Glimpse of hope or flash in the pan?

opinion August 12, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

An inspiring approach to teaching science, which involves helping citizens and improving society, should get long-term support 

Something might just be going right for Thai education, although improving the system overall remains a very long, tough road. A teaching project that has escaped most people’s attention and remained virtually unmentioned in online commentary caught the eye of a major international news outlet, Al Jazeera, which praised it as inspiring and promising. It has to do with a concerted, albeit still limited, effort to improve science learning among Thai youngsters.

The flaws in the Thai education system stem not from any “ideological” thinking among students, which can change back and forth over time. The problem concerns the way the fundamentals are taught, the fact that so many teachers are unqualified for the job, and the unproductive teaching techniques in use. In addition, progress in education here always seems to result from someone trying to save face. It typically takes an embarrassing result in international school rankings for the powers-that-be and social-media warriors to complain about our chronically poor standards. 

Unlike the latest uproar from Chulalongkorn University, where staff and students disagreed over an annual ritual, the science-teaching project is not what you’d call sexy news. Regardless, it deserves our careful consideration, since it addresses several factors that are impeding Thai education. 

The Inspiring Science project uses an inquiry and problem-solving approach and aims to motivate rather than burden students when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Educators might need to worry about teaching philosophy required, but the students involved are left with simple and yet inspiring tasks.

The central idea in the project is engaging students in solving actual problems, such as how to replace an archaic rope bridge used by a community of southern Thailand, or how to create “floating farms” in flooded areas. It could instead be a matter of coming up with something more innovative to burn at candle festivals.

This is how science, and most other subjects, should have been taught all along. Our students should be encouraged to use their skills and creativity to help others. Given that sort of challenge, they’re apt to feel immediately motivated.

As for educators and the government, it’s refreshing for once to see that long-term vision can replace political impulse. Political motives are dangerous in structuring national education because they’re aimed at quick gains, tend to sabotage rivals’ good ideas, and put the worst men in key jobs. The foundation for a solid education depends on clear vision, effective and sincere implementation and a lot of patience. 

One of the world’s best-known scientists stressed the importance of non-politicised science education. Before he died in 1996, American cosmologist Carl Sagan called for a virtual revamp of education globally in light of dizzying technological advancements. Politicians must get out of the way, he said. The situation would “blow up in our faces” if befuddled politicians and other self-serving groups continued to lead the way in scientific and technological studies. 

Sagan’s main point was that the world was being overwhelmed by people who misunderstand or take advantage of science, contributing to circumstances that could send scientific development in the wrong, destructive direction. Getting students to think about ways to help fellow citizens is the way to go. The Inspiring Science project makes helping others the primary focus. Any glory or revenues that might accrue are a distant secondary consideration. Knowing how highly politicised Thai education is, this might be just a glimpse of hope. But we sincerely want such approaches to stop being the exceptions and start becoming the rule.