Reports that Thai students performed poorly on the latest national exams have re-ignited concerns that the education system, despite numerous efforts at reform, is still failing to teach students to think. This failure undermines Thailand’s effort to provide the higher value-added services and products that will enable Thais to achieve higher incomes, more satisfying jobs and a higher quality of life. To achieve these goals, Thais have to produce more intellectual property, compete effectively in global markets and become more innovative.
The latest scores on the Ordinary National Educational Test (O-NET) indicate that things are getting worse instead of better. Average scores for all eight O-NET subjects were less than 50% and scores in the subjects that are arguably the most important for Thailand’s competitiveness were particularly poor. The average score for mathematics was less than 15%; the score for English was 42.6%; and the tally for science was 30.9%. The problem is that it is unclear what to make of these numbers, or, indeed, whether they have any meaning.
OBEC Deputy Secretary-General Somkiat Chobphol partly blamed the low O-NET scores on exam questions that were mismatched to what students were taught. The fact that scores went down compared to previous years may indicate that something was different about this year’s test rather than a sudden dip in student learning. In addition, ONET needs to be put in a clear and useful context to enable it to behelpful in making educational improvements and tracking their impacts. This context should make explicit each year how the text compares to the previous year, how it relates to different elements in the curriculum, whether it is meant to have any ability to predict future performance and what thinking skills (if any) it is meant to measure. Such improvements would be helpful as feedback to teachers to show what areas of the curriculum need more time, what teaching methods are working (or not working) and what thinking skills are being learned (or not). Of particular importance is the need to reformulate the test to enable it to help assess students’ ability to reason and apply their knowledge rather than simply regurgitate memorized information. Testing these abilities would provide important motivation for schools to do a better job of teaching them.
Business leaders routinely complain that Thai students are poorly equipped with tools essential to competing in the global economy – critical thinking, working in teams, asking the right questions, finding new information, analyzing that information and communicating the results. Research and development lags because the Thai education system produces two few scientists with the skills for ground-breaking research and does tool little to encourage and support those that have those skills.
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej recognized the need for an education system that helped students learn to think, not just memorize, more than 50 years ago. “Learning to think in an orderly or goal-oriented way is a much needed skill these days. If you cannot think, you cannot develop,” the King said in a speech in 1955. His calls for education that encourages reasoning skills have been repeated many times since then, but the Thai education system has struggled to achieve this critical capability.
Recent education reforms have all noted the need to move away from rote memorization. Education Minister Chinnaworn Boonyakiat, commenting on three years of falling scores and a widening gap with the education provided by Thailand’s economic competitors, correctly identified the problem as unchanged teaching styles that focus on memorization rather than understanding. This insight has driven high-level policy statements since the 1990s.
If the problem is well understood, why hasn’t top-level understanding of the need for change made any difference in the classroom?
I’ll look at this question and the role of the Kenan Foundation Asia in seeking answers in my next blog, but in the meantime, I welcome your comments and questions.