Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Talent Is Here [?]

Taken from the Bangkok Post, 9th September 2007. Sounds applicable in Singapore if not for propaganda and ostrich-like behaviour as well as a propensity for a single party state:

"Thai students are capable of much more; they are the victims of an educational system that seems designed to discourage excellence and inspiration, writes FLEMMING WINTHER NIELSEN

Realities are taken from general knowledge, from the streets, from a poor rural primary school in Ratchaburi, from a private university in Bangkok and, last but not least, from my two adopted sons, aged 15 and 18.

If a certain issue is close to your heart, the writing tends to be private and confused; there must be a piece of strong but transparent silk between you and the subject. To keep that distance in this article will not be easy, since I harbour sadness about certain conditions seen and a realisation that so much young talent is being wasted - without objective reasons.

It has frequently been argued that the intelligence, the so-called IQ, of Thai children is generally low. This opinion and a feeling of inferiority runs deep in society - even my English-speaking taxi driver believes in the myth. But it is a myth. I have found no research supporting this. IQ tests are not objective, as the questions are created around knowledge and norms of the middle/upper classes. Furthermore, there seems to be no proof that the standard curve (of normality) should deviate from elsewhere.

Myths come from somewhere, they can be traced. In old Europe the same myths were common among the ruling classes of noble land owners. In order to keep the majority in place myths were canvassed as the truth. Many hands were needed on the manors and farms. Hands, not heads. Therefore, education was regarded as unnecessary, if given at all, and limited to basic language, rote learning of hymns and history glorifying the ruling classes. To keep things that way is possible as long as the society is static.

As soon as industrialisation started and changes gained speed, the myths punctured. The working classes, migrating to the cities, soon displayed that they had lots of talent. They coped with constant educational challenges, creating their own unions and organisations. The educated Europeans of today are the descendants of those who were branded heavy-drinking, stupid, lazy and dirty farmhands, but in fact merely had untapped potential.

In Europe and elsewhere in the West the family has lost its position as the most important foundation. Societies have become orientated towards the individual. One consequence has been that all emphasis in primary, secondary and tertiary education is given to find, nurture and support the special talents of the individual - talents to be used individually, in groups and in the interactions within society as a whole.

As an educator I have spent 25 years being this kind of gardener and can spot talent. And bear in mind, we are talking about talent to be built on - not about rote-based knowledge.

Two examples: The thousands of young motorcyclists of Bangkok, being either messengers or taxi drivers, show a high degree of elegance and practical talent each day. Within split seconds they have to calculate four variables - distance, speed, manoeuvres and factor X, this being the abrupt behaviour of those on four wheels. They have a keen eye on elderly Toyota Solunas with nervous elderly drivers.

These youngsters are not only street artists. Three years ago, they revolted against the gangsters who controlled and exploited them. By using clever tactics and strategies they got support both from City Hall and from the government and set themselves free. Hopefully it has stayed that way.

I know two internet cafe's well. In the first one, games are not allowed. During the peaceful Hua Hin afternoons, squeezed in between all the foreigners, you will find many Thai children and teenagers doing their homework, searching Google and the Wikipedia and using advanced English spelling programmes. The cafe' charges 20 baht per hour. Sometimes they ask questions and I feel proud.

At the other end, in Lop Buri, they play interactive games to their hearts' content. These games acquire logical IT knowledge, tactical and strategic skills and talent. The youngsters learn through trial and error, with help from their friends. Children and youngsters have courage, and they are not afraid. They are far beyond the majority of teachers regarding IT capacities. They have got used to analytical thinking and are bored stiff in their traditional schools.

Albert Einstein was once asked a question about American history that he couldn't answer. Asked why, he replied: "Why should I fill my head with knowledge that I can look up in a book?" Modern education is not about rote learning, it is completely passe' because of IT. Next to delivering only the most basic knowledge, the teacher's role is to inspire, to instill academic curiosity and to come up with ways and methods of where and how to search - and for what purpose. But the teachers of today are educated in the traditions of yesteryear.
The enemy of children's curiosity and built-in desire to learn is boredom. Boredom shows its ugly face when children and youngsters cannot see any challenges, or see no relationship with what is being taught to their own lives.


So why is it that the school in Ratchaburi resembles the ones I saw in Zambia, Africa?
Why is it that the school in Bangkok, more like a factory with its 3,000 students, is chronically short of money? I'm told that this school doesn't differ much from other schools in the city.
If a school has more than 500 students, it cannot instill a productive relationship between the children and their school. They students will not regard the school as "a place to belong".
Furthermore, the school has to put 50 students in each class. It is a researched fact that if the classroom has more than 25 students it is not possible for the teacher to reach out to all and establish a two-way communication.

As a result of this overcrowding the majority of new students at the private university where I lecture cannot form a simple sentence in English.

Many well-to-do parents send their children to private schools, which are run like a business. Children become commodities. Not surprisingly, the young generation has become materialistic. One of the consequences of the mushrooming private schools and universities is that they create irrational divisions in society. They recruit according to the wallets of the parents, not the student's talents. The future leadership might as well be formed by people endowed only with a lesser intelligence.

A learned visiting professor tells us that the country needs innovation, that the EU gives much emphasis to this and that the Australians are good innovators. Various ministers also use the word "innovation" simply as a mantra. Nevertheless, they should know that the preconditions for innovative thinking are not here, as I have tried to illustrate. Create them, then. Immediately the words "financing" and "funding" come to mind. From my experience, a reasonable education is a matter of priorities.

Perhaps the priority is simply that the elite do not want to see an up-to-date, educated working class. Maybe the myths are still alive along with the creeping fear of the suppressed, well known to the feudal lords of the past.

Meanwhile, according to American sources quoted in this newspaper, the military leaders have allowed themselves a pay rise of $9 million and raised their budget by more than $1 billion, although no war is in sight. This also shows a society in which various groups are just fighting for their own narrow interests, proclaiming "love of country" and "unity."

In a parliament I know quite well, they often have lengthy and heated debates about education, for many good reasons. One of the most important is the demographics. The members know that the ratio between people of working age and retired people is becoming smaller and smaller. In other words, there are fewer and fewer working people to create the wealth needed to support more and more non-working groups. Therefore, a state-of-the-art education focusing on free minds capable of innovative thinking and doing is crucial.

Some years down the road the same situation will occur in Thailand [or Singapore?]. Maybe only then will the educational system change, but by then it may be too late.

Mr Flemming Winther Nielsen is a retired Danish lecturer now living in Bangkok. He taught at the National Danish School for Social and Development Studies, DK from 1980 to 2003. "