'Quality of education is the only thing that is going to move Thailand to a better position,'' said Prof Emeritus Somwung Pitiyanuwat, PhD. Before leaving his position as acting director of the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment (Onesqa), he gave an exclusive interview to ''Education'' on his vision on improving the quality of teachers in Thailand. Below are edited excerpts.
During an exclusive interview by ‘Education’, Dr Somwung, the outgoing director of Onesqa, entertains questions on how he would improve the quality of teachers and education in Thailand. ALL PHOTOS BY BJ JOHNSON
Education: Thailand still has too few teachers. What should be done to remedy this grave problem?
Dr Somwung: The Ministry of Education (MOE) has approved 30,000 scholarships for students to study education. In my next post, I am going to assist the Office of Higher Education Commission to select colleges that best suit the specific needs of the teacher candidates.
We are going to assess the education faculties all over the country and pick the best ones for producing teachers in each field. For English teachers, for example, we are going to identify education faculties that produce the best English teachers. We will enrol students interested in becoming English teachers there.
We also have the ''4 + 1'' scheme. Under this programme, students study their chosen major for four years in undergraduate school and spend an extra year in teacher training.
In fact, we have a surplus of teacher graduates. The problem is not that we lack enough teacher graduates; the problem is that many of the teacher-graduates lack the required standards to teach.
Each year, 2,000 to 3,000 people are trained in each subject. This is more than sufficient. But often, they do not want to pursue a teaching career.
For example, nearly 80 percent of the graduates of the Faculty of Education at Chulalongkorn University, which is one of the best education faculties, do not take up teaching. On the other hand, there are many serving teachers who come from substandard institutions.
Thus, we need to have better incentives and a clearer career path. The ''4 + 1'' scheme offers a guarantee of employment as a teacher. Fourth-year students need only to apply to continue their studies, to be trained as a teacher, and they will get a teaching job upon graduation in their 5th year. However, we must be careful to maintain the quality of these future teachers.
These two things will help to increase the number of well-qualified teachers in Thailand.
What three things are needed to get higher-quality teachers?
Number one, scholarships have to be provided. Next, we have to use the ''demand-side'' approach and a closed system for producing teachers, which means that if 5,000 teachers are required each year, 5,000 people who live in the areas that are short of teachers should be given scholarships, trained to be teachers and sent back to teach in their hometowns.
For example, if Mae Hong Son province needs teachers, we should select promising students in that province, give them scholarships and deploy them in Mae Hong Son upon their obtaining their teaching credentials.
Finally, we need to reform teacher education. This can be done right away. For example, we can invite good and skilled people to become faculty members and train them to teach and to carry out research projects. We need a new public institution dedicated to teacher education and improving teacher quality. This will encourage people to become quality educators.
Is it possible to increase teacher salaries?
It is very difficult to increase the salaries of every teacher. It is better to associate salary increases with specific career paths and professional accomplishments.
For example, a salary increase my be warranted if a teacher passes a standardised competency test, similar to pay grade increases in top militaries. Thus, pay increases should be tied to individual professional improvement.
Also, if we try to encourage the private sector to be more involved in the education industry, there is a likelihood that private investment in the education sector will soar, thereby saving the government a lot of money. And we can use the money saved to make teacher salaries more attractive. Currently, in basic education, the private sector's involvement is only 20 percent. I would like to see that figure rise to 50 percent.
The MOE aims to collaborate with universities to retrain 500,000 existing teachers within 2010. Is this feasible and will it achieve the desired results?
It is a good policy, but it is difficult to implement. It raises such questions as who will be the trainers, how will the training be carried out, how would the ministry ensure that the rewards are attractive, and will there be any research or pilot programmes to back up this project? We need to first find acceptable answers to these and other questions.
Teacher-trainers and university teachers are different. Trainers have to be capable of convincing their trainees to put the knowledge received into action, to inspire their trainees to improve their teaching styles and behaviours on their own throughout their teaching careers. Such persons are very rare, in my opinion.
The MOE may not understand this point fully. It thinks that university teachers, such as faculty members at education faculties, have the ability to train the new batches of teachers. The success of the policy will depend greatly on the existence of trainers who hold a trainer's licence and a quality training curriculum.
This curriculum cannot be a short course or mini-workshop.
In addition, even after the trainees have completed and passed the course, there must be follow-up assessments and on-the-job training for the successful trainees, as well as the teacher-trainers.
The ministry may achieve its goal of retraining the teachers, but this process, alone, is unlikely to change outmoded teaching habits that have been ingrained.
To achieve optimum results, how should teachers be retrained?
It would be a good idea to follow the model created by former Education Minister Prof Wijit Srisa-arn, PhD. His model consisted of training transformative agents, such as teacher-leaders, who would lead teachers in transforming outmoded pedagogies in their school.
It is also important for school principals to spearhead changes. We have to motivate school principals and the director of each of the education service areas and develop them to perform the role of teacher-leaders, so that they can then become effective teacher-trainers and teacher supervisors.
The fundamental paradigm of teacher development has to be changed here in Thailand. We have to ask ourselves why _ despite having gone through several teacher-development policies _ the teaching behaviours of Thailand's educators are still far short of modern, student-centred goals.
Therefore, policymakers need to conduct in-depth investigations, not just have a couple of meetings and make quick and ineffectual decisions.
In your opinion, how can teachers become high-level professionals?
To attain a high-level teaching profession, prospective teachers must be guided and taught to think and act professionally. Hence, for education students, four years in a university is not enough. They need to spend at least six years. They also need the will to teach, and they must absorb good teaching practices, care for students, love the teaching profession, and always keep abreast of the changes and developments in their profession. If incoming teachers are not inspired to reach these objectives, they will never be able to inspire their student-teachers in turn.
We have to select suitable people to study education. Most of the education associations that are in existence at present need to focus on the quality of students, teachers, education and academic research. Thailand has a lot of associations, but most of them don't help to advance professional quality.
Would a more elaborate licensing scheme solve the problem?
Normally people who are engaged in high-level professions are required to be licensed. The scope of the licences that are issued by the Teachers' Council of Thailand is too general, too broad.
We have to issue specific licences for the different academic levels and various types of academic institutions. There should be a special licence for kindergarten teachers, another for Mathayom (secondary school) teachers, etc.
Should Thailand develop its own teaching methods like other countries?
Many people think that developing a profession can be done by merely training the teachers and the administrators.
While that part is essential, the most important task is to develop a body of knowledge that teachers can use, as well as to come up with solid theories on education reform, for example, how to train mathematics teachers to improve their teaching behaviours.
Currently, Thailand has no such body of knowledge. Each teacher is using his or her own skills and gifts to deliver lessons. At the moment, we do not contribute enough influence on the theoretical side of teacher education.
Therefore, we have to build our strengths on research in all areas of education, for example, research into Thai students' learning styles, how they are different from those of Western students, and the pros and cons of the various styles, so that we can design appropriate teaching and learning pedagogies.
Dr Somwung, would you be willing to entertain the practice of international schools offering scholarships to capable Thai students whose families may be financially challenged as a means of democratizing and improving Thailand's education system?
I would be very interested in that, assuming that one could find a proactive international school to offer such a package at its expense. It would have to be voluntary, of course; but I'm sure we have a few well-meaning and charitable international schools who would support such a regime. Perhaps I will have my assistant further explore the possibilities.
International schools and government schools don't take vacation breaks at the same time. Has any thought been given to a mutual teacher-to-teacher training programme whereby government teachers who are on vacation break would be paired to co-teach with teachers at international schools for a week or two, and vice versa?
Consideration, from time to time, has been given to such a symbiotic approach to teacher training, but the wider possibilities have not been explored. It is important that selected teachers at the international schools, when on break, travel up country to teach alongside teachers in government schools. The aim is for the two teachers, acting as equals, to co-teach, co-prepare and co-evaluate the teaching processes.
The two would learn from each other's teaching methods, teaching philosophies and available classroom facilities. The idea would be to cross-pollinate the two teaching environments which have, thus far, been mostly segregated. Valuable teaching information and professional pedagogy could be exchanged. Perhaps this, too, can be further explored through my staff.
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