Thai Teacher Didn’t Think a New Approach to STEM Education Would Work. She was in for a Big Surprise.
Even after two decades in the classroom, Ms. Sumonta Aimaek knew she could become a better teacher. The question was how. She had participated in a handful of different professional development (PD) programs over the years and become accustomed to seeing the same old information recited again and again. When she was invited to yet another PD program in 2016, she assumed it would be more of the same and that it wouldn’t bring any real benefits to herself or her students.
It’s logical why Sumonta questioned the value of joining Kenan’s professional developed program for teachers. After all, she had been teaching since 1995 and had done well, rising to the rank of Head of Science at Tessaban 5 School in Songkhla. Still, the provincial education administration requested that she go, and she reluctantly agreed.
As soon as she stepped inside Kenan’s workshop, she sensed that something was different. In most teacher training in Thailand, participants fill large lecture halls, where they sit passively watching presentations for hours and hours.
“We didn’t just listen to the instructor,” Sumonta recalls from her first experience with Kenan’s unique program for 7th-9th grade science teachers. “We did the activities ourselves, which helped us understand how to use the new teaching techniques.”
In other words, Kenan puts teachers into the shoes of students. The teachers don’t merely learn the theory behind a technique, they experience the technique’s power firsthand by doing the same activities they will have their students do.
These techniques, moreover, are grounded in inquiry-based learning, an approach that rejects rote memorization in favor of active, hands-on learning. When teachers become effective at wielding inquiry-based practices, their students think deeply about key concepts, learn how to connect concepts to the real world, and grow 21st century skills, such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication. The approach is particularly relevant to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and has proven to increase student engagement, interest, and achievement.
After leaving the workshop, an inspired Sumonta couldn’t wait to test the new approach with her students. But when she tried it for the first time, she encountered an unanticipated problem.
“The obstacle when teachers first use the inquiry-based learning techniques is that students are used to old-school teaching,” explains Sumonta. “My students always said ‘Teacher, if you want us to know something, just tell us.’”
Breaking habits is difficult, not only for teachers but for students too. Rote memorization has been the preferred mode of education in Thailand since the dawn of formal schooling. It’s the way teachers learned when they were students, and the only thing current students have ever experienced.
Knowing that this transition takes time, Kenan’s professional development program doesn’t stop when the training door shuts – it also provides teachers with on-going mentorship support through professional learning communities (PLCs), where teachers receive guidance from Kenan’s network of master teachers and mentors who have successfully made the transition from rote to inquiry-based learning themselves, while helping dozens of their colleagues do the same. The combination of training, mentoring, and equipment provided by Kenan enabled Sumonta to overcome her doubts and grow comfortable using the inquiry-based practices, improving her skills, and helping her students gain confidence in their own ability to perform hands-on experiments.
“When I began the program, I wasn’t sure if the approach would work or not. But now I know it works and is really beneficial to my students,” Sumonta says.
As her students became accustomed to Sumonta’s new teaching practices, they stopped pleading with her to ‘just tell me’ the answer. Now her classroom is a paragon of scientific exploration, where students enter and come away with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in the 21st century.
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