Last year I wrote an article that listed twelve problems with the Thai education system.
The first two problems on that list were related: students with very different levels of abilities are mixed together in the same class, and students are promoted from one grade to the next even when they clearly don’t meet the minimum requirements for graduation. The second problem exacerbates the first.
Back to work
I had an opportunity to observe these twin problems last week as I resumed teaching at the small primary school where I test my courses. I teach a one-hour general English course to grades P1 to P6. There’re about 100 students at this school, approximately 15 in each grade level. Although I do have the routine challenges associated with controlling the behavior of young students, 99% of them are generally well-behaved, friendly, and eager to learn. Even in P1, it’s easy to spot students whose parents have already invested in their kids’ education by hiring private tutors.
It’s also easy to spot students who will in all likelihood perform poorly throughout their entire education. I’m well aware of the harm that can result from forming preconceived notions about a child’s performance, but to a certain degree it’s inevitable. Kids that perform poorly in lower level grades may blossom as they mature. Conversely, kids that appear to be gifted at an early age may fall behind their peers as they get older. We shouldn’t pigeon-hole them. OK, I get that.
And then there are some cases that are so extreme that they break the system.
A 'problem' student?
Last year in my P1 class I encountered a student named Oat (not his real name). Within minutes of meeting this child it was apparent that he had some sort of behavioral problem. I’m not qualified to make a diagnosis, but he appeared to be high on the ADHD scale. He was extremely active, running from room to room, disrupting classes throughout the whole school. The other teachers tried to control him but it was close to impossible.
Whenever I handed him one of my meticulously prepared lessons he would swipe it off his desk onto the floor. For some reason he loved me. Whenever he saw me he would run up and grab my briefcase and insist on carrying it to class. On the rare occasions when I could get his attention he actually performed acceptably.
In a weird sort of way I liked him and would let him sit on my lap or crawl under my legs as I tried to teach the other students, but by the end of the school year everyone at that school, including myself, all the Thai teachers, the Director, and all the students, had come to accept his behavior. He was a pest that we all put up with, a distraction that we learned to ignore.
I often wondered about the root cause of Oat’s behavioral problems. Was it organic? Environmental? Would Ritalin fix his problem? What’s going to happen to him when he grows up? And in particular I wondered if he would be promoted from P1 to P2 and continue to disrupt my classes.
Well, I didn’t need to ponder that question too deeply. Those of you who have more experience than I with the Thai public school system already know the answer to that question. Yes, of course Oat was promoted to P2.
No, his behavior hasn’t improved. There’s a chair for him in the P2 classroom but he doesn’t sit in it. He plays with toys from the Anuban class and continues to run around from room to room, grabbing papers from the other students, causing mayhem wherever he goes.
So what can be done about this? It’s almost useless to propose solutions that the school could or should take. The Director is a nice guy but I don’t expect him to take any sort of direct action until something drastic happens, like a child getting injured.
I doubt Oat’s parents will do anything – they’re probably glad to let the school take care of him 8 hours a day. I’ve learned to tolerate him. I try to reinforce his good behavior by smiling and congratulating him, and I ignore him and don’t make eye contact when he misbehaves. It’s just another thing to deal with as a teacher in rural Thailand. If any of you have suggestions I’m receptive to advice. Feel free to send me email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But what about the larger situation? What can be done about the cultural practice of promoting students who shouldn’t be promoted from one grade to the next? Doesn’t this just compound the problem year after year?
When I taught high school last year, the range of abilities among my M6 students was enormous. Some were brilliant, a pleasure to teach, clearly on the path to a good university. It was easy to imagine them years later as doctors, business leaders, or scientists. Unfortunately, many more of my students were dullards, a chore to teach, by all appearances destined to work in low-paying jobs, or even worse, to have kids of their own shortly after graduating high school, thereby continuing the cycle of poor performance and ignorance.
Teachers everywhere see this slow drama unfold year after year, yet it is sobering and profound. As foreign teachers in a country that values our language skills but not our advice, our chances of influencing this system are close to zero.
There is a small possibility of a technological solution which I’ll describe more in my next blog article. If you’ve ever seen kids play with Alexa, the intelligent assistant from Amazon, you can easily imagine how this tool could be used to teach students at home.
Alexa, Siri, and Google never get tired, never get exasperated, and are immune to cultural pressures to promote kids from one grade to the next.
Maybe Oat’s parents should buy an Alexa.
Mark Brown is a retired Senior Course Developer from California who writes English courses as a hobby. You can download free PDF versions of his courses from his website California Accent. The website has over 300 lessons in 14 courses that cover conversation, pronunciation, vocabulary, and science.