The government school system in Thailand is horrendous.
I don't claim to be an expert, but after working at two different schools across the country and comparing notes with teachers around Thailand, that is my opinion. I admit to generalizing, as there are some decent government institutions and extremely intellectual people, but they are far and few between. I might mention that I mean no disrespect; I hold the utmost regard for this country and its people. I have here outlined what I see to be some major faults of Thailand's Ministry of Education.
1. To Group or Not to Group
In most schools in Thailand, grades levels are grouped into classrooms according to ability. Students take a placement test both when they enter primary and secondary school. The results determine their level, and according to the teachers I've interrogated on the topic, they are thereby "stuck" in that level for the years to follow. For poor test takers, students wishing to move levels, or even students that may be at a lower learning capacity but nonetheless want to learn - it is impossible.
In grade six, 6/1 will [theoretically] be the most well-behaved and motivated class. When you work your way down the seven other levels ending in 6/8 - it resembles more of a zoo than a classroom.
I have now experienced working at both a school that groups students by levels and one that does not, and I am struggling to figure out which is the better alternative.
On one hand, the grouping of levels allows for more productive top level classes. On the other hand, it makes for such a chaotic environment in the lower levels with a majority of disruptive, unmotivated students making it nearly impossible to teach. At first, I assumed it must be the language barrier, but not much changes when I speak Thai or observe Thai teachers at work. A respectful class is often the result of the Thai teacher employing corporal punishment with a whip.
This semester, all of my classes are mixed levels. Although the system of dividing into levels is frustrating, there is no advantage of not dividing them, as I cannot prepare adequate lesson plans for everyone. I end up having to cater down to the majority, while those who enjoy & know more English breeze through the work. But what more can be done in disorderly, overcrowded classes of 50+ students?
iPod photo of a class of 80 (could not fit them all in)
2. No Child Left Behind = No Knowledge Gained
In Thailand, there is a law that all students must pass. This is absolutely the most ludicrous rule I've ever known. No matter how poorly the students do, how often they ditch classes and don't do their work, each year they must go on to the next grade. The biggest downfall to this rule is that the students are well aware that they will pass no matter what, which makes for the most unmotivated and uncooperative students.
Similar to other countries, the Thai government wants to get everyone through the system. However, the main concern here seems to be getting Thai students through as fast as possible (at least to grade 10 when they can legally drop out), without much concern for the knowledge gained. Students may re-take tests as many times as they need, which leads to what I see as unjust faking, altering and cheating behind the scenes, often at the consent of the teacher.
The prevalence of plagiarizing is uncanny. Growing up in a society where it is intolerable, I was shocked to see that heads are turned when every assignment & test is either treated as group work or let's-copy-the-smartest-kid-in-class.
As the only foreign teacher at my first school, it was unclear how they expected me to grade with only my 1200 students' names written in Thai. When it reached the end of the semester, I finally was instructed to grade Pass/Fail.
"But they have to pass, correct?" I clarified with the Head of English (mind you, she spoke no English).
So it's Pass/Fail -- but they all get a "P".
And I was actually expected to hand-write "P" next to 1200 students names.
If you spend enough time in Thailand, you will see it is a very introspective country, with not much of a concern for the outside world. Perhaps this lack of interest breeds from the absence of education on world history and international matters.
Thai students do not learn about crucial world historical topics. They are oblivious to some of the most monumental genocides, religions, cultures and even music known to mankind. Not to say that my American education on history was so thorough, but I am left in awe about the material not included in what I thought to be a basic curriculum. In school, they learn limited information about their own history, and not much outside of that. This is no secret - I have come across numerous blogs and articles often referring to Thais as extremely ignorant population (I think not to the individual's fault). I came across a well-educated PhD graduate unacquainted with the name 'Adolf Hitler'. Another set of students insisted that Hitler's distinctive photograph was Charlie Chaplin.
Unless you are in a small percentage of Thais with financial means to study abroad, travel or attend a renowned international school, chances are you'll never learn about World War II or even the genocides as close to home as their neighbors in Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam - some which ended only just 30 years ago. That such a large, prospering nation can remain so uninformed genuinely frightens me; to exclude such genocides from education is exactly how history repeats itself.
Before foreign teachers came into most schools in Thailand, students were only learning English from Thai teachers who hold the title of "English teacher" without knowing the language in the least.
Three times throughout grade school, Thai students must take an internationally condemned, horribly written test called "O-NET." If you want to learn more about how terrible it is, click here for an evaluation of the O-NET test in a four part blog on the "Sorry State of Thai Education." I had the privilege of glancing over the English section, and there was not one question that had proper English.
Furthermore, Thai students are not taught critical thinking skills. In a culture that is all about "saving face," questioning their teacher or peers in such a manner as we do in the West would be an act of defamation.
4. Motivation, Where Art Thou?
Overall, the motivation in Thailand is very low. It's hard to exactly pinpoint where this stems from, but I can only help but see a connection to the poor quality of education. Perhaps this absence of knowledge of the outside world makes for a very narrow-minded society.
Students are particularly uninterested in learning English. In the above linked blog, Kaewmala articulates the fear of English that I experience daily in Thailand as shopkeepers run from my foreign face to locate the one semi-English speaking worker: "It looks as though Thais have a pathological fear of speaking English." At times I've had a worker run away from me when I speak Thai to them, as they instantaneously shut off their ears as soon as they see my white skin; they assume I am speaking English without listening.
When you do come across people who want to learn English or aren't afraid to test the few words they know on you, it is extremely refreshing. Students whose parents who know some English are more likely to have motivation to learn and are often placed in English programs, making the private sector a more enjoyable route as a foreign teacher in Thailand.
Random Vietnamese people I taught at the park in Saigon
When I traveled to Vietnam, I was accosted left and right on the streets by locals wanting to practice their English. Perhaps it has to do with Vietnam's prior colonization and its emerging role in the world economy, but Vietnamese people are eager to learn English and communicate with the outside world.
Last semester, a teacher asked me to help a graduating senior boy prepare for an English interview after school one day. This 18-year old boy was interviewing for the chance to receive a scholarship to study abroad in Australia for free. When I asked him why he wants to study abroad, a most probable question he'd be asked in the interview, he told me honestly that he did not want to go; the school had forced him to apply as the best candidate. He told me he'd rather stay at home with his friends and family and work in his parents street stall.
Perhaps it is my culture, and my raging travel disease, but surely such an opportunity for this 18 year old in Thailand would only come once. I respect the dedication to one's family, but he would never understand the doors that could have been opened to him had he spent just one year of his life abroad.
Thai people have no real desire to explore the outside world. Sure, they see our white faces on the street and amiably ask us where we are from, and possibly mumble off their favorite English football team to my British friends. The puzzled looks that my South African co-workers receive in response to their answer suggests they wonder about the validity of South Africa being a real place.
To be fair, Thailand is a very special country that is close to my heart and the people here are uncommonly compassionate. I have several Thai friends who are knowledgeable and well-traveled, but they are in the minority. I can also appreciate that Thai people have a good thing going here right at home. Without the education and incentive instilled in young children, there isn't much reason for Thais to seek opportunities outside as they have everything they could want right at home. Additionally, the dedication to ones homeland and family is admirable. I also can see how a lack of involvement in the turmoil of international politics could be an advantage.
Still, my innately Western-minded self cannot help but be bothered by the current system in place. For being one of the most Westernized countries in SE Asia in the 21st century, there is still much room for improvement. I am not sure what could fix the current unfortunate state of the public education system in Thailand. Be it the combination of tweaking the system and playing a greater role in the global market - in any case - it is a long road ahead.
Teaching in Thailand
In case it wasn't obvious, I'm completely over the thrill of my current job. Teaching one semester in a government school in Thailand would have been far too long enough, but I wasn't ready to leave this place. To me, it was worth putting up with one more semester to live in this beautiful country and travel longer. But now, with three long months ahead of teaching, the working days and weeks are dragging. Although everyday is a learning experience and I wouldn't trade my time here for the world, I can confidently say if I teach abroad again in the future, it will not be at a government school in Thailand.