Academic and English Competitions in Thailand

Along with English camps, academic competitions are another way Thailand tries to motivate their students to get students motivated about learning. This week starts a host of these kinds of competitions for my students and the effects are rippling throughout the entire school.

Friday Five

Five Things I’ve Done This Week Instead of Teaching– For some reason, the stars aligned with events and activities that I don’t think I taught more than two hours this week. This is what’s been happening instead.

Go-go Self-Sufficiently Economy
Monday, fifth and sixth graders were requested to join in the celebration for the King’s projects in a self-sufficiently economy at my district area high school. I’m still not really sure what that means. There were a ton of displays and over a thousand students from around our area. It was huge. They went ape-shit over break dancers. I couldn’t really work out why ‘B-boys’ were there, but the screaming was incessant nonetheless.

One of the older kids giving a presentation to our students

Plant Trees
Some government organization chose our school to plant trees in celebration of the Queen’s upcoming birthday (ie Mother’s Day). Apparently, there’s going to be 80 million trees planted before the 12th, in order to wish her majesty an easy journey to 80. This is what my coteacher told me anyway. I was really excited that a project like this was dropped into my school’s lap. And then I saw the size of the tree.

Can you even see it from here?

Mother’s Day
For some reason, this holiday always has me leaking buckets of tears out of my eyes. I don’t know if I get sad seeing so many kids without mothers or just the pure displays of love on everyone’s faces that just makes me go weak in the eye socket, but it always gets me. I just wish there was a national holiday for my birthday. May 20th, universal Awesome Day anyone?

I’m sure my Mom wouldn’t have minded if I bowed down to her feet on occasion

Playing Uno
I heard from past PCVs that Uno is quite a popular game to bring from America. I didn’t even have to do anything but place the deck of cards on my desk before students were clamoring around to ask what I had. Now they’re completely obsessed and ask me everyday if we can play after lunch, during lessons, and after school. They know a few new words (skip, draw two, reverse… I feel like these words are carved into my brain now) and had some fun doing it too. Boys even join in some days. And learned their first Spanish word to boot!

Some of the usual Uno culprits

Preparing for these Events
The time needed to write the paperwork, hang the signs, and buy the snacks can often take hours out of the school day and we had multiple events this week, so you can guess how much havoc the preparation alone had on the school schedule this week. My kids would be called out of class to set up chairs as my coteacher typed up this award and filled out that form. There’s never much for me to do during this time, but a lot for the other teachers, so I usually end up playing Uno with my fourth graders to keep them entertained after completing the necessary part of our duties. Let’s just say there was a lot of Uno this week.

‘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.

Pacific Love – Glamorous

I told you there was a follow-up. Pacific Love strikes again. I feel like there are more ‘inside’ PC jokes within this video, so that might go over a non-Volunteer’s head. I can definitely identify the times when I stop and think to myself, is this my real life?

Sorry for the lack of original work, I got a little run down the last few days before leaving and didn’t have time to edit. There should be plenty when I get back from vacay!

The Ins and Outs of Thai Hierarchy

One major thing Peace Corps Thailand Volunteers have to understand is the importance of hierarchy in daily life and knowing how it affects your effectiveness as a Volunteer. This past month, I’ve gotten a nice big dose of hierarchy meds, so I thought this would be a good time to explain the kinds of situations that arise from this part of life in Thailand.

Friday Five

Five Ways Thailand is Slowly Killing Me

If this didn’t drive me crazy before, it’s really pushing me closer to the brink than ever before. I realize that life is mostly unfair, but the idea that it is reinforced by the system of society and culture rather than trying to make things equal can be suffocating. The older (some) people are, the more they seem to not consider what is convenient and considerate for both my coteacher and myself. This past month, we’ve been taken advantage of by those older and in higher positions and there’s nothing we can do about it. That we’re even considering it wrong, thinking of ourselves and our own responsibilities isn’t exactly smiled upon. Unless it’s the fake ‘Land of Smiles’ grin, then it’s plastered on.

Kids under the age of ten are not my specialty. When I see a newborn, I feel no aches to hold said child, but the distrust of something that has no noise control. Until someone can reasonably express their desires, opinions, think for themselves, and empathize for another person’s situation, I’m generally not a fan. And when these kids see me, they usually scream farang, giggle, and run away from me. I don’t feel like a sluggish brute at all when this happens.

Surprise Events
Today rounded off what I hope is the end of special and surprise events that have plagued me all of June. My coteacher and I were informed yesterday that we would be the only two trainers in a speech session for the education service area office. I tried to get us out of it, but they had already invited the big, big boss, so it would be major face breakage to even say anything but ‘I can’t wait to teach you'(r lazy government bureaucrat asses). I really needed today to recover, but Thailand had other plans for me, taking away my ability to say no.

The mouse kept me up for two hours last night. This is before the free English tutoring I was forced into. I was more than a little grumpy this morning. Also, there are ants in my refrigerator. Who loves rainy season?

Watching multiple spoonfuls of sugar getting dumped into something as simple as fried rice makes my veins and arteries slowly but surely seize up me. Or at least it feels that way. Maybe all of the deceptively spicy food is cleaning my system, that is if I can swallow without choking. Apparently it’s quite humorous to watch me take a huge bite of something, then sputter and fight for air as the food lights a fire as it slowly crawls down my throat. What comes out the other side though is the most unfortunate part as you can be sitting peacefully talking to your brother in Kuwait one minute, the next having to run off camera for an emergency extraction.

The most absurd part though is despite these things, I only love Thailand more every day.