Heroes of alternative education in Thailand

opinion March 21, 2016 01:00

By Gerald W Fry is a distinguishe

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A VISIONARY motto of the 1999 Thai education reforms was “education for all and all for education”. That was the first time that alternative education was formally recognised in Thailand.

Alternative education refers to lessons offered in ways that differ from mainstream schooling particularly in terms of pedagogy and learning environments. “All for education” meant that not just the government but diverse entities including the private sector and NGOs, for example, should be active providers of education.

A major global aid for alternative education is the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) (www.educationrevolution.org/store/) which was founded by Jerry Mintz in 1989. It includes many resources for those interested in alternative education, such as the Alternative Education Hall of Fame, which provides biographical profiles of the world’s leading alternative thinkers on education such as Lev Vygotsky, Shinichiro Hori, Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich.

The only Thai in the Alternative Education Hall of Fame is Dr Kowit Varapipatana, the “father of Thai adult and non-formal education”. He was instrumental in developing non-formal education as an alternative to formal education and worked tirelessly to provide educational opportunities to those in remote rural areas. Greatly influenced by Paulo Freire and his concept of empowerment, Kowit was known for emphasising the concept of khit pen (the ability to think). Kowit created the Benchamaracharungsarit 2 School in Chachoengsao in 1996. The school is formed in an “H” shape reflecting the four themes of head, heart, hands and the holistic reflections of Kowit’s philosophy of education, which must go beyond just academics.

In this column, I discuss the educational initiatives of several of Thailand’s leading figures in alternative education such as Ajarn Prapapat Niyom, Mae Chee Sansanee Sathira and Mechai Viravaidya.

Actually, the earliest form of alternative education in Thailand was home schooling, which in recent years has grown in popularity. It is particularly relevant to families whose children’s needs cannot be met adequately by conventional schooling. There are numerous home schools in the Muslim-majority South where children’s needs to pray five times a day can be met through home schooling.

Home schooling can also serve the needs of families with extremely gifted children who may be highly frustrated with the slow pace of learning in regular schools.

An example of the potential of home schooling is the amazing story of Dr Pichamon Yeophantong, a really gifted young Thai woman, whose family realised she could flourish in a home school environment. She was able to finish high school at age 13, complete her BA at age 17, MA at age 18, and PhD when only 22. This is an inspiring example of the realisation of potential objective associated with alternative education.

Obviously her case is an outlier and not typical, but it does show the real potential of home schooling for those highly gifted children who may not be challenged by regular schooling and whose pace of learning could be much faster.

One of the leading proponents of alternative education is Ajarn Prapapat Niyom, founder of the innovative Roong Aroon School in Thonburi. She has been vice president of the Association of Thai Alternative Education since 2011. She is an architect, not an educator by training. The Roong Aroon school is known for its attractive learning environment and for active student-centred learning.

Visitors comment that the school feels almost like a “resort”. Many educators are sent to observe it to see a concrete example of engaged pedagogy with an emphasis on learning, not teaching.

Later in 2007, Prapapat established Thailand’s first alternative institution of higher education, the Arsom Silp Institute of the Arts. The goal of the institute is to develop the student’s heart and soul. Arsom Silop offers a creative curriculum integrating all tasks; learning, research, social service, and the preservation of national arts and cultures into work-based units of learning.

This innovative process has enabled the institute to work with and serve a large number of both rural and urban communities. The institute does not emphasise traditional academic disciplines but instead important creative themes such as holistic education, conservation and corporate social responsibility. Students are able to obtain bachelor’s or master’s degrees in fields such as holistic education and social entrepreneurship.

Mae Chee Sansanee, an activist Buddhist nun, is also a social entrepreneur. In 1987, she created the Sathira Dhammasathan Buddhist abode in the Bangkok area. She promotes Buddhist-oriented formal, non-formal and informal education. Her initial formal alternative education initiative was the creation of a Buddhist pre-school at Sathira Dhammasathan.

This pre-school represents a creative amalgam of the Waldorf philosophy and Buddhism. There is a strong emphasis on developing compassion among all students. The curriculum emphasises playing in a natural environment, spiritual development and the gentle guiding roles of teachers. Mae Chee Sansanee feels that it is important to cultivate gentle and free minds in children.

Similar to Prapapat, Mae Chee Sansanee decided to become involved in higher education and created the Savika Sikkalaya Buddhist Institute to offer a special MA programme in Buddhist Studies. The curriculum emphasises the art of living and using Buddhist knowledge to serve society in areas such as health, education, and media.

One of Thailand’s most innovative social entrepreneurs is Mechai Viravaidya, world famous for his work in promoting Aids/HIV education. But he has also created a highly innovative school, the Bamboo School, which Dr Pompimol Kanchanalak previously wrote about in The Nation (October 9, 2014).

This school is known for its empowerment of students to have a role in selecting and evaluating teachers and administrators. They also help determine the curriculum. The school has close links with surrounding communities and students engaged in activities to serve those communities. Mechai feels that schools should be life-long learning centres. Pompimol concludes that this is “citizen-empowerment” at its best.

There are countless more examples of the growing role of alternative education in Thailand. It is imperative that the Thai government do all it can to foster the further development of alternative education as a way to improve the quality and relevance of Thai education and its ability to meet the diverse needs of the Thai population.