Thai Schools Find Enlightenment With Forestry Project

By Jeff Archer — September 05, 2001 7 min read
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In a straw hat and rubber boots, 6th grade teacher Vichai Khunnaseangkhum leads his students on a trek up a wooded hill near their school here in northern Thailand. With the help of three local farmers, he points out edible mushrooms and trees that produce dye. The students learn how an empty cocoon can become a thimble to protect fingers while slicing bamboo. Even the biting red ants they try to avoid serve a purpose—their eggs are used in cooking.

Then the forest thins out as the party comes to a patch where, until recently, villagers had cut and burned the trees to make charcoal to sell. New growth is coming back, but a quick scan of the area makes clear the impact of the cutting: fewer edible plants and mushrooms, fewer insects, fewer of anything that could be put to use. It’s a lesson no textbook could make more vivid, which is why the teacher has brought the youngsters here.

“If the schools only teach in the classroom,” he says through an interpreter, “then the students only see the teacher, and they don’t see the real world.”

The outing is only the beginning. In the coming months, this class from the public Nong Lom School, which serves 200 students in grades K-6, will continue to document the causes and effects of local deforestation, and then work with adults in the community to plan strategies to attack the problem.

This undertaking is one of dozens like it in northern Thailand that have been spawned by a decade-old partnership between the Thai government and Michigan State University. Called the Social Forestry, Education, and Participation Project, the enterprise seeks to build stronger ties between schools and their villages while exposing educators to new instructional techniques.

Real-World Problems

Such goals have become increasingly relevant in recent years, as Thailand’s education officials have encouraged schools to adopt more student-centered approaches, in which children play an active role in their own learning. Proponents of the changes believe teachers need to give students greater opportunities to analyze information they’ve collected from their environment and to propose solutions to real-world problems.

As organizers of the Thai-MSU project have found, such change isn’t easy in a country where workbooks, lectures, and other “chalk and talk” techniques were long the norm. But, say many who have been involved in the forestry project, the payoff is worth the struggle. Community involvement in schools has increased, many participating teachers feel more competent, and students are learning to apply what they’ve learned in more sophisticated ways.

“The benefit of this project isn’t just to help the environment, but also to help our students gain this reasoning,” said Benjalug Namfa, a Ministry of Education official who oversees pilot programs—including the forestry project—in primary schools throughout the Southeast Asian nation. “This thinking ability will help our students a lot to face other things in their lives.”

Community Action

Issues of conservation were in the forefront of their country’s attention in the late 1980s when a group of Thai officials visited the United States in search of ideas for new education programs. Excessive logging had recently been blamed for a series of deadly mudslides, prompting a public outcry and a ban on the practice. With seed money from the Ford Foundation, the schools of education and agriculture at Michigan State helped craft a project that organizers hoped would give Thais a better understanding of the consequences of such activities.

The pilot project’s central element is the case-study model. Students collect information from the local area through observations of the natural environment and interviews with village members. Once they’ve chosen a specific problem to focus on, they examine its different dimensions, including its relation to policy, economics, and biology. Then, in a series of meetings, they present their findings to the community and help come up with a response.

To date, many of the student-community projects have sought to cut back on forest burning through fire patrols or by digging trenches so that flames can’t spread beyond one area of the woods. One group showed the benefits of using more efficient stoves, prompting a revolving-loan fund through which villagers borrow money to buy the appliances. Another disproved the assumption, held by many local residents, that burning parts of the forest improves mushroom production.

Powerful Messengers

At the start, it was unclear how such a large role for children would go over in a culture where deference to adults and other superiors has traditionally been supreme. But organizers realized that the project’s approach jibed well with Thai culture. The national religion of Buddhism stresses that human craving is the source of suffering, and it was while in the woods that the Buddha became so enlightened. Moreover, the country’s popular King Bhumibol Adulyade has been a champion of environmental protection.

“Children have an unnerving ability to show their parents the difference between their words and their deeds,” said education professor Christopher W. Wheeler, one of the academics at Michigan State who works with the project. “This is different from an outside organization coming in and saying, ‘Stop cutting the trees.’ ”

To be sure, the students’ findings aren’t just thrown at the communities without warning. Whenever a new school becomes involved, organizers hold meetings to let parents and other villagers know the educational purpose behind the exercise. Moreover, the process has given community members new roles to play in the education of their children. Students now venture out to nearby farms and the homes of village elders to learn about local history and agriculture.

“It’s like a two-way communication,” Chalermpol Lasak, a local farmer who himself attended Nong Lom as a child, said through an interpreter. “Not only do the children learn from the adults and their parents, but we learn from the children. And the connection is stronger.”

Teachers in the forestry project have made the biggest adjustments. Although efforts are under way to decentralize many aspects of school governance in Thailand, most decisions about what is taught, and how, have long been made at the national level. Few teachers have experience in preparing new units of instruction, especially ones in which students help determine the direction that lessons take.

Initial Discomfort

In the beginning, “the project felt very uncomfortable to many teachers,” said Ms. Benjalug,the ministry official. “Most teachers learned from a teacher-centered approach, but now they were asked to do the student-centered approach.”

Recognizing that, organizers have held up to two weeks of training for teachers when they first join the project. The intensive sessions are in sharp contrast to the three-day workshops that make up the typical professional-development programs for educators in the country. To make sure they understood the case-study model, the teachers themselves were first sent out to gather information from the woods and the local community.

Teacher-supervisors at the local and regional levels also have been trained to help guide participants once they return to their classrooms, another break from traditional training programs that include little follow-up. Teachers with more experience in the project also mentor new participants.

With additional money from the American Corporations for Thailand—a program of the Kenan Institute Asia, a Bangkok-based foundation supported by a U.S. philanthropy—the forestry project recently added a full-time person to coordinate further training. The change helped the project expand to 27 schools, after beginning with eight.

Despite any initial uneasiness, organizers say that after a few semesters, most participants have wound up devoting the bulk of their energy to using the case-study model and to lessons in which students collect information from the local community. About one-third of their instructional time still tends to be steeped in traditional methods.

Orapin Lesak, a 5th grade teacher at the Nong Lom School, says the project has made the past two years the happiest since she started teaching 20 years ago. “My self-confidence is higher, because I know now how to develop a lesson plan,” she said.

That skill will become even more important as Thailand moves ahead with its national school improvement effort, which got its greatest push so far with the passage of an ambitious reform act by the national assembly in 1999. The measure promises to delegate more decisions about curricula to the local level and calls on schools to tap community resources as they craft education programs.

Ms. Benjalug says the forestry project—now one of the oldest among the many pilots her office works with—has taught the agency some valuable lessons about putting such changes in place, especially the importance of giving teachers enough ongoing support.

“This kind of thing,” she said, “will not happen in a short time.”

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