Phil Roeland

Rote learning and Thai schooling

Improving student language skills

Some time ago (end of October 2005), I read an interesting article in the Bangkok Post entitled “Chaturon wants less rote learning”, about the way Thai children are being taught in primary and secondary Thai schools. In it, I discovered a number of quite astonishing facts which I would like to share with you readers. Like last month, I’ll highlight the most important passages and add a few of my own comments.

• “To improve Thai-language skills amongst youngsters, Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng plans to cut rote learning and introduce more reading and writing. (…) Mr. Chaturon said Thai-language teaching needed to undergo a radical change since children were not good at their mother tongue. He proposed less rote learning of the structure and more focus on reading and writing. He believed more enjoyable learning activities improve students’ skills. “I don’t mean that all schools must quit teaching structure but I’d like children to start learning less by rote. With more writing, children will automatically develop an understanding of the structure (…),” Mr. Chaturon said.”

Good old Chaturon. The man might not be perfect, but I thought this was one of his better proposals. Although rote learning can have its benefits, I think a lot of Thai students are in danger of an overdose of this educational medicine. If a student’s education is mainly based on learning by using memory rather than understanding (which is what rote learning is), graduates might turn out to be well-educated parrots rather than proficient scholars capable of creative and critical thinking.
He specifically targeted Thai-language education because – and this came as a surprise to me – not only are children bad at learning English, they aren’t good at Thai either. I have to agree that putting more focus on reading and writing and introducing more enjoyable learning activities could well enhance the students’ interest in learning. Although I still have my doubts, knowing that the students can’t fail exams (see column November 2005), I think this proposal is a step in the right direction. I thought the idea would be applauded by Thai academics, but it seemed that I had misjudged them yet again. Read on.

• “Pornpilai Lertvicha, a senior researcher at the Thailand Research Fund, said it was wrong to cut out rote learning because younger children were especially good at learning the structure of a language. Postponing structural lessons to later years of study would lead to students being too old to learn. A combination of structural and practical study was needed.”

When I first read this researcher’s reaction, I thought she must have some kind of mental disability herself. Understanding clearly isn’t her forte, because the Minister proposed learning less by rote, not cutting it out completely. Although younger children are usually good at learning by rote, she still seems to think that this method of instruction is the Holy Grail of education, which history proves it definitely isn’t.
By the way, whatever happened to the saying that people are never too old to learn? ‘Students being too old too learn’ sounds like some kind of oxymoron to me. I’ve seen grandfathers going back to school to finish their education and obtain their high school. While we are entering an age where lifelong learning is necessary to keep up with a job’s requirements, this researcher apparently still lives in the past. She surely can’t invoke the saying ‘leave well enough alone’ to keep rote learning on the educational menu, as Thai teaching methods using rote learning seemed to have failed miserably over the last decades.

• “Chontira Sayawatana, director of the Centre of Thai-Asian Studies at Rangsit University, said that although the country’s literacy rate was as high as 94%, the Thai-language knowledge of primary and secondary school students was declining. She said that in 2002 the ratio between students passing and failing their Thai-language tests was around 50:50. (…) But she said that a similar survey last year (2004) found that all students in the surveyed grades failed their exams.”

I was astonished yet again. On the one hand the official literacy rate is very high but on the other hand – according to this mentioned survey – half of the primary and secondary school students failed their Thai-language tests in 2002 and all of them (!) failed said tests in 2004. It’s simply incredible. Of course no student had to repeat a year thanks to the no-fail policy. Unless you’re as blind as a bat, it’s obviously clear that something needs to be done about these abysmal results.

• “Mrs. Chontira said the curriculum aimed only to teach students to listen, speak and write Thai and know about Thai literature. It failed to make students love the language and know enough to create their own work. The Ministry should return to the old curricula that included learning through poetry, she said.”

I think there is nothing wrong with the general aims of the current curriculum (teaching listening, speaking, writing and literature). It must be the way it is being taught that is not working. Making students love the language is a teacher’s job. Changing the curriculum without changing the teachers – or training them better - won’t help at all.
I completely disagree that the Ministry should return to a curriculum that includes learning through poetry. Let’s reserve poetry for university students who willingly read and study it. Anyway, what will primary and secondary school students get out of poetry? They’ll probably end up having to learn poems by rote.

• “Kanchana Naksakul, president of the Association of Thai-language Teachers of Thailand, said rote learning could not be separated from Thai language education and the Education Ministry was focusing too much on teaching modern technology such as computer and English language rather than Thai-language education.”

To end the Bangkok Post article, another dinosaur got a word in. This advocate of rote learning as the staple of Thai language education lashed out against computer classes and English language teaching. Although I personally think it is very important for Thai students to master their mother tongue, blaming computer and English classes for the poor Thai language knowledge of students is ridiculous. Blame the poorly designed curriculum, blame the sometimes badly trained or archaic teachers, blame the system (no one can fail, remember), blame the government for insufficient resources, but don’t go blaming modern subjects such as computer science and English, without which Thai students will never get anywhere in the modern world. I guess this guy was just pissed off because nobody seems to give a damn about Thai language proficiency lately, all eyes being on the more prestigious English programmes and computer schooling.


The problems discussed above seemed to be confirmed a few weeks later (19/11/2005) in another Bangkok Post article about an assessment by UNESCO and the OECD.

• “Thailand also has a problem of functional literacy skills, UNESCO Asia and Pacific regional bureau for education director Mr. Schaeffer added. Although Thai government figures put the adult literacy rate at 92.6%, an assessment by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that 37% of 15-year-old students were performing at a level indicative of very low reading abilities. In mathematics, the OECD report found tat only 40% of the 15-year-old student population had basic math skills.”

I wasn’t really surprised by the fact that Unesco found the Thai literacy skills painfully lacking, but I found it most disturbing that the math skills were highly underdeveloped too. Can you imagine? Less than half of the Thai teenagers have basic math skills. We’re not talking about algebra or trigonometry, but about the fundamentals of mathematics such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. No wonder half of the population can’t even balance their bank accounts. I don’t really know what can be done to improve these skills, but one thing is sure: this situation is unacceptable and something has to be done quickly to remedy it.

Finally, if Thailand wants to be part of the global community of scholars and innovators, sending its sons and daughters to foreign centres of study and research, in other words study and work abroad, Thai policy-makers will have to realise soon that swift and efficient action has to be taken, better sooner than later.
Studying at a foreign university or working for an international company requires a fair amount of creativity, critical and inventive thinking, original ideas and the capability of having and expressing one’s personal opinions. If Thai education doesn’t prepare students for these challenges, Thailand will never become the centre of anything in the world like the Great Leader wishes and it will forever remain a backbencher in the eyes of the international community.


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