It’s still dark outside when I pull up to the domestic terminal at Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok. It’s a Monday morning and I am booked on the 5:50am flight to Khon Kaen to witness something special: students taking a test.
Admittedly, this may not be what would get some out of bed at 4:00am. But Khon Kaen is no ordinary province and this is no ordinary test.
Khon Kaen is home to nearly 150 of the 660 schools participating in the Chevron Enjoy Science Project, on which Kenan Foundation Asia is the lead implementing partner. And the test, known as TEDET – Thailand Educational Development and Evaluation Test – is an important tool developed to help assess students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In a country where rote learning remains a dominant method of teaching and learning, this test – and the way its data will be used – is a substantial step and commitment towards delivering a 21st century education.
TEDET is worth the flight.
After landing, I drive about 30 minutes and the city’s wide thoroughfares and array of factory warehouses quickly give way to green pastures and grazing wildlife. I turn off a long stretch of road and into Pisarnpunnawittaya Secondary School. It’s now almost 8:00am and a group of students are playing bocce ball in a gravel courtyard in front of the school, where I meet Dr. Wannapa Somta, a 10+ year veteran educator and current education area supervisor for Khon Kaen. We head up the concrete stairs to meet a group of five teachers who are gathered for a pre-test strategy session.
It’s the beginning of the semester here, and the teachers are clustered inside a room with a wall of purple curtains that block out the shining morning sun.
“They might not get this question,” says Mr. Wutthipong “Toto” Duangarsong, a math teacher, gesturing to a bar graph accompanied by text. He explains that reading comprehension and interpretation skills are often critical to understanding math questions on tests like TEDET, which his students are slated to take in a few hours’ time.
TEDET & PLCs
Chevron, Kenan Foundation Asia, and the Teachers’ Council of Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in May 2019 to collaboratively scale and sustain Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), a platform which brings teachers together to share methods and observe model lessons from their peers in schools. This is at the heart of a move towards a more interactive, inquiry-based model of teaching and learning.
While students are more than data points, TEDET does offer teachers meaningful insights on what students know, providing crucial data that teachers can use to better understand how to improve teaching and learning. When teachers start with a new class, explains Toto, they rarely have any information about the students’ level of knowledge; TEDET gives them that educational background.
TEDET and PLCs work in tandem, with TEDET providing valuable inputs on students’ level of knowledge and PLCs creating a powerful mechanism for teachers to address gaps identified on TEDET.
Left: a student takes the TEDET test. Right: Ms. Paweena Phosri instructs her science class that the TEDET is a pre-test and will not count towards their grade.
This is the first time Pisarn School is using TEDET and the PLC model together. As I sit and watch Toto and his colleagues collaborate, the aspirational spirit for improvement among the faculty is evident.
“The PLC establishes a culture of systematic learning,” says Principal Winai Roomchimpree. “When teachers teach each other, new skills develop.”
PLC teacher networks have flourished under the Enjoy Science Project, which recognizes that in the 21st century educational landscape the ability to interpret open-ended questions and engage critically with STEM concepts are increasingly essential skillsets in the knowledge economy.
Pisarn is a good lens through which to view the effectiveness of this new model of data-driven program enhancement. With the combination of TEDET’s evaluation technique (which is being rolled out in over a dozen select schools across the country) and the follow up with PLC workshops, Pisarn is poised for a transformation.
Dr. Wannapa Somta, an Educational Area Supervisor in Khon Kaen, seated here outside Pisarnpunnawittaya School.
A New Kind of Test
Dr. Wannapa walks us around the school campus, past a chicken coop and explains that Pisarn School enrolls around 300 students, the majority of whom come from low-income families that cannot afford the more expensive schools closer to the city center. Some students struggle with basic literacy.
We climb up to the third floor of Pisarn’s lower secondary school and drop in on a class in-session. Science teacher Paweena Phosri, affectionately known to her students as “Na”, explains to her students that it is only a pre-test and won’t affect their grades.
“Try your best and don’t worry if you don’t know the answer,” says Na, while passing out green scantron papers to students shuffling into seats and looking around expectantly.
Downstairs on the second floor, Toto circulates around his math classroom, answering students’ questions about the test. (They have many).
“That’s good,” Toto says, “because it shows they’re trying to work through the problem.”
It’s no wonder he was selected to be a model teacher. Later this week, Toto will host a group of teachers in his class to observe his teaching method as part of an “open class” PLC. He says he’s a bit nervous but also excited to share his lessons and ideas with other teachers.
Over the next month, all the teachers at Pisarn will participate in a series of these open classroom observations, where they can share instructional techniques, as well as insights gleaned from the TEDET data. Then in January, after the PLCs, the students will take a post-test that will seek to provide evidence of program impact. I remain hesitant – even skeptical – that dramatic change in educational outcomes will occur in a few months’ time. But I’m hoping to be proven wrong.
Regardless of the exam results, the importance for me lies in the broader processes of reflection, sharing, exchange and the strong commitment to a spirit of improvement amongst the faculty at Pisarn.
Bright White Uniforms
The other strength of the TEDET is introducing the students to more subjective content that requires creative problem solving. The new material will give students and teachers a goal to strive for.
“The students need more background and terminology,” says Mr. Jeerawat “Tong” Lanwong, a math teacher. “They’re used to objective, multiple choice tests. They can get stuck when there’s no traditional form.”
Outside Na’s science class we catch up with some students who say they enjoy doing experiments and like the hands-on aspect of working with chemical solutions. An eighth grader named Fuji tells us she would even like to design her own science experiments.
As it happens, just across the courtyard, students in Ms. Chanoknat “Ying” Prasomthong’s science class are doing just that.
Dr. Wannapa and I duck our heads into Ying’s class, where she is explaining that the students need to find a formula for a solution that will remove a stain from a shirt (a useful lesson for students who wear bright white uniforms every day). It’s the kind of creative thinking that will serve them well on the TEDET post-test and, more importantly, in their daily life.
At the end of the day, we join Tong, Toto, Na, and the other teachers to share how each class responded to the TEDET. I ask Na what she thinks about TEDET.
“It’s challenging but it gives me motivation to teach differently,” she says.
Tong shares her optimism.
“I believe my students can succeed on this test,” says Tong, leafing through the questions. “I just need to design the right program with my PLC.”
By Dr. Ara Barsam, Chief of Party, Chevron Enjoy Science Project
Stay tuned for Part Two of this four part series where I will visit a Professional Learning Community at Pisarn and eat some authentic som tam (spicy papaya salad) in Khon Kaen. Photos promised!