Want children to learn? Encourage them to ask questions. Better still, help them to get the answers. This should be a norm in schools. Sadly, fostering a questioning mind is an exception rather than the rule in the Thai education system.
But some exceptional schools in Satun province in southern Thailand offer a glimmer of hope.
In an Education Sandbox learning model for primary school students in Satun, a group of Prathom 5 and 6 students stepped out of their classrooms to learn about their communities.
The model is an education reform project conducted by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) and other organisations such as local administration bodies in Satun province and companies, to find out models to develop learning among children. The project started in 2019 and was carried into 2020 despite some hiccups during the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the project's initial findings confirm that inquisitive minds are conducive to education development, something that Thai education sorely needs. The project researchers found that underneath their shy surface, students involved in the project had a lot of topical and interesting questions. Why is our village fund in the red? Why is our village paying so much for electricity? Aren't there any solutions?
They did not only ask. They wanted to find the answers. They wanted to help. And they did.
To find the answer about the village fund in Tha Malai village, grade 6 students at Ban Ta Lo So School formed a team to find how much the fund was in debt and located the people who did not return the borrowed money. When some of them found that their parents were on the list, they asked questions and their parents promptly paid up.
The curiosity of Prathom 5 students at Anuban Satun School about high electricity costs would result in the Si Yaek Kok Pet community saving a huge amount of money. The young researchers did so by going through past electricity bills of the whole community, did some maths, and offered a few different ways to reduce the electricity costs. As a result, the community electricity bill the following month went down 200,000 baht.
Asking questions and trying to find the answers gave the children many skills. They learned how to do accounting, how to communicate their ideas -- and convince -- the adults. They learned how access to credit and electricity are lifelines of their community. More importantly, they learned how to be active citizens which helps reinvigorate their community's well-being.
This is the power of a questioning mind. This is what could be achieved if the education system gave up rote learning to nurture children's curiosity and encourage them to ask questions.
The project also revealed that education is the duty of everyone, not just the teachers and schools.
As shown by the two schools, the new learning model is effective because the students and school teachers had full support from their communities.
The first component of the model is "tri-teacher", a collaborative teaching method that involves parents, representatives of the community, and school teachers.
The second one encourages students to learn and pose questions about their immediate surroundings, then use a research method to find innovative solutions.
The school teachers play a key role in the research-based learning process. They help the children survey the community, find the topics suited to the children's interests, sharpen research questions, and evaluate the children's learning development. They also coordinate with the community elders who are well-versed in local know-how and ecological systems, and they work with the parents in designing learning activities and homework.
However, for most of today's teachers, their hands are tied. Classroom teaching must follow the core curriculum designed by officials in Bangkok. They are also already overloaded with various non-teaching duties.
It makes it hard for them to take on an innovative learning model, such as the Education Sandbox, when it means more extra work.
But it is still possible.
The last component of the project allows schools to combine the core curriculum with local materials to answer local needs. Schools then can use the tri-teacher model and the students' research questions to create a local and relevant curriculum that involves the parents and community elders to meet local needs.
Thanks to its success in strengthening the students' characters and learning abilities, the number of schools that adopted the Education Sandbox learning model increased from 10 to 14 last year.
Also, thanks to the support from "Team Satun" which consists of Satun parents and teachers associations, prominent schools, local academics and researchers, the Satun Chamber of Commerce, and the Young Entrepreneur Chamber of Commerce, the issue of education improvement has become known as the "Satun Agenda".
Although Team Satun has no part in educational management, the group is active in educational development by working with other stakeholders to set the goals and strategies. Their support plays a key role in making the new model accepted and implemented more widely in Satun.
However, the majority of teachers in Satun are still hesitant.
Despite their success with the new model, some teachers asked for a transfer because they could not cope with the double workload from having to work with two teaching systems at the same time without concrete policy support.
This is the next challenge for Team Satun. Apart from retaining the current teachers in this new learning model, Team Satun needs to attract a new generation of teachers who believe in fostering the students' questioning minds.
Another challenge is the bureaucracy.
At present, local educational officials such as the directors of educational districts and school superintendents need to follow the Education Ministry's standards and key indicators in the performance evaluation system. This annual report is mandatory. Its agenda may differ from year to year based on the government's annual focus.
Therefore, using the annual report might not be able to trace long-term changes, especially with those schools implementing the Education Sandbox learning model which requires uninterrupted feedback for continuous improvement.
The Education Sandbox Advocacy Board has recently been set up to overcome bureaucratic hindrances. The board consists of active citizens from the government sector, business, and civil society in and outside educational circles.
This advocacy board is pushing for educational development and policy change by serving as a bridge between Team Satun and the Education Ministry's policymakers.
To support the teachers who are key players in education reform, the advocacy board conveys to the policymakers the teachers' needs such as a change in the performance evaluation system as well as support for local innovations instead of sticking to top-down orders that do not answer local needs.
The teachers and the principals are following in their students' footsteps. They are asking what is wrong with the education system. They are offering options to nurture life-long learning skills. And they are asking for change.
If the central authorities listen, this innovative participatory educational model will grow beyond Satun. If learning is the Education Ministry's goal, not top-down control, then the Satun model may well soon lead to education reform.
Change is possible. All it takes is to allow students to ask questions.
Phusima Pinyosinwat is a researcher at Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.