This morning Siriporn Phraprasert's school has turned into a zoo, sort of. Tigers, frogs and birds are scattered over the playground: boys and girls are roaring and hopping around, mimicking animals. A chubby boy is howling and pounding his chest. Little girls make twittering noises, fluttering their arms. Next, the 29 Prathom 3 students at Mahaviranuwat School are going to stage a race. Which animal will win?
Fun in the classroom
The process of educational reform is well under way, but debate still rages. One teacher in a state-run school seems to have found a winning formula
Drawing thoughts on a mind-map is a routine task for students in Khru Maew's class. "Knowing how to find knowledge is the key," says teacher Siriporn Phraprasert.|
Story by KARNJARIYA SUKRUNG and VASANA CHINVARAKORN
Pictures by SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT
First-time visitors might think this is all just fun and games. But for Siriporn, known to students as Khru Maew, this is an all-in-one learning experience. Through these games, students are being exposed to science — human as well as animal anatomy — social studies, art and, of course, physical education.
Most importantly, the seemingly simple exercises are helping the fresh young faces here embark on a journey that should last for the rest of their lifetimes: they are discovering how to think independently and critically.
"Why did you say that the kids who are mimicking birds will win the race?" Siriporn asks the class.
One student speculates, "Because birds have wings as arms and legs to run as well". Another adds, "I'm a frog, and I can only hop a little way at a time."
"Yes," Siriporn replies. "Frogs and other four-legged animals can't go so fast. And what kind of animal should you mimic if you want to win a tug-of-war?" The students hastily gather in groups, whisper among themselves and come up with a wide range of answers — elephants, tigers, gorillas and bulls.
Enjoyment is the hallmark of this class and that applies to both students and teacher. Not that the Prathom 3 children in this state-run school are rolling in state-of-the-art audio-visual aids, air-conditioned rooms or rows of expensive computers. The wooden desks here are peeling in patches, pupils' work sits in dog-eared cardboard boxes, one small fan is all that's cooling the air.
But unlike in many classrooms, the afternoon period sees a hubbub of activities, no less vigorous than the morning session.
A young girl sits happily on the floor, scribbling notes in her assignment book while humming a tune. A few other children work in groups, discussing how best to present reports.
Smiling, Siriporn said that hers is probably one of the most untidy classes in the school. What matters, for her, is that each student is enjoying the learning experience.
Next, it's time for student presentations.
Today it is Walaikorn Prasertwipakit's turn. She has chosen to research Fathers Day, December 5. After looking up books and articles on the topic, she has discovered that this national holiday was launched in 1980 after initiatives by Khunying Neutip Samarasute, president of the Volunteers and Educational Promotion Association.
"You see, students, today I am learning about Fathers Day too, just like you," says Siriporn. "But do you know what the King has done for us, so that we should respect him as our father?"
Hands rise. Students flip through books. Not all their answers are entirely correct but for Siriporn what matters is the process they have undergone in coming up with ideas, finding the courage to articulate them and sharing their thoughts with others.
"It's most important that we trust in our students' abilities," she said. "Thai students have been raised to follow orders. They don't like to think, or they don't know how to think, simply because they have not been trained to do so."
Instead of teaching conventional material from standard textbooks, Siriporn spent the first few months as class teacher helping the students figure out how to draw up their own curriculum, search for materials and even evaluate their own work.
Some students were sceptical and uncomfortable with the approach.
"At first, students weren't happy with this teaching style. They wanted me to tell them what to do, while I was asking them to think for themselves. Parents too were worried that I wasn't teaching the children any concrete academic lessons."
Over time, the evident changes in the students' performances eased the pressure on the teacher. The children became clearer about the direction of their studies. They learned that there is no single authority when it comes to knowledge, that they could even learn from the elderly people in their communities; that they could try to figure out their own strengths and weaknesses and those of others.
In this method of learning, students take centre stage, under a teacher's guidance. It's a sort of decentralisation of the classroom.
What really gives her satisfaction is when former students of hers come back with stories of how they are doing in their new school.
"I know how to plan my studies," said Pornpipat Vahappala, 12, now a Mathayom 1 student at Sri Ayutthaya Secondary School. I can synthesise and analyse information. Best of all, I know how to search for knowledge by myself."
How exactly does Siriporn go about her daily teaching routine?
The weekly schedule of this Prathom 3 class is written down on a small piece of paper pasted next to her table. It is not broken down into individual subjects. Rather, the whole week is divided into chunks under the generic label of wicha buranakarn — an "integrated" class which covers subjects from Thai to social and natural sciences, arithmetic, art, physical education and ethics.
Each week is an exploration of new territory, with Siriporn acting as back-seat navigator. On the first day, students have a brainstorming period to decide on the topics they're interested in. Then each one will follow up on specific aspects of the subject.
When the students were new to this approach Siriporn had to do a lot of the groundwork. She cajoled them, showed them how to search for information, how to write information up. Consulting with parents is also part of the process.
Writing a research report might seem a bit daunting for a nine-year-old. Yet Siriporn's charges appear to enjoy interviewing people, flipping through newspaper clippings and writing about what they find. Their reports even include bibliographies, a description of the criteria the writers feel are appropriate for grading their worth, a set of questions to test readers, as well as a set of recommendations from their classmates.