Ask five people in Thailand about the education system and you’ll get six opinions. Just about everyone in Thailand has strong thoughts on the Thai education system, and most believe it’s an albatross blocking the path towards Thailand 4.0 and the country’s development more generally. While there is consensus around the need to strengthen the education system – in particular, the need to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, and promote 21st-century skills (communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration), many people have lost hope in fixing a system they believe to be outdated, stubborn to change, and tangled in red tape.
Changing education is hard. I’ve heard any number of creative (and some downright shocking) ideas on how best to address Thailand’s challenges: improving teacher incentives, decentralizing the Thailand Ministry of Education, improving English language instruction, imitating the policies of countries that have the highest PISA scores, revamping the Ordinary National Educational Tests (O-NET), upgrading facilities, and going ‘on-line’ with instructional materials. I’ve also seen a number individuals and companies make well-intentioned investments that ultimately failed to deliver the impact they wanted.
These ideas largely ignore the single most important part of improving the education system: the teachers. No component of an education system has a more direct relationship on student outcomes than teachers. Make no mistake, teachers who are motivated, know how to engage students, and understand how to utilize modern pedagogies will almost always outperform their peers in the classroom, as measured by levels of student engagement and student performance.
That’s why successful models for education reform start with developing quality teachers. To mold a new generation of Thai students with 21st century skills and STEM knowledge, as Thailand 4.0 envisions, teachers must become confident and proficient in using evidenced-based, high-impact teaching pedagogies in the classroom.
Unlike rote memorization, which remains the most common teaching method in Thailand, high-impact teaching practices encourage students to become active learners who can apply content knowledge to real world situations. A great example of a high-impact teaching is inquiry-based science. In an inquiry-based lesson, a teacher presents a question or problem to students; rather than being told the answer, students work in groups to analyze the problem and apply their subject matter knowledge to develop and test hypotheses. The pedagogy may incorporate other learning techniques, but the basic premise is the same: engage students in small group activities, encourage them to think critically, work on problems, and find their own solutions under the guidance of a skilled teacher.
Developing a quality teacher is by no means easy, as they are under tremendous pressure to improve their students’ O-NET scores and have limited time available to cover the content of the Thai curriculum. As such, many use rote-learning methods, like memorizing answers to past O-NET tests, as a crutch to lean on.
Fortunately, with a structured system of professional development, Thai teachers can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to deliver high-impact teaching, like inquiry-based science, which engage students and enhance learning in the classroom. We know that this is the case because an independent, third party evaluation of the Kenan Foundation Asia implemented Chevron Enjoy Science Project has demonstrated impressive results among Thai teachers and students. The evaluation, for example, found that 99% of teachers utilize the inquiry-based approach during class and, because of teachers’ improved practices, 92% of students are engaged throughout class and 80% explore key math and science concepts through group activities. Suffice to say, the days of teachers reciting endless formulas from the textbook as their students sit idly by are over.
Education transformation is indeed possible. For that transformation to take place in every school, we need to invest in our teachers. It’s not a stretch to say Thailand’s future depends on it.
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