Getting Down to Brass Tacks:

Making Student -Centered Learning Work in Thailand

Starting at the Teachers Colleges

There seems to be a common consensus among educators that teachers colleges throughout Thailand need to be doing more in order to prepare future teachers to meet the challenge of fulfilling the mandates of the Education Act of 1999.  The purpose of these remarks is to spark debate on what exactly teachers college are now doing and what more they need to do to prepare pre-service Thai teachers.

My hypothesis is that a major reason for the delay in the actualization of the goals of the Education Act of 1999 is a lack of rigor in the curriculum and instruction at many of Thailand’s teachers colleges. This reason coupled with the lack of incentives to attract the best Thai students to become teachers are the main obstacles blocking Thailand’s path to excellence in public education.

I wonder how much we know about the effectiveness of our teachers colleges in Thailand.

What research has been done in Thailand on the effectiveness of teachers colleges?  What are the teaching methods used by professors at teachers colleges?  Since the Education Act of 1999 was put into effect, what demonstrable progress has been made at teachers colleges to meet the challenges of training teachers in the digital age?

Since student centered learning is at the heart of the Education Act , we also need to answer the question of what part student-centered learning plays in today’s teachers colleges curriculum.   Before we begin to talk about lapses in today’s curriculum, let me make clear two preliminary points:

1.  student- centered learning does not mean teachers exclude from their teaching methods direct teaching to the whole class.  There is an appropriate time for the teacher to explain a principal or concept or group of facts and this time is after students have wrestled with a concept ,and

2. Student- centered learning should use cognitive science research results in order to take full advantage of providing students with optimal learning environments.

Let’s look first at all the ways that teachers have at their disposal to teach a class.

How People Learn

FIGURE 1.1 With knowledge of how people learn, teachers can choose more purposefully among techniques to accomplish specific goals. From How People Learn(National Science Foundation)

As I suggested previously, direct teaching, that is “teaching by telling” does have a place in student -centered teaching.   Many educators do not understand that lectured based teaching does have an important place in student centered learning; the key is knowing when, how long an explanation is necessary and in what order “teaching by telling” is most effective.

In sum, the mastery of teaching is knowing the proper order in which to use the methods in the chart above based on the particular subject matter. Different subjects require different approaches to learning as well. For example , in teaching science the teacher is likely to choose more often from the inquiry based choices above in planning lessons.

I am most concerned that teachers colleges in Thailand may not be adequately teaching future teachers how to use cognitive science research findings in how people learn in the design of their lessons.  I will just mention three core learning principles based on solid research as illustrative, principles explained fully in How People Learn ( National Science Foundation 2000).**

Let’s take what we know about long term memory. Students have preconceived notions about a subject for study.  Effective teaching starts with students’ preconceptions and confirms them, rejects them and modifies or replaces these preconceptions.

Second, learning is enhanced when students form concepts that are personally meaningful, that is putting the organization of learning into a framework or schema.

Thirdly, learning is optimized when students are taught to use “metacognitive” strategies.  These strategies include: sense making, self assessment and reflection on what worked or needs improvement.

Applying these and other research findings to the classroom is essential so that the teacher has an understanding of the learner, including his cultural differences and preconceived ideas of the subject matter; pays attention to “what is taught, why it is taught and what mastery of the subject look like”;and makes formative assessments, on-going assessments designed to make students’ thinking “visible to both teachers and students.”  ( How Students Learn, p.24)

Of course , the first step should be to make teachers competent and expert in their chosen field.*** At the same time , the professors at the teachers colleges should be modeling teaching for understanding , that is , demonstrating constantly what a student-centered classroom looks like. One design that might be considered at teachers colleges is to spend the first two years acquiring an expert knowledge of their chosen field and the final two years learning how to apply that knowledge and understanding to teaching.  The keys to success would be producing lesson plans of excellence using research on how people learn and applying the research in effective ways in practice teaching.

These core learning principles and what needs to be done to apply them,  scratch the surface of what teachers need to know; nevertheless, it may serve to start a dialogue of what really needs to be done at teachers college to bring a high level of learning for understanding to schools across the Kingdom of Thailand.

** we strongly recommend reading How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and Schools (2000) which can be downloaded free at:   http://www.nap.edu

***  To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.