No room for timidity in education reform


Written by Daniel Maxwell & Peerasit Kamnuansilpa

Originally published in Bangkok Post on 23rd July 2015

Those awaiting sweeping educational reforms from the military government were disappointed with last week’s announcement of a new curriculum focused on enhancing students’ understanding of history and their loyalty to the three pillars of Thai ‘society’. Many had been hoping for more far-reaching reforms addressing Thai students’ unawareness of 20th Century events including the Holocaust, an ignorance which has led to embarrassing incidents including Nazi-themed parades.

However, with the curriculum due for release in 2017, it is presently unclear whether it aims to broaden students’ understanding of world history or simply focuses on developing dynastic history and nationalist pride.

The weaknesses in Thailand’s education system are well documented, with O-NETs, PISA, TIMMS and reports from the World Bank all highlighting Thailand’s lack of progress and the urgency with which reforms are needed. These reports have also emphasized gross educational inequalities which systematically disadvantage students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, rural areas and ethnic minorities.

Some authorities appear aware of the system’s inadequacies, with education improvement having been made a national priority in 2012, aiming to raise standards by 2015. The Thai National Commission for UNESCO at the Ministry of Education recently touted the country’s achievements in the 2015 Education for All National Review Report to UNESCO. This report paints an optimistic picture of administrative, teaching, and learning progress but neglects to provide evidence of actual achievements.

Admittedly, education reform is a monumental task. Research indicates it can take six years to achieve successful change in a secondary school and eight years within a school district. Nevertheless, the past decade has seen a number of developed and developing countries dramatically improve their education systems.

However, before initiating reform, a country must develop a precise definition of success. As the 21st Century progresses, nations are adapting their definitions. East Asian nations including Taiwan and Japan are recognizing the importance of developing creativity and individualism to drive entrepreneurism and innovation. Since 2001 Japan has begun ‘westernizing’ its definition, embracing individualism, divergent thinking and independence. Meanwhile, Thailand is stuck in the middle-income trap, and the current focus on race-based nationalism in social studies and history suggests that educational success is recognized by loyalty and respect, not to survive in the global knowledge economy.

If Thailand can learn from Japan’s experience and prioritize innovative and critical-thinking skills, school environments will need to radically adapt. The present curriculum rewards conformity and discourages individualism. This is barren ground for creativity and instead encourages submissive behavior and a ‘Culture of Silence’ – an inability to critically assess society and its problems, obstructing the main point of education – the improvement of society.

With a clear direction for education reform, Thai authorities would benefit from examining educationally successful countries. Finland has been the subject of much attention following the country’s arrival in the PISA Top 10. The Finnish system has made impressive progress, but while education policies can be shared, the context and cultural dimensions that enable success are more difficult to emulate. The Finnish education system has fundamental differences to the Thai system that would require a seismic shift in policies, attitudes and resources to realize. These include small schools and class sizes; long-term commitment to teacher quality; long-term capacity-building strategies; equal opportunities for all irrespective of location, gender, socioeconomic background or cultural background; teacher autonomy; and the abolishment of national assessments.

Another important factor in Finland’s success is the country’s decentralization and an increase in school autonomy – a common feature of countries that have successfully reformed. Thailand’s education suffers from a centralized top-down leadership and a fragmented education ministry consisting of quasi-independent, extremely territorial commissions. All previous reforms have failed to negotiate this bureaucracy.

Moreover, European and American students are reaching higher standards while spending up to 400 hours less time than Thai students in school. And while European and American educators engage in debates over the advantages of specialization or breadth, Thai students remain overloaded by a system that attempts both. The dismal results highlight the chronic systemic faults, only made worse by the ‘no fail policy’, with high school graduates averaging less than 50% in the English, mathematics, science and social studies multiple-choice ONET exams, themselves almost meaningless.

The disastrous O-Net exams are an annual reminder of the importance of overhauling the country’s evaluation system. Assessing 12 years of schooling with a multiple-choice test is nonsensical. Instead, essay exams must be utilized in order to encourage students to give opinions, reason and be creative. The development of high-quality standardized assessments as used by Cambridge International and the International Baccalaureate (IB) could on its own dramatically improve Thailand’s education system through the ‘washback’ effect.

A growing number of countries have adopted the IB to improve education standards. In Thailand the IB is popular among the country’s most prestigious international schools but has proved to be a viable option for state schools in other countries. The education systems in Ecuador, Mexico and Turkey had been underperforming for years due to traditional schooling, rote learning and teacher-centered instruction. The IB was adopted with the aim of improving the national systems by providing a vision of a meaningful, modern, inquiry-based education. Consequently, between 2012 and 2014 Ecuador rose 30 places in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Reports, and it now aims to have 500 IB schools across the country by 2018. If Thai authorities were to introduce the IB at leading government schools in each province, they would serve as viable teaching and learning models.

Thailand has failed to reform the ideology inherent to its education system for too long, and the country is losing ground to ASEAN neighbors and facing a major economic downturn. Focusing on increasing hyper-nationalism in history and social studies neglects structural weaknesses. Having appointed himself head of an ‘education super board’, Prime Minister General Prayuth has a unique opportunity to tear through bureaucracy and initiate radical reforms on the same scale envisioned by the creators of Thailand’s school system. Presently, Thailand risks losing potential inwards investors because of historically drawn-out improvement in education.

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