I would like to put forth some ideas as to how Thai education in general – and English language teaching in particular – could be improved in the Kingdom. In my opinion, this could be achieved through better teacher training, the use of appropriate teaching methods, reduced classroom size, fairer salaries, a more selective hiring process for foreign teachers and better motivated learners.
I think that first of all, teacher training should drastically improve. Students who are working their way through a university course in order to become a teacher should graduate with at least a decent working knowledge of English. Too often have I met university graduates with very poor language skills – even English majors often seem to struggle with the basics of the language!
One way of improving skills of future teachers – be it English, French or Chinese teachers – is to include a mandatory students’ exchange programme into the course, thus forcing students to study abroad where they will be able to use and fine-tune their language skills.
For Thai English teachers, a stint in an English-speaking country can only be beneficial – even if it’s only a few weeks. Should this prove too expensive, regional countries with proficient English such as India or Singapore could be taken into consideration as training grounds.
Of course the problem isn’t really recently graduated teachers, but rather the older and more traditional teachers. Older refers to the many Thai teachers are now approaching retirement age; traditional refers to the local educators who stick to grammar-translation and rote-learning when teaching English.
The grammar-translation method was devised centuries ago and focuses on grammar, reading and translation. Without going into too much detail, teachers using this method usually conduct an English lesson entirely in Thai, without any speaking or listening practice in the target language. Need I add that this method has been shelved for decades in most countries worldwide?
Instead of using the ancient and ineffective grammar-translation method, teachers should rather use a mix of the communicative approach (focus on speaking and listening), the direct method (only English is used without translation, making use of props such as realia, flashcards, etc.), the audio-lingual method (focus on drilling, memorisation and pronunciation) and the lexical approach (focus on vocabulary, phrases and chunks of language).
I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it should be clear by now that in the English classroom, anything is better than the grammar-translation method; attention should be given to the four skills, with an emphasis on speaking and listening – skills which are essential for effective communication.
The older generation of traditional Thai teachers should understand by now that being able to read Shakespeare and explain the usage of the present perfect continuous in their mother tongue gets students absolutely nowhere.
Ways to improve existing teachers’ skills include appropriate and regular workshops in English led by qualified teacher trainers, teacher observations with useful feedback and peer observations. Teachers should also gradually move from teacher-centred learning to student-centred learning.
The teacher-centred approach that Thai teachers use is obsolete, does not allow any student participation and stifles debate and critical thinking. Even today, too many Thai teachers still see themselves as either omnipotent classroom dictators or infallible preachers who are never to be challenged. Unfortunately they haven’t noticed that most of their audiences have long fallen asleep.
So in order to improve students’ English skills, teachers should use a mix of appropriate teaching methods, be proficient in English, use more English when teaching (the more the better, but I feel that 50% - if not more – is an absolute minimum) and give more importance speaking and listening.
Even the world's most qualified teacher wouldn't be able to teach decent English to classes of up to 50 unruly students or more, especially given the often limited time and resources at their disposal. In fact, learning a language effectively needs to be done in smaller groups of maximum 20.
I personally think that teaching 10 to 15 students is ideal, but it would be foolish to believe this will ever be possible in Thailand (except for the upmarket private language schools). Apart from being well-trained, flexible, creative, patient and enthusiastic, teachers should be realistic and pragmatic; having a good sense of humour is also not to be underestimated.
So in order to improve language learning in particular and education in general, more efforts should be focused on decreasing class size. Doing so will involve building more classrooms and/or schools and hiring more teachers. Given the acute lack of local teachers at present, achieving this will be no small feat.
In order to recruit new teachers successfully, the authorities will have to put more efforts into revaluating the teaching profession. Like almost everywhere in the world, teachers in Thailand are overworked and underpaid, especially the local teachers.
Whereas most foreigners teaching in Thailand usually earn a fair salary - albeit rather modest on an international scale - beginning Thai teachers often make less than needed to survive. Although salaries increase with seniority, this won't lure new graduates to becoming teachers.
Therefore, the teaching profession should be made more attractive by offering a better starting salary and possibly performance bonuses (e.g. for attending or leading workshops). Moreover, teachers should be given more teaching responsibilities and fewer administrative tasks. Teachers should primarily teach, not push paper or other do chores which could basically be done by the school’s janitor.
As there is an acute lack of good local English teachers, hiring foreigners is a quick and easy way to cope with this problem. Until there are enough Thai teachers who are capable of delivering English lessons in English with a half-decent pronunciation, recruiting hordes of barbarians to fill these jobs is a necessity.
Does it matter where these foreign cohorts come from? Not really. When it comes to teaching languages, students should be taught by well-trained teachers who master the language they are teaching. It’s not really important if these foreign teachers are American or British. They could even be non-native speakers, such as Filipinos or Kenyans, as long as they can teach and are proficient in the language of Shakespeare.
In order to attract well-qualified foreigners, Thai schools will have to cough up enough hard cash. Although some schools pay relatively good salaries, many schools still try to get teachers on the cheap. They try to get away with paying Filipino teachers a pittance (actually a salary somewhere between that of Thais and westerners, which some Pinoys – in particular the not-so-qualified ones -accept, thus shooting the whole community in the foot); schools even revert to hiring poorly qualified but cheaper Eastern Europeans, mainly because they are carbon copies of white-skinned native speakers, albeit with an often heavy accent. Of course, school administrators shouldn’t forget that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.
Motivation to learn is one of the most important factors for students to achieve their goals quickly. Research has shown that average students who are well-motivated usually do better than excellent students who are not.
Although motivating students to learn isn’t always easy, I see a clear correlation between the students’ motivation and the teacher’s enthusiasm and teaching skills. I also think that motivating children and teenagers should be a joint effort between parents and teachers.
Imagine children who are asked by an enthusiastic teacher to read a book, follow the news or practise some English outside the classroom only to go home to parents whose idea of time well spent is to watch never-ending daily soap operas, to spend most family time inside shopping malls and never to discuss anything more profound than what they have eaten or going to eat. I’d say the teachers’ efforts will largely have been a waste of time.
Thirst for knowledge isn’t innate. If children never see parents read a book or watch the news on TV, are never taken to a park or a zoo at the weekend, are never asked for their opinion or expected to be creative, it will be very difficult to undo this attitude they see as the norm. They’ll just be assimilated into a society where consumerism, ignorance and xenophobia are considered acceptable.
Will it happen?
So how can Thailand improve its education? In a nutshell: train the trainers, put fewer students together, motivate them better, hire the right foreign educators to help this bring about, and involve parents more.
I am aware that efforts are already underway to improve teachers’ skills, but it seems that either not enough teachers are reaping the benefits from this programme or that too much is expected in too short a time. It is ludicrous to think that such profound changes can be achieved in one year.
I fully realise that most of the measures I put forth in this article are largely policy decisions, thus depending mainly on the insight, common sense and willingness to change of politicians. Consequently, I have to admit that I am somewhat doubtful that any of the above ways to improve education will be implemented in the near future.
In the meantime, as teachers, we can only continue to proffer advice and help and teach our Thai students to the best of our abilities. Let’s hope that the efforts of dedicated teachers will inspire learners and in the end rub off on both students and society.
Among the students of today will be the policymakers of tomorrow, so in the end the seeds we sow today might one day bear fruits and lead to a change in attitude towards learning in general. As this is a long-term investment, we can only hope that it comes full circle sooner rather than later.
If some readers see this article as an indictment of not only Thai policymakers, but also of established teachers and parents, well, it suppose is. I think it is about time for everyone involved in education to wake up and realise that something needs to be done and that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re more than likely part of the problem.