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Ahead of the pack
There can be little doubt that Meanprasatwittaya is a good school, even a “model school” as it is widely-regarded. A pioneer in child-centred activity-based learning long before the Ministry of Education got on the bandwagon, Meanprasatwittaya is a favourite of researchers from around the world.
Located in the outlying Minburi district of Bangkok, this small private school currently has about 1300 students ranging from kindergarten 1 through Mathayom 5. Sprinkled among them are more than 100 “special needs” students who study side-by-side with their more physically- or mentally-able peers.
Interestingly, Meanprasatwittaya is known not for its academic prowess, but for its philosophy of educating the whole child in a non-threatening, low-stress environment. The demanding content of the university entrance exam carries little weight with school curriculum planners whose aim is to produce thinkers, not fact-regurgitators.
This is done with the full knowledge and support of the parents who are probably more involved with the affairs of the school than just about any other school in the country. In fact, parents have more impact on what happens day to day than the school board.
Clearly, quality is not an issue here. What is more interesting to the learning post, however, is why this small school has succeeded where so many others have not. Significantly, Meanprasatwittaya is not a privileged school supported by a core of wealthy, influential parents. School fees follow the norm for government schools and the salary scale for teachers is actually somewhat below the norm.
Somebody has done something right and the learning post paid a visit to find out what that might be.
One thing that sets Meanprasatwittaya apart from many other schools is that it has been a true community school since its founding in 1950 by Chinese merchants from the nearby market. Chinese merchants still play an active role as members of the board of the foundation under which the school registered in 1984.The big difference is that they now speak Thai.
Just about everyone agrees that the founders’ most positive contribution took place way back in 1964 when they broke with tradition to choose a young 20-year-old teacher to be the new principal over the then-assistant principal who was senior in both rank and experience. Acharn Mantariga Witoonchat still holds that position, giving Meanprasatwittaya the continuity of leadership that few schools can match.
“They looked at many things,” Acharn Mantariga says of the selection process. “There were disagreements. In the end I was elected principal because many of the board’s children had studied with me.”
What the board had opted for was firstly an educator and only secondarily an administrator. That decision had a profound effect on the direction of the school almost from the start. It was clear changes had to be made, many of them difficult, and Acharn Mantariga made them.
“When I first became principal, it was very difficult. I was suddenly the head of people I had previously called pee (elder sister/brother). I cried a lot,” she recalls.
“Some deliberately gave me trouble. One day three people didn’t show up for work and I had to cover many different classes. Many teachers had their eyes on the clock, just waiting for the end of the school day.”
The solution, she decided, was to weed out the slackers and carefully screen the new teachers who replaced them. She also sought to set up a new system with clear-cut regulations.
Many Thai school administrators try to build their legacies through shiny new buildings and improved facilities. For Acharn Mantariga, teacher development has always been paramount.
“We didn’t use our funds for new buildings. We wanted to reform our academic programme, not our property,” she says with obvious conviction.
Inspired by her visits to schools in New Zealand and Australia in 1992, she quickly set about laying the foundations for a learner-centred curriculum at Meanprasatwittaya.
Given her teachers’ lack of experience in the new methodology, she began in 1994 to bring in international and local experts. In the first year, she organised seven multi-day sessions for her staff using facilitators from Israel, the United States and Australia.
“Teachers were wondering why they were having so many training sessions,” she recalls. “‘Was the principal crazy?’ a lot of them wondered. Now they realise that all the plans we have since developed – the activities, the integration of subject areas – have all come from the knowledge they gained from the foreign experts.”
In the ensuing decade, the school has hosted 40 more training sessions. In addition, numerous teachers have had study trips abroad, ranging from nearby Singapore to as far afield as Israel. Financing comes from a special teacher development fund and the fees received by Acharn Mantariga’s own team of teacher trainers.
“We take turns,” explains primary school teacher Doungduan Damrongsak. “Those who are particularly adept at understanding new concepts may have a greater opportunity than others. When they return they share with the other teachers what they have learned. Some teachers have their full expenses paid, while others may have to pay half of the bill themselves.”
The transition to the active-learning approach began on an experimental basis in 1991. One of those involved was Sriprapai Eiamsan who now teaches primary year one. “I originally taught in the kindergarten level,” she relates.
“When we first began the reform process I was sent to another kindergarten which had a good reputation for producing well rounded children, (i.e., promoting their emotional, physical, social and mental development.) Most schools focus exclusively on the mental or academic side, but in reality, children must develop in all four areas. This is especially important in the three years of kindergarten. When I came back, I used this integrated approach with the students.
“The principal never forced us to participate, but she instead gave us the opportunity to try the new methodology out to see if it worked,” Acharn Sriprapai says.
According to English teacher Acharn Prasit Yong-en, the training sessions had a profound effect on the staff’s approach to teaching. “In the other schools where I had taught we had our backs to the students. We were the only ones with knowledge. But when we began to have training sessions, we realised what we were learning was good. Instead of putting all the responsibility on the teacher, the students now had a greater role in their learning. The students became the centre of attention instead of us.”
First-time instructors like secondary science teacher Acharn Vilailuck Posi have benefited much from the experience of the senior staff. “I watch the older teachers and try to absorb what I observe,” she says. “On the weekends, I also ask them if they are attending any training sessions and I ask to go with them. I also consult with them often. I feel I can ask them about anything, be it personal matters or how to teach a particular lesson in a child-centred way. I feel very fortunate to have come to this school,” she says.
The training sessions are also open to parents and many of them attend. Parental involvement in the school is, in fact, one of its most striking features.
“The reason we have so much parental involvement in the learning process stems from the very beginning when I first started holding meetings with parents,” Acharn Mantariga explains. “I held orientation meetings for the new parents each year.
“In the afternoon, I had parents in the classroom as students. I showed them how the students learned. It was an active learning workshop and they gave feedback on what they had learned. It was similar to what we use with children – helping them learn how to think.”
Orientation sessions continue to this day and the role of the parents has been institutionalised in the form of a parental network. A key part of this network is the parent educational committee that is organised for each class.
“The school board is not as effective as these educational committees,” Acharn Mantariga asserts. “The committee members are parents — outsiders, all of them. They meet once a month. The teacher acts as secretary. They elect a chairperson. Minutes are taken for each meeting.
“They are able to directly address the problems that concern them. It’s not like sitting in a school board meeting where they don’t dare to speak. It really works because they come because they want to. They are able to talk about their concerns and clear up misunderstandings. It is efficient because they speak comfortably. They don’t have to sit in a formal setting like the board room where many of the agenda items may not be relevant to them.”
Nipa Pongpakin, whose daughter is in primary six, clearly appreciates the chance to have an active role in her child’s education. “The school is very open and that allows us to come and be part of the school. I feel that I am free to bring up suggestions in meetings – for example, on areas where the school may be lacking.”
That is the way it should be says Siribongkot Suwanahong. “I feel that education is not the domain of the school alone. The parents must have a role as well in knowing what the student are learning at school. Here, we are always able to find out what is happening and the school is good at listening to our views and opinions. There is regular communication between school and parents.”
Sumalee Chanmahapon agrees that school is only one part of a child’s education. “If a person is to develop in a positive way, there must be three sides: parents, school and society,” she says.
Ms Sumalee, like most other parents, likes the non-competitive, well rounded learning environment Meanprasatwittaya provides. “There must be an opportunity for a child to experience and to try things out both right and wrong,” she explains. “We shouldn’t focus on being clever or excellent or competing with someone else. That’s not necessary. Happiness in learning is more important – learning according to our likes and interests.”
Over the years, Acharn Mantariga has developed a distinctive philosophy of management. It explains a lot why Meanprasatwittaya has been in the lead on many issues affecting Thai schools.
“You have to have a clear purpose,” she says. “You have to know why you are doing something. We are doing everything for the students, so every time we want to do something we need to ask ourselves if it is being done for the sake of the students. I tell my teachers that every project you suggest, if it gives good results to the students, I will approve it and I will bring it before the school board.
“We aren’t afraid of making mistakes. We give the opportunity to our teachers, parents and students to try to do things without fear of making mistakes. If they are afraid of making a mistake, they won’t do anything,” Acharn Mantariga observes.
Above all, she says, innovation requires persistence. “I’m not someone who gives up easily. If something fails, I start again. I treat it as experience.”
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Last modified: Febtuary 9, 2004