I SPEND most of my life in the world of engineering. What I do requires me to deal in facts not feelings. I tend to write much in the same honest way.
Below I have provided a long prologue before actually responding to the article “Dismal university entrance exams”. In the past I have been very vocal about this problem and will provide you with first-hand evidence from two different educational worlds my own son has experienced both here in Thailand and in the US.
At age 3 and a half my son was accidentally discovered and interviewed by a British team the Thai government contracted to find “gifted children” in Thailand. He was not invited to test, but rather, was witnessed acting and talking in a manner much more mature than others his age by one of the British interviewers testing at the Airport Plaza Mall in Chiang Mai. His scores were described by the evaluator as amazing. Within days we were invited to Prem Tinsulanonda International School to discuss a possible enrolment there. It was a rare opportunity to provide our son with one of the finest educations in Thailand. However, the hours of commute time to and from school each day were simply too long for our young son. In conference with the school we explained that it would be better at his age to keep him close to home to learn about family before experiencing the rest of the world. The school agreed.
Next, our son was enrolled in what was considered by most to be a very good international school much closer to home. The schoolteachers thought our son was exceptional in pre-school. By first grade he was producing “A’s” in nearly every subject. In second grade his test scores were the best in the class but his class work was poor. By third grade he had become a disciplinary problem. He would wander around the class, distract other students, and generally became unresponsive to his teachers. My wife was frequently called to the school for conferences. He was sent to psychiatrists and psychologists and threatened with all manner of discipline. When the teachers started talking openly in front of the students claiming my son had mental problems, he lost all but one of his friends and became even more isolated and withdrawn. By now, even though he continued to score exceptionally high scores in his tests, his grades were nearly failing. In one conference I told a teacher and one of the administrators that our son “did not need to catch up to you, you need to catch up with my son”.
I removed him from school in Chiang Mai at the end of his school year and took him and his mother to the US. My wife was willing to stay in the USA, so we enrolled our son in fourth grade. I had meticulously researched the US school systems and identified one area with the highest concentration of the highest rated schools in Grades 1-12. Within three weeks of starting fourth grade, my wife and I were summoned to a private meeting at the school. Upon entering the meeting room we were introduced to many educators, administrators, doctors, and student counsellors; nearly 20 professionals in all. They wanted to give our son a very special test they said. They explained that they thought he was gifted and they felt he had ADHD for which they could offer us a wide array of services to help him. The test itself took hours. We received a telephone call from the school district - they wanted to test him again. We granted permission and he was re-tested. Then, without asking, they tested him a third time. A couple of months later we received a letter from the school district headquarters. They apologised for the tardiness in responding to the test results. They said that they administered the test three times because they thought they had made an error in the testing procedure. No one had ever scored this high in these tests and our son had scored near perfect over the entire test. The school district stated that our son was not gifted in one area, he was gifted in all areas. They also explained that his academic records would be annotated to permanently show that he is to be identified as gifted at all future levels of education. Each time he changes schools through to the university level, this will always be reflected in the opening page of his record to insure that he receives special interest by the educators.
Immediately our son was given a special class with a single teacher once each day to help him grow at his own pace. The school district also insured that he received all the support he needed to compensate for his ADHD. We put him under the care of a child psychologist recommended by the school district who has made great strides in helping our son to increase the fullness of his life and give him the confidence to push even higher in his academics. All the time, the school and the psychologist maintained contact to maintain coordination.
He is now 13 years old and in seventh grade. He has a most demanding school schedule. Last school year he was tested again by the State of Virginia. This year half of his classes are in seventh grade and half of his classes are in the University of Virginia where he takes Advanced Calculus and Physics. During the school day he will be sent to a room where he joins the other thirty 18- to 20-year-old students in his class at the University of Virginia via an Internet link. Last year he competed in the state collegiate level robotics competition with a robot he designed, built, and programmed. His many accomplishments in electro-mechanical designs and academics would fill pages in small type.
Now that I have laid the foundation of my argument, I think I am prepared to offer an answer to the educators with regard to the solutions that evaded them. It is by all measures not pretty and I am sure it will evoke an immediate rebuke of everything I say. The problem is definitely not the students. They are like computers. They only learn what we teach them and they only do what they are told. They are an exact reflection of the programmer – or teacher in this case. In America I was shocked, even though I am American, to see the amount of dedication, coordination, and collective resources expended on each and every student. In seventh grade my son already has more education than I had upon graduating high school. In Thailand, I have never seen that degree of dedication in any of the teachers or administrators I have met. I am sure there are some, but not many. Every student is expected to be a mirror image of the next, as if they were all cast from the same mould. Too often the same teacher during the day would earn extra money by offering the same students “tutoring” in the evenings. And only then offering the much needed support and knowledge needed to understand the teachings of that day. For my son, the teachers were complaining daily about his inattention in the classroom and claiming he was learning nothing. But they could never explain why he tested repeatedly at the top of his class. I guarantee he heard and saw everything in each class but they were teaching too slowly and he was bored. If Thai teachers and administrators are so educated themselves, why can’t they identify these students with gifts and/or special needs? During a meeting about my son’s behaviour with a teacher in second grade, I asked the teacher if she understood what the coefficient of friction was. It is a basic principle of physics taught in schools around the world. She responded “No” she didn’t. I suggested she talk to my son and he would explain it to her. Why can’t Thai teachers see potential like this in their students? My opinion is because they are underpaid and have received a poor education themselves. This kind of a problem feeds on itself from one generation to the next. I would guess that each year the test results used to gauge the quality of education in Thailand get lower.
If you want better-educated students you must have better-educated teachers. Teachers willing to spend the extra time and effort not just with each student, but willing to continually update their own education. High quality seminars and symposiums should not just be available to teachers; they should be required to continue employment. Higher pay for teachers who demonstrate improving teaching skills and exhibiting the desire to improve further by continually upgrading their own education is absolutely necessary. Teachers should be mandated to learn the very newest and most successful education techniques available outside the classroom. Don’t force them to hold a second job or to tutor in the evenings. Pay them enough so they do not need additional employment and permit them to spend more of that time concentrating and planning how to teach the next day’s class and on their own professional self improvement. Simply accepting the current teaching methods as “the way we have always done it, that’s how I learned” will not succeed in today’s world. I don’t believe that any of these teachers come to school each day to do a bad job. I would be challenged to find the small number of teachers that come to do a great job. Most, I believe, just come to do what they must to get paid. This sounds very cold and unfeeling, but, where is the zeal and the thirst for knowledge they were supposed to impart to their students? Education should be exciting and challenging – it should allow all students to dream ever new dreams. Teachers are the tools we depend on to open our children’s minds and release these sensations.
Before we complain about the taste of the apple, we should take a closer look at the tree and the soil from whence it came. Any national education system is a reflection of the attitudes, commitment, and compassion of the administration and management provided by everyone responsible for the education of their youth – including politicians, civil servants, institutional administrators, and the teachers themselves. I was taught this is called Dedication to Purpose.
My child will be okay now - what about yours?