Thai education system needs fundamental reform

Thai society, as part of the current "reform process", is accepting proposals to improve its education system. However, piecemeal ideas are not going to last long in the face of systemic failures and the huge obstacles in any high face, client/patron system which sees learners as "children", even at university level.

What is needed is a guiding educational philosophy that adds something more progressive to the current education system. The educator and educational philosopher Paulo Freire, building on the thinking of educators such as John Dewey, described the traditional education system as the "banking model" because it sees a learner as an empty bank that needs to be filled with valuable knowledge in what is basically a transfer from one, more powerful person (the teacher) to a less powerful person (the child).

Obviously, it can be reassuring for children of a certain age to know that they exist in a clear power structure controlled by notions of family, patron/client relationships and seniority. However, in later years, such a structure can create what Freire called a "Culture of Silence": an inability to critically assess society and its problems.

This Culture of Silence obstructs what both Dewey and Freire agreed is the main point of education: the improvement of society — such as the community round a school, or the town that has a university — or a city, or a country.

Freire proposed as a solution "Critical Pedagogy". Many Thais will have heard of "critical thinking". Critical thinking, as applied in a classroom to a reading exercise, asks the basic "wh" questions of the text. Who wrote it? When? Where? What does this help tell us about why it was written?

Critical Pedagogy applies critical thinking to a whole society and is essentially a problem-based, learner-oriented, rational and humanistic attempt to break down the Culture of Silence.

Someone viewing the Thai education system through the lens of Critical Pedagogy would see systemic problems that need to be resolved. For example, the Thai education system is heavily militarised, and this helps enforce the Culture of Silence.

Teachers do not need to have uniforms that make them look like military officers. Medals can look fine on normal clothing.

In turn, university students should have the option not to wear uniforms that essentially make them look like schoolchildren except, perhaps, on special occasions such as Father’s Day. This does not mean that dress codes should not apply, as they do in many conservative religious Western universities.

In addition, scouting as a mandatory subject at high school should be reconsidered. Schoolchildren are already heavily regimented through other activities, such as saluting the flag. Also, Thailand already has a military conscription system.

These might sound like impossible demands from someone who does not understand "Thainess". But some sectors of society have already adapted their Thainess and decided to act. Take doctors and healthcare professionals.

In terms of educational subjects, most in the medical profession learned a hundred years ago that anatomy needed real subjects (corpses). The study of anatomy led in turn to the development of surgery and required problem-based learning through the very nature of the subject, for example tackling diseases such as appendicitis.

A decent medical education system takes this a step further. It asks doctors and healthcare professionals to examine wider society and through community-based research so comes to epidemiology — the study of patterns within health problems, such as bird flu. And even further, it asks medical professionals to examine what are called diseases of the poor.

And then Critical Pedagogy goes one step beyond: it asks doctors and healthcare professionals what the existing power structures are that keep those people poor and unhealthy. And it asks them to, if necessary, become politicised in order to solve these social problems.

Crucially, Thai doctors and healthcare professionals have recently become more politicised than ever before, with the majority supporting the PDRC reform process in the face of what they view as overwhelming corruption.

This involvement is because of a genuine, rational and humanistic position based on reasoning and love. It is what Paulo Freire called "Conscientisation" — an awakening to the fact that corruption, unnecessary bureaucracy, machine politics and power differentials due to, for example, race and class make the health system that they work in a poorer place. In other words, the weakest in society are the hurt, the poor and the unhealthy.

So, doctors and health care professionals are currently leading the way in attacking full on the Culture of Silence that protects the machine politicians, the patron/client system, and the culture of corruption and impunity that exists in Thailand.

If doctors can, others can, too. The teachers and university lecturers of Thailand are, as a body, a huge potential for social change. If just a large minority of them can take what they already know of critical reading and action research and apply it not just to teaching children but to changing the management of their schools, they can become positive factors in changing their communities. They can lead their schools to examine issues of poverty and inequity, and they can provide leadership in the wider community.

This route is not without danger. Schoolteachers following such a path to, for example, protect their local forest, have been shot and killed in Thailand. This is where the politically more powerful public universities need to lead the way.

And this danger is also why there needs to be something more — a people’s movement, a political party brave enough to fundamentally change Thailand’s education system — and so wider society.

John Draper is Project Officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme at College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.

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About the author

Writer: John Draper