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13 September 2023
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Making education keep up with change

Thai children spend long hours in school. In fact, their school hours are among the longest in the world. But is all that classroom learning actually worth it in the real world?

The new education minister must answer this question.

The Education Ministry gets the biggest share of Thailand’s national budget every year. The education system certainly needs an overhaul if what students learn in school is not applicable to real life.

This is the challenge that Pol Gen Permpool Chidchob, the new education minister, must resolve.

The poor quality of Thai school learning was brought to light five years ago by the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

It showed that half of Thailand’s 15-year-olds, precisely 52.7%, struggled to apply the mathematics they learned in school to solve everyday problems. That was not all. Nearly 44.5% could not explain common natural phenomena using scientific principles.

These figures are significantly higher than the OECD average of 24% for mathematical application and 22% for scientific explanation.

Alarmingly, this poor performance has not changed much in the past two decades, sparking a crucial question about the quality of Thailand’s education system.

What is the crux of the problem? No, it is not a lack of student effort, inadequate teaching, or insufficient governmental investment in education. The heart of the problem is the heart of education management itself — the curriculum.

Thailand’s universal education system has failed to foster students’ ability to apply what they learn in real life because the core curriculum has not changed in the past two decades.

Despite numerous attempts at educational reform, such as in 2008 and 2017, the core curriculum for students in grades 1 through 12 remains bound by the “essential content” of the curriculum introduced in 2001.

Despite numerous attempts at educational reform, the core curriculum for students in grades 1 through 12 remains bound by the “essential content” of the curriculum introduced in 2001.

In other words, the curriculum for Thai students has not significantly shifted from the content introduced 22 years ago.

The curriculum is a crucial tool to guide educational direction and plays a key role in deciding whether learning can elevate students’ abilities and lead to education reform or not. The curriculum guides everything from teaching methods and materials in the classroom to school policies like staffing and budgeting, all with the aim of improving students’ abilities for optimal learning results.

So, even if there is education reform to produce highly skilled teachers, they still cannot significantly elevate the proficiency of most students when schools are still stuck in the past by adhering to the old curriculum.

Fairly speaking, the Thai curriculum has strengths worth preserving and pressing weaknesses that need immediate rectification.

The most notable strength of the Thai education curriculum is its clear objectives, which turn “learning” into observable actions. For instance, if a student “understands” the material, they should be able to “explain” it verbally. This approach helps teachers choose teaching methods and learning materials with a clear focus on how best to guide students towards their learning goals.

However, many studies similarly point out that the current curriculum fails to foster the all-rounded competencies necessary for coping in today’s fast-changing world.

For students to be able to apply what they learn in school to real life, the education system should focus on building “competencies,” which are a combination of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and appropriate values. It’s not just about emphasising only one aspect, according to the OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030.

For instance, if a student knows English grammar but struggles with speaking or lacks confidence, they won’t be able to communicate effectively.

Similarly, the Future of Jobs Report 2023 by the World Economic Forum stresses that while thinking skills are crucial, the education system should increasingly emphasise “higher-order thinking skills”, especially analytical and creative thinking.

These two skills top the list of competencies required by employers. Consequently, the Office of the Basic Education Commission developed a new curriculum and planned to pilot it by mid-2022.

However, these initiatives were put on hold when they encountered resistance from a group of teachers who contended that such an urgent curriculum change, without their input, may have been prompted by the interests of specific textbook publishers.

In the end, some influential people in the Prayut administration decided to put a stop to the curriculum experiment, reasoning that changing the curriculum would affect textbook production, require more teacher training, and place financial burdens on parents for having to buy new textbooks.

What transpired highlights the difficulties of curriculum changes, which risk failure if they do not meet the demands of various stakeholders. The educational system affects different groups, from students and parents to educators, administrators, and textbook publishers, as well as society at large. Therefore, all parties have a stake and vested interests to safeguard in any upcoming changes.

Introducing a new curriculum is a huge challenge. To overcome the obstacles, it’s vital for all parties to recognise that curriculum development should prioritise students’ interests. Collaborative efforts and open dialogue are key to creating a curriculum that better serves students, free from any vested interests.

Simultaneously, government agencies in charge of curriculum development should manage the political and economic interests of relevant groups to avoid future obstacles. It is also essential to avoid top-down decisions by a few powerful individuals and promote participation from all interest groups so they can reach a consensus on the major curriculum reform decisions.

Education Minister Permpool must give serious thought to curriculum reform. If it doesn’t begin, the Pisa test results, which will be released late this year, as well as those in the coming years, are likely to echo the dismal performance of Thai students over the past two decades.

No wonder. As the old curriculum stresses rote learning without analytical thinking and creativity, what is taught as “knowledge” is becoming obsolete in a fast-changing world.

When the education system is mired in the past while the rest of the world forges ahead, the future appears grim, not just for our children but for the entire nation.

Writer : Nattawut Permjit is a researcher at Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI)

First Publish: On Bangkok Post 13 September 2023