Why Thai education reform is a complete flop
The poor quality of Thai education has been a major national issue for decades. Many people in the education sector have attempted reform, by introducing a competency-based curriculum in the primary and secondary levels, instead of the 15-year-old, content-based curriculum.
In October 2021 the education ministry announced the timeline for the roll-out of the new system throughout the country, in the first semester of 2022 for elementary level in schools that were ready.
Everyone was hopeful and eager to try and test this new curriculum.
Then, like a bolt from the blue, just 11 days before the first semester of 2022 was due to start, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam told reporters that the government had decided to cancel the launch of a competency-based curriculum.
“We will continue to use the current curriculum. It is not the right time to change, as it will affect the publication of textbooks and will be a burden on teachers, parents and students during tough economic times like this. If it is changed, they will need to buy new textbooks, teachers also need new training, which will be an additional burden for them. Hence, there will be no curriculum changes”, said the deputy prime minister.
That announcement disappointed a countless number of people in education, including Patchanan Khongwanitkitjaroen, Founder of Genius Education Social Enterprise. She pointed out that this is a major change at a national level, which has been in preparation for many years. Teachers have been training a lot. In fact, schools across the country have high levels of awareness about competency-based learning. Many of them are pushing hard towards a new curriculum.
“Suddenly, they said the reason it couldn’t change is because they don’t want to change the textbooks. Does this make sense? When it was cancelled, everyone had to move backward and do all the same things. The time and the course preparations were wasted. The cancellation was announced just over 10 days before the semester started. We really had no idea how to react”.
The null and void curriculum
Competency-based curriculum (CBC) have gained popularity in many countries as an effective learning approach for students. It differs from content-centric education in that it focuses on the implementation of skills, knowledge and abilities by learners.
In Thailand, the 6 core competencies of CBC are self-management, critical thinking, communication, management and teamwork, citizenship and sustainable coexistence with nature and technology. Competency-based education also offers a solution to various challenges faced by the education system. By reducing the number of learning indicators, this approach can streamline the learning process and alleviate the burden of excessive paperwork on teachers.
“Traditional learning is about memorising. We have a total of 2,000 learning indicators, thousands of lessons. Students must complete that, but no one says what the use of those lessons is. That’s the point. The children just sit in the classroom to recite the textbook for the exam, but they don’t know how to apply that knowledge in real life”, said Patchanan.
She added that a competency-based education can clearly solve this problem. Students are not expected to have high marks in the examinations, as the curriculum focuses on practice, hands-on, linking skills, information and content to be applied in real-life situations. Therefore, the learning period in the classroom will reduce, as well as academic lessons and textbooks.
“We emphasise students’ practical lessons. Real practice, real connection”, she added.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam also said that all state schools will apply active learning in the classrooms. He explained that active learning means organising the teaching and learning processes in which the student is engaged and acting. Teachers can only be facilitators, who organise the classrooms for the children to exercise their brains. Wissanu believes that, by using this learning method, Thai students can be smarter. Surprisingly, he admitted that he had no idea what competency-based education really means.
“Active learning is just a learning behavior inside or outside classroom. It’s not a curriculum, unlike the competency-based system. I think ‘active learning’ has become an educational discourse, that is, when you use this word, it sounds good. The thing is the word ‘active learning’ has a very widespread misconception”, said Social Studies Teacher, Woravut Suksatit.
He added that, when it comes to active learning, most people think children have to move their bodies to join the activities. It doesn’t work like that. Active learning can happen when students simply listen to the teacher, if the subject helps develop their cognitive or advanced thinking.
For example, the teacher tells a philosophical or a highly logical thinking story and the students just listen and nod. What is active here is not students’ action but their brain, which is more active in the development of advanced thinking. Therefore, we must be absolutely clear about what active learning really is.
“Basically, active learning is the approach in which learners are involved in learning by themselves, one way or another”.
It has been 15 years since the Basic Education Core Curriculum was implemented in all state schools. Some subjects, for example science, maths and geography, were adjusted once in 2018, however the majority of lessons and learning indicators are too obsolete to equip our children with essential skills to be able to handle the fast-changing world.
According to Teacher Woravut, the current curriculum fails to prepare children for the future, therefore it needs to change.
Many people in education believe that the reasons the competency-based curriculum is being put off, and Thai children still have to learn from an outdated curriculum, are politics in the education ministry and some lobbyists for large textbook publishers.
Some parents from middle class families try to find the best solution by sending their children to alternative schools, so the kids can avoid time spent on the out-of-date learning approach, which will not be as beneficial for them as their parents might expect. The number of alternative schools cannot, however, compare with mainstream schools.
How can the country escape the middle-income trap if the poor and inequitable education system produces unskilled labourers, who will likely fail to meet the demands of the nation’s labour market?
It is high time to overhaul Thai education.
By Jeerapa Boonyatus