Mark Newman

The accidental whistle blower

Distance learning TV and the toppling of Kru Wang


The online 'Distance Learning TV' program (DLTV) is an ambitious attempt to make classes available to all students and schools in Thailand no matter how remote the area they live in. 

On paper, it's a good idea and one that expansive and remote provinces in Thailand could definitely benefit from. The scheme has been going on for years and has flown under the radar for city dwellers and the larger, more condensed areas of the Kingdom who have not found a need for its services.

Suddenly, though, it's now in the media spotlight. As the recent coronavirus pandemic takes hold over the world, there has been renewed interest (and subsequent critical public review) of this hitherto 'underground' educational resource. And that appraisal hasn't been at all kind!

Infamy

But the inadequacies and shortcomings of the DLTV project might yet have escaped national attention and continued almost un-noticed if 'accidental whistle blower' English language teacher, Anchalee Pratansub, had not found online infamy as one of the participating educators.

Kru Wang managed to do, in one short video, what a nation of parents have been quietly raging about for decades, and that is to bring to national prominence and scrutiny the appalling state of state education. 

An imperfect online world

But before we dive in to explore this particular incident, it's important to bring down the whole DLTV system first. Because, despite its ambitions, 'distance learning' is NOT an effective way for children to learn, even if the materials and educators are up to the task.

There are many reasons why the system is flawed, but in short, here are the three most significant ones:

1 - The TV/tablet screen can't absorb student reactions. The most valuable tool of education for kids is the teacher/student relationship.

2 - The program has no way to measure student understanding or to chart their progress. Once a child has missed a single step, no further steps can be undertaken by online classes.

3 - The program can't go 'off-topic' to illustrate a point in a different way that a 'live audience' could more easily connect with.

So why bother at all? 

Well, because if properly organized and stocked, and used in conjunction with other resources and real teachers, it can still be a useful reference point for kids who live in isolated areas or who learn from home. (It would probably better to have the whole thing put on YouTube, but that's another issue.)

The accidental whistle blower

So, from an 'academic achievement' perspective, we can say that the unfortunate Kru Wang is no better or worse than any Thai teacher teaching any subject in any Thai classroom, online or otherwise - and it’s the ‘otherwise’ that has hit home with parents and other observers when they watch this poorly performing teacher at work.

There's an army of teachers all over Thailand just like Kru Wang who are poorly trained, poorly resourced, and poorly managed who are teaching the nation's children. 

Parents know this and are powerless to make their voices heard. They also feel uninvolved and unable to prescribe the changes so desperately and obviously needed. Too many educators are unmotivated, overworked, underappreciated, lazy, and unambitious. Parents have noticed this, and they want to kick up a stink about it.

I've witnessed it first-hand

I worked at one private Thai school for ten years with the same six Thai ‘English language’ teachers. None of them could speak English with any level of competency, but what frustrated me is that in ten years NONE OF THEM got any better!  They didn't have any ambition or motivation to actually want to be more capable and effective at their jobs. 

THIS is what Kru Wang represents to parents... a lifetime in the classroom and still the same shitty standard of ineffectiveness and lack of student achievement riding on the bended back of an unbearable burden of administrative incompetence.

I understand that some of the criticism has been unkind and hurtful, but so bloody what? This is a person who has progressed through the required steps of academia to be in a position of trust, influence, and power, NOT some untamed animal who hasn’t been properly broken. She could have made the required changes to benefit her students, but didn’t.

This teacher is as useless today as she was when she first set foot in a classroom forty years ago. There's been no personal growth, no effort to master her craft and as a result we must conclude that there has been seemingly little interest in her students. This is what parents see and this is why the nation is having its moment of uproar.

The anecdote you can relate to and why we are complicit in this failure

My first ever corporate job back in 2001 was for Kingfisher. (The people who make tinned tuna chunks!) It was a heady time for me and as I waited for my first class to assemble in the fancy corporate boardroom, I gazed out of the top story window overlooking the city-scape of metropolitan Bangkok. THIS was where I was supposed to be!

The class of about twenty well-suited men and women shuffled in and took there seats and my 'liaison officer' (HR chap) introduced me to the rather bossy-looking Nok, who was 'really good at English' and would be answering all my questions. And so the HR man left and Nok started rattling off in English and all the other executives and managers in the room listened admiringly to her as I nodded my head sagely and smiled in affirmation.

The thing was I couldn't understand a bloody word she had been saying! It was just a fast, garbled noise to me! But I continued to smile, and she eventually ran out of noises and we all sat down to begin the class. Her friends were in awe of her and Nok was smiling that smug smile of victory over her fellow colleagues.

And thus started my seduction into the childlike and destructive embrace of one aspect of Thai culture, the saving of face... which continued up until the day I left in November 2019!

In the teacher's defense

Who is hiring bad teachers? 

Actually, it’s more important to ask who is turning potentially good teachers into bad ones! It's bad administrators, who can deflect their bad decisions onto other people. So, why are admins getting it so wrong and what can they do better?

Teachers need motivation, training, and assessment. But as it's too hard to fire a teacher, they are often neglected and left to coast along till retirement. I've seen it in action. Even the most progressive school owners where I worked are up against a brick wall of intransigent employees who simply can’t or won't embrace anything new. Computers? Forget it. A new work/activity book, even? No damn way! It's too much trouble for them. So, bad school owners don't care and good ones are left frustrated.

Most of the ridicule and frustration lobbed heartlessly at Anchalee Pratansub is the justifiable anger and frustration of millions of reasonably knowledgeable parents and other educated observers who are seeing this video as one isolated example of the entire complicated map of incompetency that is the fetid swamp of Thai state education.

But if you’re inclined to blame the ‘trolls’ on ‘social media’ for her persecution then you’re dangerously missing the point. Her culture has let her down. 

The cultural trade-offs for expedience and convenience at the expense of results and advancement have been costly. They have cost the country a generation or more of students who would otherwise have had the tools to embrace and confront the world and its challenges. With the end result, presumably being, to make Thailand a better, more competitive, and advanced economy.

In conclusion

Anchalee Pratansub isn't a bad person. She's not even a bad teacher - but everything around her stinks. The training, the support, the assumption that things are OK, the insane conviction that by doing things the same way over and over, decade after decade, then expecting that somehow things will get better!

We're all a part of this ongoing, hopeless, systematic failure. Even the farangs (like me) who so willingly play a part in this cultural charade that inevitably leads to poor outcomes for students must accept our share of culpability. 

Thai education authorities are treating education like an inconvenient and inebriated dinner guest. Laughing away his poor behavior and pushing him into a tuk-tuk home. Then cleaning up the puke as best they can and just forgetting it ever happened! But it's not forgotten and it's not OK to pretend that the lingering, damaging stench of malpractice is OK. 

If we're going to be pointing a condescending finger at one teacher in one video at one moment in time then we should maybe look into a mirror and point it at ourselves, too.

There's plenty of blame to go around and from the very top to the very bottom, we're all a contributing factor that led to this one single example of one teacher getting it so badly wrong




Comments

I think Mike is wrong on his assertion that this is a storm in the TEFL teacup. My wife, who has little interest in my teaching due to her own busy job showed me on her phone, and my Thai golf buddies did too. Sometimes things break through the consciousness and grab people's attention, and this is 1 of those things.

No one forced this lady to make the video, there would have been a lot of interest in being visible like this, and seniority is normally rewarded, not ability. The teacher is probably the most senior, and rates her English, so got the job. Despite her English, she may be an excellent teacher, or she may not, but she has now lost face, and will probably be moved on to another department to save it. The next most senior person will take the role, and opportunity if it arises. Modern Thais in their 20s, 30s and 40s dislike the system of seniority, and those in their 50s and 60s think that the dislike is disrespectful. There is a generation gap, where the older Thais respect the seniority and the younger Thais want it to be better. They are laughing at the English, but also making a point on that system too imo.

This will happen again, but at least people now know, which shows that there is progress and the resources out there are being used. Also, a lot of excellent speakers had no official teaching, and a lot of poor speakers have had good teachers. Interest and desire to succeed are the main drivers, and it is insularity and the lack of that interest that hamstrings the English levels of Thais. Teachers who create interest will create better speakers than excellent English speakers who are poor teachers.

By Rob, Bangkok (22nd May 2020)

A teacher teaching English is not at fault for her poor English? Education is free - there are a million resources to learn English online for free. If she is horrible at her job - she needs to either improve or find a new job.

By Jamesq, Bangkok (22nd May 2020)

"Oh well, English teachers from wealthy countries complaining about Thailand being Thailand has been going on since before ajarn.com started up"

Never miss the chance to have a pop at Ajarn dot com do you Jack? And whenever a positive article goes on-line, you're nowhere to be seen. Pain in the arse.

By Phil, Samut Prakan (22nd May 2020)

I don’t really understand the purpose of this article and the other negative comments about Thai education.

Sure, there are a lot of problems in the education system, way too many to list here. Thailand is a “developing country” with a GDP per capita of a fraction of countries where English is the native language. If you expect everything to be at first world standards, go teach in Singapore (if you can find a job there) or back home.

Taking a four-week TEFL course and teaching a single subject for a few years does not give most native English teachers the qualifications or expertise to propose an overhaul of the entire educational system of a country with a very different culture and limited financial resources.

If being a developing country which lacks all the resources and attitudes found in wealthier countries makes a country inferior, than Thailand is “bad.” If having a culture based on Theravada Buddhist values makes a country inferior to your own country than you will consider Thailand “bad.” (I kind of like Thailand, including its imperfections and quirkiness)

If you were hired to teach English at a school, do not be surprised if your suggestions to overhaul the entire Thai educational system falls on deaf ears, although it is likely you will have some ability to influence what goes on in your classroom.

Put yourself in the shoes of a Thai teacher, administrator, parent, or average citizen. From the perspective of most Thais the most important qualification a native English teacher has is due to having the good fortune of being born in a country where English is the native language, Then many English teachers seem to use this fact to justify expressing the idea they know what is better for Thailand than the Thais. Expressing all of these negative comments about your host country can come across as ethnocentric, showing an attitude of cultural imperialism, and just plain showing bad manners.

Oh well, English teachers from wealthy countries complaining about Thailand being Thailand has been going on since before ajarn.com started up and continues regardless of the total lack of success of all the bellyaching in making any significant changes.

I just don’t get the motivation for all of this criticism, obviously the intent is not actually to change the system, maybe it is mostly about boosting up a teacher’s own ego based on claiming membership in a “superior” tribal unit.

Actually, I didn’t think Kru Anchalee’s pronunciation was that bad, I could understand her, and since few native English teachers actually speak a foreign language fluently, their ability to pass judgement should be considered suspect.

By Jack, Still isolated and working from home (22nd May 2020)

The above article is correct in an extremely limited, almost autistic sense. Yes, education in Thailand is bad much in the same way that it is bad everywhere else. However, the problem lies not in some cosmetic (mis)application of education standards but rather in the structural proposition of education itself.

That is to say, education proper may be understood as a massive scam used (a) to keep bored and mostly mediocre students pre-occupied while their parents go try and make a living and (b) to normalize, pacify, retard, and subdue a general population into uncreative consumers of information (who will then be uncreative consumers of most other things). The reason why bad teaching, purposeless lessons, social shaming, bullying, and malaise persist in schools is very much for the same reason that the prisons remain crowded, understaffed, malnourished, and miserable: both of these institutions' stated purposes are lies, and they have never intended (nor will they ever intend) to help anybody.

Ain't nobody got time to help the poor schmucks who don't yet realize that school is a trap, what the ever-loving fuck is this utopian drivel? School sucks precisely because you would have done something for yourself (get out) if you could, and if you can't, it's because you never would have done something great in the first place. School is an ex post rationalization of an inherent impotence, and nothing further.

By Lao Wai, Bangkok (22nd May 2020)

Your message may have been clearer if you stuck to DLTV and did not conflate its failures on an entire system of education. While I agree and share frustrations with Thai education, we will never be in a position to influence change.

Yeah, sure, it’s a trending subject in our little bubble of ESL teachers this week; but by hoping that it will have an impact, you’ve already shifted whatever limited Thai awareness remains (2 days later, not 5 weeks) to your rude, inconsiderate and de-centralized way of thinking. I mean if a Westerner thinks Thai education is broken, it must be working just fine.. chan mai?

“We are happy because teacher says ‘we are happy.’ Please stop making our heads ache with your Western notions of logic, fairness and meaningful education. People who think are not very profitable. Besides, we love traffic and getting run over by speeding vehicles. Where is your loyalty? Mai pen rai!”

By Mike, Pathum Thani (22nd May 2020)

I agree with most of the points in this article. I have been teaching in Thai schools, colleges, universities in the provinces in and around Sakon Nakhon. and I have done some corporate training in Bangkok and Khorat. I have taught mainly at high school Level in EP/MEP/IGCSE Programs.

I have also taught at a private school in Dhaka in Bangladesh. Where the level of English is a lot more advanced then it is here. The one point that I agree with the most is that most Thai English teachers do nothing to improve their own level of English. Most of the Thai teachers of English I have worked with are just the same. The times I have offed to read a mid-Term or end of term test paper written by them and being told that the test is ok. (losing face) then when I ask the students " How was your test?" Very difficult teacher" Why? Can not understand the questions.I was only teaching grammar at schools the used a student study book, at other times just conversation and for that the students need vocabulary. Which they did not have. I am now 63 years old and I still have a lot to offer Thai students THAT want to learn English. Yet I am unemployed.

By Martin Andrew Pattison, Sakon Nakhon North-East Thailand. (22nd May 2020)

I agree she is the product of a bad system and incompetent administrators.

You asked why she hasn't improved herself. Because to her and everyone around her, she's functioning like a perfect Thai government teacher. In her world she's doing a great job - dressed nicely, smiling, everyone is happy happy fun fun, and the students are repeating after her. That's why she was chosen to showcase the government school system on TV.

Those criteria are exactly how she's being evaluated by the senior teachers at her school. If she improved her pronunciation the senior teachers would lose face. If she used more progressive teaching methods in the classroom, she would lose points on her evaluation for not fitting into the government system and would be ostracized by the other teachers at her school and would eventually quit.

It's interesting to hear how she was trolled online because to most Thai people who came through the same system, she would be doing a great job. It's only Thais who can speak English well who know how bad her pronunciation is or those educated in better schools who know how outdated her teaching methods are, and to those people, I would say they should be able to look deeper and see the system is at fault here, not the individual teacher.

By John C, Bangkok (22nd May 2020)

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