Helping teachers in Thailand teach inquiry-based learning and critical thinking

[:en]In my last blog I noted the rising concerns about the problems the Thai education system has had in producing students who know how to learn and think for themselves. Low scores on national examinations have shown that the system is failing many students. More importantly, the graduates of the Thai system, albeit with notable exceptions, typically have few of the critical thinking, teamwork, analytical and communication skills needed to be competitive in the global economy.

How can we change the system so that it helps students develop these needed skills?

My own experience, as a teacher in the Thai educational system and much later as supervisor of various educational projects of the Kenan Foundation Asia, has shown me that the answers to this question are complex and difficult.

Money is almost always a factor in development problems, but it is not the amount of money spent on education, but the way it is spent in Thailand that is the issue. Thailand spends about 20% of its national budget on education – more than many countries. In terms of GDP, Thailand spends about 4% of GDP on education – compared to 3.1% in Singapore, for example. Unfortunately, much of the money goes into a large, centralized bureaucracy, physical plant and a large number of one-off initiatives that often have little long-term impact in addressing core educational problems and sometimes distract education officials from their main tasks.

Teachers, the most important factor in an effective educational system, are paid so little that the many of the most competent leave the classroom to find other jobs (or never go into education in the first place). This is particularly true for those with skills in areas such as science, math and English that are valued by the private sector. But lack of money is only part of the problem; lack of accountability may be more significant. Systems need to be implemented to hold people at various levels in the educational system accountable for the outcome of their efforts. This means significant changes in management, motivation and methodology, whether for school managers, teachers or ministry officials.

We have found that most school managers rarely visit the classroom so they have little idea how well or how poorly their teachers are teaching. The promotion system is focused on seniority and paper degrees; it does little to reward effective teaching.

Teachers are often forced to teach subjects outside of their area of expertise. Particularly in small, rural schools, many science and English teachers have their degrees unrelated subjects. In a recent training of science teachers run by K.I.Asia, we were surprised to find that more than a third of the science teachers had majored in physical education.

In its latest assessment of school quality, the Ministry of Education reported that 4,885 primary schools failed to meet even the ministry’s minimum standards of quality. Most of these were small schools in outlying areas. But even larger urban schools have been slow to adopt teaching methodologies that lead to higher level learning.

It must be recognized that it is not easy to switch from a system based on a teacher lecturing and students taking notes to a system that encourages questions, thinking and real learning. First of all, most teachers have never experienced this kind of teaching themselves. This kind of teaching is rarely used in the teaching of teachers. The materials and equipment available to classroom teachers are often inadequate for inquiry-based or experience-based learning. Class sizes often are so large that there is no time for teachers to give students the individual attention that is often needed in learning to ask questions and think critically. Teaching methodologies that work for 30 students in a class simply break down when class sizes reach 50 or more. Teachers’ time is further reduced by a host of bureaucratic requirements, special projects, sports days and other events that often take priority over classroom learning.

Given these obstacles, it is clear that changing teaching styles in the classroom requires a multi-faceted and long-term approach. The typical two-day training course on new methodologies is insufficient to do anything other than make teachers even more dissatisfied with their own teaching and more frustrated that they unable to change.

K.I.Asia is involved with two projects that seek to make such change possible.

The first is a long-term project funded by MSD Thailand to support inquiry-based science teaching in Phang-nga province. Called MSD IN-STEP, this project has involved not just the training of teachers in a better methodology, but the training of school managers, educational supervisors and mentor-teachers. All of these people must work together to support the inquiry-based methodology that was adapted from work in the United States by the Merck Institute for Science Education and the Teachers College at Columbia University. Responding to the practical needs in the Thai classroom, the project includes development of new science teaching modules with inquiry-based materials and learning media. To save teachers preparation time, lab boys and girls are trained to set up experiments. To help teachers who struggle with the new methodology, a mentoring system has been established to allow teachers to help one another.

Although it is still early, a positive correlation has been found between student time in the inquiry-based system and standard Thai examination scores even though the Thai exam does not effectively test students’ ability to use the scientific methods to solve problems or pursue inquiries.

These positive results have encouraged the Ministry of Education and the Institute for the Promotion of Science and Technology Teaching (IPST) to expand the IN-STEP approach to seven more provinces and to extend it to include new math teaching methodologies. The project brings in expert advice from the Columbia Teachers’ College and the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This second project, dubbed “UPGRADE” seeks to strengthen the capacity of science and mathematics teachers through stakeholder engagement, policy advocacy, well-designed instructional media and tools, professional development for teacher trainers, mentors and principals. It also includes non-formal education activities to increase awareness of best practices in mathematical and science education.

Despite initial successes, it is not at all clear whether these programs will succeed in changing the Thai education system.

Will they be given the time and institutional support needed to demonstrate effectiveness? Will they lead to needed changes in the national examinations? Can they be scaled up to the national level? Will the new methodologies be taught at the teacher training institutions – particularly the Rajabhat Institutes, which are not under the authority of OBEC? Will future governments provide the budgets needed to fund the educational materials needed? Even more important, will future government leaders provide the money and policies to attract and reward competent teachers? Will school managers become better able to identify and promote the most competent teachers? Will schools succeed in building mentoring and teacher networking mechanisms? Can resources from local government and the private sector be better mobilized?

These are difficult questions, but unless they can be answered effectively, the disappointing exam results this year will become an annual occurrence and the harbinger of a stagnating economy.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the tough questions facing Thai education and the efforts to find answers.[:]

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