Years after selling training equipment to vocational schools and colleges around the country, entrepreneur Boon-anek Maneetham realised he could offer more than just the educational tools; he wanted to provide a new way of learning to young students at a dream school.
Director Boon-anek Maneetham is casually talking to his students, a rare scene at many other schools. Photos by Yingyong Un-Anongrak
In his dream school, there are no rules. Students are the centre of learning. At the school orientation, he welcomes his new students with the statement ''Welcome to the land of freedom!''
''But it doesn't mean you can do whatever you want on the school premises,'' says Boon-anek, the director of Payap Technology & Business College and Tonkla Kindergarten, both of which offer alternative learning in Chiang Mai. The kindergarten was established last year because the director believes in building up the right people from a young age.
But ''life without rules'' isn't exactly accurate. To keep some 1,500 students on the premises without conflicts, it's important to respect yourself and others.
''These are not rules. They are 'common agreements' between the teachers and students,'' says student Wanwipa Boonyasrimanont.
These common agreements include responsibility and punctuality. That means students are required to submit their homework before school starts. And no one is allowed to enter class five minutes after it begins, which means students will miss the daily quiz, affecting the score at the end of the term.
Director Boon-anek Maneetham sometimes walks into the classroom to talk to the students.
''We call it responsibility to meet these common agreements,'' says Napaporn Praechompoo, another student.
Therefore, at a Wednesday afternoon school assembly, it isn't difficult for Boon-anek to ask those caught smoking on the school premises on closed-circuit television to step forward. A group of the boys _ casually dressed in polo shirts or T-shirts and jeans _ quickly runs to the front. After a brief discussion between Boon-anek and the pupils, those who admit smoking are required to do some extra work for a number of hours after school.
Wednesday is popular among the students because they are free to come to school in casual dress and school director Boon-anek discusses his concerns relating to the life of the students. Unlike elsewhere, school assembly here is held indoors and students are allowed to sit relaxed in the stands while listening.
The students help clean the school when they are free.
Casual outfits like T-shirts and jeans are common on Wednesday. But skinny jeans, tank tops or spaghetti strap tops are still unacceptable at the school, since they are considered too risque, says the director.
This week he talks about smoking and helmets for riding safety. Unlike other school principals, he goes for a casual but satirical speech, telling the students not to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle if they want to be hospitalised after an accident, and they can enjoy smoking if they don't wish to live very long.
Born and raised in a middle-class family, Boon-anek spent most of his life in Thailand but earned an engineering degree in the US. He started off his career as an entrepreneur selling training equipment to vocational schools and colleges around the country. To his surprise, some vocational school graduates didn't know how to type, which is one of the basic skills taught in such schools.
''[School teachers] these days only teach students to be book smart, how to learn texts by heart, but don't teach them how to think,'' says Boon-anek. He compares most local schools to poison factories where students are taught to be obedient, memorise and do what's asked by the teachers without questioning.
The Wednesday afternoon school assembly is held at the stadium stands, rather than in the hot sun.
The man, set to retire in less than a decade, says he wasn't a smart student and could hardly understand the English in class. ''I never was [book smart], but I read and studied by myself a lot outside class,'' says Boon-anek who found his high school class in Bangkok too small for him.
''There was so much to learn from the world outside,'' says Boon-anek, who then started mingling with the young political activists from Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities who fought for democracy and revolution in the early 1970s. Through discussions with the activists and volunteer camps in remote areas, Boon-anek began to be aware of the unequal access to knowledge and studies.
But it took him a few decades to start a different way of learning. Tired of conventional education that doesn't encourage students to learn or think, he decided to open an alternative vocational college.
The alternative college doesn't produce top students, but well-rounded graduates equipped with positive thinking, a sense of responsibility and diligence who Boon-anek calls ''quality people''. On top of that, these graduates are ready to keep thinking, learning and improving themselves with new ideas. Expertise prevents them from practicing and learning, says the director. His college was recognised as the country's best college by the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment.
To be successful in the future, a critical mind is essential; those armed with fixed knowledge will only end up being labourers. The world keeps changing and technology never stops advancing. Knowledge is supposed to be the result of listening, understanding, imagining and critical thinking. Not including specialised professionals like doctors or engineers, he says very few people work at what they really studied in university.
Most of us work with what we learn after college, says Boon-anek. He doesn't mind if his only daughter, who recently finished high school in the US, decides to give up tertiary education. A degree may be important, but is not a priority in life.
There have been a large number of universities springing up in the country and more graduates and postgraduates are racing into the market. But Boon-anek raises the simple question of why the younger generation is less capable of thinking.
''It's because we're so trapped [in our own] mindset of knowledge,'' assessed Boon-anek.