This commentary is titled “The Heart of the Matter”, this is the name of a famous song made popular by Don Henley, of the Eagles. As so often happens, the melodies of music and the lyrics of songs truly speak to us. What I will focus here, is matter about education, but what I am about to say also brings to my mind the title of that beautiful love song sung so well by Don Henley and many others. Although the song’s theme is different from our mission and this article, its title is truly relevant to the cause of this web site.
The SCLThailand website is dedicated to assisting Thai school administrators and classroom teachers to move more swiftly than has been possibly so far, towards the realization of the goal of student centred learning being the norm in Thai government schools. This goal was established in the Thai National Education Act, 1999 (Buddhist Era, 2542). Interestingly, the Act did not set a date for the massive paradigm shift that it seeks to happen.
Would it have been better to set a date for national implementation of that important goal? That is a question with many pros and cons.
Let us get back to “The Heart of the Matter”. It is now March 2012 [BE 2555], 13 years have passed since the promulgation of the Act. I wrote in a previous article [January 2012] about the need for education reformers to recognise that change is a slow process, this is certainly being borne out by the slow pace of change in implementing the move to student centred learning in Thailand.
Perhaps a symptom or sign of the lack of progress is the entrenched nature of the examination system in Thai schools. Each year, in mid March, students are very busy studying for end of year exams. On the face of it, this seems quite reasonable, but a few questions come up. Exactly which students are preparing for exams? Answer: From primary school students as young as 6 years old in Primary 1 [Prathom 1] up to Year 12 in secondary [Matayom 6].
This leads to further questions. How do young students in Year 1 prepare themselves for these examinations? What is the general content of the examinations? Another significant question to ask is – why is it that children as young as this are subjected to examinations at all? Another important question is – what hangs on the outcomes of the examinations?
I ask these questions in the hope that they will provoke some discussion on this website. The emphasis on examinations runs counter to the way students’ progress would be assessed in a pedagogical system where the student is at the centre of the teaching and learning.
In a student centered system there would be little emphasis on examinations – this may even be true for Thai schools today – the exam is not so important, although I suspect that is not the case.
But what about “The Heart of the Matter”?
Let me come to it quite pointedly, “The Heart of the Matter” in educational terms is this: at the very core of the classroom, the school, the education system, and the nation’s standing in international educational performance rankings, it is the teacher who matters most in students’ learning achievement. There is plenty of research evidence about this. However, this is not the place to quote much of the research evidence. Perhaps the best evidence of the key role of the teacher is to look at the highest performing education systems in Asia and examine the factors which make them such high performing systems.
Four of the world’s highest performing education systems are from Asia. These are Hong Kong, Korea, Shanghai, and Singapore. The OECD’S Performance Indicators of Student Achievement [PISA] assessments in 2009 showed for example, that in Mathematics, 15 year old students from Shanghai performed two or three years above the level of students of the same age in Australia, the USA.
What is it about these four education systems that puts them well above other Asian systems and puts them in the class of world top performers?
The Grattan Institute from Melbourne University in Australia examined the four systems in an endeavour to get an answer to this question. The results of their investigation were published in an important report – Catching Up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia [http://www.grattan.edu.au]
What the Institute found:
There is growing global agreement on what works in schools
A body of international research has identified the common characteristics of high-performing education systems.
• Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. They attend to best practice internationally, give close attention to measuring success, and understand the state and needs of their system.
• Value teachers and understand their profession to be complex. They attract high quality candidates, turn them into effective instructors and build a career structure that rewards good teaching.
• Focus on learning and on building teacher capacity to provide it. Teachers are educated to diagnose the style and progress of a child’s learning. Mentoring, classroom observation and constructive feedback creates more professional, collaborative teachers.
The four high performing East Asian systems are implementing what works. They have introduced one or several of the following reforms.
In particular they:
• Provide high quality initial teacher education. In Singapore, students are paid civil servants during their initial teacher education. In Korea, government evaluations have bite and can close down ineffective teacher education courses.
• Provide mentoring that continually improves learning and teaching. In Shanghai, all teachers have mentors, and new teachers have several mentors who observe and give feedback on their classes.
• View teachers as researchers. In Shanghai teachers belong to research groups that continuously develop and evaluate innovative teaching. They cannot rise to advanced teacher status without having a published paper peer reviewed.
• Use classroom observation. Teachers regularly observe each other’s classes, providing instant feedback to improve each student’s learning.
• Promote effective teachers and give them more responsibility for learning and teaching. Master Teachers are responsible for improving teaching throughout the system.
A few of the keys they took: In Hong Kong the emphasis on examinations was abandoned, in Singapore teacher education courses were re developed so they place a much greater emphasis on practical classroom management and pedagogical methodology accompanied by a reduction in the philosophical and reflective elements of the courses. In Singapore, pre service teachers are paid as government employees. In Shanghai teacher’s class contact hours were reduced so they would have more time to work with mentor teachers.
But the key thing is that in each of these systems government education policy is always linked closely with teachers’ working conditions, professional learning and career pathways.
In future months we will explore these systems more deeply.
I wonder how many of the reforms evident in Singapore Hong Kong Korea and Shanghai, have been considered in Thailand?
Whichever way educational reform is looked at, researched and examined, at the heart of educational improvement, are the teachers. In his book, Why Not the Best Schools? [ACER Press, Camberwell, Australia, 2008] Brian Caldwell devotes a chapter to demonstrate that the quality of schools will never exceed the quality of the staff.
It is in this area, that Thailand needs to make some giant leaps so that its teachers will be trained and supported in such a way that will help the country achieve the goals of the National Education Act of 1999. The Thai system can be as good the four Asian high flyers mentioned here, but my guess is that it needs to look closely at what those systems have done to move educational reform so quickly. Similar things could be done in Thailand.