Civic study can help make solid citizens
In 2004, the United Nations declared that Civic Education For All was a resolution for the new millennium and a mandate for the United Nations Development Programme. The initiative was focused on nurturing respect for all, building a sense of belonging in humanity and helping learners become responsible and active global citizens.
The Thai government has tried to imbue civic education in the country's education policy and practices. Indeed, there is the National Education Act 1999. Yet a tangible outcome has been yet to be seen.
Educators knew the country needs more supportive framework to realise its Civic Education For All goal. Therefore, policy makers and lawmakers have drafted the amendment to Act.
Unfortunately, the draft of the amendment has been cobwebbed in the law-vetting process for eight years. This is such a waste of time. The amended version is clearly written to clear hurdles such as centralised education policy, rote learning and classroom-based teaching. The amendment will focus on making education create not only able and competitive students but kind and responsible citizens.
Yet there is no reason to be hopeless. Indeed, some private schools refuse to wait and went with civic learning in their schools.
Few yet inspiring examples are: Roong-aroon school in Bangkok owned by Assoc Prof Prapapat Niyom, Darunsikkhalai School for Innovative Learning in Bangkok by Paron Israsena Na Ayudhya, Moobandek School by the Foundation for Children in Kanchanburi province as well as Bamboo School, known as Mechai Pattana School, in Buri Ram province.
I found these schools are trailblazers, not only examples of how to create good citizens. Some of these schools can help reduce poverty and create a sustainable society.
The example is Bamboo School -- which is built by strong yet flexible bamboo canes.
The school has been in operation for 14 years, with 146 students in Mattayom 1 to Mattayom 6. The school has provided education access to poor families without parents paying education fees. Instead, it is the students that have to "pay" by planting trees and doing good deeds.
To embed students with vocational skills and respect for nature, the school asks the children to grow their own vegetables.
For sanitation, every student has to assume a cleaner's role and look after each public area in the school.
Since hunger can never be understood by reading a textbook, students learn about it by skipping dinner every Saturday.
And to appreciate the challenges faced by people with disability, students have to sit in a wheelchair once a week when watering their vegetation plots.
Every week, all the children must write three letters to their parents, relatives, friends and people they respect, such as former teachers. This practice helps them organise their thoughts and feelings in a systematic way and keeps them away from their mobile phones. Students get to use the phone for one hour a week -- only after they have submitted the letters.
Every student has to take at least one sport and one musical instrument subject. They learn to play well enough to perform in a band.
Rather than praying and asking for the help of divine intervention, students are taught to stand calmly before the "metta shrine" in front of the classroom. They make good wishes for their loved ones, sick people, war-torn families and those who are suffering.
Students get to elect their own representatives in the school council. The councillor's jobs include interviewing teacher candidates and student candidates. They take care of school purchases and control the quality of the meals cooked by the kitchen staff. They also take care of environmental and ethical issues.
The council is autonomous, self-driven and empowered to take actions it sees fit. This is a great learning experience for becoming a good leader and follower, as well as understanding how a well-functioning democratic society should look like.
Every student would come to realise that to really learn something, one must put it into practice. Each child has the freedom to choose what they want to learn by carrying the lesson out individually or with their peers. This approach gives a sense of ownership because their actions will reap the benefits that will positively impact their own future.
Another important activity is how each student gets to pair up with an elderly in a village to create an additional source of income. This could be planting vegetables or raising chickens to be sold to the school. The school can source ingredients locally and at the same time creates jobs for senior people in the community.
I have visited the school five times, most recently in May. Mechai Viravaidya, chairman and owner of Mechai Pattana School, told me his school can provide lessons about financial sustainability.
"There are 32,000 schools in the country. The government budget for school lunch is 30 billion baht. If every school engages with local communities to grow vegetables, raise chickens and fish, and sell the products to the schools, this will create food security for all the students in Thailand, as well as create new jobs for senior people, and lessen the burden on the government tremendously. This is what our school is already doing in Kok Klang sub-district, Lamplaimat district, Buri Ram province," he said.
For Mechai Pattana, producing "good people" is prioritised over producing "smart people".
This is because in our world today, consumerism is much more powerful than environmentalism, competition outweighs collaboration and contention is much more common than generosity.
Young people are taught to win, to be number one, to be superior to others so that they can have more wealth and status in order to consume more and lead a comfortable life. "Happiness" as many people know it is defined by affluence and luxury. This spells a dead end of education because it is based on selfishness.
This new way of education that imparts virtuous habits which bring about capability and integrity has become a new landmark in the education circles. Now Bamboo School has created a network of partnership schools that is being practised in over 200 institutions in Thailand. The United Nations Population Fund has also praised Bamboo School as one of the most innovative schools in the world.
As education's new landmark, Bamboo School and its partner schools, such as Wat Ko School in Rayong province which Prayut Chan-o-cha visited in 2018, are taking strides to produce active citizens. The amended version of the National Education Act 1999 has no sign to become law, a group of serious educators are paving the way for education reform with intent and determination instead.
In future, the government -- which must initiate and enable education reform -- will have to follow private educators' footsteps.
Prasarn Marukpitak is former senator.