The world leader in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests is working on its weaknesses while Thailand’s Pisa performance continues to lag far behind, yet both countries face similar challenges.
China’s basic education this decade has captured international attention with Shanghai-China’s top scores in Pisa tests for two consecutive rounds. However, Chinese basic education is still faced with a burgeoning list of challenges, much like Thailand, a fact that should encourage the two countries to learn from each other.
“We are not satisfied with Pisa. We want to go beyond,” said Professor Wang Lu of Beijing Normal University (BNU), China’s leading institution for high-level education. “Pisa reported only Shanghai, but we still need to narrow the gap of educational quality between regions.
“The access issue was already solved. Now China needs balanced development which promotes fairness in standards of compulsory education. In addition, Pisa measures only cognitive skills, so we decided to make our own assessment that can measure students’ personalities.
“The Faculty of Education of BNU has been working hard to develop such an assessment because we want students’ development to be rounded, reflecting comprehensive educational quality. Regrettably, the bottleneck is at the teachers’ level. They are still teaching in the same way —teacher-centred, not student-centred,” the professor added.
The outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) and Thailand’s (draft) Roadmap of Education Reform (2015-2021) have emphasised the importance of teaching and learning reform in a similar way. As stated in the Chinese reform outline, “Education should always be student-oriented, with teachers playing a leading role in order to mobilise the initiatives of the students … so that everyone can be taught what they want to learn, excel at what they learn, and put what they have learned into use.”
In Thailand, a decade before the introduction of the current reform roadmap, the National Education Act of 1999 and amendments emphasised learner-centred pedagogy along with authentic assessments and the reform of the university admission system in order to eliminate teaching to the test and rote-learning completely across the country. Unfortunately, 14 years later, radical changes have not yet reached a satisfactory level.
Analysts usually view the quality of teachers as an important factor, but the improvement of teacher training alone is not the panacea for all educational problems.
As a former school teacher, both in Thailand and a Scandinavian country, I believe that school teachers in Thailand have been equipped with sufficient knowledge, understanding and skills to apply the learner-centred pedagogy in their own classrooms. Certainly, no student teacher would pass his or her teaching examinations without demonstrating the ability to employ this.
Teachers in elite schools in Thailand can perform as well as teachers in richer countries. However, the motivation of many teachers to apply the ideal teaching methodologies they learned in college in their classrooms every day might be undermined once they are surrounded by demotivated students and colleagues, insufficient learning materials, and heavy off-instruction workloads.
Of these school conditions, the students’ passion for learning is of paramount importance, but 33.2% of Thai students who participated in Pisa 2012 reported that they skipped classes or took days off school. Pisa 2012 further pointed out that many students are not engaged with schools and learning and do not make the most of the learning opportunities available to them. Their passive approach to education is widely reported in school systems that are stratified and inequitable.
In China, promoting balanced development is one of the three development missions of compulsory education. The other two missions are consolidating nine years of compulsory education and lessening the burden of schoolwork on students.
Standardised schools are promoted by distributing teachers, equipment, books and other resources in a balanced manner and by targeting underprivileged areas.
The range of teaching quality between schools is minimised in a down-to-earth way by exchanges of teachers and school principals within counties. Since 2004, the government has encouraged outstanding urban college graduates to work in rural schools for three years to qualify for a government-subsidised, two-year master’s degree.
In 2006, the compulsory-education law required urban teachers to work in rural schools in order to secure promotion. In 2007, the government committed itself to support trainee teachers at the top six teaching universities by providing tuition waivers on the condition that the student agreed to work in a primary or middle school for at least 10 years and spend the first two years in a rural school.
In addition, the Chinese Outline for Education Reform further states that, “No elite schools and classes shall be installed in compulsory education. Under the prerequisite that school-age children and adolescents should attend public schools near home, non-governmental schools shall be developed to offer more schooling choices.”
The Thai government has been similarly preoccupied with fairness in educational resource allocation and the school twinning project was initiated in 1996 to facilitate technical assistance from the high-quality schools in Bangkok to schools in rural areas.
More vigorous government initiatives might be inspired by the Chinese policies which are designed to bring qualified teachers to rural regions, especially when there is discussion of whether the government should close the poor-quality, small-scale schools.
However, not all the aspirations included in Chinese reform policies can really be put into practice. For example, in Sichuan province, the system of urban and rural teacher exchange has not yet been established; it is of inadequate scope, and the incentive mechanism to promote the rational flow of urban and rural teachers has not proved really effective. Therefore, collaboration between Thailand and China, in terms of balanced development in basic education, is an area where there are common interests in solving common problems, and where the two countries might work together to transform sound policies into radical change.
Wanwisa Suebnusorn is a researcher with the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.
First Published: Bangkok Post, January 21, 2015