A Professional Learning Community in Action
The air is brisk as I step outside my hotel and into the Khon Kaen morning. Brisk for Thailand, anyway: it’s about 18 degrees Celsius, a welcome break from Bangkok’s heat. I’ve come back to Khon Kaen for an eagerly anticipated follow up to my last trip a few weeks ago, where I saw teachers piloting the Thailand Educational Development and Evaluation Tests (TEDET), an innovative data-driven tool to better understand students’ learning and enable teachers to tailor lessons to meet students’ learning needs.
Since my previous visit, teachers in Khon Kaen schools have been taking the data from TEDET and putting it into action – analyzing how students learn, customizing their lesson plans, and collaboratively crafting new approaches to improve student achievement.
The locus for all this teamwork is the Professional Learning Community (PLC), a platform which brings teachers together to share methods and observe model lessons from their peers. Enjoy Science has partnered with Kurusapa (the Teachers’ Council of Thailand) to expand and sustain PLC networks across Thailand, including Khon Kaen, where four different schools are now in the midst of PLC activities.
This morning I’m sitting shotgun in a van headed out of the city to see a PLC at Nongnow Prachasan secondary school, about 50 kilometers north of Khon Kaen proper. We rumble over dirt roads, past sugarcane fields and grazing water buffalo.
Finally, from among the tall sugarcane stalks, Nongnow’s expansive campus emerges. We pull into the palm tree-lined entranceway, where I am greeted by Assistant Principal Ms. Suparat Deeying.
Suparat has an interesting connection to PLC networks: she was previously the Principal at Pisarnpunwittaya, the secondary school I wrote about last month that is also piloting the TEDET and implementing the PLC model. She first encountered PLCs at Pisarn, and has been an enthusiastic advocate for them as Assistant Principal here at Nongnow.
Suparat introduces me to 9th grade math teacher Mr. Nakharin Sisuad. Today is the third of four model lessons he will display for his four colleagues from neighboring schools.
The open-classroom PLC process (in which teachers observe a live lesson) they have participated in for the past three weeks, they tell me, has allowed them the unique opportunity to absorb pedagogical strategies first-hand that are often different from their own.
In fact, Nakharin has a system that might strike some as odd or even counterintuitive. He encourages his students to look at their classmates’ answers.
In an educational system where rote learning remains pervasive, Thai students often feel pressure to always get the right answer and may feel embarrassed when they make mistakes. By encouraging them to compare their work, Nakharin hopes to foster an environment where students view peers as resources and where mistakes are part of the journey to discovering knowledge.
Today’s subject is mathematical inequalities, one of the more challenging topics in this unit I’m told. Some might choose a simpler topic for a PLC, but Nakharin is game for a challenge.
His students are clustered into teams of four, each accompanied by a teacher-observer. Pasted up on the board is a sheet of paper with a word problem in large font text. Nakharin begins by asking the students to translate the text into an algebraic equation with numbers and variables.
“Math sentences” like these are quite similar to the types of problems Nakharin’s students encountered last month on the TEDET, which emphasize creative problem-solving and critical thinking.
First, the students work individually. Then, they discuss their answers in teams. Finally, one representative from each group shares to the entire class.
Nakharin doesn’t tell them if their answers are right or wrong. He encourages them to discuss how they arrived at their answers and compare with their friends, gently guiding them towards solutions. He’s a firm believer in allowing multiple pathways to a correct answer, a crucial element of problem-based learning. When two groups agree on the answer, the rest of the class gives a round of applause.
Nakharin outlines the day’s lesson (bottom left). Students work together in groups and share their findings (bottom right).
On our lunch table sits spicy som tam (pictures included, as promised) complete with sticky rice, crunchy fried chicken, grilled pork, and the requisite Coca-Cola to wash it down. Munching on our feast, we exchange platters and pedagogical strategies.
“When I was a teacher, we never got a chance to observe student progress like this,” says Assistant Principal Suparat. Occasionally teachers would drop in on each other’s classes, but there was never a chance to visit another school to learn novel teaching strategies.
Similarly, when she took over at Nongnow last year, she saw an opportunity to expand the Enjoy Science PLC model by initiating focused lesson observations and inviting teachers from nearby schools to collaborate.
“Teachers are eager to talk to each other and propose ideas to their friends and colleagues,” says Suparat, “they just haven’t had the opportunity.”
Next semester, the PLC network will expand to 17 total schools in the Khon Kaen area. Beginning with just one (Pisarn) last semester, that’s an incredible jump forward in a short amount of time. Add to this that 98% of teachers report actively utilizing the knowledge and skills gained from PLCs in the classroom, according to a recent third-party evaluation of Enjoy Science.
Here at Nongnow, the PLC will begin anew next semester and Nakharin will mentor a new model teacher, equipping them with the wisdom and expertise he has acquired throughout this PLC process – and ensuring that the knowledge gained here today will proliferate to more schools, more teachers, and more students yet.
“In the past, not enough attention has been paid to how students learn,” says Suparat. “But when we observe other teachers, students’ struggles – and successes – become more evident.”
As we drive away, back into the sugarcane fields en route to the airport, I’m left with a feeling of confidence that what Enjoy Science has started in schools like Nongnow is truly taking root.
By Dr. Ara Barsam, Chief of Party, Chevron Enjoy Science Project
Stay tuned for next month’s installment, when I will return to Khon Kaen for TEDET post-testing. (I’m also keen to sample some “yum kai dao”, a delicious spicy egg salad dish).
Did you miss part one of this story? Catch up here: www.kenan-asia.org/school-pilots-new-data-driven-tool-help-improve-teaching-learning