The one skill a 21st century teacher needs above all others

As a primary school teacher in Nakhon Pathom province for the past five years, Ms. Wipaporn Deeseng knows how the Thai education system tames the curiosity of students and slows their development at an early age. After delivering lesson-after-lesson to rows of silent boys and girls, she realized a startling fact: Thai students are afraid to speak up and risk looking foolish.

“Students are scared of teachers because schools still use old ways of teaching in which the teacher is always right and cannot be questioned,” explains Ms. Wipaporn. “Students become scared to lose face in front of the class if they do not memorize what the teacher tells them. When you learn this way, students gain limited skills in thinking, analyzing, and presenting information; the only skill they have is memorizing.”

This old-fashioned style of teaching has real effects on students’ 21st century skills, and the effects aren’t good. For example, Thai students placed 54th out of 70 countries on the math and science sections of 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international exam that measures students’ critical thinking and real-world problem solving skills.

The Skills of Tomorrow Must be Developed Today

Knowledge is boundless – think about all we’ve learned about mars from peering into a telescope 225,000,000 kilometers away, and then imagine how much more is waiting to be discovered when we finally get there. And that’s only one planet in one solar system in one galaxy!

Thai kids, like all youngsters, are curious – they want to learn, ask questions, and uncover the secrets of our world and beyond. And yet, Thai schools remain stubbornly attached to a rote memorization-based learning system that puts walls around students’ creativity and curiosity. Asking questions is a no-no; the textbook contains all knowledge on a topic, rather than serving as a launching pad for further exploration. These schools, in other words, bind the boundless.

Memorization is no longer a key skill that Thai kids, the future of our nation, should spend time developing; computers, after all, can sort through more data in a millisecond than a person can in a lifetime. To succeed in the modern world, Thai kids need to develop 21st century “smart” skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving, among others, as well as learn to apply science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) knowledge to real-world situations.

If Thai kids don’t develop these skills now, then what opportunities will be available for them tomorrow?

Mastering the Formula to Energize Students

Like students, teachers should always be learning and growing. Ms. Wipaporn’s own hunger to learn led her to join Kenan’s professional development program, where she discovered how to awaken her students’ curiosity that had been lost in a deep sleep like a bear in winter and deploy the key skill of inspiring students in order to make them hungry for knowledge.

Kenan’s program showed her how to use high-impact teaching practices, such as inquiry and project-based learning, which put students in the driver’s seat. Rather than asking students to memorize the definition of a concept, high-impact practices actively engage students in the learning process.

For example, to help students learn about energy currents, a teacher may give a short overview of the topic and then asks students to build a toy car that is fueled by a solar panel. The students work in teams to develop hypotheses and apply creativity as they design a car from a hodgepodge of materials. And, of course, students discover how to use light from the sun as an energy source to jump start their current and propel their car forward.

Assignments grounded in high-impact practices are powerful learning tools because they integrate content from across the STEM spectrum and build students’ “smart” skills. Students have fun along the way, leaving them hungry to learn more when they exit the classroom.

Through Kenan’s training and mentorship, Ms. Wipaporn has come to realize that good teachers spark students’ curious nature and empower them to use their knowledge and creativity to solve real-world problems. Good teachers act as mentors who guide and support students, not like generals barking commands. Many ideas students develop are bound to fail, and that’s okay; it’s the teacher’s job to help students overcome obstacles and turn failure into a valuable learning opportunity.

Spreading the Tools that Will Empower our Future

Like birds set free from their cage, Ms. Wipaporn has seen her students soar to new heights since she began using these high-impact practices. Now Ms. Wipaporn has become one of Kenan’s master teachers who helps her colleagues adopt these practices to drive education reform and inspire students about the wonders of learning.

Although Ms. Wipaporn has called the effectiveness of memorization-based learning into question, her faith in the potential of Thai students never waned. She recognizes that students learn differently today than in the past. They understand how to use technology to find answers on their own. If teachers cannot engage them in lessons and inspire them to learn and ask questions, then they will tune out in the classroom.

“Thai kids are hungry for ideas. But they appear uninterested when teachers act superior or tell them that their ideas are impossible,” says Ms. Wipaporn. “Obviously, in our culture, we follow our elders, and so it is really important for teachers to communicate in a way that inspires students and makes them comfortable to think freely.”

Ms. Wipaporn likes to remind her colleagues that “our students are the future of Thailand. If we develop great students, then we will also see our country blossom.”

Great teachers inspire students and launch their journey to a 21st century career. Donate now to help teachers so Thai kids can achieve their dreams.

Kenan Asia

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