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Another school year over and time to reflect for a moment on all that budget wasted, and time and effort, and the young minds.  So sad.

The Thai education system, you might have thought, would be near the top of the to-do list for any government that comes to power speaking the language of reform.  The whole shebang is so dysfunctional that anybody and his mother can pick holes in it, the latest critic being Supachai Panitchpakdi, ex-head of the WTO and UNCTAD.

As befits an international capitalist, Supachai (education: St Gabriel’s College and Triam Udom Suksa) sees Thai schools as a very poor return on investment.  Lashings of money and lousy results to show for it.  It’s a matter of effective budget management, so the answer, according to Supachai, is to hand the Ministry of Education over to the educational experts of the Board of Investment.  Right.

He also thinks that the universities (and by implication not schools) should promote the idea of students being able to ‘think freely’.  This smacks of urban renewal from the 10th storey up, and doesn’t solve the problem that free thinking in universities these days tends to lead straight to a Military Court.

Too much rote-learning is a common cry.  Like reciting daily the 12 core Thai values whose compulsory inclusion in the syllabus constitutes one of the major educational ‘reforms’ since the coup.

Another major change has been the order to cut the hours spent in the classroom.  The motivation for this was PM Gen Prayut’s idea that children should spend more time with their families and in extracurricular activities and of course, Daddy Knows Best. 

But there is a more reasoned justification.  While Finnish students spend a little more than 600 hours a year in class and by any educational metric are in a different league from Thai kids, the Thai school year adds up to about 1200 hours. 

So a ‘pilot’ handful of a mere 3500 schools were ordered to halt the school day at 2 instead of 4.  But mummy and daddy can’t fetch their munchkins that early, so the kids stay at school until 4 as before, doing such intellectually nourishing things as, er, extra study.  And so much for more family time together.

Inequality is another persistent criticism echoed by Supachai and not one restricted to Thailand.  The Life Project, which has tracked in detail the lives of cohorts born in every generation in the UK since 1946, found such gross inequalities by the time the first cohort reached secondary school in the 1960s that it provoked the comprehensive education revolution.  Which didn’t end gross educational inequalities.

But by far the most entertaining of the potshots that outsiders take at the school system concerns their ludicrous multiple choice questions.  Every year there is more fodder for ridicule, often centred on questions about adolescent sexuality written by someone who clearly hasn’t been watching Hormones.

But all multiple choice questions are suspect.  They are grounded in an ideology that life is a series of questions for which there is always and ever only one correct answer.  They assume that the best way of teaching students is by confronting them with deliberately confusing choices.  And the proportion of faulty questions with no correct choice, or more than one correct choice, or even all correct choices, is so sickeningly high that the tests quickly cease to measure anything at all. 

Yet multiple choice tests are all pervasive.  Excruciatingly tricky to write correctly and minimally informative in what they reveal of the test-taker’s competence (when an unknown number of ‘correct’ answers come from ignorant luck), the literature on their short-comings is voluminous, as is the research on alternatives that are much easier to compose (even by Thai teachers), that tell us much more about what the student can and cannot do, and that are equally, if not more, valid, reliable and robust. 

Alas, the testing fraternity in Thailand is both powerful (their use of statistics frightens most teachers into silence), anti-educational (being by nature nit-pickers and fault-finders), and conservative (as befits a Ministry of Education that boasts of exchanges with North Korea).  Suggesting alternative testing methods in Thai schools is as fruitful an exercise as proposing that the Vatican market a Pope brand of condoms.

And exams in Thailand have a tremendous backwash effect.  A recent report says the Min of Ed has just introduced an Echo English teaching app for Thais to practice English.  It is played like a game, says the Army General Minister, ‘and has multiple choice questions’. 

A teacher is quoted in the article as saying that English classes in Thailand focus on grammar (much of it wrong in fact) and vocabulary (much of it random) and so students ‘cannot use English in real-life situations’.  And whose fault is that?  The students, of course.  They only care about grades, she moans, and the exams test only grammar and vocabulary.

So you want real educational reform?  Dead easy.

Outlaw multiple choice tests.


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).