Education’s first goal: quality teachers

opinion March 28, 2016 01:00

By CHULARAT SAENGPASSA
Chularat@

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A MAJOR overhaul of the country’s education sector has been taking place under recent, sweeping orders from the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).



But no matter how much media attention the structural plans have generated, the essence of any change to education should still surround teacher reform. 
Undeniably, an educational system’s standard can never be higher than the quality of its teachers. So no matter what plans the Education Ministry or the NCPO have for the future of Thai education, first they must work hard to improve our teachers. 
It is high time Thailand seriously studied successful models like those Singapore and Finland have embraced. These two countries already rank best in the world when it comes to education. 
The Singaporean government first laid down its strong educational foundation in the 1980s, when its teacher-education institute started recruiting only the top 30 per cent of school graduates. The goal was to attract great talent to the teaching profession so that Singaporean students could have the best teachers. 
Back then, it also hired Marshall Cavendish – a well-recognised international publisher – to develop textbooks in three main subjects - English, math, and science for Singaporean children. This meant Singapore did not base all its hopes just on the quality of teachers. Rather, it also prepared good tools to help move towards the intended results.
Within one decade, such efforts had borne fruit allowing Singaporean schools to move ahead to a new phase. 
In 1997, the island-state embarked on an initiative of “Thinking Schools and Learning Nation”. Singaporean teachers encouraged their students to think more about and experiment with various learning activities. 
The teachers also received solid support along the way. On average, they were given 100 hours of training each year.
There are now about 30,400 teachers in Singapore for its 500,000 students. 
Last year, Singapore’s education system topped the highest global school rankings. 
Finland, in the same ranking, ended up in sixth position. However, for a long time, Finnish educational services have been praised around the world. 
And that’s prompted people to ask: What’s so special about Finland’s educational management? 
In Finland, the teaching profession attracts its membership from the top 15 graduate ranks. Also, Finnish teachers have earned much respect. In the eyes of the population, they are even more respected than doctors. 
Supporting this recruitment of the cream of graduates to the teaching profession, the Finnish government has prepared good textbooks for its students.
At Finnish schools, a thinking curriculum is in place to nurture students and develop their full potential, supported by a national ratio of 50,000 teachers for 500,000 students. 
From these system profiles, one can see that high achieving Finnish and Singaporean educational systems have much in common.
The Thai government therefore should not miss these key points while seeking its goal of teacher reform. 
Education Minister General Dapong Ratanasuwan has lately instructed the Office of Higher Education Commission (Ohec) to find a way to enhance teacher quality. 
Let’s hope that the proposal the Ohec will come up with will be something great, imaginative and daring. Let’s hope that it focuses on the ultimate goal, not just on pleasing the current powers-that-be. It is understandable that Dapong is well-intentioned in suggesting that authorities should review the five-year teacher-education programme in the face of the country’s current educational situation. 
Dapong believes, for example, it is good that some engineering graduates are interested in becoming teachers. He suggests current rules should be amended so as to let these graduates secure teaching jobs. 
“Probably, we need to remove such restrictions. Let’s make it easier to draw in the highly capable,” he said the other day. 
I agree that Thailand needs to attract highly capable people to the teaching profession. But I disagree with an idea that suggests any person, no matter how knowledgeable, can teach well. 
It should not be forgotten that teachers must understand child or adolescent psychology in order to know well how to conduct classes for students. Don’t forget that teachers need to know how to produce teaching material – not just information about academic stuff.
In addition, I would like to emphasise that before a person can start teaching, he or she must receive training and serve first as trainees. The five-year teacher-education programme has devoted one year to apprenticeship. 
Before Thailand starts on fresh teacher reform, it should clearly identify which educational philosophy to embrace so that all of the 60-plus institutes training teachers in this country and all its teachers know which direction they should head towards.