Discovery Learning and Individualized Teaching: The Vision of Schools for Life
by Jurgen Zimmer, Ph.D.
Some schools can be heard from far off: the teacher loudly speaks phrases, the whole class answers as one. Old-fashioned schools of this kind are to a large degree products of the colonial era, their classroom teaching methods still reflecting the spirit of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Teachers concentrate on covering each small portion of the fixed curriculum, and try not only to tame the horde of young lions in the class, but also bring them all to do the same thing at the same time. The style of mechanical learning employed is the most unsuitable conceivable for making sense of interrelationships, retaining what one has learned (even after the next exam), and applying knowledge gained. This is where a disastrous vicious circle of dequalification must be broken: insufficiently trained teachers behave like slaves to a detailed prescribed curriculum and force their students to reduce the great diversity of learning and experience down to the learning of textbooks by heart. When this mechanical system, which clearly contradicts the fundamental discoveries of modern learning theories, is then further underpinned by frequent tests and exams, one could even maintain that such a school is in the position of actually mutilating the qualifying potential of the next generation. Good test results achieved within this mechanism reveal very little about the ability to retain what one has learned, or creatively apply it in any given real situation.
Frontal class teaching will hopefully be a seldom occurrence in the Schools for Life. Instead, relying on the knowledge gained in modern learning theory, a researching, discovering, active kind of learning is favored. Learning will take place individually or in small teams, and the biography and learning background of every child will be taken into account. In contrast to repetitive learning which takes place within parameters of false security (where problem presentation, solution route, and solution itself are always already known beforehand), here the learning processes are of a much more open nature. Naturally there will still be some ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. But in real-life situations there are often a number of different options which have to be compared and considered before making a decision. In any case, learning in connection with entrepreneurship also means learning how to think strategically while dealing with uncertainties, practicing to take calculated risks.
There is a veritable arsenal of teaching methods and forms of pedagogical organization that serve these goals: teaching in small groups, learning and acting in projects, open or informal education, orienting the time frame to the task at hand and the current project (and not the other way around), team teaching, mixed-aged groups and cross-generational learning (where it makes sense to do so). Classrooms can be transformed into learning workshops.
At the same time, the limits of traditional school spaces will be dissolved: all the students will work with laptops and personal computers, and be able to communicate directly with teachers and other students electronically. Everyone will have access to libraries all over the world. In this interactive learning development, the concept of “classroom” will surpass the traditional classroom. In developing their projects, students will also be able to make use of multimedia designs, computer assisted drafting, the information highway, and graphic and desktop publishing tools.
THE NATION in an article published on April 27, 2011 reported that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is quite worried about the country’s educational system because students have lamentably poor knowledge in science, mathematics and English. Speaking at a recent meeting of executives from medical schools, Abhisit said students had alarmingly low scores during the recent Ordinary National Educational Test (O-Net).
“So many children got zero in maths, even though it was a multiple-choice test,” he said. “I can’t believe that our children can be this stupid.”
He also said he found some science students from Chulalongkorn University were unable to do even the most basic of fractions.
The Prime Minister is echoing what leading educators throughout Thailand have been saying about the seemingly fruitless efforts since 1999 to turn the country’s education system in the direction of student based learning.
There is a boulder blocking the Thai Kingdom’s path to 21st century social, political and economic development. That obstruction is preventing the preparation of Thai youth to solve problems unique to any time in history. Thailand must participate in solving the complicated problems of the 21st century , including global warming, scarce energy resources, environmental degradation, the growing gap between rich and poor, complicated trade and economic issues, drug resistant disease and urban sprawl.
To solve the problems of the digital age, Thai youth must learn skills in critical thinking, collaborative problem solving, and the effective use of internet technologies both in communication and in searching for vital information. The huge rock blocking the learning of these skills is the rote teaching methods found throughout the Thai public school system. The typical Thai teacher tells students what they must know. The students demonstrate what they have learned by repeating what the teacher says both in class and in examinations. This methodology is deeply ingrained in the Thal hierarchical culture.
The teacher ( Kru derived from the Sanskrit word Guru) is to be revered for their learning and not questioned. Respect for teachers is given to teachers by the community, because they are seen as learned regardless of their pedagogical style. The common teaching style is one where the teacher does not ask for the opinions or thoughts of students since their job is to transmit knowledge one way, teacher to student. Not only would the Thai teacher have a difficult time in having students become active in their own learning process. Thai students would be embarrassed and uncomfortable asking questions and pursuing solutions to problems in a group or class.
The Western contrast is that teachers are not simply given respect because they are teachers, they must earn the respect of the students and their families by demonstrating that they care about the students and they must do this by clearly showing they have excellent pedagogical skills and a passion for teaching and learning. The teachers who have these qualities are those who truly engage their students in learning by developing in them a quest for understanding rather than merely knowing. The Thai system referred to above teaches students to know things but the results on the O Net tests seem to indicate that they lack deep understanding of real world situations . This ia a direct result of the rote learning methodology so prevalent in the Thai education system.
Food for Thought
The Royal Thai Government , particularly the Ministry of Education must once again state, perhaps more clearly than ever 1. The reason that the conversion of school administrators , students , teachers and parents to a student centered learning approach is necessary , and 2. explain and show what student centered learning is and what it looks like.
What is suggested here as “food for thought” is to teach behavior change that cuts across deep Thai cultural roots that originate in respect and reverence for teachers particularly and older people in general. There is obviously no quick solution as the Thai government has discovered since the promulgation of the 1999 Education Act. The Act espoused in legislation, a student centered learning approach to learning, the antithesis of traditional rote learning.
Twelve years later the huge rock blocking Thai future economic and social development has only been moved enough to allow relatively few Thai students to really participate and take responsibility for their own learning. Most of those students are from private international schools or model schools [Pattana schools] . Almost all of these progressive schools are located in Bangkok.
Since 1999, the Ministry of Education has made efforts to change teacher education to incorporate the various curriculum components of student centered learning , including inquiry based learning, problem based learning, project based learning and brain based learning. Part of the challenge in teacher training is to decide just how much control the teacher should give up in the classroom. The other great challenge is designing methods of teaching a curriculum that turn major responsibility over to the student and give the teacher more of a coaching role in the learning process. Of course there also remains in many Thai schools the huge class sizes which lend themselves more to the teacher directed rather than student centred, pedagogy.
So despite these efforts , the typical Thai classroom remains teacher centered to an extreme degree, meaning the talk in the classroom is almost exclusively is from the teacher, and there is little input in the learning process from students, except for rote responses. In short , students in Thai classrooms are not being taught to think for themselves and solve problems. The Thai Ministry of Education has also set up special student centered teacher training centers. They have also held myriad special seminars on student centered learning. They have also created student centered model schools.
There has been no “sea change” in the way teachers in Thailand teach.
A Fresh Look at Teaching and Learning in Thai classrooms:
In taking a fresh look at the issue it is useful to think of teacher centered learning and students centered learning as part of a continuum. On the one end are teachers who completely dominate classroom time with one way communication and demands that student listen to, and then give rote responses.
On the other end of the continuum would be a teacher who just turns the class room over to the students and tells them to learn whatever they are interested in [the laissez faire approach experienced in some Western systems in the 1970s].
With this continuum in mind it may be useful to think of producing change on the basis of a slide. Thus we want to move teacher centered learning, teacher and their class, more and more toward the empowerment of students over their own learning. The Singaporean Government has a stark way of expressing to teachers the way teachers are expected to move the slide to a more student centered education: “Talk less, learn more.”
Specific Steps in the Solution Process
modeling student centred learning [scl] using classroom teaching videos showing best practices
If the Ministry of Education wants behavior change in the Thai classrooms they must be much more directive in terms of what specific student centered learning characteristics should be evident in the “new” Thai classroom.
A significant part of the problem is that administrators, teachers students and parents don’t know what student centered learning looks like. It can take many different appearances depending on where on the continuum the learning is based and what part of student centered learning methodology is being used. For example, students could be working in groups on particular projects; groups of students would be presenting their findings to the rest of the class; a teacher could be explaining where students might find information resources to help solve a particular problem or enquiry; or individual students could be conducting their own experiments with the teacher simply giving encouragement and advice as asked . In summary , teachers , administrators and students must have something that will serve as as models of student centered learning and can be readily accessed. The Education Act of 1999 gives the guide lines , but there is a great need for real models that can be imitated and learned from. ** (viz footnote below)
There could be a national education campaign that has a variety of media presentations and teacher training literature that provide clear models of student centered learning . These media films and TV presentations would show all the aspects of student centered learning and provide step by step instructions to teachers and students about how to transform a class room into a more student empowered learning environment.
2. Creation of a Network of Pathway Schools that are located strategically throughout Thailand and can accommodate visiting teachers who want to observe good practices in student centered learning
Creation of a network of pathway schools that consistently use student centered learning techniques in classrooms that visiting teachers can observe , followed up by assistance for teachers in incorporating these methods in their own classrooms.
3. Providing specific project activities that teach students to think and link the national curriculum to the experience of the students’ daily lives and experience.
A quick list is as follows: expanding the current national curriculum into specific methods that lend themselves to projects for students that would produce deep learning; provide games and activities that address specific skills and also give the student an opportunity to provide a performance of the skills and that can also be used as an assessment, especially in math and science; provide participatory language lessons that emphasize students actually using dialogues and thinking of their own dialogues in a real world context. For each subject area linking the curriculum with real world problems and relate to the students’ lives .
4. Providing concrete examples of performances in all the main subjects of the national curriculum that can be used as assessments of student learning
Explaining how student performances should be used as the principal assessment tool to gauge student progress instead of continual written testing. To begin with, the MOE could require all students to keep reflective learning journals or diaries of their learning; have a learning contract with the teacher; keep reflective portfolios, engage in peer and self assessment, produce period individual and group project work, and keep a list of acquired skill and competencies such as:
(1) Developing aptitudes, bearing in mind individual differences; **
(2) Providing training in developing deep understaning through thinking processes, time management, and how to face various situations and apply knowledge for obviating and solving problems;
(3) organize activities for learners to draw from authentic experience … enable learners to think critically and acquire the reading habit and continuous thirst for knowledge;
(5) … both learners and teachers may learn together from different types of teaching-learning media and other sources of knowledge;
(6) enable individuals to learn at all times and in all places.”
UNESCO’s selection of Bangkok to be the Book Capital of the World for 2013 begs the question: why?
The Bangkok Post published an article on February 2, 2011 citing the reading rate surveys of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT). The 2010 survey showed that Thais on average read just five books a year as compared with Malaysians who read on average 40 books a year, Singaporeans 45 books a year, and Japanese 50 books a year. The previous survey conducted in 2005 suggested Thais read only two books on average every year. So , with it obvious that Thais are not a nation of readers , why would UNESCO choose Bangkok to be a Book Capital of the World?
Many educators feel the general education level of the average Thai is even more dire than statistics like these and recent dismal test scores for school age children indicate. Abundant, anecdotal evidence suggests that in the rural areas the rate of reading is less than a book a year for most Thais. There is no doubt that Thailand will lose its economic footing unless the poor state of public education is turned around in order to create a highly educated work force. The master key to such a turn- around is to create Thailand as a nation of readers, critical readers, who are life- long learners.
There are many Thais and farangs who throw up their hands and say it is an impossible task to get Thais to be a nation of readers since it is not in the Thai tradition. This is balderdash. As the eminent historian David K. Wyatt points out, Thailand has a rich bibliophilic tradition. Wyatt relates that in some parts of Thailand in the 1890’s the male literacy rates were “considerably in excess of the literacy rates in Europe or America at the time.” In Thailand’s history there were huge numbers of Buddhist temples that included library buildings. These buildings housed Buddhist religious books, or in the case before printing, texts incised into palm leaves. Males were taught to read and write in monasteries.
The point here is that Thailand enjoyed a rich intellectual tradition. This tradition included a ready access to libraries by the male population.
It is no wonder , then, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration(BMA) lobbied hard to win UNESCO’s approval to designated Bangkok Book Capital of the World for 2013. The BMA want to use the UNESCO award as a platform to change Thailand from a nation of non book readers to a nation of book readers. Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra will be leading this effort , concentrating on encouraging reading among working-age residents. The deputy governor, Taya Teepsuwan, has already initiated a reading campaign encouraging passengers using the mass transit system to read while riding the buses and trains.
We should begin this campaign by asking why Thai’s don’t read books in this modern era. This is a question worthy of considerable research before moving forward.
There is much to be done if such a reading revolution is to take place among Thais, much to be done to recapture the intellectual tradition for a wider population in Thailand. Presently, the tradition is largely restricted to the 18% of Thais who finish college.
Reading is something that becomes part of a nation’s culture. It is a culture taught to children and encouraged as they grow up to the point that a person becomes a life- long reader, and , thus, a life- long learner. I hope the decision makers who are charged with organizing a successful reading campaign will consider:
1. Campaigns to turn off the T.V. and , then , reading to children and telling them stories. Story telling was a cherished tradition in Thailand only 40 years ago. It should be revived and coupled with reading stories as well as telling them;
2. Making great books written in Thai available at very cheap rates or free to borrow on a massive scale in the rural areas of Thailand through mobile libraries or through community access to high speed internet with free e-book down loads;
3. Special incentives for software game manufactures to distribute and sell games that teach reading skill and practical knowledge with tax disincentives for those selling mindless computer games;
4. Intense focus in schools throughout the Kingdom of Thailand to promote reading , including, the hiring of specially trained reading teachers from elementary school through to Matiyom 6. These reading teachers would in turn be empowered to train classroom teachers to create independent learning libraries in each classroom. At the very least there should be every effort made to hook up class rooms with high speed internet in order to access first class Thai reading material for every age group.
5. To accomplish these and many other goals, there is a need for solid research on what the actual situation is in terms of reading and reading materials . For example, there is a dearth of information on lists of great books written in Thai which are available on an age appropriate level. More research need to be conducted on what can change Thai attitudes toward reading books and what Thais would like to read.
Why don’t Thais read? If Thais have access and they are encouraged from an early age, Thais will read. A new Thai intellectual era will dawn. Thailand will successfully meet the challenges of the 21stcentury.
As a professional and certified teacher living and working in Thailand I feel you have correctly identified a huge problem facing educators. I would take it a step further and say the very way my students think has changed dramatically since I lived here in the 1970s. One huge arena – the use of proverbs to succinctly and sometimes humorously describe real life situations – has almost completely disappeared among the younger generation. For example a popular proverb back then was:
literally, to flee a tiger only to meet a crocodile. An English parallel would be “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” Both proverbs convey the concept of trying to escape danger, but encountering something equally or more perilous. More importantly, these proverbs use an economy of words, comparison thinking and mental imagery, none of which can be replaced by television or video games.
If the whole way Thais think (and kids back home in America, too, for that matter) has changed dramatically then to simply add books into their lives won’t necessarily enhance critical thinking and imagination. But it’s a start.
Fear not! Last semester I found a student with a thick and weighty English book on her desk. It was clearly beyond her reading level so I picked it up. This clever girl had carved out the interior so she could hide her mobile telephone inside. (Bringing cell phones to school is against school policy.) No, I didn’t report the student to the principal. I was just happy to see someone actually using a book in school!
Peter, I got inspired from reading Dr. Htay’s comment about his early learning experience sans the modern educational tools available today. I was always a difficult student. My elementary schooling took place in one-room schools. The first of these was in rural Oregon, one teacher 23 students ranging from grades 1 to 10. In order to have a quorum to start a 1st grade class that year, myself and a fellow 5 year old from a neighboring farm were enrolled. There were a total of 4 of us in the class. When I was ready for the 4th grade, the school was split and we 4th, 5th and 6th graders were bused to another rural school 3 miles distant from our homes. From the 1st to the 3rd grade, I walked to school, rain or shine, through the back pasture and neighboring orchards. At the beginning of my 7th grade, all us rural hicks were bused into town aboard a big “Blue Bird” school bus to a major urban junion high school and dumped into a typical subject classroom consisting of 30 students -all strangers- and one teacher. It was, needless to say, an intimidating and impersonal approach to mass education. The tradition continued through high school and into college. My 1st year chemistry class in the public university had 300 students enrolled it. My third year psch class had 150 students in it. The point I’m trying to make here is that same one you are addressing. The macro educational environment is designed not as a student-centered learning experience but as a mass production factory. In junior high school I remember being called to general assemblies. Guest speakers were corporate engineers from the big automobile companies. They “challenged” the students to design model automobiles -not the mechanics but the shapes- and submit these for judging and, if yours happened to be sufficiently eye-catching, you got some cheap trinket as a reward, a pat on the back, and, maybe a few hundred bucks towards a college scholarship. Meanwhile the corporations got hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas for future models. So students’ imaginations were explointed for big business’ purposes…they made millions, but the ‘students’ learned nothing. Forunately, I had a brilliant mother who loved to take her kids for walks in the woods and show and tell them about plants, animals, encourage them to turn over rocks in the creek, pick up crayfish and explain what they were all about. She insisted we collect leaves and bark and put them carefully on wax paper between sheets of cardboard and bind them up with strips of inner tubes. Later, we’d open these albums and examine the dried contents. Mother would point out the veins of leaves and shows us books that explained what kind of plants they were, how they breathed and lived. When I was older I was sent to summer YMCA camp. There, too, organization and discipline were practiced and creative actions and thinking were carefully controlled through courses in craftmanship. We’d be encouraged to whittle small boats out of softwoods to float on the pond. It must have been when I was in the 7th grade at one of the family “Y” camps that my mother volunteered that I should take a group of younger kids on short outings in the surrounding woods and streams for a couple of yours. Taking a cue from her, I led them into a nearby stream and had them turn over rocks to find bugs and crayfish and told them what I knew about the squirming finds. The adventure was a total success and I was asked to lead small groups of kids into the streams every year after that. Mother also had a penchant for making things in the kitchen and encouraging us kids to help her mix cookie dough, boil up berries for jam, prepare beans and peaches for putting in jars that we opened in the depths of winter and ate with great gusto.
The point I’m making that mother was a nurturer and a teacher. Later on, after I had dropped out of my university studies to visit and travel in Europe, I set myself educational goals such as visiting the Prado museum in Madrid, the British Museum in London and spent time picking apples in Danish orchards in grapes in French vineyards. When I returned home from thes educational adventures, I would update a world map fastened to my bedroom wall highligting my travels. As my web of places traveled to grew, my longing for more increased. I had left for Europe at the end of my second year of pre-medical studies. I returned several months later but with new goals for my formal education. Returning to academic life proved boring beyond my tolerance and by the end of the school year, I had applied to and been accepted into the Peace Corps. By September of that year (1963) I was ‘at post’ in rural Nepal sans university degree. But I had committed to life of continuing education. Completing a formal education, for the sake of getting a college degree, did happen eventually, but not until much later on in my life. So what is the lesson learned. I think it is that each individual’s learning experience is unique and deserves to be treated as such. Forcing kids into a mass education experience merely produces the results you, me and hosts of other educaters are now fighting against. In my career, I also taught formally in institutions. I was an Outward Bound Instructor in the US. I taught English to Chinese students in Taiwan and to Thai students in southern Thailand. I taught physical education in Taiwan and Nepal. I taught computer software to senior physicians in Turkmenistan and to pharmacists in Laos. I taught medical warehouse management skills to Afghan pharmacists. I am teacing Nepali students how to recycle waste into useful products. I am still teaching Lao medical personnel how to manage sensitive pharmaceutical products and properlty run supply chains that extend to primary health care centers.
The fact that I could do what I do today I trace back to the sensitiveness of a creative teaher (mother) at an early age who taught me, above everything else, the value of self-exploration and that to satisfy one’s natural curiousity was really what education is all about. Of course education has to be a guided experience. Sometimes the process is referred to as coaching or mentoring. Whatever it is, it should not feature authoritarianism as its glue.
Dear Peter, Great initiative for education reform ! I recall my childhood when I loved games and activities. I liked flexibility and freedom of choice. I liked diversity in unity. School should let a child choose what she/he wants to learn and start thinking about who she/he wants to be. The education should give a child informed choice so that she/he will learn with joy. Can education reform accommodate all the needs of each one of the child? Yes! I know it is a challenge but we-adult/parents must overcome !
Congratulations! It has been a real thought-provoking thrust to reform the classroom’s teaching-learning behaviour, leading towards a condition in which students would have real understanding rather than knowing about what they learned. As you mentioned, thinking process and problem-solving capacity through knowledge management would be most critical in developing deep understanding by students. This can also be applied not only to the classroom at schools, but also very valid for other trainings at work as we are also facing with the same problem of just knowing the subject and understanding its essence and applying in problem-solving.
I have pennyworth idea at this point as I was thinking of my childhood experience of learning at school. The questions that came into my mind was what is the difference in the classroom situation of our generation and current generation. We had no calculators, no computers, no cellphones, not may electrical devices and so we had to use our brain of mind mathematics, we had to calculate manually, we had to use our brain for solving any problem, etc, which may lead to keep our brain working and alert. It doesn’t mean that all the modern electrical devices have to be taken away from students, but it could be useful if we can use modern teaching aids with some brain games or brainstorming exercises. As a very simple example, I used to play english hangman games while my nephew and nieces love to play cyber war and car racing on computer. When they were asked to do some mathematics, they will firstly find a calculator and I will quickly do mind calculation. The sole message I am trying to give here is to see this teaching-learning climate as part of social system and not just a problem at school. More later and I wish you all success. Great Job!
Hello Peter, you have bitten off a big chunk! Congratulations. There is nothing like a big challenge to keep the heart beating! I have seen Thai classrooms, enough to know that the system is ingrained deeply in all the players –administrators, teachers, students, families and communities. Top-down cultural reform … hmmmm. My first thought is, find your Gautama, your Socrates, your Rumi, and get him or her — more than one if you can — in front of a classroom, stock it with hungry students, and film, film, film. First the example that touches, then the assault on the castle of policy. I went to the websites and I saw Escuela Nueva and Ashoka and School for life. The differences are not in the pictures; what would convince, would be the question. My guess would be, first film, then workshops led by the teachers (accompanied by students) who have made this work. Years ago I knew a couple who were both 1950′s graduates of Summerhill. They did wonderful work. They were highly influential and creative people, but they were still on the outside, even in the early 80′s. They had disciples but no policy makers in train, and no apparent toehold on educational authorities or practice in the Great Britain of the early ’80′s. But teacher to teacher they were having an effect. I think the missing piece was community organization. To send your most persuasive and effective teachers to do community organization — that could make a difference. And for the students: dialogues, journals, poems, dramatic performances, not grades and rankings. Really lighting the lamp inside each, that would be my thought. I did student-centered learning in the inner city here for fifteen years. It worked; I can see the difference in the students. In the administrators, in my colleagues: not so much. Better luck to you, Peter, and Godspeed. Well, a few thoughts.