Thailand schools should focus on critical thinking: The Nation

Proposed structural reform of Thailand's school system will not eradicate cultural barriers to learning.

The National Reform Council (NRC) has submitted proposals to the government for a major overhaul of the country's education system.

"If the government fully implements our proposed reform, the country will get efficient human resources," NRC member Prapapat Niyom vowed.

The plan would decentralise control over educational services by giving more responsibility to provincial and local authorities. A citizens' network would serve as a check-and-balance mechanism, monitoring services at all levels.

The proposal includes changes in funding, with budget allocated directly to educational institutes and students in a bid to make schooling accessible to all, in line with advances made in the public-health system.

Also recommended is an overhaul of the learning system so that it better meets the demands of the economy. Teachers would no longer be recruited on the basis of their exam results alone. The NRC also believes that the practice of transferring teachers outside their home regions should be scrapped so as to prevent lobbying and bribery for positions in preferred locations.

Finally, the plan calls for the establishment of a National Educational and Human Development Policy Board to formulate policies on human resources, direct reform efforts and advise ministers and Parliament.

It is not yet clear, however, what level of authority this board would enjoy. In the absence of real power to implement policy, it could end up toothless, its recommendations ignored.

All the proposed changes are structural in nature and do little to tackle existing social and cultural barriers that have long blocked improvements to the education system. Chief among these is the fact that students are taught to fol?low orders rather than thinking for themselves.

Here, the so-called 12 National Values, which promote order, conformity and respect for authority, warrant close scrutiny. The fact that the NRC has ignored the negative influence of these "values" on the learning process is unfortunate and bodes ill for its efforts to upgrade our school regime.

The belief that Thai students lack essential intellectual curiosity is widespread. Ask business leaders - Thai or foreign - about the latest crop of graduates and the answer will more likely than not be a lament about their lack of creativity.

If we want the next generation of Thai workers to meet the challenges of the modern world, they must be instilled with the courage to ask |questions. Such freedom and curiosity are not only necessary to professional success, but they also foster liberal |values that form the basis of an |open and democratic society.

That ambition has been stymied over the years by government policy that focuses on conformity and order in our schools. The policy was in part dictated by the need to maintain control in schools where large class sizes are the norm. Limiting the number of students per class is something else the NRC might consider.

Bolstering students' critical thinking requires a shift in the mindset of those who make and implement education policy.

Properly qualified teachers and smaller classes are important, and so are curricula that encourage keen thinking. The system's focus on a mechanical process of cramming heads with knowledge just so that students can pass exams must end. For now we care only about information in bulk, forgetting that education should instil genuine understanding.

It's high time we changed this |attitude. The World Bank reported this year that one-third of 15-year-olds in Thailand are "functionally illiterate" - they lack the basic reading skills required to cope in the modern world. This means their chances of finding well-paid jobs are slim to non-existent. Meanwhile the poorly functioning education system is not producing the skilled labour necessary to boosting the country's productivity.

The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers