Op Ed Opinion:Thai education

Public Education at Risk, A Nation at Risk


by Peter J. Foley                 July 2011

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.


The Problem

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

  1. 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.”

(Section 24, National Education Act of 1999)