking beer on a hot Friday night and on the Internet through blogs like the one you're reading now. Many of us have worked for companies where performance, not appearance, was rewarded.
Why are we frustrated?
Those of us with any sort of technological background are problem-solvers. Many of us have degrees in education from English-speaking countries. We're frustrated because the Thai educational system is badly broken and although we could be part of the solution we're being ignored. Well, I for one am not willing to sit back and watch another generation of Thai school kids graduate with sub-standard educations. I don't want to be part of a totally dysfunctional system. Despite what I wrote in a previous blog, I want to fix things. That's who I am, that's what I've done my whole life. I fix things.
Over the last year I've written an entire set of courses for teaching English at primary schools. I've focused on building vocabulary that can be used in routine conversations. I'm not a proponent of the "just teach ‘em some simple phrases" strategy; I believe (and all the farrang teachers I've talked to agree with me) that students need a solid base of vocabulary before they can engage in conversations.
My approach is constructionistic but I reject all the educational strategies I've read about, including the so-called reconstructionistic philosophy. I plan to use the same general strategy used in Silicon Valley to build new products. I saw that approach work time and time again and that's what I'm familiar with. I advocate an engineering-centric approach to education.
Before I go any further I suspect I may have just kicked over a hornet's nest. I remember a long time ago when I took a few classes in education I observed what I call the miasma of education.
Briefly stated, it's the all too common phenomenon of N educators having N+1 opinions about how to educate. Teachers are notoriously stubborn when it comes to the topic of teaching strategies. I'm surprised a group of more than three teachers can agree on anything, including where to go for lunch.
Admittedly I'm fulfilling that stereotype by disagreeing with everyone and going my own way. Well, that's one of the advantages of teaching in Thailand. I couldn't do this in the U.S. but out here in Isan no one's gonna care.
The master plan
The first step in the engineering development process is the product proposal. Here's what I propose: let's develop a curriculum for teaching English that is demonstrably better than the current system. In other words, let's put our heads together and figure out how to teach English. We can ignore educational strategies for now but let's focus on the goal: making something that works.
I'll capture this high-level goal in words over the next few weeks. I'll present it to the ajarn.com community next month and solicit feedback. I'll iterate the wording once or twice as needed, then call it "version 1" and move forward. In Silicon Valley version 1 is not expected to be perfect, it's just has to work reasonably well so it can be used as a base to develop version 2. This is called iterative development. It works.
The second step in the engineering development cycle is requirements gathering. This is where I could use some help. It's common knowledge in Silicon Valley that a diverse team of reasonably smart individuals is more effective than any one individual, even a genius. Or even a sub-genius. I'll assume the role of Requirements Analyst during this phase.
Your feedback welcome
I want to break this effort into two components: first, let's capture what's wrong with the current system. Second, let's address each of those shortcomings with a proposed solution, or else decide to defer that feature until the next version. So here's what I'm asking: please send me your observations of what's wrong with the current Thai education system, specifically but not exclusively to teaching English. Send your statement of the problem or problems to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I fully expect the majority of farrang teachers to disagree with me and the approach I'm advocating. This is normal behavior for a population of educators and is a manifestation of the miasma I referred to earlier. "It won't work." "You're a complete idiot." "They'll never listen." "You need to read this before you can do that." "It was tried before and failed." I'm not a complete idiot; I'd like to think I'm only a partial idiot.
If you don't want to participate, fine, go drink a Chang and reflect upon your superior knowledge. Think how smug you'll feel when the project fails! However, if you want to do something other than drink and gripe, consider helping me at least describe the problem.
If all that comes out of this effort is a reasonably complete problem statement that's still a step forward. If you're a fixer, let's work together to fix this colossal problem. I know how to proceed with the next few phases in the product development process. I'll describe how to develop, test, and rollout a new product in subsequent blog articles. I am not content to be an expensive desk ornament. I'm a fixer.
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.