|  June 1, 2009

On my first day of Mathayom 3, aged 14, at my all girl’s Catholic school here in Chiang Mai, our class teacher lined us up at the front of the class, all pigtailed and pony-haired forty-four of us, and announced the implementation of a new system for the remainder of the year. The twenty Clever Students, she said, would sit paired up with the twenty Not Clever Students. Since I was the bane of my teachers’ existence with my inability to paint within a line in art classes, my precocious correction of my English teacher’s grammar, my propensity for argument against our history books which insisted that Thailand kicked Burma’s butt through the centuries (having a historian for a father, I learnt that Burma did some pretty hard core butt kicking as well), my decrepitly un-stylised handwriting, my abhorrence of rote learning and my general ineptitude at all things science, I was firmly placed in the Not Clever Student camp. For the rest of the school year, every time my grades would improve, all credit would be bestowed upon my clever buddy and when – tutt tutt – her grades occasionally slipped, my head would be the first to roll for dragging her down to my level. And so it went; this bizarrely awful belief of my teacher that by labelling half her class stupid, we would, by osmosis, absorb some of the cleverness from our immediate neighbours. I graduated from the school one year later convinced that I was well below average in intelligence and ability.

This is simply one of the many reasons I was disillusioned by my ten years of education in the Thai system.

My memories of school include being called a shameless hussy for changing into jodhpurs after class at the age of twelve before heading off to practice dressage at my riding school, having my ear rings ripped – blood gushing – out of my ears as they were too shiny, spending the first half hour before the morning bell copying and allowing my friends to copy my homework, reading out the English answers in class when the teachers went to the toilet during a quiz, and being penalised because my parents refused to enrol me in after school tuition (where my friends all received – and paid for – exam results, while I failed with questions on topics teachers only taught in private after hours classes).

It took me many years to figure out that while I was no genius, with better teachers and a better education, I would have done far better. And did in another school.

While many schools in Thailand are adopting more internationally tried and tested learning methods, from what I hear of many of my friends’ children’s learning experiences, much remains the same. Teachers in some schools in Chiang Mai still use corporal punishment, teachers still withhold their best teaching in classes, saving it for highly priced private tutorial, cheating is not just rife, it is the norm, and school syllabuses remain largely focused on rote learning.

There is a long way for Thai education to go before it reaches standards to which it should aspire. In the meanwhile, the best parents can do is encourage their children to read, be selective and thorough in the choosing of schools, monitor their children’s education closely and fill in any gaps which may be required as well as encouraging them to become well rounded and to think for themselves. And fingers crossed, the government steps up with quality and dedicated reform.

This month in Citylife:
We have focused on learning this month with our ‘Thirst for Knowledge’ theme with our main feature being an interview with Associate Professor Prathoomporn Vajarasthira of the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, whose very direct – and perhaps controversial – view points on Thai education holds no punches. Our editors also go in search of all the fun and educational things you can learn in Chiang Mai from Tibetan Kung Fu to how to properly cut a dogs hair. And Tom Clegg explores the reasons behind the bewildering number of Korean language schools which have recently opened up.