Turning Point

By Jeff Archer — September 26, 2001 21 min read
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The short science demonstration takes place outside, under an old teak tree in one of many brick courtyards at the Anubaan Chiang Mai School. A quartet of 2nd grade girls pours molasses, pieces of pineapple cores, and fresh water into a large plastic vat. Together, they stir the mixture with a wooden pole a foot taller than they are.

Thailand wants big changes in its teaching, but doing so has meant shaking up the country's education system from top to bottom.

It’s Friday, when schools here in the country’s second-largest city encourage the wearing of traditional northern Thai clothes, and the girls are attired in matching horizontal-striped dresses of pink and green—their school’s colors. In Thai, they explain that they’re making something called EM, which stands for “effective microorganisms.” After fermenting for several days, the substance can be used to produce such household products as laundry detergent and bathroom cleanser. Pioneered by a Japanese researcher, the theory behind EM is that, under the right conditions, microorganisms can act as natural alternatives to many of the synthetic chemicals consumers commonly use.

The project is one of several learning activities taking place on campus that students can choose to take part in during their lunch periods. Asked why she’s spending her time mixing EM, when she could be on the playground, one of the girls thinks for a moment and then smiles. “It’s joyful!” she responds in English.

It will be several years before these youngsters begin to understand all the chemistry and biology behind the process. But in the meantime, school officials say such activities are teaching them far more important lessons. They’re showing them that learning is fun, that it’s relevant to their daily lives, and that it can take place anywhere, even under a tree.

“This is something to make them feel that learning is not only sitting in the class, or reading books and doing paperwork,” explains English teacher Supote Sikanta, himself wearing a sua mawhom—a collarless shirt traditionally worn by farmers—adorned with strips of red silk embroidered with elephant figures. “The students who do this will have the feeling that they want to learn.”

That’s a lesson Thailand hopes to teach all its roughly 12 million students. Having long depended on rote learning, the country’s schools have in recent years been called on to transform themselves in a very big way. Educators are being told to de-emphasize lecturing and teaching from the textbook in favor of more active approaches. The premium once placed on memorization is shifting to analytical skills. And Thai leaders now say that instead of students who can regurgitate facts, they want graduates who can pose solutions to real-world problems.

“The principle and objective of learning has to change,” says Derek Pornsima, a special adviser at the Ministry of Education.

Thailand began inching down this path a generation ago, but now finds itself at a major turning point. Lawmakers here passed a National Education Act in 1999, which calls for dramatically altering the organization of the country’s education system at every level, from the ministry in Bangkok on down. Many of the changes—which are to be phased in over several years—are aimed at giving local educators the flexibility and support needed to try out new approaches to teaching and learning. The United States has played a prominent role among the cast of nations that has lent expertise and advice to the effort.

The hope is to move the so-called “learning reforms” beyond pockets of innovation like the Anubaan Chiang Mai School here to the country as a whole. But such scaling-up poses many challenges. For more than a century, Thailand’s school system has been characterized by a highly centralized form of governance. Now, everyone in the system is being asked to do his or her job very differently from in the past. Classroom educators are expected to teach in ways they themselves never experienced as students. And those within the national education bureaucracy are being told they must relinquish many of their long-held powers.

Evidence of how thorny those issues have become was seen this past summer, when Thailand’s education minister quit his post in frustration after a few months on the job, and the prime minister announced that he himself would act as the country’s top education official while continuing to serve as the premier.

“It is a very drastic change,” says Kasama Varavarn, who heads the national office overseeing secondary schools at the Ministry of Education’s expansive compound in Bangkok’s government district. “We don’t know if it will bear fruit, but we can see the pod coming out.”

Thailand has a long track record of ambitious efforts at school improvement. The beginnings of its national education system date back to the late 19th century, and in 1921, it became one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to institute a compulsory-education law. Later, amid a turbulent democracy movement in the 1970s, it launched a massive adult education program that helped to raise its literacy rate to well above the regional average.

Significant inequities in resources persist between poor small and rural schools and their more affluent, larger counterparts in and around the cities, but Thailand has achieved near-universal access, at least at the primary school level. Nearly a quarter of its government spending now goes toward education. Says John Middleton, a World Bank official who has advised the Thai government on its school improvement plans: “Their investment in their education system is almost higher than any other developing country, and it’s been a sustained effort.”

‘We have raw products that can be made into shampoo and soap, but we import everything. That's very troubling for Thailand.’

Despite its successes, a consensus has emerged among many Thai leaders that their schools’ traditional teaching methods are outdated. For the most part, educators have followed detailed curricula, teaching guides, and textbooks approved by officials at the Ministry of Education. Aside from the directives from the capital, the instructional content has been driven by the entrance exams students take to get into the country’s competitive public high schools and universities. Such a system, many here believe, fails to cultivate the kind of understanding and creativity they see as crucial for success in the modern world.

Those fears have been borne out, in part, by the country’s current economic predicament. In recent years, other Asian nations have undercut Thailand’s past competitive advantage in making and selling products that require few skills to manufacture—at the same time that the country lacks a critical mass of highly trained workers to expand into more advanced industries. Indeed, the country’s increased reliance on imports became a contributing factor in the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which had Thailand at its epicenter.

Students play during recess at the Anubaan Chiang Mai School, located on the site of an abandoned Buddhist temple.
—Robert Grossman for Education Week

“We have plants that can be converted into medicine, but we cannot do anything about it,” says Derek, whose ministry office—like those of many Thai officials—includes a Buddhist altar nearly the size of his desk. “We have raw products that can be made into shampoo and soap, but we import everything. That’s very troubling for Thailand.”

Advocates of the learning reforms have a clear vision of what they want to see in Thai schools: lots of group work and hands-on activities, units of instruction that bring together different content areas, greater use of the local community as a resource for learning, a renewed emphasis on Thailand’s cultural heritage and its relevance to modern issues, and projects that encourage students to explore information and make use of it rather than just committing it to memory.

Right now, few schools fit that bill better than Anubaan Chiang Mai, which serves 2,700 students in the primary grades on a campus that rivals the typical U.S. community college in size. The school was built on the grounds of an abandoned Buddhist temple dating back more than 400 years. One of the bell-shaped spires, or chedis, that distinguish such sites rises above the classroom buildings. On a recent day, groups of students gather outdoors in different corners, making recycled paper, concocting a home brew for mosquito-repellent, and learning how to carve vegetables into the shapes of flowers for food garnishing.

But the school is hardly representative. Most primary schools in Thailand are much smaller, and don’t use any kind of selective entry process for students. Like some other highly regarded public schools in Thailand’s cities, however, Anubaan Chiang Mai is sought after by families throughout the area, and each year holds a kind of lottery to determine who can attend. Moreover, its budget is substantially augmented by financial support from parents. Such contributions, for instance, pay for many more of its computers than does public funding. With its reputation and resources, Anubaan Chiang Mai often gets picked by national officials to pilot new education initiatives.

“If we had only government funding,” concedes Supote, the English teacher, “we would not be able to make a school like this.”

The trick, then, is to take the kind of teaching and learning strategies embraced at already innovative schools like Anubaan Chiang Mai and spread them throughout the country. Thailand’s biggest lever yet for doing so is the sweeping National Education Act. If carried out as planned over the next few years, the law will leave its mark on virtually every aspect of educational administration in the country, from the process used to evaluate teachers and schools to the way that national agencies are organized. For the first time, it also guarantees access to free education through grade 12. Before the law was passed, Thailand had been working to expand universal access beyond grade 6.

The measure’s main themes are efficiency and decentralization. Currently, the Ministry of Education has 14 different divisions, each of which operates largely independently and directs its own network of offices throughout the country’s 73 provinces. The department that handles primary schools is separate from the one that oversees secondary schools, and both are separate from the one that deals with curriculum. Meanwhile, ultimate authority over many decisions about what money can be spent on, how content is taught, and who gets hired or transferred at the local level rests with officials in Bangkok.

‘The reform encourages the schools to use a local curriculum, but the schools are not sure how they can make the curriculum themselves.’

The whole structure, many argue, works against the kinds of changes in teaching and learning now advocated in Thailand. Not only does it keep valuable resources tied up within the educational bureaucracy, but it also fails to encourage educators to experiment with new techniques. Details for completing the restructuring still are being hammered out—and will require additional legislation—but the general aims are to consolidate administration at the national level while giving local authorities greater control over their budgets, personnel, and curricula.

“It means that in the near future, the schools can decide everything by themselves,” says Rung Kwaedang, one of the main architects of the nation’s school improvement agenda.

Rung serves as the secretary-general of the National Education Commission, which functions as a kind of independent, permanent policy-developing task force under the prime minister’s office. The commission took the lead in drafting the 1999 reform law over nearly two years, during which it made extensive studies of school improvement strategies in a dozen countries, including the United States.

Students learn how to recycle paper, one of many learning activities offered during lunch periods.
—Jeff Archer/Education Week

Still, Rung maintains that the measure draws on traditional Thai culture as much as on modern theories of pedagogy. He points out that Buddhism, the religion of more than 80 percent of the country’s population, stresses that truth comes not from the authority of others, but from one’s own examination of existing evidence. In an important teaching known as the “Kalama Sutta,” for instance, the Buddha said that individuals should not believe anything simply because it’s written in scripture, told by teachers, or heard repeatedly. Says Rung, “The way the Buddha teaches is that we have to rely on our own wisdom.”

The country’s system began moving forward even before Rung’s office drew up its master plan. As far back as 20 years, the national curriculum was revised to encourage teachers to develop students’ skills rather than just push them to cram their heads with facts. Anticipating the need for decentralization, Thailand in the mid-1990s dispatched 100 administrators, teachers, and government officials to Florida to study its statewide push toward site-based management.

Experts from the education school at Florida State University, which helped organize the visits, later traveled to Thailand to help set up pilot programs in which schools assumed new planning responsibilities. By now, every school in the country was to have established a committee made up of representatives from local constituencies. Though many still are acting in advisory roles, the panels are soon to take on more authority in determining policy. In 1998, Thailand also began choosing a national cadre of master teachers as exemplars of the new approaches toward teaching and learning.

“They’ve done their homework, and they’re putting together a Thai-inspired reform,” says George Papagiannis, who chairs the program on international/intercultural development education at Florida State.

But now, the really hard part begins. To complete the overhaul, say Rung and others, a tremendous power shift must take place. Local authorities accustomed to waiting for directions from the capital need to start making decisions on their own. And government officials used to calling the shots are supposed to play more of a supportive role by assisting those in the field. For the moment, plans are for a combined Ministry of Education, Religion, and Culture with as few as five divisions—nine less than the current number. And some estimate that perhaps 30 percent of those working directly for the ministry in Bangkok may be reassigned to help out in the provinces.

“It’s like going from the boss to the housekeeper,” says Pratya Vesarach, a professor at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University in Bangkok and an expert in Thai public policy and administration.

‘It is a very drastic change. We don't know if it will bear fruit, but we can see the pod coming out.’

An incisive academic with a diminutive frame, Pratya heads the executive committee of Thailand’s Office of Education Reform, a temporary agency established to recommend ways of putting into place the many remaining changes called for in the National Education Act. Housed on an upper floor of a high-rise in Bangkok’s frenetic business district, the department has drafted more than 20 pieces of implementation legislation, which are awaiting further consideration by national lawmakers. Pratya says continued wrangling over the proposals shows that many face significant resistance. “There’s a kind of political maneuvering,” he maintains, “which slows down the process.”

Take the question of geographically redividing the country into new units of governance. Currently, each of the 73 provinces has its own education bureaucracy that reports to Bangkok. But while the provinces—like American states—vary considerably in size and population, the education act calls for a new system of school districts with each serving similar enrollments. The aim is to resolve some of the inequities that exist across the country while also breaking up the current lines of command and control in the system.

Thai children customarily remove their shoes before entering school.
—Robert Grossman for Education Week

The reform office suggested carving Thailand into 295 zones that would each assume broad new decisionmaking authority. Meanwhile, some within the ministry have lobbied for far more units, while also arguing that each zone should continue to report directly to the highest-ranking education officials in Bangkok. Still others within the agency have even suggested keeping the provincial-based system while consolidating the ministry.

Critics accuse the Ministry of Education of dragging its feet in order to retain power. But moving too quickly to decentralize could actually increase inequities in the quality of education, says Panom Pongpaibool, who plans to retire at the end of this week as the ministry’s permanent secretary, the agency’s top civil servant. Local authorities need time to build up the resources and the capacity required to govern themselves, he says.

“It’s not about power,” Panom says. “We want to guarantee that whatever methods we use should not disadvantage the poor or the remote schools.”

It was amid this difficulty in reaching consensus on such issues that Thailand’s education minister, Kasem Wattanachai, resigned in early June. At the time, he told the news media, “I’m an academic; I’m not prepared to be a politician.”

In response, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra quickly announced that he would be doubling as head of state and education minister for the next few months to ensure that the school improvement plans didn’t stall. While it’s not unprecedented for a Thai premier to assign himself to the top post at one of his own ministries, it’s still uncommon enough to drive home the point that Thaksin sees the education agenda as a crucial issue for the country.

The move was something of a mixed blessing. Thaksin is a telecommunications tycoon who, many believe, sees the link between success in education and in business. But at the time he appointed himself top schools chief, he faced corruption charges for allegedly having concealed millions of dollars in assets from a financial-disclosure process meant to root out graft. Those charges could have removed him from office, but last month, the popular leader was acquitted by the country’s highest court. Still, the many pressing issues Thaksin must grapple with as prime minister prevent him from devoting full attention to education at a time when many critical decisions about how to proceed have yet to be made.

“If he agrees on the reforms, then they will go ahead,” says Sukhothai Thammathirat University’s Pratya. “But his concentration on any particular issue is limited.”

In the meantime, educators sometimes feel they’re getting mixed signals. On one hand, they hear the exhortation that schools should exercise more freedom in deciding for themselves what and how to teach. And yet, they say, they’re still receiving a heavy flow of directives from Bangkok.

Niraves Kaewyaloon modifies her instruction by trying to tap into students’ creativity.
—Robert Grossman for Education Week

One district official in northern Thailand complains that each year he’s called on to administer exams for a national contest to identify the country’s best students. Not only does he see the exercise as a distraction, but he also says it flies in the face of the main idea behind the National Education Act—that all students should be developed to their full potential. A school principal in the same region is similarly critical of Thailand’s implementation of a national process for identifying master teachers, which he argues is based more on their ability to assemble a sleek portfolio than on how well they meet the needs of their particular students.

“If you keep telling people in the provinces to do what you think they should be doing because it’s good for reform and for the country, how is that any different from the old way?” education professor Annop Pongwat asked from his book-crammed office at Chiang Mai University. “They say, ‘You have to decide for yourselves; you have to use more discretion,’ but the culture still implicitly says, ‘Do what I say.’ ”

The school, which enrolls mostly poor children, provides free lunches subsidized by donations to a collection box at a nearby temple.
—Robert Grossman for Education Week

Annop believes that changing mind-sets—and not the bureaucracy—may prove to be the most challenging aspect of implementing education change in Thailand. And it’s not just that officials need to learn to delegate, he adds. Educators also must hone their abilities to think independently if they are to draft lesson plans and units of instruction—things they’ve long looked towards higher authorities to provide. But that’s no easy task, especially in a society that traditionally has emphasized the importance of paying deference to one’s superiors. In something of a paradox, Thai teachers need guidance in learning how to attack tasks on their own.

“It’s hard to tell teachers to change their teaching style, because they are used to doing it one way for a long, long time,” says Pongthep Manatarong, who supervises primary schools in Lamphun Province, a region just south of Chiang Mai. “They have a picture of teaching in their heads since they were in school.”

Pongthep sees plenty of merit in decentralization and in breaking up the country’s education system into smaller units. He would like more flexibility in implementing new approaches. But what’s most important, he says, is that educators be given the chance to become comfortable with the new learning initiatives. That, however, takes time. And to do it right, Pongthep says, requires more resources than he currently has.

The numbers speak for themselves. Lamphun is a rural province with 294 primary schools that together employ nearly 3,000 teachers. Ponthep’s office has about 40 people to supervise and support them all. He wishes his staff could devote more energy to observing teachers in schools and to helping principals learn how to act as instructional coaches, but they’re usually stretched so thin that short training sessions must suffice. He hopes that the restructuring of the country’s education bureaucracy results in additional personnel at the regional level, allowing for more ongoing professional development for teachers.

“Now, it’s just workshops and seminars, but we almost never go to the schools,” he says.

Near the edge of the city of Chiang Mai sits the Wat Jet Yod School, a place that bears little resemblance to the Anubaan school across town. Named after a neighboring religious site—wat is the Thai word for “temple"—the school serves 160 students in the primary grades. Most of the children come from poor families, and about 10 are homeless, says Principal Sompong Wanlee, a gray-haired man with a grandfatherly demeanor. Contributions to a collection box close to the nearby temple help pay for a free-lunch program at the school. Unlike at Anubaan, the need to draw lots to pick students is nonexistent. “This school takes everyone,” Sompong says through an interpreter.

Jong Konnee, who oversees primary schools in the Chiang Mai area, says the school illustrates the difficulties confronting poorer schools as they try to take part in Thailand’s school improvement agenda. She points out that only in recent weeks did Wat Jet Yod receive a computer equipped to access the Internet. Its library, meanwhile, has barely enough materials to justify its four short bookcases. “These books are not adequate for students to learn how to explore knowledge on their own,” Jong says.

It’s not uncommon to find children at their desks, hunched over workbooks. “These children should be noisy,” says Principal Sompong Wanlee as he passes by one classroom.
—Robert Grossman for Education Week

“The reform encourages the schools to use a local curriculum, but the schools are not sure how they can make the curriculum themselves,” she adds. “In this school, there are eight classrooms and nine teachers, so what time can they use to make a curriculum?”

A tour of the classrooms in the two-story wood-and-plaster building shows many examples of old-style teaching. On the second floor, a roomful of 2nd graders sit in rows at boxy wooden tables, hunched over their workbooks as they try to learn multiplication. “These students should be more noisy,” says Sompong as he walks by in sandals and a white sua mawhom. The 58-year-old principal, who has been at the school for only a year, says perhaps four or five of his teachers have learned how to use more active instructional approaches. Since arriving at Wat Jet Yod, he’s tried to give his staff more training materials and professional-development opportunities to help them learn new techniques.

Downstairs, in the 1st grade class of Niraves Kaewyaloon, it appears that such efforts may be paying off. Some pupils sit on the wooden floor, while others move about the room comparing their work with their classmates’. The teacher, a 30-year veteran, is showing them how to subtract by having them draw pictures of objects and then crossing them out. Some sketch out a line of mangos, others draw tree leaves. They fill in their pictures with crayons, many clearly proud of their creations. Niraves says she came up with the idea in an attempt to integrate art with mathematics.

To be sure, the exercise doesn’t represent a quantum leap. For the most part, the students still follow their teacher’s directions, and the activity doesn’t really say much about how math can be applied in the real world. But it is an improvement over the standard workbooks the teacher used to employ to teach subtraction. Moreover, it’s teaching Niraves something about how to keep her class engaged, and she’s encouraged by the results.

“The students,” she says through an interpreter, “love to study this way.”

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