‘Let Them Eat Tablets’

I read this article recently from the Economist and couldn’t help cheering the author’s critique on the band-aids that are applied to the gaping wounds in the Thai education system. Let’s back up a bit.

We heard about this campaign pledge, one child one tablet (similar to an Ipad, but the generic version gifted from Shenzhen Scope Scientific Development, a Chinese company) with rolled eyes never thinking it would actually come to fruition. To my surprise, my younger sister lamented to me that she missed the cutoff as one year younger than her, seventh grade, received the tablets to use in their classroom. I couldn’t believe they were going through with it.

Let’s ignore the fact that most students are computer illiterate. As are most teachers. Most cannot type with any proficiency or use a computer for anything more than opening up Facebook and Youtube (that is if you can get the internet working). You could argue that by bringing in these tablets, that could change things. I tend to agree with the Economist when they say, ‘Some argue that the focus on the tablets has distracted attention from a deeper malaise affecting Thai education. Although the proportion of children attending school has grown over the past decade, the quality of their education has deteriorated.’

Technology in Thailand is generally viewed as a plaything. Phones, computers, and the internet are rarely used tools for education or work. In a class, like English, the teacher can hardly keep an older student’s attention as it is, so let’s add a ‘smart tablet’ that society has told them is a plaything. And this isn’t even considering what fun the teachers will likely use the tablets for (I watched a teacher play Angry Birds for an hour on her phone rather than teach her students one morning). In talking with a few teachers, they stated they didn’t want the tablets as it would only contribute to the struggle students currently have learning to write Thai (much less English letters, but let’s not even go there).

The main issue is that test scores are falling, even as more money than ever is given to schools.

Thailand now spends about 20% of the national budget on education, more than it devotes to any other sector. The budget has doubled over a decade. Yet results are getting worse, both in absolute terms and relative to other countries in South-East Asia.

Thailand’s own ombudsman reported earlier this year that, despite the extra cash, the national standardised examination results show that students’ scores in the core subjects of English, maths and science have been largely falling. The most recent Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum ranked Thailand a dismal 83rd in terms of its “health and primary education”, one of four basic indicators. This is below others in the region such as Vietnam and Indonesia; only impoverished Cambodia performs worse.

Thailand’s scores on the respected international PISA test have remained almost static since 2003 whereas Indonesia, for instance, has been moving up from a lower base. In another recent competitiveness report Thailand ranked 54th out of 56 countries globally for English-language proficiency, the second-lowest in Asia.

This is a very scary reality that cannot be hidden behind smiles and smart tablets for a country trying to enter into the ASEAN community as a productive member and even as a potential leader.

The majority of the education budget going into higher pay for teachers. Now that I’ve been left in charge of 40 rambunctious fourth graders, I think there is a definitely a need to pay teachers well, something the American system still hasn’t quick figured out. The problem in Thailand though is most teachers are still given raises despite their performance (or their students’) in the classroom.

One teacher told me at a training that she is given a raise if she works hard or if she doesn’t. Between the duties of the school she was responsible for (registrar, library, and any other goodies the principal could think up) and planning out thoughtful and participatory lessons she learned in university, she was exhausted. As the principal (and most of the traditional educators who are in charge) give no weight to these kind of lessons and care more about the paperwork being completed on time, guess which one she gave up doing? This doesn’t encourage an environment of productivity or development in school and plays a role in more than just academics. ‘At the moment, only a tiny weight is given to results in assessing a teacher for a pay rise; far more consideration is given to how the teacher keeps order in the classroom. “It’s a very subjective evaluation,” argues Mr Somkiat, based largely on “how well you butter up the headmaster.”’

As any Peace Corps Volunteer will tell you (because they have to tell themselves over and over and over again), change doesn’t happen quickly or within a generation. I fear though, this current agenda isn’t helping the development of future groups as we need radical modification if we want Thailand to grow, intellectually and otherwise.

‘Giving every child a tablet computer is a nice gimmick, but it is unlikely to be the key to educational excellence.’

If you want to read the entire Economist article from which these quotes come from, click here. There’s also been some update-age on the book page, feel free to check it out.

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