Give The Kids A Break!

(The following article was published yesterday at The Nation newspaper. Here below however, is the originally un-edited submission)

You would never have guessed it, but quite amazingly, it has been strict government educational policy for the past few years to get Thai kids to think for themselves and seriously develop their analytical and critical abilities. And this was furthered last week by a planned introduction of ‘aptitude tests’ for university hopefuls beginning in the year 2010.

Excuse me for saying like, but you don’t need an Albert Einstein equivalent IQ to notice that a lot of Thai educators dictate that kids should simply not learn to be critical and develop any kind of open-mindedness. From just Grade One, Thai kids are taught to ‘repeat after me’ ‘recite a few sums’, believe everything their teacher says and sit in quiet obedience. Should one of them even dare to question a teacher’s advice, he will be on the receiving end of a boot out the door.

So, what do Thai kids learn at school besides the basic stuff and the beauty of a nice neat haircut? Well, in the mornings they may have to sing a rendition of some song which goes “Thailand is so good – the land of the free. Thai people are so kind”. Again, should any delinquent scoundrel propose any kind of critical analysis in due regard, his mother will be instantly summoned to the school for a serious discussion on the state of her son’s mental condition.

If the Ministry of Thought Control (Aka Ministry of Education) are serious about teaching Thai kids to be critical then they can start by abolishing their wonderful tradition of ‘A, B, C or D’ tests, which simply only evaluates ones memory skill. They should also cut down on some of the not so groovy subjects taught from time to time, along the lines of ‘I love my province’. I can perfectly recall at one government All Girls High school I was at, the hilarious time when it was ordered that the Grade 11 darlings be taught about Sex Education. Being a bit of a Nosey Parker like, wondering what the pitiable teacher’s lesson plan was for the one glorious hour, I came across a sheet of A4 on her desk entitled something like ‘The beauty of virginity and 10 other reasons to abstain from sex before marriage’.

(Kids at Richard’s school – not a government one! – enjoying an illustrated lesson on wearing a condom)

Beginning the year 2010, it has been proposed that the number of exam subjects be increased to eight. Besides just boring-old Maths and English, the kids may soon have to pass groovier tests which include Home Economics. Perhaps that’s a good idea though, as what else does the average man really wish for in life besides a voluptuous virgin bride who really knows how to cook. On top of testing the kids on their ability of making tasty Tom Yum Kung, I would sternly advise that they also introduce mandatory testing on other useful subjects such as this one – ‘Preserving the Environment’. Tricky examination questions I would recommend, include the likes of
“How should you dispose of a plastic bag?
A. Chuck it out a bus window B. Lob it in the nearest canal C. Tie it to a tree or D. Put it in a bin

The education authorities completely contradict themselves and I can recall a funky official quote by ONEC (National Scheme on Education) in 2002 which read ‘Thai people shall adopt desirable values and behaviour in accordance with the traditional ways of life’. Meaning therefore, that not only should Thai students sit down, shut up and obey the teacher, they ought also instinctively honour their elders and adhere to everything they say. Of course, it is utterly unheard of in traditional Thai culture to even think about confronting a person of seniority about some cheesy idea he may have.
And on the subject of ‘think about’, I can perhaps count on one foot just how many times a Thai student has asked me a question beginning with the words ‘Excuse me, what do you think about……..?’ Should you wish to experiment for yourself just how independent in voice some youths are, simply ask a young girl her idea of a perfect boyfriend and 99 out of 100 respondents will probably answer ‘He would be generous, handsome, responsible, tee-total and definitely non-smoking’. Of course, siding with the Thai youths, they do have their own notions but unfortunately they have been conditioned to silence them.

Youths everywhere, in the whole-wide world, always get the blame for the decadence of society and Thailand is by far and away no exception. Should little ‘Somchai’ be in the habit of using the computer often, it will be automatically presumed that besides playing games he will be downloading some Brazilian Blue Movies and chatting with some topless lassies on Camfrog. And talking about the Internet, perhaps the education authorities and their plans for teaching kids to think for themselves, ought immediately to call up Mr Sittichai at the MICT and inform him of their policies.

(I doubt it’s entirely their own fault that they ended-up like this)

Well, you certainly do not need a Masters Degree in psychology to realize that perhaps just a tiny part of Thai youth delinquency lies in the fault of parents and society. Let’s take a look at Somchai’s typical weekend activity; moving on from having to listen carefully to his teachers all week, he is next ordered by his parents to buck up his school grade by attending some over-priced private tutorial school at Siam Square. Regardless to whether his tutorial teacher may have just been released from a mental asylum, little Somchai will again have to just sit there and listen to the same old repetitive stuff that he has already been taught in his government school. What Somchai doesn’t know though, is that maybe he is only there because his parents, either don’t have the time to look after him or just can’t be bothered with the ho-bo lazing around the house all day.

Unlike a lot of the older Thai generation, countless foreigners on coming to Thailand are thoroughly impressed with Thai youths. Sat on a baht-bus in Pattaya, they may hear some smiling young students shouting from the street “Hello, where you go?” “Where are you come from? That is comparison to where I come from back in Farangland, where turban-wearing tourists on the bus, instead of hearing kind friendly words from the local kids, will instead be viewing a bunch of whippersnappers turning around, bending over, pulling down their pants and exposing their backsides full-frontal. Quite simply, Thai youths are not as menacing as what society makes them out to be.

The education authorities however, totally disagree with any such assertion of mine and just last week, besides the introduction of aptitude tests – agreed that due to children creating all the current social problems, that they be taught a nicely named new subject called ‘morality and virtue’. And it seems that the majority of parents are nodding their heads in approval. What the adult population amazingly doesn’t realize though, is that they are not too different to the kids’. Let’s have a look at some of the issues governing teenage delinquency and start with drinking. Come on let’s get serious, how can a father honestly teach his kids to stay away from alcohol when he himself sits hooching it up outside with his buddies every night? Then we have the hellish problem of hoodlum motorbike racers. Now, any pedestrian in Thailand would have realized by now that the country is not exactly famed for its lovely capable drivers. Look at Somchai’s dad, he sets a fantastic example: racing in and out of the traffic, driving through red lights and mowing over some elderly pedestrian before parking it on the pavement to the total inconvenience of every passer-by.

So, let us and not just the Ministry of Education, get a grip on reality and realize that the youth of today are only a reflection of the world we have brought them into.
And finally, if the Ministry of Education is genuinely serious about teaching Thai kids to think for themselves, then they ought to realize first that they would be in an extremely difficult Catch 22 situation.

18 responses to “Give The Kids A Break!

  1. Around 6th grade, I started to veer off on following the curriculum. The memorizing and repeating was getting to boring for me. I was translating English encyclopedia to do my Thai-language papers because I didn’t want mine to have the same information like everyone else. What new would I learn if everyone else knows it too? (Besides, I didn’t wait in line to use the same damn books!) I had a dictionary in one hand, encyclopedia in the other, working twice as hard as anyone else.

    What did I get for being creative and wanting to learn? I got graded down and once I had to re-do the paper because “you did not follow instructions”.

    Question teacher’s authority. Check. Check. Check x jizillion times. Not out of disrespect, but because I was just frelling curious.

    Once in a while, I actually DID know better. i.e. Teacher asked for the English word for “Rot Buntook”. I said “truck”, and she said no, it’s “lorry”. American ToMAYto v.s. British ToMAHto…seriously! So I contested, whipping out my dictionary for proof and, of course, I was right. Yet, I was sent to the principal’s office for being disrespectful. I took the dictionary with me though.

    And you wonder why my principal said “It’s about damn time!” when I came to tell her I was leaving for America. LOL. She KNEW Thai system weren’t going to work out for me. And during my time, international schools weren’t for just anybody.

  2. (Letter to the Editor)

    Stephen Cleary is right to bemoan the dismal and unimproving state of Thai education, but in his article he missed an opportunity to make the connection between effective mass education and a functional democracy.

    Democracy needs mass education that works so that citizens can understand in detail about the real world around them – only in this way can they participate meaningfully in political decisions, whether about their village or about world issues. Mass education means information, problem-solving skills, and also “continuing education”, in other words media that truthfully inform in detail and in depth about the real world people inhabit.

    In both education and mass public information, Thailand is a shadow-world of what it should be. Eighty per cent of Thais rely on electronic media for their information and news, and almost all of this is government PR. Just take a look at the most popular TV stations or read the most popular newspapers, or as Stephen Cleary has, participate in Thai education, and you will end up wondering how Thai students get to know anything at all, let alone have the ability to weigh competing claims with any hope of a rational outcome.

    In my experience, most Thai students, even at graduate level, are missing the most basic information about the world; they can’t put together a reasonable account of how global warming happens; they know little about their own bodies, about hygiene, disease or health; they often don’t even know where important cities are – and the list goes on.

    A token of this dearth of accurate and detailed information is the case of the 1932 Revolution and the inability or unwillingness of reporters and editors to convey even basic information about Thai history (a shortcoming by no means confined to Thailand). Although “Undermining the 1932 revolution” (The Nation, June 22) was fuller and more open than similar accounts would have been 10 years ago, the death of Pridi Banomyong’s wife in May was reported, both in this newspaper and elsewhere, in terms that would leave an unknowing reader ignorant about what Pridi actually did. Your own account (May 13) described him as “Thailand’s first elder statesman and former prime minister” and “the man who led Siam into the era of constitutional monarchy” without saying how he did this. Another newspaper described Pridi simply as a “revered statesman” without further comment, and ascribed to him three achievements – founder of Thammasat University, leader of the wartime Free Thai Movement, and “former prime minister”.

    With such information on tap, it is no wonder that most Thai youngsters are ignorant and cannot think critically.

  3. Asians are at least 100 years behind
    the Europeans in terms of educational

    We want the kids to be schooled, but
    not so educated that they might bring
    radical changes to the society. Of
    course there are many Asians who shine
    — only after being nurtured in the
    fertile land of the west.

    I definitely don’t expect to see any
    essential changes in my life time.

  4. If only someone writes this stuff in Thai and publishes it.

    Would make Thailand a much better place. I hate the Thai education system to my guts. I just hate it. Its a wonder some of us turn out the way we do with such a shit system.

  5. I really like what you guys (Steve, Richard) are doing with these articles. Good constructive criticism. I wish that it does not fall on deaf ears.

    From my point of view as a novice it seems that serious educational reform is what Thailand needs more than anything else. For a functioning democracy, economic and social development, health…you name it.

  6. lost_packet

    I really can’t comment on lower education (grades 1-12) because I have no experience with Thai levels. I will say that many of our schools have lowered the standards greatly so when students get to college, they are doing what they should have in junior high or high school.

    “Asians are at least 100 years behind
    the Europeans in terms of educational
    I think you are off quite a bit.

    “We want the kids to be schooled, but
    not so educated that they might bring
    radical changes to the society. Of
    course there are many Asians who shine
    — only after being nurtured in the
    fertile land of the west.”
    You are way off here. The west, at least the US has far lower standards than Asia (east and south east). As an example, my Chinese friend laughed at the math standards the University has for PhD Computer Science entry. She has that in highschool! It is no wonder she has a 3.9 (out of 4.0) in CS PhD courses.

    All of my Thai friends at college level courses have a much higher education level that the undergrads at any college level. My friends in stats told me that not only did she have to take Java, but also Physics to pass. In the west, the requirements are far lower.

    Bush’s “leave no child behind” program has allowed school to make their own standards on what is passing, which has lowered the standards quite a bit. This has been going on previous to Bush and is reflected in college aptitude tests.

    The only really big benefit is that many new practices are developed in the west, and many students can learn from cutting edge programs.

    Make no mistake, Asian students do MUCH better in US schools than the citizens that have lived in the US their whole lives. Don’t believe me, go look at some of the PhD programs at our universities and you will see that 75% or more are non-western people.

  7. lost_packet

    Hmm, I should have edited it before posting. I guess you can use me as an example of poor college writing skills. 🙂

    “Youths everywhere, in the whole-wide world, always get the blame for the decadence of society and Thailand is by far and away no exception.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Many societies suffer because of the collective culture or predominant race. It sounds bad, but many black kids suffer in the US because the predominant cultures thinks for have to be a gangster and cold. It’s a shame they segregate themselves and have no idea what a good role model is. I know for a fact that the US suffers because it doesn’t have a real culture and latches on to anything. I’m hope Thailand can have a perfect balance between old traditions and new without throwing away everything that makes Thailand and the Thai people so respected.

  8. (Letter to the Editor)

    Thai kids are all right and polite, too

    The kids are fine in Thailand. But Richard Sproat is suffering from something pretty complex. Inferiority complex in reverse, most likely.

    I don’t know where he sprang from, though, and why he felt he could make those blanket accusations of students in his letter, so vicious to the point of saying they are unhygienic. What does it have to do with our history, the views we hold and how we choose to think and behave, anyway? For his information, ignorant and hopeless we may all be, but we all retch when we have to stand next to a sweaty know-it-all in the BTS. We are too polite to show it.

  9. Only education can solve Thailand’s problems

    Can we say no to both Thaksin and the coup at the same time? Yes. Thailand does not have a narrow choice of two evils. Thailand has given itself this devil’s choice because the people shrug shoulders and say coups are what we do when government goes bad. Corruption is an ingrained part of our system, Thais say. Freedom loving people cannot tolerate coups under any circumstances. Coups are never an acceptable method to a resolution of a political problem.

    Previous comments by Stephen Cleary and Richard Sproat correctly pinpoint the need for education and critical thinking. If an educated Thai does not know or cannot access recent history, he will be incapable of making an informed decision today. Nothing happening in Thailand today is unique. Divisions between the haves and have-nots is as old as recorded history. Keeping people subservient is easy when the populace is poorly educated and incapable of cognitive thinking. The government must reinvigorate the education system. Then, citizens will be able to appreciate the importance of a constitution that allows freedom. Only then will coups become history and corruption reduced.

  10. Sunida: I think you are way off target in your comments. To my knowledge, Richard is making valid points about issues that are lacking in the Thai educational system. From what I understand, he is a teacher himself at Thai schools since some time, so this is far from “blanket accusations”. You are also wrong to to see his arguments as criticism of students, rather it is the system being criticized in his letter.

    For the hygiene aspect, I don’t think I have ever met folks who care more about personal hygiene than the Thais I have come to know. But there are other aspects, like how to handle food for instance, where the average level of knowledge could be higher. But this is just a side point that you choose to highlight.

    “What does it have to do with our history, the views we hold and how we choose to think and behave, anyway?” A lot. If you are encouraged to think independently and critically and not accept everything fed to you by “authority”, you are much less likely to be manipulated by others who take advantage of you for their own purposes.

    Instead of dealing with the constructive criticism, you rant about sweaty farangs on the BTS. Just plainly disrespectful, a cheap trick in lack of better arguments.

  11. I think a tricky question is, how to make Thai students more creative, open, and willing to debate or even think without eventually ending up with schools where teachers are not respected any more and kids can do whatever they want. it’s a long road, but it did happen back in Eastern Europe within 25 years or so.

    I give my kids (kindergarten 3) every opportunity to share ideas and opinions. they are great. once they go on to prathom, thankfully they will have other foreign teachers to keep this going, they won’t be muted by a Thai teacher. it is very messy. and I would guess not very practical in the regular Thai classroom of 30-40+ kids to have ideas, opinions, questions. it is sometimes a nightmare even with 31 6-year-olds because half of them are now pretty fluent in English and never miss an opportunity to add ideas. it automatically means twice as much preparation for me if I don’t want classes to fall apart. now take your average Thai teacher who spends 10-11 hours at school every day and try to make her prepare twice as much for her classes. she won’t be able to unless she quits sleeping.

    anyway. sorry, rambling thoughts here.

  12. Letter to the editor

    Following on from Sunida’s post is this letter rom The Nation June 27:

    ‘Smelly foreigner’ jibe smacked of racism

    Re: “Thai kids are all right and polite, too”, Letters, June 26.

    From time to time foreigners weigh in with their opinions on matters in Thailand. When that happens you can almost expect, like the changing cycles of the moon, for Sunida to chime in and make what can only be termed a racist comment.

    Her latest was in response to Richard Sproat’s letter in which he bemoaned some faults in the Thai educational system. This is something that numerous Thais have done in the past and continue to do today. My Thai friends back in my home country have often said that they left Thailand because of these problems, for the sake of their children’s education.

    If you don’t believe me, a foreigner, then take as your evidence the number of “road-maps to education reform” that have been drafted. Take the number of people who held the education minister’s post under Thaksin! Something is deeply at fault here, that much is obvious, but when a foreigner has his say – and, although I don’t know Sproat, he did say he was speaking from his experience in the Thai education system – Sunida not only dismisses the opinion but punctuates that dismissal with racism.

    She wrote: “… but we all retch when we have to stand next to a sweaty know-it-all in the BTS. We are too polite to show it.”

    Where I come from this is the way racists show their disdain for foreigners too. Saying that “foreigners smell funny” is a convenient way to dehumanise them. I do not think that Sproat’s comments were mean-spirited, they were pointing out faults and if these were to be fixed it would be for the vast benefit of all Thais, however I think Sunida’s comments were mean-spirited, the latest in a series of such racist comments that portray foreigners as abusive, smelly drunkards.



  13. Great article about some waste topics!

    Who is to blame? The education system or the thai culture or the parents?
    The education system because it is not modern, it doesnt provide enough funds for smaller classes and better classrooms. The thai culture for being thai culture? The parents because many are not 1 % interested what their children are doing in and outside school and because they don’t have any idea about what’s going on outside their small world.
    Many parents are just terrible lazy with their kids!
    I dont want to blame the teachers, they work hard for little money.

    By the way, these probs with overwhelmed parents are similar in western countries but not as many as here.
    Just some thoughts,


  14. I guess I have a racist dog then 😀 back home, when we had a visitor from the Philippines, he barely survived. same with a black guy. locals were always safe. then the vet told me different races smell differently, even if they are not smelly, and it is normal that dogs react like this to strange smells.
    maybe the same with humans? without intending to be arrogant?
    sorry, off topic 😀

  15. Mr. John Williams

    I taught in Thailand—Pattaya actually. The kids were as good as they wanted to be. Many wanted to be fisherman or farmers. As a Falang teacher I only made enough to survive. Many kids are better off working the bars; doctors in Bangkok rarely make 38,000 baht—bar girls can make same!…a small fortune for the best lookin babes, unlike the West, they tend to be saggy, at best…The person who wrote the story should go to Jersey, or Mexico,CA.—-Thats the trash who no matter how many tax dollars are spent will always be a waister. In any case, the author has a screw loose, I lived there, and they are much better off—you just have to be there; you won’t won’t to come back!—-

  16. Who is this John Williams person.
    “I taught in Pattaya and all the children wanted to be fisherman and farmers”. Very strange indeed as most of the Thai kids i’ve taught have wanted to be policeman, doctors, soldiers or nurses etc…
    What does he mean by this one? “Many kids are better off working the bars”
    Mr Williams i doubt was not living in Thailand for the culture or temples.
    This guy really has a screw loose. If he comes to Thailand to Thailadn again he should be arrested and deported back to his home country.

  17. My husband and I taught in Thailand for six months last year and couldn’t take it just for this reason alone.
    The Enlightenment never took place in Thailand and istead of trying to catch up with the rest of the world they revel in their ignorance and believe it to be the best way in the world. They fail to progress because they cannot approach life, learning, or problems critically. They expect everything to be fun and games all the time and have no value placed on seriousness.

  18. Layton, you seem to be a little off par with your perception of Thailand. In case you didn’t know, Thailand is one of the more progressive countries in Asia. What do you mean by ‘…catch up to the rest of the world.’? Do you mean the Western world? Thailand exceeds most countries in the world economically and technologically. No, it’s not the US or Japan but it isn’t Haiti or The Republic of Chad either.

    Layton, you were way off and insulting. Your comment made Thais sound like savages. Maybe that wasn’t your intent, but Thailand is far from being stuck in the Middle Ages and is progressing along at a faster than steady pace.

    I agree, Thailand has it’s problems and speaking out about the issues is a start to solving it problems. However, if your expectations of a country are high and that country fails to meet you expectations, then you only have yourself to blame. Insults are not the key to solving problems.