If Thai students were stacked up against other students from around the world in terms of their knowledge of science and math, how do you think they’d fare? Well, every three years we get an answer to that question as Thai students join their peers from 78 other countries and economies for the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an exam designed to evaluate how well education systems are preparing their students for success in modern society.
As you may have guessed, Thailand never performs particularly well. In fact, Thailand’s education ranking has remained consistently poor since the country began participating in the triennial assessment in 2000 – always ranking in the bottom half on each subject. In the 2018 results, released in December 2019, Thailand ranked 57th in math and 53rd in science, out of the 78 participants (54th and 54th in 2015).
While the raw scores grab headlines, we can actually glean more meaningful information by digging deeper into the data, including the student and school leader surveys that accompany the assessment. In my recent deep dive into the OECD’s exhaustive report, I came across some interesting findings about problems, positives, and areas for improvement within Thailand’s education system.
The good news:
1) Girls rule – While it’s no secret that women are underrepresented in STEM fields internationally, Thailand serves as a positive outlier. It’s one of the few countries where women make up the majority of researchers (51%) in the areas of science, technology, and innovation, according to UNESCO. The PISA results suggest that the comparatively high proportion of women in STEM fields is likely to continue because Thai girls outperformed boys by a whopping 20 points and 16 points on science and math, respectively, whereas the OECD average scores for boys and girls were within 5 points of each other in both subjects.
2) Disadvantaged Thai students have talent too – The OECD defines academically resilient students as those in the “bottom quarter of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) in their own country/economy but who score in the top quarter of reading in that country/economy.” In Thailand, 13% of disadvantaged students achieved resilient status, besting the OECD average of 11%.
While the OECD only evaluated this attribute on reading, it underscores what I have seen from Kenan’s STEM education work in hundreds of disadvantaged schools across Thailand. When teachers are well trained on high-impact practices, like inquiry-based learning and enhanced project-based learning (E-PBL), and receive quality mentorship and materials, their students, regardless of background, show demonstrable improvements in the classroom. Take the example of Nopparat, a middle schooler who started to realize her talent for science only after her teachers joined a Kenan program and began using practices fit for the 21st century.
The bad news:
3) Shortage of top performers in math and science – When you only look at top performers, you find that Thailand faces a severe shortage of students that are highly proficient in math and science, i.e. capable of solving complex or abstract problems without explicit directions.
In math, only 2% of Thai students attained high proficiency, which is significantly fewer than other Asian countries such as China (44%), Singapore (37%), and South Korea (21%). Similarly, 1 out of 100 Thai students were highly proficient in science, a shocking ratio well below neighbors like China (1 in 3 students) and Singapore (1 in 5 students). To drive Thailand 4.0, the country urgently needs more highly skilled STEM professionals; the PISA results suggest that Thailand has a long way to go in developing enough top-notch STEM graduates.
4) Thai students need encouragement –The PISA surveys indicate that students lack confidence in their own abilities and the motivation to become lifelong learners. For example, only 43% of Thai students expressed a “growth mindset,” far below the OECD average of 63%. This means that a majority of Thai students believe that their “intelligence is something that can’t change very much.” We talk a lot about improving teacher professional development and bringing world-class materials and curriculums to Thailand; however, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of providing inspiration and encouragement to students. I wonder how many more quality scientists and engineers Thailand would produce if students had as much confidence in themselves as I have in them?
5) Low ambition is a big issue among disadvantaged students – Piggybacking off the previous point, there’s a massive difference in the ambitions between students from disadvantage backgrounds and their more advantaged peers, even when you adjust for achievement. For example, 1 in 6 high-achieving Thai students of disadvantaged backgrounds do NOT expect to complete tertiary education compared to just 1 in 100 high-achieving advantaged students.
This is an issue that Kenan takes seriously and is actively working to address by delivering Innovation Camps to disadvantaged students across Thailand. These camps help students deepen their STEM knowledge, learn about exciting STEM careers, and realize that they are capable learners who should continue developing their knowledge in higher levels of education.
Overall, the most recent PISA results reinforce something everyone knows – Thailand needs to improve its education system. At the same time, Thailand can find encouragement from other countries that have improved their results in short periods. For example, countries as diverse as Poland and Malaysia made significant jumps between 2015 to 2018, dispelling the sticky myth that education systems cannot change. With smarter investments, a focus on developing quality teachers, and encouragement for students, education in Thailand can indeed improve.