On becoming education minister in 2016, Teerakiat Jareonsettasin launched a mission impossible: reversing the top-down management of an education system that was failing badly. The stakes could not be higher – education reform presents the only hand to play if the Kingdom is to escape the middle-income trap and join the developed world.
The first obstacle faced by Teerakiat was the bureaucratic nightmare of a top-heavy and corruption-riddled ministry employing 30,000 civil servants, among the largest in the world. The second was the rote-learning system, the bedrock of Thai education philosophy. These two are preventing the transition to a modern Thailand 4.0 economy. Teerakiat got busy orchestrating efforts to improve education, with novel approaches including everything from fast-tracking other professionals into teaching to backing edtech startups. Yet I have the gloomy impression that most of these efforts will result in a patchwork quilt if we do not start at the root of the problem, namely the pre-school layer. The lasting “duckling-like” imprint of rote-memorisation can effectively disable a child’s learning capacity for life.
Dr Kirida Bhaopichitr of the Thailand Development Research Institute explains that we need a “womb to tomb” cycle to fix this deficiency. In other words, we must remove the core obstacle of rote-learning, from the kindergarten level onwards. It’s obvious that this cannot be accomplished overnight, but one can start at the bottom of the educational pyramid. Methods of encouraging critical thinking (CT) at the kindergarten level are widely available and applicable. Start instilling CT in these kids from the start and use the “patchwork methods” in the upper layers of education.
Use the existing enormous village funds to finance short basic weekend courses for caregivers (young and old), to teach them how to manage the crucial 1,000 days of early childhood, besides the mainly care-giving duties of feeding, playing, etc. Meanwhile the teaching can be done by the already active kindergarten personnel, once again financed by the funds.