Thai Academic policy heavily criticized
Academic says reforms shortsighted and politicized due to lack of coordination
AS 2017 comes to a close, a prominent educator has compared top academic policymakers to inefficient orchestra conductors given their recent performance.
“It’s as if decision-makers do not know what to do or where to focus,” Athapol Anunthavorasakul, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Education and director of the Research and Development Centre on Education for Sustainable Development, told The Nation in an exclusive interview last week about his observations about education policy by the junta-led government.
Athapol was responding to a request to evaluate the educational performance of the current government.
“As the education minister, [Teerakiat] should focus on the overall picture and assign proper roles for each agency to play,” Athapol said.
He expressed concern that the Equitable Education Fund, which will be established next year, would further entrench a culture whereby agencies work separately. “Without integration, children are affected,” he said.
Even good ideas that were not well integrated and implemented would end in failure, he said. For example, while the idea of a “professional learning community” (PLC) is a good concept, the Education Ministry’s decision to link it to academic-rank promotions has posed problems.
“The PLC will be a real driving force only when teachers voluntarily join. There is no point making it mandatory,” Athapol said.
He added that Thailand had good practices but lacked the determination to implement them into the mainstream.
Athapol also emphasised the need to prepare efficient long-term teacher development, because teachers played a key role in educational quality.
He said it was necessary to prepare good prepatory programmes for teachers, otherwise young, energetic newcomers would eventually lose determination in the face of an unproductive work structure and unfavourable work culture.
“Actually, if we can change just 10 per cent of the teachers to be efficient ones, the good practices will catch on,” he said. “That way, we can transform the country’s educational sector.”
Athapol also approved of the “teacher as learner project”, under which senior teachers guide their younger colleagues. But the project has not been implemented on a large scale, he added.
During the current government’s term, various educational policies have been introduced, including shorter class hours, an emphasis on history and civic duties, and the establishment of provincial education committees.
While provincial education committees were intended to change the educational sector for the better, they have instead caused problems, going against the ongoing decentralisation trend and also upsetting schools.
“Schools can’t be happy because suddenly they have two bosses to report to – provincial education committees and educational services areas offices,” Athapol said.
Before Teerakiat Jareonsettasin stepped into the top position as Education Minister, Athapol said he had been trying to work on a new curriculum. But the extent of the change had affected many people, and so Teerakiat retreated from facing problems head on and updated the curricula only for sciences, maths, computers, technology and geography.
All of those subjects are linked to the Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology (IPST) and the International Science Olympiads.
Teerakiat only upgraded portions of each subject to ensure consistency so that teaching colleges’ curricula could keep up with required changes in teaching methods. As teachers faced constant changes, they began to act more like politicians, working for short-term objectives rather than the long-term shifts required to upgrade the system, Athapol said.
Teerakiat had also stopped talking about teaching colleges’ four-year or five-year curricula adjustments as that had turned into a political agenda.
Many institute administrators also were afraid of making big changes and simply bought time just to get by, while people who stepped forward but did not have solid academic practices were defeated.
“The emphasis on history and civic duties and shorter class hours has already faded. And now the teaching colleges’ four-year or five-year curricula adjustment, or English programmes for Prathom 1 and Prathom 3, is also fading,” Athapol said.
That was evidence that people were working from a place of ignorance without drawing on academic research as the policy foundations, he said, adding that choices were being made from the erroneous belief that policy issues could be separated, rather than from a higher-level analysis that saw things as connected in one body.
Thailand has not drawn up a long-term plan to manage human resources within the educational sector, he said, adding that only short-term projects or policies had been introduced, mostly without the backing of evidence or research.
He said the government and its ministers should not focus on short-term issues or what achievements they could claim credit for in a year, but instead focus on enabling an environment in which their successors could continue the good work.
There were also time bombs in the present system, he said, such as the establishment of the Higher Education Ministry being spearheaded by Deputy Education Minister Udom Kachintorn. If people thought universities had problems and tried to regulate them uniformly under the new ministry, it could do more harm than good, he said.
Universities, which are each governed by their own independent university councils, had already moved beyond tight external controls and could not be reined in now, Athapol said.
He also identified a worrying trend in which people seemed inclined to take internal conflicts at a few universities as an excuse for power centralisation at the new ministry.
He predicted more problems ahead if top policymakers do not change their approach.
“Education is a transformative process, not a big-bang change,” he said, adding that policy-makers had to move way from old ways of thinking and allow changes to take place sustainably while working to prevent good ideas from turning into bad practices when implemented.
He said innovations had been implemented without good preparation. For example, a project giving teachers coupons for self-development was a good idea, but without a good screening system it had resulted in a wasted budget.
Teachers should be allowed to choose training on subjects relevant to their specific needs, he said, adding that authorities were now pressing universities to submit training programmes ahead of the new budget and teachers could plan to attend training sessions held after April.
He also argued that the Education Ministry had only superficially and inconsistently applied the “brain-based learning” principle, which resulted in a failure that was also related to various learning principles and activities being implemented in the same way when they should have been done differently to fit each style.
Asean citizenship curricula was also superficial and quickly faded from use, he said, adding it had been replaced by the “Education 4.0” scheme intended to boost creativity and innovation, which required direct teaching as well as motivated students and teachers.
“Do not focus just on short-term plans. Don’t be preoccupied with credit you expect to receive from your work. Why don’t you start rethinking the issues? Let’s start with a question as to how to make it easier for educational personnel, officials and teachers to work,” he said. “Let’s think about how to motivate teachers.”
Student and teacher motivation was important because motivated teachers would perform at a high standard and be able to inspire students, he added.
Athapol said there was a good chance of success if the teaching force was overhauled now, given that the average age of teachers had declined significantly and young people tended to be more ready to embrace reforms.