One of the greatest ironies of a Thai education - and there are many to choose from - is the constant need to withdraw students from lessons (where they learn) to practice and show others from outside of the school how much they have learnt (when they have not been in lessons to learn anything). The sports days, math days and science days (which include little of the named subject), the endless propaganda and marching, the speeches and gift giving: all in the name of education. Obviously these skills will benefit the student in the workplace, but only if they wish to be professional marchers. This attitude and approach is not only propagated in Thai education, but deeply embedded in the Thai psyche. ‘Style over substance' is a phrase normally targeted at the modern-day spin-centred politician, and the word commonly used to describe this shallow breed would be ‘superficial'. This phrase can also be used to describe many facets of the Thai education system and maybe Thai culture in general.
Now before I offend anyone too greatly, I do not contend that Thai people are particularly more superficial than any other race. Since I have stayed in Thailand I've found the Thai people remarkably friendly and generally polite, much more so than people back home in Britain are to foreigners. Thailand, for all its problems is a great country, not because of the beaches, islands or nightlife, but because of the people that inhabit it. This has led me to find reasons for and justify the ‘superficial' aspects of the culture. There is in western societies a need felt by the poorer members, or those that have come from a poorer background, to exhibit personal wealth. Proving how rich they are as a form of status, in short, ‘showing off' off to boost social self esteem. This argument could be used to explain why people living in a developing country, e.g. Thailand, have a burning desire to parade themselves around - both literally and metaphorically - doing only what could be described as ‘showing off'. Therefore, it can be argued that Thai's aren't innately superficial; they're just displaying symptoms of an insecure population scaling the slippery slope of development.
Even if this argument holds true, it is hard not to criticise these symptoms. There can be no denying that Thai's have a penchant for superficial ceremony, superficial architecture and building work, superficial agreements and superficial smiles, all of which must, and I mean must, be captured by a camera or ten. The attitude beneath this picture taking feeding-frenzy is that without the picture to show people, the event might as well never have happened. It is always the staging of the event that matters, not the actual usefulness of the event itself. As any teacher who's been to a Thai sports day (where's the sport?) can vouch. There doesn't seem to be any concern that little Kwan has had a week of his valuable education (and bar a loving family what is more valuable for a child?) taken up by walking from A to B holding a stick, flag, balloon or anything else the teachers feel appropriate. What is of concern is that he is seen to be doing it right, doing exactly the same thing as everyone else, and much more importantly, doing it so it looks good in a photograph.
Being a foreign teacher is again another superficial and costly exercise. They want to show you off like a new piece of gold jewelry or a good photograph. Relatively speaking it costs a lot to employ a foreign teacher in Thailand. Where is the value for money for the Thai in this transaction? You would hope that they would seek repayment from taking advantage of your English speaking and teaching abilities and background knowledge of a modern-education system, but alas no. You are there to attract new customers (i.e. parents of students): wheeled out like a 10 year old at a family gathering, asked to perform (instead of a little song, you just have to stand there and look western), and then shooed away whilst the Thai's get on with the all consuming business of snacking on a fishy or sugary treat, or maybe if they're in the mood, a little sing-song on the karaoke.
How many Thai students fail their exams? None. What do you do if the students are not reaching the level the exam is set at? Drop the exam level. Does this attitude extend from Primary level all the way up to University? Yes. Does this make a Thai education worthless compared to other countries? Probably.
I believe that the problems mentioned above stem ultimately from the fear of ‘losing face'. It is this fear that holds the education system back. What can be done about this? Unfortunately little can be done to change an adult's already indoctrinated mind, but there certainly is hope for the students. They need to be encouraged to ask questions and not fear failure in front of other people. Ultimately they need to be told that short-term failure can actually be a catalyst for long-term success, and losing face now might actually preserve face in the future.