For the past two years, I have served as a judge for the Northern Thailand section of the Junior Dublin Literary Awards, an international essay contest for high school students. I am typically informed of this honour by arriving one day at work to find a five-inch stack of print-outs on my desk that I must read and judge in the span of a day or two.
This can be rather daunting when you’re on deadline and have to edit and post five news stories before lunch, but I cannot say the task does not bring me some joy. Here’s to you, imaginative physics-hating kid who wrote, “Hail to the durian that smashed Sir Isaac Newton’s head!” And to you, sweet young visionary, who assured us all: “If you wore a panda mask, you will become a panda. If you wore an elephant mask, you will become a elephant. If you wore a horse mask, you will become a horse. If you wore a Selah Moon mask, you will become the Selah Moon.”
But Selah Moon aside, the experience has also given me a rather disturbing glimpse into the current state of Thailand’s education system. And folks, it is bleak.
To be fair, writing an essay in your second language as a high school student is not easy, which explains why the vast majority of submissions, almost poetic in their inscrutability, are obvious Google translations. This is not really okay, but having been a bit of a Spanish class slacker myself back in the day, I can understand why it happens.
What struck me as most disturbing was not these mystifying translations (though I do wonder about the kid who plans to “slap a clown while robbing a fourth person”). Instead, it was another, more malignant issue: plagiarism. Not just a few copied sentences here and an improperly cited quote there, but an entire pile of straight-up, copied-and-pasted-direct-from-the-internet-and-passed-off-as-my-own essays built of thievery.
Meet the Copycats
Last year, when the theme of the contest was “Behind the Mask,” roughly half the essays I read had portions of the Wikipedia page for “mask” copied and pasted directly into them, most with nary a quotation mark, let alone a proper citation. These became quite easy to spot (and reject) on contact.
The more insidious plagiarisers were harder to detect, but detect them I did, once I wised up to the prevalence of the issue. And what a variety of sources I found! From the straight copy-paste of a well-respected Buddhist philosopher’s essay on the nature of death to the multi-paragraph plundering of an emotional mid-western American teenager’s tumblr page to a seemingly random clip from the encyclopedia about Arctic vegetation, there seemed no limit to the pilfering prowess of these students.
One essay, written by a kid with a clearly Thai name, relayed a firsthand account of moving from the rural countryside to the big city. So far so good, I thought, until the essay informed me that the city was Nairobi, and that the so-called writer could speak only “Swahili and very little English.”
A quick Google search informed me that the essay was in fact a free sample swiped directly from a UK-based essay writing service “designed to improve your grades, provide peace of mind and help you meet your deadlines.”
I ended up having to Google-search every essay in my potential winners pile, and was ultimately forced to throw out nearly a third of these potential winners due to plagiarism. Afterwards I was left wondering, is this really indicative of what Thai students are turning in these days?
As it turns out, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
In 2012, Thailand made national headlines when Supachai Lorlowhakarn, a high-profile government official rather ironically serving as the director of Thailand’s National Innovation Agency, was stripped of his doctorate title from Chulalongkorn University. The reason? A university investigation had determined that Supachai plagiarised 80 percent of the thesis that earned him his PhD.
Interestingly, it took a full two years after a university panel determined his guilt before Supachai’s title was actually pulled. But when the news hit, it put a hot and heavy global spotlight on Thailand’s rather lax policies toward plagiarism, and sparked more than one concerned op-ed from writers and academics across the country (not to mention alleged death threats against the British whistle-blower and his family).
Associate Professor of Philosophy Soraj Hongladarom, president of the academic committee at Chulalongkorn, told reporters that the university’s revocation of Supachai’s doctorate was “a step in a right direction” but noted that Thailand’s culture of plagiarism was far bigger than this one incident. “The problem is that it is so widely practiced that no one seems to think that it is wrong,” Soraj wrote on his blog at the time.
Three years later, it seems that little has changed. As I went around asking teachers about the issue, the most common response was a sigh and a roll of the eyes.
“So it happens a lot?”
“Oh, all the time.”
More than one teacher described plagiarism in Thailand as “rampant” and out of the dozen or so I spoke with, only two – one a mathematics teacher, the other a preschool teacher – had no first-hand experiences to share. The rest, most of whom asked to remain anonymous due to fear of losing their jobs, could have filled a book with their stories.
“Cheating and copying is a daily occurrence in Thai schools,” one teacher, we’ll call him Frank, told me. A long-term British expat, Frank has taught at both private international institutions and Thai government schools here in Chiang Mai, and says he can’t distinguish much of a difference between the two when it comes to rates of plagiarism.
He recalls one incident that occurred a few years ago at a prominent international school in Chiang Mai. A student was using a phone to cheat during an exam, so Frank confiscated the student’s phone. The student responded by getting physical with Frank, yelling at him to give back the phone and slamming a door in his face.
“Then when I threw the student out of the class and didn’t allow him to come back in to any of my lessons, the administration wouldn’t back me up and told me I had to teach him as his parents paid for the school,” recalls Frank, adding that the student ended up avoiding any punishment whatsoever for both the cheating and the attempt to start a fight.
This was perhaps the most extreme example, but other teachers confirm that school administrators at grade school and high school levels rarely if ever step in when it comes to issues of cheating and plagiarism.
“I’m pretty sure we do not have any official policy on plagiarism,” says another teacher. We’ll call her Jennifer; she’s an American who works at a private Thai school in Chiang Mai. “I’ve been here five years and I’ve never been told of one in the English department.”
Jennifer says that at her school, copying homework is “totally accepted.” She recalls one particular incident in which a Thai teacher responded to one student copying another’s take-home worksheet by saying, “At least they care enough to copy it, especially to copy from a good student. If they were a really bad student, they just wouldn’t do it at all.”
And herein lies the issue: it’s not that Thai students are inherently less smart or more prone to cheating than students anywhere else in the world (a recent American survey of 24,000 students at 70 high schools found that 95 percent admitted to cheating at least once). The problem here is that Thai schools seem to allow cheaters and plagiarisers to get by unscathed on a regular basis.
“I think it comes essentially down to the horrible education system as a whole that, among many other things, doesn’t promote original thinking or a curiosity for knowledge,” says Saksith Saiyasombut, a Thai political blogger and social critic. “When the overall objective of these classes and courses is just to learn everything by rote for the tests and forget about it immediately after that, no wonder why people take short cuts.”
Dr. Wayne Deakin, a Chiang Mai University professor, agrees. “In academics we call it the ‘Jug and Mug Principle,'” he tells me. “Knowledge is tipped from the teacher (the jug) into the students (the mugs). No value is placed on the power of deduction.”
Furthermore, these rote methods of teaching seem to actually encourage a culture of copying. American English teacher John (not his real name) points out that the students at his Thai government school are often required to memorise entire sections of text and regurgitate them verbatim onto the exam paper. “In this way, they’re basically taught to plagiarise,” he says.
Dr. Ariya Svetamra, a Social Sciences Lecturer at Chiang Mai University, says that even at the university level, plagiarism is a problem. She notes that while some students know that it’s a form of cheating, some do not even realise they’re doing anything wrong as they cut and paste their way through classes.
“They have done it since they were in schools,” says Ariya. “They are not trained to write what they think or practice critical thinking, so they cannot write by themselves.”
Dr. Ariya points out that last year, Chiang Mai University began using a global cloud-based service called TurnItIn to combat plagiarism. The software essentially does the same thing any good Google search will do, but automatically, while also running essays against those of other students already in the system (to note, my public high school in America began using this service over a decade ago).
The uptick in university policies forbidding plagiarism on Thai college campuses (spurred in part by the 2012 controversy at Chulalongkorn), are indeed another step in the right direction. But they also throw into relief the stark lack of plagiarism policies at the grade school and high school levels.
In 2014, a Bangkok Post article about plagiarism at Thai universities noted, “From primary to high school, students might get by this way but at university level, plagiarism becomes a more serious issue that could jeopardise their academic standing and careers.”
This statement is quite troubling in and of itself. Primarily because in letting students “get by” with plagiarism for the majority (and, in many cases, the entirety) of their academic careers, teachers and administrators are allowing bad habits to form and solidify. Then, suddenly, when students arrive at college, they’re expected to know that what they’ve been doing to get by their entire lives is no longer okay.
“Again, the education system and to an extent the bureaucracy itself is to blame here, because they apparently don’t know how to handle it either,” says Saksith of administrators’ slow reactions. “To outlaw and forbid something is easier than to fix something.”
Helping vs. Cheating
Growing up and attending school in the west, the horrors of plagiarism were drilled into me from a young age. Copying each other’s answers was comparable to treason – we’d create folder tents around our papers during tests to prevent prying eyes as a rule. As we began writing full-scale essays, I have a very clear memory of a sixth grade teacher gravely informing our class that to plagiarise was to commit a federal crime. I believed her and lived the rest of that academic year in fear, praying that I wouldn’t accidently repeat a string of someone else’s words and get thrown in prison.
This is one extreme. But it sure as hell stopped me from plagiarising. In Thailand, on the other hand, teacher John says that when he catches students copying each other and confronts them, he is almost always met with the same response: “Not cheating, teacher. Helping!”
“They see it as a good thing,” he explains. “The stronger students will help the weaker students every time and this is never discouraged by their other teachers.” In this case, “helping” means allowing peers to straight-up copy answers, thereby negating whatever lesson the weaker students were attempting to learn, and keeping them firmly in their role of “weaker student.” John says that students stick together throughout their academic careers, leading to a rather parasitic relationship that only grows as they progress through the grades, their teachers either too apathetic to stop it or rendered helpless by the implicit “no-fail” policy that most schools in Thailand uphold.
The students themselves confirm. I asked one recent grad, let’s call her Dao, who attended a small government school in Chiang Mai, whether copying was common. “Oh, of course,” she replied, admitting that she would often let her friend copy her homework and test answers. “I think the teacher must know, but she never punished us.”
When I asked why she let her friend copy, Dao shrugged, as if it were obvious. “Because she needs to see. Because if she doesn’t, she might fail!”
A Culture of Plagiarism
“There’s a culture of plagiarism in Thailand – just look at the Night Bazaar,” says Dr. Deakin. “Copying is bound in with Thai culture, and university culture is a micro-representation of that.”
Thailand is what sociologists would call a “communal culture,” characterised by high degrees of both sociability and solidarity. Unlike in the west, where individualism is prized above all else, here community is valued over personal achievement. And while this can often be a good thing in many ways, it also carries with it the possibility of sweeping negative behaviour from fellow community members, and leaders in particular, under the rug.
“You could argue that plagiarism is a form of corruption – academic corruption,” Dr. Deakin continues. “If a culture decides to accept corruption, as Thailand does daily when it comes to the government, it’s going to trickle down to universities and colleges. Bottom line: if it’s okay to do it at the macro level than why not at the micro level?”
Indeed, in July 2013, an oft-cited Assumption University poll found that 65 percent of Thais were “okay with corruption.”
Saksith Saiyasombut cites additional polls, and suggests that “young Thais have the impression that cheaters generally do prosper.”
“That is especially bad, because that’s how politics is generally being regarded as, no matter where on the political spectrum they are and whether they’re a democratically elected government or like the current military dictatorship,” he adds. “In the end, that’s pretty fatal for political participation since most people are discouraged or jaded to get involved, leaving those to get into politics for the ‘wrong’ reasons.”
A Way Forward
Humans are naturally prone to doing what they need to do to get ahead. The problem in Thailand is that these issues are not discouraged from an early age. Instead they are tolerated and swept under the rug. Tolerance leads to acceptance, and acceptance leads to cultural credence.
The “mae pen rai” attitude, so benign in some ways, begets a worrying kind of stasis when it comes to educating future generations. Instead, education begins to look more like a formality than a case of actually teaching students how to think and succeed. As Dr. Deakin puts it, “The idea is to get from point A to point B. It doesn’t matter how you make the journey. It doesn’t matter if you make the journey with integrity, as long as you get to graduate and get a picture and a teddy bear.”
As a result, Thailand’s education system continues to flounder. The latest World Economic Forum’s report ranked Thailand last out of the eight ASEAN nations in education, and the worldwide Programme for International Student Assessment ranked Thailand 50th out of 65 nations and well below the international standard. It’s clear that something needs to change.
Luckily, there are a few homegrown players who recognise the issues and are taking action to switch up the game. One of these is Wiriyah Ruechaipanit, CEO of a Thai education programme designed to replace the country’s antiquated educational methods with a new system that he refers to as Creativity Based Learning (CBL).
“In the traditional learning model, we give the contents to our students and then test how much knowledge they remember. So boring!” Wiriyah tells me. “With the new model, we just set up a problem in the classroom, and ask students to solve it. This way, they will get knowledge by thinking, not just memorising answers.”
It seems like an obvious solution, but compared to the rote methods currently being employed in most Thai classrooms, it could be a significant breakthrough for students. Wiriyah has already trained about 800 Thai teachers in his methods, and says the Ministry of Education has expressed great interest in the new model. The best thing, he adds, is that CBL actually makes students excited about learning.
Of course, change in a traditional society is typically met with resistance, and this is no exception. “99 percent of teachers in Thailand prefer to stick with the traditional way,” says Wiriyah, noting that it can be much harder to change the schools than the students. But he believes we must ask ourselves: “Is this a school for students or a school for teachers or a school for the government?”
If school is for the students, then it’s the duty of educators to find practices that most benefit them.
“Thailand has a lot of natural resources,” adds Wiriyah. “We can sell our forests and land so we don’t think about how to survive in the future. We have many, many things to sell, so we don’t care about the quality of our people.”
But the time has come to start caring.
“I think we need a revolution, not only reform!” Wiriyah says. “If Thais want to survive in the future, they have to think about the future of the country. The future of the country is our children, our students in school. If we want to see a better Thailand, we have to invest in our biggest resource – our students.”