Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some 15 million Thai students will be out of school until at least July. That means students could go without any schooling for upwards of one-third of the year. While the Ministry of Education intends to cancel future holidays to make up the difference, such a long absence will surely affect students. When the time comes, Thailand – its government, private sector, and civil society – will need to act fast and boldly to minimize the damage to students, or else the fallout from COVID-19 will reach far into the future.
Undoubtedly, COVID-19 is a public health crisis first, and governments should listen to doctors and public health experts and take the actions necessary to protect citizens. Disruption to education systems around the world, however, are among the most serious second-order effects of the pandemic. We at Kenan Foundation Asia have identified three potential consequences in Thai education stemming from the pandemic that will need to be addressed.
1) Widening Educational Inequality – It’s no secret that inequality is an issue in Thailand. The gap between the haves and have-nots extends into the education system. While students at wealthy international schools and prestigious public schools in Bangkok will likely have the e-learning tools necessary to turn the COVID disruption into nothing more than a minor speed bump, their peers in the provinces won’t be so lucky. Many Thai students, after all, do not own laptops replete with state-of-the-art video conferencing software.
Worse yet, the parents of underprivileged students work disproportionately in “essential” jobs, or low-wage jobs that will likely be among the first eliminated if businesses move to cut costs. Given the precarious situation, these parents neither have the time to fill in as their child’s temporary teacher nor the financial resources to afford outside support.
The longer the pandemic lasts, the wider educational inequality will become in Thailand.
2) Reinforcing Ineffective Teaching Practices – All countries need to accept that things may not return to normal as quickly as they hope and plan accordingly. In education, that means policymakers need to consider remote learning options when in-person instruction may not be possible. Unfortunately, Thailand is unprepared to deliver e-learning effectively at scale. Few Thai teachers have received training on using technology for remote learning, and many students, especially in rural areas, lack the technology necessary to enable equitable e-learning. Although the Ministry of Education is considering the distribution of tablets to educators and students in need, this solution is only a step towards providing quality education to all students.
The problem with distributing tablets in isolation is that it may serve to reinforce bad teaching practices like rote learning. If teachers have neither training nor experience in leading online classrooms, then they tend to fall back on outdated, one-way teaching practices. For example, a lesson may consist of an hour-long lecture that offers students little to no opportunity to engage actively with the materials. This type of learning is not only dull, it’s also ineffective.
3) Poor Teacher Support – We all know teachers are among the unsung heroes of our communities – underpaid yet contributing immensely to our overall wellbeing. The pandemic could exacerbate the insufficient support that society provides to teachers if we are not vigilant. For example, a sudden shift to online learning without direction from school leaders is likely to lead to teachers feeling alienated, confused, and powerless. You cannot simply hand a teacher a laptop and say, ‘teach chemistry.’ We have to understand that COVID-19 changes the way teachers deliver lessons, assess student learning, help struggling students, and so on. To put it simply, we need to rethink how we support our teachers.
An Opportunity for Change
With disruption comes opportunity. An outdated, memorization-based education model has constrained the development of Thai students for decades. COVID-19 positions Thai education at a fork in the road. We can choose to either stay the traditional course or embrace 21st-century learning. If we want the latter, the first leap into the future will be empowering each teacher to become an oasis of high-impact learning.
To take that bold step, Thailand must support teachers by providing them with the training, learning materials, and technology necessary to deliver 21st-century education effectively. Teachers themselves will need to become students to adapt to the new paradigm of blended learning (the combination of online and classroom instruction), and, most importantly, master high-impact teaching practices, such as inquiry and project-based learning, that enable students to engage actively with materials, ask questions, and find their own solutions to problems. This hands-on approach is the key to developing students with the 21st-century skills that Thailand urgently needs to drive the country forward.
Is this even possible? At Kenan, we know we can do it. We’ve seen amazing results in Thai schools, when teachers have had the opportunity to join our 21st-century professional development program.
COVID-19 is a tragedy on many levels, and we cannot afford to allow today’s nightmare to cause us to lose hope. Instead, let’s use the current situation as an opportunity to reimagine Thai education so that Thai students can lead us to a better future.
What are your thoughts on how to drive education forward in the time of COVID?
To learn about our work to support Thai teachers, please visit www.kenan-asia.org/teacher-professional-development