I work as a consultant for a Thai foundation that helps students in Thai village schools. Our goal is to give the children a tool to help them in their future by giving them access to the internet - and the skills to use it properly.
We want them to learn how to get meaningful and relevant information for their studies and, in the long run, for all aspects of their life.
The foundation has been working for five years in over 20 schools with mixed results. In brief, we find that we can teach the students to use computers and find information on the internet - but we have not yet found a way to make them use this information critically so they can really benefit from it.
Copy-paste your way to nothing
Copy-paste may be very good if you know how to use it with care. For the students, copying is all too easy and in fact, it brings them nowhere. And thinking critically about what they find on the internet is not really necessary for them because the teachers don’t put too much emphasis upon it anyway. The students soon learn that the important thing is to remember what the teacher tells them - not to start thinking on their own. The rote system is what we are up against and it is a formidable adversary.
So what now… how do you teach children to actually think about what they are learning, reading, doing at school? How do you get them to say: ‘This bit of information I can use - and this bit is quite useless to me’ ?
And most importantly: How do you get them to want to find answers that satisfy themselves and not try to find one that they think the teacher wants to hear?
Doubt creeps in
This is not easy and there were times when we started to doubt if it could be done at all. The reasoning goes like this: If we cannot do it and we don’t see anybody else doing it - why do we actually think it can be done at all?
Last year we did a simple test of the students in grade 6. Only one child out of 116 gave an answer that indicated the ability to use a text on the internet meaningfully and being able to put it in writing in her own words. One out of 116 is not the goal that the foundation was aiming at.
Off to Buriram
Well, a score of 0.86% should not put you down, so we agreed that I go check out a school in Buriram that a good friend had recommended and which seemed to have the same goals for their education as our foundation and the same target group: rural children in a poor area. The name of the school is Lamplaimat Pattana and looking at their website we got the impression that this place had something quite special to offer. We contacted them and agreed that I could stay for a week to study the way they work and get a chance to talk to the teachers, students and the director of the school k. Wichian.
So off I went to Buriram, arriving at Lamplaimat Pattana Shool on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. Water buffalo were grazing on the sports grounds and it took a while before I found a teacher to help me get installed.
The school is quite overwhelming in many ways. What immediately strikes you is how beautiful it is. A big rice field surrounded by water, lawns with buffalo grazing, old houses on stilts - and new, big houses among a dense growth of trees looking like the jungle. Inside a new building I saw big six-sided classrooms with lots of room to work on the floor and at tables and an amazing amount of creatively drawn pictures and mind maps everywhere. It was like the place itself was alive and inviting you to come and learn.
But what about the teachers, students and the lessons themselves? Would this be just as overwhelming?
I sat in on several lessons the next days. What struck me was:
• The special lesson types the school uses like ‘chit seukhsa’, exercises to help students think and create little things at the start of each day and long PBL lessons during the afternoon;
• Outdoor lessons like planting rice or minding the animals in the school;
• Talking quietly and politely to the students so that they feel ready to open up to the class and the teacher;
• Inventive activities for math lessons which made the students actually think quite hard about solving the math problems they were given;
• The way the students concentrated on their work;
• The open friendliness of both teachers and children. Most places I go the students are much to shy to talk to me - at Lamplaimat Pattana they are not shy;
• The relaxation session that starts off the afternoon, a kind of yoga which makes you relax and get ready for learning after the lunchbreak.
The teaching/learning method used at the school is Problem Based Learning which enables students to learn by engaging them in solving problems, questions and tasks. The school does not use standard textbooks but lets the students find their information by reading books in the library, consulting with the internet or by asking grownups. This not only works well, it works extremely well. The students use the computers effectively, are quick at deciding which material they need - or do not need - from the websites they visit. Manually they write down what they need from the website - and then they go and discuss in the group before presenting the answers to class. No copy paste here, thank you!
Tears to your eyes
The lesson that struck me most was one about religion in level 5. First the students were split into groups, each group getting a religion to study. This they did by using the internet and talking to teachers (and me) about various faiths. After this study they talked about their findings and the teacher started a discussion about quite deep questions. First, ‘Do we need religion in our lives?’ The discussion showed that class was split in three almost equal groups about that one, yes - no - maybe. Next, the teacher asked: ‘Do we need to be religious to be good people?’
Now, I have a very good Thai friend whom I respect very much. One day we were discussing religion and I told her that I was an atheist. She looked at me in surprise and very seriously said ‘Then how can you be a good person?’
Back to Lamplaimat. I was waiting for the response of the students with more interest than they could imagine. ‘NO!’ most of them said, quite spontaneously. Of course you do not have to be religious to be a good person. I bowed my head as tears filled my eyes; I did not want them to see how happy their answer made me.
One line vs one book
In our foundation’s little grade 6 test with the underwhelming collective score of 0.86%, the main problem for the students had been to answer the question in their own words. One line of text in their own words was enough to pass. But as I sat and watched them do the test, I saw them writing and erasing their words on the screen again and again and again. This one line cost them so much agony.
In Lamplaimat Pattana, the students have to produce a paper during their 6th year. The papers are kept at the school, placed on a big table. The results are little or big books, each book produced by a student. In his or her own words, beautifully written and drawn pages, list of contents at the beginning and works used for the paper at the end. Page after page of handwritten text. All the books are different. Strikingly different. Nobody is copying anybody and when you look at these books and their drawings it is like you are looking into the head of the student that made it.
These books and the lesson about religion convinced me that not only had we found a school which is actually able to make students reach the goal we were also aiming for. Lamplaimat Pattana are reaching a much higher goal than we ever dreamed about.
The cynic in us all
That’s all very good, you might say. 250 lucky children in Buriram see the light. What about all the other village - and city - schools in Thailand. What good is this to them?
Well, Lamplaimat Pattana has a plan for this as well. And the plan is to spread this way of teaching and this way of learning out to schools in all of Thailand.
When I sat in with the students in the classrooms, we would often see whole groups of people passing by or stopping up to look at us, taking pictures and starting to talk to the teacher guides about what they were seeing. I felt like sitting in a zoo along with a group of pandas being stared at all the time.
But the students didn’t mind - they are used to this because they have known this ever since the first day they started at the school.
And the visitors get to see the lessons and the results played out in real life.
When teachers and parents from other schools see this new way of teaching actually working, the discussion is lifted to a whole new level. Now you no longer talk about whether it can be done or not because now you can see it can be done. The discussion now becomes: Do we want to adopt this method and if yes, how do we start doing it?
Two schools in one
These discussions take place in Lamplaimat Pattana’s extensive course facilities which are placed close to the classrooms so that learning for grown ups and learning for students can go together. You as a teacher or parent are not just learning about an abstract idea with lots of beautiful slides on a projector - you are seeing it happen right in front of you.
Thousands of visitors come to the school every year. Some of them just stay for half a day, others for several months. Our staff have been there for training four or five times and we are now helping other schools adapt the PBL method with the support of Lamplaimat Pattana. The change in attitude and skills of our staff after one month’s stay at the school is bigger than the 2-3 years of staff training and work they have done with the foundation. This has been quite sobering for us.
Goodbye - Hello
The week of my first stay passed too quickly. I had long discussions with the school’s director, the school’s teachers who both gave me good insight into their work and also good advice: ‘Mind the snakes at night when you walk back to your room along the rice field!’
I went with the teachers to visit the homes of some of the students and met their parents and grandparents and saw how happy they are that the school is part of their lives.
I was really sad to go and when I was home again somehow I felt I had stepped out of a dream.
Soon after, our foundation management decided that we will use PBL as the basis for our work in the schools. We are now cooperating with Lamplaimat Pattana to get the best possible result in our new plans.
I have been back several times since, and I am going back again today.
Bangkok, March 9th 2014