Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Rote learning and the research deficit in Thailand

Mar 18. 2019
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Anyone interested in what has gone wrong with Thailand’s education system – and how to fix it – should check the book by renowned educationalist Professor Rattana Lao.

In “A Critical Study of Thailand’s Higher Education Reforms: The Culture of Borrowing”, she examines three major issues: the Education Ministry’s budget and return on investment (ROI), how to achieve excellence in public schools, and Thailand’s research lag.

Thailand regularly spends 20 per cent of its annual budget on education – more than most of its regional neighbours. Yet the return on that investment is notoriously poor compared to education ROI across Asean. Notably, for several years Vietnam has seriously outperformed Thailand in international PISA scores despite similar expenditure per student. Taken by surprise, the Thai Education Ministry tasked strategist Dr Pumsaran Tongliemnak with launching an investigation to find out how the “Vietnam miracle” emerged.  

Meanwhile, scrutinising Thai public school excellence we enter a Twilight Zone. Thailand does have schools that produce excellent results, but they are few and far between, counting as anomalies among a generally low standard of public education. That low standard has been blamed on the lack of research spirit and poor English proficiency. The key to tackling these and other weaknesses in Thai education lies with management of the teacher-training Rajabhat universities. The nationwide Rajabhat institutions could, for instance, borrow Unesco’s research templates and assistance to get the job done. 

Thailand’s lag in research-based thinking is rooted in the rote-learning that still dominates the way children are taught. Research-minded people surface in a questioning environment, what we might call a Socratic or Kalama Sutta-based system. 

Unfortunately, while Thailand borrowed foreign templates to forge our universities, we replaced the Western ethos of inquiry and research with a more rigid training designed to produce civil servants. It was like swapping a Porsche’s engine for that of a Renault 5, but forgetting to put back the Porsche engine when the time was ripe. 

Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin has recognised the problem, saying that Thai “students do not ask questions and teachers do not want questions”. Especially concerning are the “weak rural regions” in Thailand, where low levels of basic maths (20 per cent) and English proficiency means very few students reach university. That makes it very difficult to catch up with our international competitors. Better social welfare would ease the financial burdens which act as a barrier to education in rural Thailand.

Dirk Sumter

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