Learning Lanna: How Chiang Mai’s Past Could Change It’s Educational Future

 |  February 27, 2015

Much has been written about the Thai education system, largely focusing on deficiencies, flaws, and the substandard performance of Thai students in comparison to western students and students from other ASEAN nations. In the most recent 2014-2015 Global Competitiveness Report released by the World Economic Forum, Thailand ranked 90th out of 144 countries surveyed in the “quality of primary education” category. Among ASEAN nations, the quality of Thailand’s primary education ranked seventh out of ten.

While these statistics are of obvious concern for the future state of Thailand, it is not a hopeless situation and Chiang Mai seems to be leading the charge in educational reform. In 2014, Chiang Mai was ranked as providing the fifth highest quality education in the country and is presently setting a national example for innovative and culturally specific educational practices with the introduction of “Lanna-style education” into public and private school curriculums.

Going Glocal

“Glocalisation,” a term that developed in the 1980s for use in the business realm, refers to the adaptation of a product of service to the specific area or culture in which it will be sold. For the travellers among us, you may see this illustrated in the vast differences among McDonald’s menus around the world. You can’t get a Big Mac in India and you can’t buy a fish burger on a squid ink bun in America. The same applies to educational models. While one model may be highly successful in one country, it will not necessarily be successful in another. In a global society, of course there are and should be outside influences, but sole reliance on foreign standards and the transmission of culturally irrelevant information does not contribute to a positive result.

In the face of an ever-increasing number of private and international schools in Chiang Mai and nationwide initiatives to modify the Thai national curriculum based on European models, there is a strong countertrend developing towards “glocalised” educational practices. In the north, “Lanna-style” education is becoming a buzzword.

In its pure and intended form, Lanna-style education is essentially an educational approach that is of the people, for the people, and by the people. According to a 2014 Bangkok Post article, the term was first introduced during a 2013 conference held in Chiang Mai, and refers to an educational approach that preserves and promotes northern Thai heritage. During this conference, Boonlert Buranupakorn, president of the Chiang Mai Provincial Administrative Organisation, stressed the need for public education to be more relatable and culturally significant in order to ensure that students not only learn but also enjoy learning. He also warned that the evolving national curriculum would eventually erase children’s local heritage.

Lanna-style education can be seen in many ways as a vocational education approach, teaching students about traditional Thai handicrafts and dominant industries (i.e. rice farming) in an effort to provide them with practical knowledge that they will be able to directly apply to their lives. This is not the only intention, however, and proponents of Lanna-style education believe that the study of Lanna culture will enhance all students’ understanding of themselves and their community, regardless of their future pursuits within or outside of Thailand.

Dr. Phillip Hallinger, a researcher and professor who has been examining Thai educational practices for the past 18 years, predicts that “public schools will increasingly come under pressure to provide an education that is seen by students, parents and employers as ‘relevant’ to the world of today. If they cannot, students whose parents have the means will leave the public schools to alternatives that provide an education which meets their criteria and standards.”

Although discussed in public forums and mentioned in press releases, Lanna-style education has not made its way formally into the Thai national curriculum and perhaps it is best that it remains this way. As evidenced in the past, mandated educational reform is not always actively received and is often forgotten as frequent political shifts occur.

“This has always been a ‘problem’ in Thailand, where centralisation of the education system has traditionally left little room for bottom-up innovations,” says Hallinger.

bananaInto the Fields

The Thai Education Foundation (TEF) and their use of the Integrated Pest Management Curriculum (IPM) is a prime example of an educational model that makes use of and contributes to local Lanna knowledge. This curriculum aims to educate students, many of whose family members are rice and vegetable farmers, on safe farming practices, and to provide practical vocational training for students so that they may continue to contribute to the local farming industry upon graduation.

Students participating in these programmes spend at least one day per week in the fields, planting and harvesting rice or other vegetables, collecting soil and insect samples, and learning about ecosystems. Later, they return to the classroom to discuss their findings and oftentimes to coordinate with hospitals or other local entities to help improve environmental conditions. Students also regularly interview farmers and merchants in order to identify issues within the community. As TEF Director Marut Jatiket explains, “We never inject any decisions – we let the community and the students decide.”

On a recent visit to Bansansai School, located in the Saraphi District just outside of Chiang Mai, I was able to see the IPM curriculum in action. When I arrived, students were on-site testing the chemical content in vegetables and other foods gathered from the local market. While the results during this visit were acceptable, I was shocked during the student’s presentation of past findings to see the rampant occurrence of pesticide use and poisoning among local farmers.

Students discussed how as part of their studies they were able to present their findings to participating farmers and community representatives and help to educate them on alternative farming practices. In this way, students are not only learning from their elders, but also critically examining what has become an accepted or “traditional” style of farming and re-envisioning a healthier and more sustainable approach.

According to Jatiket, the IPM curriculum is of particular value now because, as he explains, “less than 10 percent of farmers are under 30, and the average farmer is over 50 years old. Within the next five years, it is likely that 50 percent of farmers will pass away or need to retire.” Jatiket believes that most people do not realise the severity of this situation. “Our kids are not here now and they’re not coming back,” he warns. “There will be no farmers in the future if there is no intervention now.”

Jatiket estimates that the IPM curriculum is now being used at over 20 schools in central and northern Thailand, including several in the Chiang Mai area. It is currently being supported by outside funder KEMI/SIDA Sweden.

food test

Turning Silver into Knowledge

On a sunny day, the gleaming silver Wat Sri Suphan can be spotted immediately upon entering the outer gates. Walking around the temple grounds, visitors can admire artisans as they manipulate aluminum sheets over open flames and punch and carve meticulous patterns into metal surfaces.

Northern Thai silver craft dates back to the late 13th century and stems from Burmese customs. Traditionally, artisans would use silver as their medium, but due to the high expense of the material, larger works are now typically done using aluminum while silver is reserved for the smaller pieces. The art form is highly specialised, time-consuming, and physically demanding. Due to these factors, there are few remaining today who choose silver craft as their professional trade, threatening extinction for the ancient art form in the near future.

The teachers and students of Wat Sri Suphan Primary School, on the grounds of Wat Sri Suphan, take great pride in their immediate setting and the ancient art of Lanna silver craft. Students in grades four through six participate in classes teaching them the history of this craft and how to create their own. Students are able to make keychains, pendants, bookmarks, and jewellery.

Teacher A. Tiffy, who has been teaching at Wat Sri Suphan School for the past 18 years explains: “For us here, the community is very important. The people who still do this are very few, so we teach the students to preserve the art. Many of them don’t want to do it; they want to learn computers or something else, but it is important that they understand the community they come from.”

An Integrated Approach

The incorporation of Lanna-style education is not limited to public schools or even to schools primarily attended by students of northern Thai heritage. From the theoretical to the physical, Panyaden School in Chiang Mai embodies the tenets of glocalised education with a modern Thai approach – innovation and experimentation within a scaffold of tradition.

When you first step onto the campus of Panyaden, you can immediately sense that it is not your typical school. There are no tile floors or desks in neat rows. The buildings, constructed of bamboo and mud, are spread along an expansive green lawn and you can hear the buzz of multiple languages emanating from the open-air classrooms.

Panyaden is not only unique in its appearance, but also in its principles. The school was founded on Buddhist values with a strong belief in engraining a love and passion for wisdom. There are sacred spaces on the grounds of the school and each morning begins with Buddhist prayers. Additionally, Panyaden regularly invites local experts in diverse fields such as agriculture, cloth weaving, or northern cuisine to teach students about various aspects of Lanna culture and allow them to actively participate in the learning process.

The attraction to Panyaden is not limited to those holding Buddhist beliefs, however, and the population at the school is quite diverse.

Chunxia Li, who comes from China, has a daughter named Christine who is in the first grade at Panyaden. “Due to various reasons, Chinese political and education systems, and lack of faith of most Chinese people, most people’s thirst for money is much greater than the human pursuit of beauty,” says Li. “I am not a Buddhist in a strict sense, but through travel and reading, I understand a little of Buddhism. I think the theory of Buddhism is a philosophy, learning the use of it will make you have the wisdom of life as soon as possible. So I hope my daughter will accept the influence of Buddhism.”

Panyaden’s curriculum is also fully bilingual. Every student is encouraged to gain equal proficiency in Thai and in English, and each class is co-taught by a native English speaking teacher and a Thai teacher.

Neil Amas, Director of Panyaden, explains the importance of students learning Thai language: “Culture is understood through the lens of language. However it happens, it’s important that the [Thai] language is preserved and valued.”

Amas goes on to say that in an evolving global society, it is in Thailand’s best interest to “grab the best from both worlds.”

bananaPutting the “My” Back in Chiang Mai

Thailand proudly remains the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonised by a western power. This fact may offer a partial explanation as to why Thailand lingers statistically behind other nations in terms of academic performance, international workforce placement, and English language proficiency. From another perspective, this also justifies Thailand’s desire to cultivate a unique cultural identity and to preserve an education system that is specifically Thai, and in Chiang Mai, one that is specifically Lanna.

The incorporation of Lanna-style education in public and private schools and the revolutionary spirit of its proponents may be the just what is needed to reinvigorate a stagnant educational system.