Thailand's education system is in troubled times
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Thailand's education system is in troubled times

Over the past few months, Thailand has seen its latest wave of student protests rise across the country. The students -- most of whom are high-school and undergraduate students -- organised themselves under different banners and made demands that ranged from ending harassment and intimidation against critics of the government, scrapping outdated school rules and reforming the whole education system, to holding new elections, amending the constitution, and reforming the monarchy itself (this demand is widely seen as the most radical and unheard of in recent Thai history).

The current student movement started prior to the Covid-19 lockdown earlier this year, when the Future Forward Party, which won 20% of the parliamentary seats in the 2019 election, was dissolved. This incident sparked a sense of disenfranchisement among young people who are a key support base for this progressive party. During the lockdown, the movement was kept alive thanks to the widespread use of social media. The students returned to the streets as soon as Covid-19 restrictions were relaxed.

While it is tempting to believe the cause of this new student movement is simply dissatisfaction with the dissolution of a party popular among their ranks, we contend that the roots of this dissent run far deeper. The current generation of Thai youth has witnessed prolonged political conflict marked by a series of street protests, two coups, and the military dictatorship, in the context of continued economic stagnation.

Many of them have started to question, rather vocally, the causes of inequalities and injustices inherent in the system, wondering what their future might hold. It is telling that some observers of Thai politics consider the current movement to be reminiscent of the Thai student uprising of the 1970s. Others, however, have suggested that it has gone beyond previous events in Thai history. We tend to agree with the latter not only because of changes in young people, but also because though they are united in dissatisfaction, they are not completely united on the changes they want to see enacted.

We contend that young people today are deeply interested in politics and that they are capable of learning about it and engaging in it meaningfully. Thanks to the expansion of information and communication technology in general -- and social media in particular -- students are no longer restricted by the education model that gives total authority to teachers to determine what they should know.

Once their curiosity latches onto something, they can and often do put in the hard work of pursuing the answers to their own questions. In addition, many students are willing to read history books in earnest to support their movement. This is evident in their references during their rallies to many historical events, most of which were never mentioned in official school textbooks. This attests to the fact that students are capable of thinking for and educating themselves through means of their own choosing.

Yet, being able to choose what to think and believe also means acknowledging that people may hold different views. We observe that while many young people support a progressive agenda and call for changes, a number of youth prefer to keep to the old values, especially those who call themselves Thai-pak-dee. They too are willing to come out and express their ideas in public and criticise the progressive wing. In between, there are young people whose views are yet to be fully formed. This heterogeneity of opinions, therefore suggests a need for dialogue not only among the youth but also across generations.

What are the implications of this for Thailand's education system? We argue that current education practices are ill-equipped to provide relevant learning experiences to young citizens. One might go so far as to say that the dominant paradigm of contemporary Thai education denigrates the intellectual and moral capacities of young people by prioritising discipline, order, and the mere transfer of a sanctioned body of knowledge.

Unlike the generation before them, many students today no longer want to conform to rigid school rules and top-down culture which they were never a part of creating. Young people are searching for a new communal life: one that is more open, more tolerant to different ideas and identities, and more equal.

To stay relevant, education must respect the agency of students. It must be fundamentally democratic in its value and processes. We contend that the Community of Philosophical Enquiry (CoPE) offers a way forward for Thai education in these troubled times. Although this teaching approach has seen expansion in the US to other parts of the world, it is still in its infancy in Thailand.

We think its idea and practice offer a promising line of reform. In its simplest form, this method asks students to sit in a circle and carry out a dialogue on questions they are genuinely curious about, with the teacher acting as a facilitator of that conversation. The questions are often related to big ideas or values relevant to everyday life, while the dialogue encourages students to think critically and carefully about what is being discussed. Experiences from teachers and students who participated in the pilot project being carried out by the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University, reported an increased willingness on behalf of students to listen to one another and share their own thoughts.

Students who partook in this practice learned to think together and build on each other's ideas, or contest them with reasons. Through the enquiry process, students develop the capacity to empathise with others and speak their own mind with intellectual humility.

This method creates a safe space for dialogue in school and university classrooms, which provides a platform for students with different views to learn about and accept one another's perspectives with care and consideration. More than a mere teaching method, however, CoPE's openness to nuanced stances and experimental commitment to beliefs, we contend, is something that can contribute to the democratic process. The more young people are habituated in this form of dialogue through their educational processes, the more likely they will be able to collectively envision a common future that is fair and just for everyone.

Vachararutai Boontinand and Pii Arporniem, Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University.

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