Dinosaurs must confront reality

The whole country, from the prime minister down, has been talking education, bandying about two words in particular: “innovation” and “technology”. This culminated in an education fair entitled EdTex, held at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, where the consensus was that for Thailand to survive, it needs an education system that is both innovative and technological.

This is a wonderful thing to aspire to. While academics espoused opinions and theories (me being one of them), the big elephant in the fairground was the idea that perhaps Thailand doesn’t really want innovation and technology.

Because innovation and technology are on the opposite side of the spectrum to what the education system is today, namely “tradition” and “obeisance”.

These are heady times for the Thai education system. Last Monday the prime minister called for an overhaul of education at a time when, academically, the whole system is upside down. And that’s a nice way to describe it.

What is wrong? Just about everything. The national curriculum calls for “student-centred learning” but the majority of classrooms are still steeped in the traditional century-old method of teacher instructing students, and not a word out of those students either unless spoken to.

National examination scores aren’t great. Last year the nation collectively failed all five subjects on the O-Net test; that is, the average scores couldn’t hit 50%. No prizes for guessing English was the worst subject of the five, with some of the remote border provinces scoring an average of as little as 17%.

This year’s scores are allegedly better, according to the government body that sets the exam. The country passed one subject, Thai language, with an average national score that just scraped above 50%. This is apparently good news, though failing four out of five subjects would never have been good news to my parents when I was a kid.

There are other challenges. Student numbers are falling because of an ageing population. Private universities are laying off teachers and not renewing contracts for the simple reason there is nobody to teach.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry plods along, dinosaur that it is, with the same age-old structure and philosophies, marching towards that meteorite about to crash into Earth and wreak mass destruction.

Amid all this there is a call for innovation and technology.

These are the two catchwords of this new era. They are at the heart of Thailand 4.0, a government-instigated campaign to push Thailand into the 21st century.

For Thailand to survive, or to be a competitor in the Asean region and on the world stage, it needs to embrace both innovation and technology. Who would argue with that?

But could Thailand really cope with innovation?

One of the biggest criticisms of the Thai education system is that it does not foster critical thinking. Every prominent Thai academic, politician, instructor and educator makes this statement.

Instead the Thai education system is top-heavy in rote learning; students are expected to know the names of the kings of the late Ayutthaya period, for example, including their dates of reign. That’s it.

Meanwhile, at school, kids are expected to learn the “12 Values of a Good Thai Student” off by heart. These include things like loving your country, religion and king (rule #1) and respecting your elders (#7).

For innovation to occur, Thai students need to be able to criticise, synthesise and evaluate. But does Thai society really want its young people to criticise, synthesise and evaluate?

Critical thinking is all about challenging the norms. It’s about looking at facts, breaking them down, putting them back together and making value judgements on them.

It’s asking the question “What do you think?” and allowing the freedom of expressing opinions, which may just veer from your own. Thailand’s rote-infested classrooms are hardly the environment for a child wishing to engage in critical analysis.

I am trying to imagine a young student, in the middle of rote-learning those 12 Values Of A Good Thai Student, putting her hand up and saying: “Why should I love my country, teacher, when so many of our politicians and government workers are corrupt?”

Or her friend, sitting next to her, adding: “I don’t have a religion, teacher. I’m an atheist. Why does that make me a bad person?”

Or the student near the window suddenly asking: “This business about respecting elders. Does that extend to those corrupt politicians and government workers? Do I have to wai them too?”

Such students exist only in my imagination, and in the current climate they should stay there. I dare not imagine the suffering they would go through for making such views known.

“Innovation” sounds like such a good word, but when students start to challenge and critically analyse, inevitably society comes down on them like a ton of bricks. Meet Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, for instance, who at the ripe old age of 21 years has been a student activist for six years now.

Netiwit, bespectacled and stern-looking, is well known in the Thai media as a student who challenges the norms. He’s currently in the faculty of political science at Chulalongkorn University and in first year managed to get himself elected university president.

When he was still in high school, he came out against rigid rules such as standardised haircuts. “Why do we all have to look the same?” he asked in the media.

He is against the culture of hazing at universities, where senior students subject freshmen to humiliating acts all in the name of creating harmony, and usually killing one or two students per year in the process. Last year he proclaimed himself a conscientious objector over the draft.

The biggest shock came just a week or so ago. Chulalongkorn University is named after King Rama V, who was a progressive king best remembered for abolishing slavery and discontinuing the practice of prostrating oneself before a king.

There is a ritual for all new Chulalongkorn students to go to the statue of King Rama V on Ratchadamnoen Avenue and prostrate themselves before it. Netiwit chose instead to stand and pay his respects.

He incurred the wrath of staunch royalists and conservatives, including the prime minister, who criticised the boy for disrupting tradition. Netiwit shot back that the prime minister himself had disrupted the democratic tradition of Thailand three years ago and had no right to accuse him of such a thing. Like him or not, Netiwit earns kudos for courage.

Netiwit’s beliefs come from critically evaluating a situation. Why is it necessary to prostrate oneself before a statue? It is, after all, just a statue, and one of a king who abolished, ironically, prostrating before kings.

Yes, the older Thai generation, this is what you must look forward to if indeed you want your youth to have skills in criticising, synthesising and evaluating. But it is exactly what Thailand needs.

Netiwit is considered a radical student with ideas that extend way beyond the confines of Thai culture. And yet, isn’t innovation just that — searching for new ideas and methods beyond the norm?

Netiwit is is also labelled a troublemaker, but that is exactly what Thailand needs. It needs a bevy of troublemakers willing to instigate upheaval in the education system.

Look at all the countries surrounding us in this region who are making strides in education while we get left behind in our muddle of rote and tradition.

As painful as it may sound, the likes of Netiwit will help propel Thailand forward into this new Thailand 4.0 era.

There is no alternative other than that meteor strike, which is as inevitable as it will be welcome.