In my last blog I described my intention to compile a list of problems with the Thai public education system.
Some of the people who responded to that article incorrectly assumed that I'm trying to fix the entire Thai education system. If I had as much money and energy as Bill Gates I might try to do that, but I don't. My short-term goals are quite a bit more modest and can be achieved in a few months.
First, as I said earlier, I simply want to compile a list of problems with the current system from the perspective of foreign teachers. The first iteration of this list is almost finished and shown below. Second, I want to propose possible solutions to each of the problems in the list. This will take a few more weeks and will evolve into an ongoing activity.
Some of the problems, like lack of air-conditioning, have obvious solutions but require huge amounts of money. I could buy one air-conditioner and see if it makes a difference in one classroom but I'm not sure that's an effective use of my limited resources. The point is that I'm not trying to fix anything right now, I just want to list some of the more egregious problems and describe reasonable solutions. Testing and implementing the solutions on a small scale will come later, if at all.
The reason I'm describing this project to the gentle folks who read this website is to politely and sincerely ask for your suggestions. The comments directed to my last article on this forum were more critical than constructive, however even the negative comments reflect the feelings of some members of this community.
I want to thank Greg Nunn for providing some interesting reference links which I've added to my website. Brad Michaelis took the time to write a thoughtful list of problems which I've included below. I also want to say that on an emotional level I completely agree with Mark Newman who said we should basically abandon the poor preforming students and focus our efforts on the small percentage of students who actually want to learn English.
Last semester as I was struggling to teach M3 and M6 I had the exact same thought on many occasions. I'm going to include that suggestion as a possible solution to Problem #4 below. I don't know how realistic that is and I don't think it will be well-received, but I'm going to list it as one of the possible solutions. And a special thanks to Tracy who defended my attempt to do something slightly noble even when the chances of success are miniscule.
So here's the list. Again, please send your feedback, corrections, and criticism to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll maintain a more complete version of this list on my website
1. Students in most classes have a very wide range of abilities, with high-performing students sitting next to low-performing students. This makes it almost impossible to design curriculum or teach either group without short-changing the other. The bright students become bored and the slower students stop trying. One contributor estimates that total student participation is about 45%. He also said "There are students that are so advanced they belong two grades higher. They are not given the chance to be separated from their classmates for an English class."
2. Related to #1, students are promoted from one grade to the next even when they clearly should be held back or directed to remedial programs. There is a tradition in Thai culture that all students must advance to the next grade regardless of their performance. This means that low-performing students will be further mismatched with the curriculum in subsequent grades. This effect is compounded each year until some students in M6 have similar performance to students in P6 or even lower.
3. Cheating is endemic throughout all levels of public education. Students routinely cheat on all tests and exams. This contaminates performance assessments which are vital to improving curriculum and determining remediation.
4. Discipline is a constant issue in almost all classes. This problem seems to get worse as students progress through the system, until by the time they're in high school they're almost impossible to control. Students are often late for class. They talk freely with each other and move around the classroom as if they were at a social function. They use their cellphones or work do their homework from other classes. This is very discouraging to all teachers and it's clearly detrimental to the minority of students who are well-behaved.
5. Foreign teachers feel like they are superficial and disconnected from the rest of their department. They often complain that they were hired merely for appearances and serve only as "window dressing". They are almost never solicited for input into curriculum. They are often ignored by the other teachers. Some of the perceived separation between Thai and foreign teachers may be a result of shyness or even embarrassment on the part of the Thai teachers, but in an English department this is not a viable excuse.
6. Related to #5, the overall scores or grades that foreign teachers assign to their students are discounted or even ignored by Thai teachers to assign grades at the end of each semester. It's common for the grades given by foreign teachers to account for only 10% of students' final grades. This increases the perception of foreign teachers that they efforts are largely superficial. Thai teachers assign grades based on cultural expectations rather than performance.
7. The Thai education system is not a meritocracy, it's an oligarchy. Good teachers, even good Thai teachers, are not evaluated and rewarded for their accomplishments or the accomplishments of their students. This is another factor which makes it very discouraging to work for a school in Thailand. Professional advancement in the Thai education system seems to be based on certificates or degrees regardless of the effectiveness of a teacher's ability to teach. The result is that Thai teachers work hard to get these degrees even by cheating or short-cutting their way through the program just so they can get the piece of paper which is needed to get a better salary.
8. The classrooms in many up-country schools are dirty and un-air-conditioned. The floors are filthy. The widows are broken. The desks and chairs are falling apart. Maintenance and janitorial services are inadequate. The classrooms are equipped with chalkboards instead of whiteboards. These unpleasant working conditions contribute to a sense of working in a menial job. The poor state of classroom facilities probably contributes to the general lack of respect on the part of the students. Considering how much money the Thai government spends on education you would think they could afford air conditioners in all classrooms, even in rural areas.
9. There is a ridiculous number of holidays and extra-curricular activities which result in fewer productive teaching days. These distractions include Buddhist holidays, sporting events, various competitive events, and all-day teacher meetings. A substantial amount of effort and apparently money is directed to these activities which, although they may impart critical aspects of Thai culture, do very little to advance core academic achievements and disrupt the continuity of the curriculum. Classes that meet in the first or last periods of the day are often cancelled due to competing activities.
10. Academic tests like ONET seemed to be used mainly as a way for schools to qualify for additional funding and have little impact on remediation for poor-performing students. Test questions are often completely mismatched to the average student's abilities which results in them being disappointed and further disengaged from their future education. Even worse, some of the English language test questions contain grammatical errors or examples which don't make sense to a native speaker. In addition to being a filter that determines which students can advance to college, performance tests should be used as a tool to identify students who should be enrolled in remedial programs.
11. There doesn't seem to be any standard curriculum. Foreign teachers aren't given any teaching materials and are allowed to select text books and develop teaching materials as they see fit. Even Thai teachers are given huge freedom to do whatever they want in the classroom with little or no guidance from their department, let alone Thai educational organizations at the national level. While this lack of standardization may be considered a blessing and foreign teachers take advantage of this, it's symptomatic of a disorganized system as a whole.
12. Textbooks used for teaching English are written by English authors and targeted for English children. Books from Oxford Press are examples of this. The covers and first page of have been translated into Thai but there isn't a single word of Thai in the entire rest of the book. No attempt is made to translate English into Thai because that isn't necessary in England. Examples and vocabulary are obviously England-centric. Fruits, vegetables, and animals mentioned in these books don't occur naturally in Thailand. Idioms and nursery rhymes are England-centric.
Here are some additional comments I received in response to my last blog article. I've made some minor edits.
13. Schools should put the students first. Not the teachers.
14. Most Thai teachers think the school is there for them, that they are the most important part of it. They're not!
15. Teach the students how to think, not just copy and follow the instructions.
16. School staff and above should listen to those with more experience, rather than saying "I've taught 'this', in this way for many years, you can't show me a better way".
17. If you're going to teach someone a subject, the teacher should have the basic knowledge of that subject. I.e. the ability to speak English, if that's what you teach. You don't see an art teacher who can't draw, or a P.E teacher who can't run.
18. Forget complex grammar until you have some ability to speak and understand the language.
19. Teach the students how to talk with constant practice, increase vocabulary, and lots of praise, not criticism.
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.