Why talk about Thailand in Japan
Japan and Thailand have a lot more in common than you might think. Both countries
have similarily structured educational systems, both have characterized their students
in similar ways, and both have acknowledged a distinct lack of achievement on the part
of their learners to attain a reasonable standard of English proficiency. As a result, both
are engaged in ongoing curricular reforms at the national level. Although the nature of the
reforms themselves are similar and the way in which the respective education ministries
are implementing them is similarly top-down, the extent and depth of the reforms in each
country differ significantly.
Just as we can all learn from other individuals, institutions and education systems
can also learn from each other. It is my hope that by explaining the current situation in
Thailand, teachers in Japan might gain a new perspective on their own situation and
ideas about directions which educational reforms in Japan might take.
Characterising the Thai EFL teaching-learning situation
Thai curriculum is controlled by the Ministry of Education, the National Education
Commission, and the Ministry of University Affairs, which coordinate all higher education
in the country – including sixteen state, twenty-six private universities and thirty-six
teacher colleges (NIO, 1997).
The state education system has the same basic framework as Japan: six years
elementary, three years junior high, three years senior high, and four-year universities.
Currently only six years of elementary schooling are compulsory, although since 1987
efforts have been made to widen access to junior high school with the eventual goal of
nine-year compulsory education (NIO, 1997). Unlike Japan where there is some choice,
in Thailand textbooks are prescribed and the education ministry commissions, edits, prints
and supplies all textbooks for all subjects across the whole country.
Thailand also has a large private sector education system paralleling the state sector.
Generally, the number of English classes in the private sector is much greater than in
state schools. Consequently, private schools (largely run as missionary schools) produce
students who have higher English proficiencies and are considered to be of a higher
status than the state schools.
In discussions with Thai language teachers, students were repeatedly characterized as:
- lacking willingness to speak due to a culturally-based seniority system and 'shyness'
- having an over-emphasis on accuracy
- having an ingrained attachment to rote memorization
This description could easily come from Japanese teachers talking about their
students, but likewise, the following description of English classes by a Thai high-school
student could also come from a Japanese student -
I love to learn English, P.E. and Math. I like to learn about conversation more
than grammar but in my school (most schools in Thailand except international
schools), they only teach us grammar. Not many schools in Thailand teach
students how to speak. If you want to learn conversation, you have to pay a lot
of money to learn at a language school. (Daoruang, 2000)
Why change the system?
". . . the main factor motivating educational reform is economics."
The Thai public is very vocal in showing its dissatisfaction with the state education
system. Students, parents and industry have repeatedly questioned in the national press
why, after twelve years of English education, university students' communicative English
level was lower than expected and in many cases non-functional. They also question
why private schools can achieve better results than state-run institutions.
However, the main factor motivating educational reform is economics. In business,
Malay, Chinese or Philippine go-betweens are often employed to negotiate contracts with
Thai companies. The government decided that rather than have these 'outsiders' involved
and taking some of the profits from Thai businesses, it would be better if the Thai people
could benefit by carrying out their own business negotiations in English.
As part of broader educational reform, in the early nineteen-nineties, the education
ministry invited EFL experts in bilingualism from the UK and the US to form the CRC
(Curriculum Reform Committee). On behalf of the government, they recommended that
English education should start as early as possible. Based on this recommendation, in
1995 the education ministry decided that an extra four years of English education would
be added starting from first grade, rather than fifth.
This major curriculum change was implemented in 1996 for public schools that
were ready willing and able to do so, with all schools given the deadline of 2002 for
implementation. The CRC suggested that the elementary school system lead from an
initial focus on listening and speaking then reading and writing would be introduced in a
theme-based format, after which students should learn in secondary education through
content-based English language instruction. At the same time, the national curricular
reforms shift away from rote memorization to communicative methods, student-centered
learning and the development of critical thinking skills.
Initially, the teaching guidelines for the new curriculum were developed for primary
and secondary education by a mainly British team that focused on the communicative
approach. These were revised after extensive consultation with teachers on the ground.
Next, a new team influenced by the American education system was drafted to develop
the curriculum standards. This produced a rough outline of the Course of Study, which
stated that courses should include the four C's:
- Communication – focus on listening/speaking
- Culture – knowledge of and sensitivity to others
- Connections – links to other subject content
- Community – project work and application outside the classroom
With these ideals, the education ministry set out an ambitious plan for elementary
school education, which controlled teaching methodology and thematic content of lessons.
For the first three grades, students are to be taught listening and speaking using total
physical response (TPR). In the fourth year, students start to learn reading and writing
through theme-based methods, as indicated in Table 1.
Table 1. Thai elementary school education reform plan.
Note: In private schools, students typically receive five hours per week of English instruction from grade one.
|1 (second term)
Results of the change
Pholonon Elementary School in Chiang Mai implemented these curriculum changes
in 1996. Nanci Graves and I visited the school in the spring of 2002 and met some of the
students who had been through this six-year curriculum plan. Chutarut Dethwongya (Oai),
the head of people management and an English teacher told us that the new plan had
made a big difference to the ability levels of the students (personal communication April
22, 2002). To illustrate, she asked three of them to perform their rehearsed presentations,
which were the culmination of specific units in the sixth grade course. Typical themes
used for these courses are festivals, your hometown, the school and its history.
The students prepared posters with illustrations showing a local temple, their school
etc. and a sentence or one or two key words in English. With no preparation these
students recited a ten to fifteen-sentence presentation containing much more information
than the pictures. They delivered their presentations flawlessly and naturally like guides
in a museum describing an exhibit. We were very impressed by the quality of their
oral production, their self-confidence and their ability to field spontaneous questions.
When asked why they liked English, they noted that it was fun and that they enjoyed
the different class activities. One student said that she wanted to become an English
teacher because she admired her teacher and wanted to be like her. She added that she
thought her teacher was kind, that her pronunciation was good, and she liked that her
teacher could communicate so easily with foreigners. The other students we talked to
wanted to be a policewoman (because her father was one. This student was the "class
boss") and a receptionist. They all voiced a desire to use English in the workplace in the
future. Although they are still young (11-12), to have thought about this already at such
a young age is impressive.
Other class projects were to go out and interview twenty foreign tourists (Chiang Mai
is a popular destination for many nationalities and the tourist population is constantly
changing) in order to use English outside the classroom and make it more a part of "real
life" for the students.
Our visit caused quite a stir among the students. Before we reached the administration
office, we were greeted with enthusiastic Hello's and a few How are you's. This
continued through the corridors and while we were talking to Oai. Oai works hard to
find new techniques that will stimulate her students and be useful to other teachers.
- theme-based approaches
- task-based approaches
- whole language learning
- project-based techniques
Large classes (typically around forty students) are no problem for her due to her
use of small group work and encouraging students to be peer teachers: putting the
stronger with the less strong in each group which also uses the culturally-based seniority
system to full advantage. The students are anything but shy and they were willing to try
to communicate without being overly concerned about grammatical accuracy. Although
this is only one case, it does show that when implemented in a structured, thoughtful
manner, these curriculum changes have great potential for the development of the
English ability of Thai students.
No curricular innovation is without challenges. This national curriculum plan currently
faces two problems: the development of teacher quality and the underlying aim of
institutional autonomy. Although both are included in the education reforms and are
framed in ideal terms in the government's plans, the problems lie in their implementation
and are exacerbated by poor organization and the economic situation in the country.
Quality of teaching staff and barriers to professional development
The basic problem is that the general quality of teaching staff is low. Salaries are
low, which makes teaching an unattractive career option. Rather than become teachers,
the most competent language graduates become flight attendants, clerks, receptionists
or find other positions in the private sector. This problem is not limited to language
graduates, but is endemic within the Thai education system. Another major problem is
the poor state of teacher training. Teacher college entrants are predominantly students
who cannot get into university and the education faculties at all national universities have
the students with the lowest academic levels of all the faculties. Generally, teaching is
something that people go into if they are unable to do anything else. Especially at the
elementary levels, teachers are unqualified, the classrooms are overcrowded, and the
focus is on rote memorization and comprehension tests. There is little communication in
classes and teachers know little about communicative approaches to language teaching
(Tantayanusorn, S., personal communication, Chiang Mai University, April 21, 2002).
Even if a teacher wants to become more competent, barriers to professional
development are high. For example, if a student desires to follow a course of doctoral
study, they may apply to a scholarship fund and receive funding for their degree. However,
if they take six years to complete their degree, they are then attached to the scholarship-
granting body in a teaching role (often in the university in which they studied) for a period
of twelve years at a monthly salary of 10,000 Baht ($250 US) – a sum roughly equivalent
to the salary of a nurse or a limousine driver for a five-star hotel.
At a different level, if a teacher wishes to attend a free government-run workshop
which is held on a school day, since they are not teaching on that day, they do not get
paid their regular salary leading to a net loss of income. ERICs (English Resource &
Information Centers originally set up by the British Council and the Ministry of Education
in the early 1990's) are used sporadically by groups of ten to twenty schools to aid
communication and cooperation between schools. Each school takes it in turn to host
an event but budgeting constraints make this difficult for local schools. For example,
the central government will give a rural school 5,000 Baht ($125 US) for a two-week
workshop, but since the teachers cannot collect salaries from their schools this means
that teachers must pay a heavy financial penalty for professional development. Although
the ERIC Centers should be central to teacher development, especially with the new
curriculum looming, as yet there is no sign that this is going to happen.
Dealing with teacher quality issues
One role that the ERIC centers have taken on is attempting to increase the level of
English of Thai teachers. In 2002 Kasama Worawan na Ayutthaya, chief of the General
Education Department, told the heads of provincial education offices that the department
has ordered English classes at grades 1-3 be conducted in English by autumn 2003. He
also plans to issue the same order for grades 4-6. In 2001 about 30% of English classes
in elementary schools were conducted in Thai (Bunnag, 2001). In order to change this
situation, all instructors would be given courses in English at ERIC centers to improve
In order to implement these ambitious national curricular plans, a local supervisor
was appointed for different regions of the country. These supervisory offices are
separate from the schools, supervise more than one school and may even cover more
than one province. Supervisors were teachers who were selected by employment level
within the education system according to qualifications and experience in order that they
could have a positive effect on other teachers. The supervisor was given a non-teaching
role and it was this person's job to form a team that would produce local materials for
- the "fast lane" students (the top three percent of all students),
- the bottom three percent, and
- the ordinary students.
These supervisors were also requested to aid the development of cooperation
between teachers and schools within their region through the formation of teaching
circles and development groups. To this end they were granted a budget by the central
government for workshops in their areas.
However, Oai is not a supervisor and does not know who her supervisor is! When
she started at the school she was given the job of being 'head of people management',
a teacher development role. For her first year in that role it was difficult to get teachers to
talk to each other about new ideas and to share information, but after struggling through
the first year, her "sharing approach" rubbed off on the other staff and now there are no
serious problems that she is aware of.
Oai has produced training manuals and guidelines on her own outlining the curriculum
changes and teaching methods that she has found effective in her classroom situation.
She has collected data on all of her students that she can show the parents when they
visit and uses the PTA budget to fund her teacher development activities. The weekend
before we arrived, there had been a lively school festival for the parents, community
and teachers from other schools where students had a chance to display the projects
they had done in class.
Now she is attempting to broaden the influence of these techniques by contacting
other schools and school districts to have teachers come to Pholonon to share ideas and
train each other, share experiences and take them back to their schools. This form of
cascade training appears to be a successful form of development in that it is not isolated,
but ongoing and supported by electronic communication.
This is a personal initiative that she has set up by suggesting it to the director of the
school who agreed and used the new curricular suggestions from the government as a
framework for the project. Officially, the government only supports organized workshops
for teachers over one to two days and these are isolated occurrences. This she deems
unhelpful because while they are refreshing and interesting these workshops offer little
follow-up and are sporadic rather than ongoing.
In an attempt to meet the personal needs of Thai teachers, the pedagogic needs of
the new national curriculum, the needs of the Thai Education Ministry and its own aims,
the British Council has set up a series of workshops in Chiang Mai from April 2002 which
follow a similar program started in Bangkok in 2001. There is one workshop per month
and each one focuses on a specific ELT topic. Information about what Thai teachers
wanted workshops on was collected for Bangkok after each of the workshops held and
for Chiang Mai at Thai TESOL in January through a questionnaire asking teachers to
note five topics that they would like to go to workshops on. Topics in the final selection
included, assess and correct student writing, get the most out of task-based learning,
use more English in the classroom, and critical thinking. All of the workshops were run
by native speakers of English.
Attendees are generally committed, experienced teachers in their forties who do not
know how to deal with the new curricular reforms and are seeking information about how
to develop their teaching to meet curricular aims. The stated purposes of the workshops
are to develop English Language teachers' pedagogic skills and meet two British Council
- To promote wider and more effective learning of English overseas
- To position the UK overseas as a committed partner in tackling key reform agendas and promoting sustainable development
Representatives from different schools/school districts come to the workshops to learn
about new ideas and pick up learning materials then take them back to their schools and
inform their fellow teachers of the content of the workshops. As such this represents a
transmission model of education. Although this is framed as "cascade training," whether
such a cascade effect actually happens remains to be seen. Currently there are no known
studies on how effective cascade training is in Thailand.
The British Council also runs a website support system for Thai teachers of English
and an accessenglish mailing list via yahoo groups that acts as a form of online staff-
room where teachers can ask for suggestions, discuss problems and generate teaching
ideas. This can be seen as a positive step in terms of ongoing teacher development
but what seems to be needed is a program that teaches Thai teachers how to teach
themselves. Ongoing teacher development in terms of language ability and pedagogical
practices, monitoring of that development, and monitoring of the results within individual
classrooms and schools would go a long way to helping teachers deal with the heavy
demands of the new curriculum.
The issue of institutional autonomy
At the heart of the education reform are: decentralisation of education
management; change of learning processes with emphasis on replacement
of rote learning; and reform of teaching practices which include the licensing
of the teaching profession and the standardisation of the quality of teachers.
What really matters most is the quality of education, which is badly in need of
improvement if this country is to be able to meet future global challenges, to
maintain a competitive edge and to prosper. (The Bangkok Post, 2001)
The 'sweetener' for teachers in the educational reform process is the promise that
individual schools will have greater local autonomy. Schools, they say, in the future will be
less controlled by the central bureaucracy. However, in order to achieve such autonomy,
each school must prove that it is able to run itself in a responsible, accountable manner.
These reforms seem to be a sweeping way to establish the standard level of quality that
universities and other schools will be expected to meet. Nationwide schools have been
ordered to set goals and draft plans designed to change learning approaches. They were
also told to promote the best teachers and find out how many of them could lead the
education reform scheme.A 'quality assurance' program was also set up by the ministry in
order to monitor schools and teachers. However, this manifests itself in a basic checklist
of administration, punctuality, and time-management, which has little to do with education.
Educational quality assurance should focus on teaching practices and student outcomes
but there is no standard measure of these as yet in Thailand.
In fact, it appears that the promise of institutional autonomy is not worth the process
of achieving it for many Thai teachers. Sadly these reform drives seem to be encouraging
many teachers to opt for early retirement. More than 600 teachers in Bangkok alone
applied for retirement: about 30 of them from prestigious schools designated to spearhead
the education reform process. Reasons given for this exodus include just being fed
up with the system, feeling tired, feel like they are working alone and having to work
harder under extra pressure from students and the reforms (Bunnag, 2001). Some think
the education ministry is not dealing with the real problems within the system and the
changes are misdirected. These changes create more work for language teachers who
are often already over-worked. By only looking at the core syllabus, they are ignoring
student needs and putting the pressure on the local teachers to develop ways of coping
with these reforms. However, especially at the high school level, there are so many
barriers to getting things done within the English education system and so much central
accountability that it is not only difficult to get information, but also to change the way
things are done.
Suwanna Tantayanusorn, Assistant Professor of English at Chiang Mai University is
very upset with the reforms. She notes that for people like herself who love teaching and
do not want to do anything else, these reforms create a phenomenal amount of red tape.
She also believes that not enough funds have been put into basic research and needs
analysis. They are poorly thought out and do not address the main problems in the Thai
education system. They are top-down changes that come from government ministers
and dictate language-teaching methodology. Chiang Mai University (CMU) is supposed
to be one of the coordinating bodies implementing those changes and is also supposed
to be a key responsible research center. However, because the government has put
little funding intro teacher development to deal with these changes, the coordinating
bodies are just hoping that teachers cope through trial and error. She feels there is not
a lot they can do and stated:
. . . because of the amount of time it takes to teach and run the program: teach
classes (language teachers have a higher teaching load than other teachers),
correct students' work, develop tests and standardize them, coordinate the
materials and distribute them, only 5% of our job is research. In CMU, our
immediate concern is to deal with daily situations. This year, we ran two general
English courses: one for arts majors and one for science majors. In the 2001
academic year, we had one general English course for the first two years, but
after that, we need to have ESP courses in September 2002 for all the faculties
that want students to develop their academic English ability further and we do
not know yet, in March 2002, who wants them!
We have potentially to develop seventeen different ESP courses by fall and find
teachers who can teach these specialised courses. This is as well as running the
program in its current form. It is a losing battle in way.
- Personal communication, Chiang Mai University, April 21st, 2002
The knock-on effect
Since 2003 is the first year that students from the re-vamped elementary school
curriculum are going to enter the high-school system, the issues of teacher development
have become an urgent problem for many more teachers in Thailand. Also, there is a
problem for schools who are going to receive students from different elementary schools,
some of whom have had six years of English and some who have only had two.
If all goes according to plan, in another six years, the university system will be hit
with a wave of students with generally higher English levels than they are used to. In
fact, the ultimate aim of the education ministry is that all university classes in all subjects
be conducted in English, which might seem advantageous until you consider the English
level of the instructors. As Suchada Nimmannit president of Thai TESOL notes (personal
communication, Chulalonkorn University, April 18th, 2002), it is difficult enough to get the
instructors in the graduate school of Chulalonkorn University to teach in English, never
mind raising the level of all university teachers in the country to the point where they can
conduct English medium classes. She notes that the idea in and of itself is not bad but
the practical barriers to making it work are enormous.
Nevertheless, when educational leaders met in Bangkok in April 2002 to talk about
the proposal to make English the medium of instruction in universities, it was phrased
"How should we proceed in order to make this happen?", rather than "Should we . . . ?"
". . .the ultimate aim of the education ministry is that all university classes in all subjects be conducted in English . . ."
Spurred by the number of international programs increasing enrolment, competition
from the private sector, educational pride, and parental desires, this idea may yet see its
day. Assumption University, academically one of the strongest universities in Thailand,
teaches in English. Entrance exams are tough and they have intensive English courses
to bring the students up to standard (10,000 Baht per month, $250). Many believe that
if you want the students to speak English, you should teach them in English and to this
end, many wealthier parents are sending their children to international schools and many
public schools are starting international programs.
The British Council in Chiang Mai currently has around 600 children enrolled in their
weekend program. When you consider the massive financial commitment this entails in
what is still a relatively poor country, you will realize just how much emphasis parents put
on their children's English competence and its importance for their futures.
Since the Thai education ministry has not yet fully implemented the current curriculum
reforms, we must wonder why they are already making plans for another one. Already
teachers are thinking about how to cope with the huge task of making university classes
English-medium. First there is a jump to textbooks: the textbooks need to be translated,
we can use textbooks from other countries, Singapore, Hong Kong etc. Practicality is
the key word. Some schools may be willing to implement these changes by choice while
others may choose not to take part. Some schools could elect to hire Burmese, Philippine,
American or Indian teachers to teach content classes in English. But there is still the
problem of teacher salaries being low.
On the other hand, for teachers who embrace the changes like Oai, the new English
curriculum is a boon. She likes the structure and aims a lot and thinks that it will improve
education and force teachers to be more accountable to their students, their schools,
parents and the government. She sees the government's aim of discovering who the
"top ten" teachers in the country are as a positive move since, once they are found, they
will train ten people each and the cascade will start. She believes that teachers need to
be more autonomous and that these curriculum changes will encourage that. Teachers
need to change to be able to implement the changes and this is good.
However, this can also be seen as the government conducting a 'trial by fire',
introducing changes and then seeing who survives through them and then use
those people to train the ones who failed.
Oai sees the government acting like cog-wheels: the government moves make
the teachers move, and that moves the students. Taking a whole-school approach to
this change is important. Each school has different problems and they need to tackle
those problems locally. If schools solve these problems by themselves, the hope is that
it will lead to more local autonomy with a focus on development. As the school develops,
accountability is built in. Teachers are accountable to the school and the parents.
Students are accountable to the teachers and their parents. Schools are accountable to
the government and the parents. When parents see progress in their children, they tell
other parents and the school becomes more popular: its reputation grows.
Pholonon school is likely to continue to develop in a positive and effective manner
with Oai in charge of human resource development. It was the happiest school we have found
in either Thailand or Japan, and was obviously the center of the local community as all
schools should be.
The National Identity Office under the Office of the Prime Minister, Royal Thai
Government. (1997). Education: Historical background. Retrieved on June 21, 2002 from
Daoruang, N. (2000). My timetable in Thailand. Retrieved on June 21, 2002
Bunnag, S. (2001, July 4). Reform drive discouraging top teachers: Many opting
for early retirement. Bangkok Post. Retrieved on July 15, 2002 from
The Bangkok Post. (2001, April 17). Editorial: Education reform hostage to politics.
Retrieved on July 15, 2002 from http://search.bangkokpost.co.th/bkkpost/2002/apr2002/bp20020417/news/17apr2002_opin28.html.