Waeyousoh Sama-ali started his career in education in 1964 in a remote village of Pattani, assigned to teach at the kindergarten level. The education system at that time was heavily influenced by the nationalistic policies put in place by Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsonggram in 1941, as well as the 1961 Education Act passed during the regime of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat.
ACTIVE PARTICIPATION: Students enjoy their mathematics class as they have a chance to act and play, which leads to real comprehension of the subject.
The act imposed an assimilation policy that forced traditional Islamic pondok schools to register with the Ministry of Education and required them to teach a standard government-designed curriculum. The Thai language was a prerequisite for all who attended primary schools (see page four).
Subsequent studies have identified these forced assimilation policies as a trigger point of resistance, which has since become wide-spread violence in the restive region.
Today Mr Waeyousoh is an accomplished educator and serves on a committee for a pilot project designed to reform education in the South through a multilingual approach (see related story). At the time, however, he did not speak Thai well himself, even though he was educated in the Thai education system and received a diploma from Yala Teacher's College, the only higher education institute in the South in 1964. He vowed that he would make himself fluent in Thai so that he could help young people who faced the same obstacles to learning the national language that he had as a child.
THE DRILL: Tuanyoh Nisani teaches students to read Malay words using the Thai alphabet.
There was no system in place to teach Thai to non-Thai speakers, and he worked very hard to develop his own methods to help his young students speak, read and write basic Thai.
He won many awards for his dedication to teaching, including from the Asia Foundation, but Mr Waeyousoh was not satisfied. He found that most often his kindergarten students failed at the higher levels due to insufficient Thai language capabilities.
''When my students passed on to study at the primary school level, the teachers didn't provide encouragement for them to learn Thai.
''When they couldn't understand Thai it led to failure in other skills. Since they didn't understand the subjects, they hated going to school,'' he said.
Mr Waeyousoh said that when he started teaching Thai to Muslim students, many people criticised him and said he was destroying the local Malay dialect and the culture.
''They were against me, but I was lucky because I also had friends and relatives to protect me from being attacked,'' he recalled. However, Mr Waeyousoh admitted that the methods he initially used were hit-and-miss.
''I tried all means I could imagine to make my students happy, but I find that the students at the four pilot schools are happier compared to my students at that time,'' he said.
Mr Waeyousoh said the pilot project's new mother-tongue based education system now being tried out at four schools in the South sends different signals to different people. Some government officials are against it because they suspect that it will ensure that the Malay-Muslim people in the southernmost provinces will continue to speak only the local dialect. Meanwhile, many parents and religious teachers in the South are afraid it will destroy the Malay cultural and religious base.
''Many people use their emotional biases to attack the new multilingual education system _ they have not seen for themselves how friendly the system is to our young students,'' said Mr Waeyousoh.
He said some people in the South go so far as to suggest that students should be taught to write Malay using the Yawi script, but he pointed out that this script is used by central Malay language, which is different dialect from what is spoken in southern Thailand. What's more, even in Malaysia most people use the Roman alphabet, or what they called ''Rumi''.
MAKING A FOUNDATION
Prof Suwilai Premsrirat of Mahidol University's Institute for Languages and Culture of Asia is the head of the pilot project. She explained that most Malay-Muslim students in the South are more familiar with the Thai alphabet than the Roman alphabet, as they see the Thai script in their day-to-day lives.
''We need to standardise the language system and form a bridge between the local dialect and Thai,'' said Prof Suwilai, adding that a system in which teachers first converse with students in the local dialect and later teach them Thai allows the students to understand the gist of their studies and create a good foundation for the study of other subjects in the future (see graphic). The pilot project action research entitled ''Using local dialect and Thai as means in learning and teaching: A case study of multilingual education in four border provinces''. The system is designated as multilingual because older children will be introduced to the study of English using the same methods.
CLOSE TO EXPERIENCE: Below, Waemenoh Waloh creates lesson plans that students can relate to.
The research followed the progress of some of Prof Suwilai's former students at Mahidol who are native speakers of the local Malay dialect and are now lecturers at Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus.
''We found out that it is better for students to use the Thai alphabet for reading and writing the local dialect,'' she said, adding that the most effective way to encourage a high proficiency in Thai is to use the students' mother tongue as a bridge. Usana Jeh-ubon is a supervisor for Pattani Education Region 2, which includes the Baan Prajan School, one of four schools where the pilot project has been implemented. She is convinced that a multilingual system (in the future children will also be instructed in English) is the right move.
''I have seen that students are happier in their language studies and they are also achiev ing more in other subjects compared to students in other schools at the same level,'' she said.
According to the pilot committee's ongoing research, the Thai language skills of students in four pilot schools in Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Satun are much higher than in comparable schools. For example, students at two schools in Pattani, Baan Prajan and Baan Sanor, were tested in Thai before the students at Baan Prajan began the project. The average results of the pretest were 16.21% for Baan Prajan students and 19.8 % for Baan Sanor students. After one year of the pilot project the scores on the same test for the two groups of students were 67.39% and 46.47 %, respectively.
Many educators are excited about these results and are looking for an opportunity to extend the pilot project, under the heading of Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE), to other schools across the South.
However, others are urging caution against moving too fast. The pilot committee agrees that involvement is needed from communities, schools and teachers at both the local and naitonal levels. MTB-MLE is endorsed by the government's 2009-2012 Educational Development Plan for Special Areas in the Southern Border Provinces (see Milestones, left). The fact is, however, that in the present political climate many good policies can hardly be implemented.
Prof Suwilai and those on her committee wish to gain more support from concerned agencies, especially the Office of Basic Education Commission, under the Ministry of Education (MoE). Presently, the project is financially supported by the Thailand Research Fund and also in part by Unicef.
''We also need to support our teachers [in the project] who have been working so hard; they need more incentives and rewards for their hard work,'' said Prof Suwilai, adding that teachers and their assistants in the South also need more job security.
Tuanyoh Nisani, a pilot project teacher at Baan Prajan, said that there should be a special way to evaluate teachers through their achievements in the classroom, not just on paper. Another teacher, Waemenoh Waloh, officially a temporary, is dissatisfied because she has been teaching for many years without the proper government title and incentives.
Local educational authorities in the southernmost provinces say they would be willing to implement the MTB-MLE if the MoE had a clear policy on the matter. They point out that the programme requires special training and preparation. It is a time-consuming process for teachers to prepare their lesson plans and there is a need for backup teams and more budget.
ACCESS FOR ALL: Left, the mother tongue-based education approach allows all students to participate.
''Thai teachers who cannot speak the local dialect need not fear, as they will have assistants and can still play a big role in teaching students at higher levels,'' said Mr Waeyousoh, adding that Thailand's cultural and language diversity is a national treasure.
Prof Suwilai said her wish is that the project will help contribute to building a peaceful society. ''Better communication and understanding is a key to both development and peace.''
LEARNING TO BE HAPPY
JOYFUL STUDY: Young students learn through activities that move back and forth between their mother tongue and the national language.
A pilot project in the South uses the students' local Malay dialect as the medium of instruction as they assimilate the national language through fun activities
Nuraza-heeda Waehayee was not feeling well but she still insisted on going to her school, which is within walking distance from her home in Prajan village in Yarang district of Pattani province.
Why did this six-year-old girl, who hears nothing but the local Malay dialect at home, want so badly to attend classes at the Thai school?
THE BASICS: Children in the pilot project learn to associate the sounds of the Thai alphabet with words in their Malay dialect.
The answer is that the kindergarten student has fun there. Nuraza-heeda enjoys the lively teaching system at the school. Since she started classes last year she has had many chances to express herself, and ask questions about the lessons in her own language. It is not the ''chalk and talk'' system that students normally experience. The learning comes through as part of the different approach.
The Baan Prajan School introduced new teaching methods three years ago as part of a pilot project under the Centre for Documentation and Revitalisation of Endangered Languages and Culture, at Mahidol University's Institute for Languages and Culture of Asia. Besides the kindergarten class, the project has also been implemented in a Grade 1 classroom. Before initiating the project the centre spent a year researching the special problems of students whose mother tongue is not Thai and preparing the new learning system for them. The Baan Prajan school is one of four schools in the pilot project.
According to the Ministry of Education's 2008 National Standard Test, 25.50 % of Grade 3 students in the deep South cannot read Thai at all, and 17.08% need improvement. This compares to the national averages of 4.18% and 3.52%, respectively. Thai writing skills are even worse _ 42.11 % are unable to write and 20.86% need improvement, comparing to the national averages of 5.81% and 10.53%.
The 2008 test also reveals that students in the South need to improve their analytical skills. For example, of the total 2,611 Grade 6 students in Pattani province, 40.77% were determined to need work in this area, and only 0.94 % were rated as ''good''.
''I have to insist that students in the southernmost provinces are not stupid _ they are as smart as any others _ but the language difference causes learning and thinking barriers,'' said veteran educator Waeyousoh Sama-ali, whose own first language was the local Malay dialect.
Mr Waeyousoh is on a local committee overseeing the pilot project and has been teaching in the South for more than 40 years. ''If students can overcome language barriers they will be able to master their studies,'' he insisted (see related story).
When the project was first introduced into schools, there was a lot of resistance from both parents and educators. But after three years of operation this has fallen by the wayside, as the students' achievements speak volumes.
Students in the pilot classes at the Baan Prajan School are full of energy to learn, and they are not afraid of expressing their thoughts or of participating in the classes. This is in stark contrast to the situation in most classrooms in the South, where students can almost literally be seen sinking into a culture of silence _ shy to speak and afraid to express themselves in Thai, and asking no questions even after class. The pilot project aims to replace this system.
In schools across the country students are taught to identify and relate the sounds of the Thai alphabet with certain words, starting with ''Kor-kai'', or chicken, and end ing with ''Hor-Nok hook'' (owl). In the pilot classrooms the process reflects the differences in culture and experience. Nuraza-heeda learns to associate these sounds with Malay words she is familiar with _ ''Kor-kujing'' (cat) and ''Hor-hairma (horse).
She did not jump straight into reading and writing Thai, but was first allowed to familiarise herself with the school and make friends, using her own language (see graphic). After a few months she started learning six Thai words a day, with the local Malay dialect serving as the medium of instruction.
Nuraza-heeda and her friends learn their second language in lively and interactive ways, such as by singing songs. When teacher Tuanyoh Nisani asked for volunteers to write the words they had just learned on the whiteboard many students jumped up and raised their hands. When a student wrote a word on the board, the teacher asked her students if was right or wrong. When Nuraza-heeda and a friend shouted ''it is correct'', Ms Tuanyoh asked all the students to reward the student at the board with a round of applause.
In using the students' mother tongue as a bridge for learning the national language, the pilot project has introduced a new way of teaching and learning, one that is actually fun for the students. It has also changed the old teacher-centred method into a child-centred one, and gone from imposing to guiding the education process. Reprimands have been traded for rewards, and black-or-white for open-ended answers.
Students learn Thai through songs about flowers, animals and other things in nature, as well as through story-telling, word cards and play-acting. The teacher usually has the students repeat new words after her at least three times before asking them to write them. She sometimes asks them to incorporate the new Thai words into stories they compose in their own dialect, allowing their imaginations to grow and glow.
In a Grade One mathematics class students not only worked out the solutions to word problems, but also discussed them and did some role-playing. The teacher used one problem to teach a lesson on social ethics, asking students what they would do if a vendor gave them more change than they calculated they had coming. ''We have to return the change,'' was the ringing answer.
Most parents at Prajan village express satisfactory with the achievements of their children. ''I think my daughter is happy, and she shows her curiosity all the time. She asks everything that she does not understand,'' said Sianong Waehayee, Nuraza-heeda's mother. ''When I took her to Pattani town, she read all advertisement banners to me in Thai.''
She said that her son, who is now in Grade 5 at the same school, has never been such an eager student.
''I can see that the new teaching system has made a difference,'' she added.
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