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Old Vinegar in Old Bottles

Editor’s Note:  Harrison George wishes to apologize for his temporary absence from this website.  This was due to an illness of a medical nature and not, contrary to the scurrilous innuendos on various social media, of a psychological nature.  Mr George’s psychiatric carers have assured Prachatai that his mental state is stable (as long as he keeps taking the meds), consistently unusual, and terminal.

Oh boy!  3 articles about education on the same page of the Bangkok Post.  Could educational reform finally be among us?

The first story reports an exciting fresh initiative by newly appointed Education Minister Dapong Ratanasuwan.  Minister Dapong is a general, whereas his predecessor was an admiral, so we can look forward to lots of new ideas, based on his long army experience of not teaching, as opposed to the previous minister with his long naval experience of not teaching. 

Minister Dapong has ordered his bureaucrats to devise a way of boosting Thai students’ English language proficiency, something of course that no one had previously had the acumen to spot as a problem.

And the mandarins have decided to ask the University of Cambridge (which the article helpfully tells us is ‘in England’) to design an ‘intensive programme’ to ‘improve students’ communication skills’. 

What an outstandingly brilliant idea!  Why was this never thought of before?

Except of course it was.  Again and again and again for the past 50 years at least. 

Experts have been hired by the Ministry from the British Council, USIS and countless foreign educational institutions.  Hundreds and hundreds of qualified and experienced English teachers have been dispatched to teach English in Thai schools and universities by the Peace Corps, VSO, the Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders; damn me, even the Germans have sent English language teachers.  And the most of them have closed their programmes in despair after they found it impossible to achieve any lasting structural change in the way English is taught in Thailand. 

But not only does the Minister General want Cambridge to devise a teaching programme (sorry, yet another teaching programme), he wants them to devise a ‘standardized test of English language proficiency’.  Fantastic idea! 

But clearly this will obviously have to be something different from the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) or the First Certificate in English (FCE) or the Certificate of Advanced English (CAE) or the Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) or any of the dozen or so other standardized tests that the University of Cambridge already produces.  And which thousands of Thai students have taken over the years. 

And of course, Thailand already boasts its own standardized English test.  It is called the University Entrance exam. It is a testing catastrophe, has been critiqued again and again and still does nothing more than sometimes reward grammatically incorrect (but socially appropriate) answers (while sometimes punishing grammatically correct answers).  By rigidly adhering to a multiple-choice format, it has wreaked havoc on the way English is taught in secondary schools.  How do you train someone to pass a test where the correct answer may be a lottery?

The dominance of this apology for an exam only started to weaken when the newly autonomous universities woke up to the money to be made from devising their own entrance tests and demanding that candidates take them.  Now, instead of one crappy exam devised by the Ministry, a would-be university student (if Mummy and Daddy have the dosh) can take half a dozen crappy exams.  And pay for the privilege.

But these revolutionary ideas don’t end there.  The Minister General ‘also wants foreign teachers to help coach Thai teachers on how to teach languages in class.’

How obvious!  Thailand could never afford to have a native speaker in every English class (especially if they’re going to stop them all doing visa runs), so what they really need is better Thai teachers of English.  How perspicacious of the Minister to see this!

Of course, lots and lots of the language teaching experts and qualified English teachers over the decades were supposed to be doing exactly that.  And half a century of training Thai teachers has resulted in legions of university students who have studied English under these teachers for 6, 8 even 10 years and who cannot read an English newspaper, write a comprehensible sentence in English or understand anything but the most basic of conversations.  If you supplement it with hand gestures.

But never mind.  Maybe the Minister General has some new wrinkle that will make it all work out this time.  Because doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is, according to Einstein, the definition of …

Ah, no, that would be critical of a member of NCPO, wouldn’t it?  The reader is asked to Google it (if you don’t already know) so that I can keep my attitude safely unadjusted.

(The second and third articles will be the victims of the next column.)

About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).