Shifting the Thai education paradigm

Nicha Pittayapongsakorn

Preparing youngsters for the 21st century is one of the major challenges of any education system. The Thai education system is struggling to carry out this mission despite countless reform attempts. Is there any alternative view to look at this issue and what are the new strategies for changing the system?

National education is a gigantic social process in which millions of people – students, teachers, parents, administrators and policymakers – continually interact. Changing such social process by external force is arduous since every single individual would respond to it according to his or her internal paradigm: a framework, accumulated from past experiences, which shapes how one perceives the world, behaves and makes decision. To make change possible in such a system, a paradigm shift is necessary.

Paradigm shift is a term coined by Thomas Kuhn, an American philosopher, referring to a phenomenon that fundamentally changes an existing common worldview such as when mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proved that the earth is not the centre of the universe but revolves around the sun.

Most agents in the Thai education system, including parents, still cling to the 20th-century paradigm which places high value on higher education degrees as a guarantee of job security. Many children, while facing unpredictable changes, are forced to choose a certain profession according to their parents’ static worldview.

It is no longer uncommon to see top corporates superseded by start-ups, advanced technology taking over most unskilled jobs and AI surpassing human intelligence. Students must be equipped with a new skill set which is not taught in schools today.

In the 20th century, access to information was limited. Schooling then had a mere purpose of transferring as much knowledge as possible to students. This was reflected by content-based curricula and rote learning. Whilst in the 21st century, access to information becomes limitless; therefore, competitiveness comes from information literacy, complex problem solving and critical thinking skills which are not the main focus in most Thai classrooms today.

In addition, under the threat of imperialism in the 20th century, much of Thai history lessons was designed to maintain national identity and pass on nationalism to the next generations. However, we are living in the world where people across the globe are connected more than ever. Acknowledgement of cultural diversity and ability to work in a globalised environment are crucial for a next-generation professional world.

Realising this challenge, more and more public and private organisations are taking part in education reform initiatives. However, they face many obstacles especially in innovating schools and classrooms since most school-level initiatives require authorisation from the highly centralised Ministry of Education. Moreover, these organisations usually work in different areas with diverse interventions. Even if some initiatives are deemed successful, their impact is so scattered that they cannot change the education system and influence policymakers and the public.

In order to shift the paradigm of the Thai education system, two mechanisms are proposed by the Thailand Education Partnership, of which 16 organisations, including the TDRI, are founding partners.

First, change agents must collaborate to make visible and concrete improvement in students’ learning outcome to demonstrate to the public what the new paradigm is all about.

This can be jumpstarted by setting up a small number of “Special Education Areas” as “sandboxes” to innovate in a new environment unshackled by centralised policies and regulations. From these areas, lessons learned from successful interventions will be extracted to be used in other parts of the country.

Second, a social movement to communicate the new paradigm will be built through an “Education Summit”, a forum for change agents and stakeholders to steer public opinions toward a common vision of desirable education outcomes. The first Thailand Education Summit, hosted by Thailand Education Partnership, is planned to take place in May and will be held regularly to sustain the momentum.

In contrast to many reforms in the past, the suggested mechanisms aim at reforming the Thai education system through experiments and communication which would lead to paradigm shifts, instead of trying to change the structure of the Ministry of Education by laws.

When an individual paradigm is stuck in the previous century, reality and expectations collide. Rethinking what our children should learn is an urgent task that requires understanding of the nation’s future challenges and opportunities. Only when the paradigm of parents, teachers and policymakers reflects current and future reality, will our students learn things relevant to the world they live in.

Nicha Pittayapongsakorn is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First Published: Bangkok Post onĀ Wednesday, January 10, 2018