‘Education sandbox’: Reforming the way to reform

Nicha Pittayapongsakorn

Public education is sensitive to policy interventions, often with unintended consequences. Some changes such as an increase in teacher rewards or a tweak in curriculum design can cause a long-lasting effect on how schools operate, how teachers teach and ultimately how students learn.

The Thai education system is under pressure not only to catch up with other countries and but also to keep pace with technological changes. Thus the government has tried to improve the system with many reform initiatives designed to produce better outcomes, so far without success.

The 1999 National Education Act was one of major reform milestones. Its creation of school districts in charge of supporting and managing schools within a geographical area was a remarkable step towards decentralisation. However, school districts have provided little support to schools under their supervision, mainly due to the lack of capacity. Without the capacity to help, they inadvertently switch their role to ardently follow centralised commands from the Education Ministry. The act turned out to create the opposite of what it aimed for, and generated a costly administration that burdens schools as well as the country’s budget.

Back in 2006, Singapore’s Ministry of Education launched the “Teach Less, Learn More” initiative to alleviate the pressure of rote learning and to equip students with skills needed for the 21st century, which requires, among other things, critical thinking, creativity and communication ability.

A decade later, the Thai government implemented a similar initiative called “Moderate Class, More Knowledge” in some pilot schools. It mandated the cutting of instructional hours and obliged these schools to organise more extracurricular activities.

Due to most teachers’ limited capacity to design effective activities, many schools filled those empty hours with trivial activities that were not useful. Some students even used the hours to cram for national tests. Despite signs of failure, the government expanded the move to all public schools in 2017.

The above examples demonstrate that even well-intentioned initiatives can create adverse effects. Policy makers are often excited by innovations and novel concepts such as project-based learning (PBL), 21st century skills and professional learning communities (PLCs). With the absence of a solid implementation record and capacity building, wide-scale roll out in schools nationwide is prone to failure. Worse, burdened with the extra workload from implementing and reporting various projects, teachers have no time or energy left for quality teaching.

Introducing innovation into the public sector, including the public education system, is challenging but feasible. OECD studies show that successful changes requires four areas of action: building the culture and norms to facilitate new ways of working, facilitating free flow of information across the public sector, promoting new organisational structures and partnerships, and adjusting rules and regulations that hinder innovation.

The last area is crucial in the context of Thailand. With many unclear and burdensome regulations, creating innovation is not only futile but can also be dangerous to the innovators. For example, using public money to buy teaching materials outside the approved list can get a teacher in trouble.

To create new major features, software developers create a safe environment called a “sandbox” which is used in several fields. Financial regulators around the world, including the Bank of Thailand, are creating “regulatory sandboxes” in order to encourage financial technology innovation under more flexible rules while ensuring customer protection.

In the same fashion, an “education sandbox” is needed to safely introduce new practices into the Thai education system. An education sandbox in the form of “special school districts” can allow innovative approaches to improve student outcomes – from school district management to teaching methods.

Such area-based education sandboxes can also promote new forms of partnerships and collaborations among the central government, local administration agencies, such as Provincial Administration Organisation and Provincial Education Committee, and private and social sectors in the area as well as outside expert and volunteer groups to help create capacity for schools and teachers.

An obvious innovation that can be introduced inside the sandbox is to adapt the education system to fit specific context and challenges of the area. Lessons learned will provide policy feedback to the wider education system and guide policy makers towards more effective reform initiatives, making nationwide reform more likely to be successful.

Unlike previous policy reforms, the education sandbox will reform the way the government undertakes reforms. In a fast-changing world, major corporations are creating their own small unit of innovation to get ahead of the curve and avoid being disrupted. Similarly, the government should create the education sandbox to answer the urgent demand for quality education with innovative and evidence based policy.