Wichian Chaiyabang is pushing alternative education into the mainstream. Through a cost-effective model in one of Thailand’s poorest rural communities, he is training public school teachers and administrators to revise their classroom practices and raise their expectations of public education.
The New Idea
Wichian is among the first in Thailand to integrate alternative education philosophy into the public education system, by way of establishing a school for public school teachers and administrators. By bringing educators to learn in one of Thailand’s poorest rural communities, he is overturning assumptions that quality education must be exclusive and expensive. His “school outside the box” model is now an expanding movement of teachers, principals, teaching colleges, and policymakers. Over thirty public classrooms have permanently changed the way they provide public education, and the government has recently endorsed Wichian’s model as part of formal training for newly-certified public school teachers. In a country where public education is highly dependent on an ineffective national administration, Wichian is equipping teachers and administrators with the tools to make their own education reform.
Education is among Thailand’s biggest national expenditures, yet continues to be ranked among the lowest in quality worldwide. As much as 25 percent of the nation’s annual budget is allocated to education, though a large portion—the largest in some years—is spent on building construction and land acquisition. For the past two decades, the government has announced numerous initiatives for education reform, but most education experts say little reform has been achieved. Instead, such initiatives have created many more departments and offices within the Ministry of Education, which now accounts for more than one-third of all public servants in Thailand.
Despite an abundance of teachers, many Thai students are failing exams and dropping out of school. According to the Ministry of Education, there are over 650,000 teachers in Thailand, with one of the lowest student-teacher ratios in Asia. Yet only one-third of public school students score passing grades on national standardized tests. Approximately one in ten students drop out of school before finishing Grade 9, and four in ten drop out before finishing Grade 12. Teachers report low job satisfaction and low expectations of failing students. A 2006 national survey found that half of all teachers have begun to “give up” on the teaching profession, while two in three teachers want early retirement if it were a possibility. Likewise, a former Secretary of the Basic Education Commission recently expressed her concern that Thai schools “do nothing to help” students who are at-risk of failing.
Poverty is the most frequently cited reason by students who discontinue their education. Even though Thailand offers free compulsory education to Grade 9, and inexpensive public education to Grade 12, poor students have little access to quality education. Most teachers have no incentive to work in poor, and mostly rural, communities. As a result, many rural schools face teacher shortages, while some urban schools are overstaffed. Staff shortages further burden rural teachers and contribute to low morale. According to a national survey, the average Thai teacher has at least one additional administrative position in the school, which requires time away from teaching. It is reported that teachers miss an average of two classes each week.
There is an overall lack of accountability in the Thai education system, due to a highly centralized administration which changes leadership frequently. Over the past ten years, Thailand has had ten different Ministers of Education. Ministerial positions in Thai government are assigned as political rewards, by the majority political party to its promising members. At the local level, Directors of Educational Service Areas, who report to the Ministry in Bangkok, are recommended by local politicians as favors to their political allies. Thus, leadership of the Thai education system are not required to have experience or interest in education. Still, these centralized government positions have exclusive authority in many aspects. For example, Thai schools are required to teach according to a national curriculum, which cannot be altered without approval from the Prime Minister’s Cabinet. Such inflexibilities have hindered concrete changes, despite the theoretical commitment to education reform.
The low quality of public education is not for a lack of good examples. Thailand has several private alternative schools where teachers and students are equally enthusiastic about education. These schools, however, are mostly located in the city and charge at least four times more than public school tuition. The students are expected to come from educated families—for many schools, parents are interviewed as part of the admission process. These financial and social criteria for enrollment are inevitably prohibitive for the vast majority of Thai students, even though the Alternative Education Act was passed in 2006 to endorse alternative curriculum. Most educators still perceive alternative schools as irrelevant to the public education experience, with its budget, personnel, and institutional limitations.
As founding principal of Lamplaimat Pattana School, Wichian has the determination to create a school not only for students, but for all the teachers in Thailand. Here, teachers learn from one another about how to improve public education without waiting for additional funding or technology. Wichian’s goal is to transform one thousand public schools, as a critical mass for national education reform.
Lamplaimat Pattana School is located in Buriram, one of Thailand’s poorest provinces, over 400 kilometers from Bangkok on the Thai-Cambodian border. Since the school opened in 2003, Wichian has provided free kindergarten and primary education to students of all abilities and backgrounds, by way of open lottery. The only condition is that students must reside within a 40 kilometer radius of the school, to ensure parent-teacher interaction. Buriram residents earn an average income of 2,094 baht (US$70) per month, and have had an average of only six years of education. Reflecting this demographic, 80 percent of Lamplaimat Pattana’s students come from farming families. Teachers are encouraged to respect every parent, regardless of social status. To educate teachers about the inseparable ties between students’ lives in and outside of school, all parents must join their child’s classroom for one day every year, and are encouraged to volunteer for extracurricular activities. For example, parents teach students and teachers how to farm rice, or to weave a fishing basket, and the lessons are applied to the small paddy field at the school.
Aware of the financial limitations to public education, Wichian emphasizes a low-cost approach to teaching. He is dispelling the myth believed by most educators today that more technology means more learning. One anecdote that Wichian uses frequently in training workshops is the cafeteria conversation. He joins a group of students eating lunch and says, “Some ingredients here came from the sea.” The meal consists of rice, spicy sour chicken soup, and fried gourd with egg. After much discussion among the students, one boy is able to explain the cycle of rain formation—from sea, vapor, cloud, to rain—and how the rainwater is used to cook their soup. Wichian is pushing teachers, school administrators and even education policymakers to act beyond their comfort zones. Quality education does not have to wait for sophisticated technology or expensive equipment. Even the least-funded schools are capable of the best teaching. At Lamplaimat Pattana School, for example, students’ score ten points higher than the Thai national average on standardized tests, at less cost than the government budget. Each year, Lamplaimat Pattana spends 40,000 baht (about US$1,300) per student, while Thai public schools are allocated 47,000 baht (about US$1,500) per student.
Wichian is changing the way public school teachers conduct student evaluations. He does not believe in applying the Darwinian mentality to education, encouraging the fittest to survive while ignoring the weak. Quite the opposite, Wichian trains teachers at Lamplaimat Pattana, who then teach visiting teachers, to develop curriculum and pedagogy that identify and nurture a diversity of aptitudes: physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Lamplaimat Pattana teachers do not follow the conventional teaching approach, of dividing education into distinct and disconnected subject areas. Instead, they teach students through a “project-based curriculum,” which integrates skills development of all subject areas. For instance, one teacher takes her class to a nearby forest in Lamplaimat Pattana district. Over four months, students learn the science of plant biology and the forest ecosystem. They are asked to develop a research topic of choice, and must convey what they learn through writing, artwork, and oral presentation. The teacher facilitates meetings with community residents of different professions who use the forest. Students learn about the local community, the relationship between farming and forest preservation, and about the conflict between preservation and industrial development. In this integrated learning unit, each student has the opportunity to shine and develop their curiosity. Wichian believes this approach to education can have great impact not only on students, but on their teachers’ mentality. Teachers begin to recognize diverse forms of aptitude, and learn how to collaborate closely with teachers of different subjects. To accommodate the national curriculum, Wichian trains teachers to apply progress indicators from the project-based curriculum to the conventional grading system. To demonstrate his students’ competitiveness in the mainstream education model, Wichian ensures that Lamplaimat Pattana School is part of the external evaluation program by the Ministry of Education, which gave the school the second highest score in Thailand.
In the 2011 school year, Wichian expanded the school from Grade 6 to Grade 9, to match the nine years of compulsory public education. He aims to extend his impact to teachers and administrators of public secondary schools across Thailand. To support such growth, Wichian will continue to raise funds from private and public donors, in Thailand and abroad, and use revenue from teacher training workshops, as well as the Lamplaimat Pattana publishing house which sells alternative curriculum material and educational literature.
Wichian is using Lamplaimat Pattana School as a training site for public school teachers and administrators. He has gained support from the National Office of Primary Education, under the Ministry of Education, which invites elementary school principals and teachers to train at Lamplaimat Pattana. With financial support from the Ministry of Education, Wichian and his team have trained over 40,000 educators in short-term workshops throughout the school year. Over a thousand teachers and administrators voluntarily return to Lamplaimat Pattana for in-depth training during summer vacations. The Lamplaimat Pattana model, nicknamed “School Outside the Box” after the title of Wichian’s book, is now well-known among public school teachers, educators, and policymakers in the Ministry of Education across Thailand.
Wichian works closely with the national government to revise the training curriculum for future public school teachers and administrators. Among his close partners are the Curriculum Development Working Group under the Office of the Education Council, Directors and Supervisors of Educational Service Areas under the Office of Basic Educational Commission, as well as local governments and principals of rural and small urban municipality schools in at least twenty provinces across Thailand. Wichian also trains professors and students of teacher certification programs, at all the major teaching colleges in the region and across Thailand. In early 2011, the Ministry of Education approved and allocated the necessary budget for Lamplaimat Pattana School to become an official training site for newly-certified teachers. Wichian has also begun collaborations with the Deputy Minister of Education in the neighboring country of Lao PDR, initiating teacher training workshops at the National Teacher’s College in Luang Prabang.
Wichian’s education philosophy and drive to reform is rooted in his personal exposure to public education. Growing up in a landless farming household, Wichian’s mother was illiterate and his family did not expect him to attend more than six years of compulsory education. Teachers further denied Wichian any opportunity to participate in school activities. Raised on sweetened canned milk for lack of money to buy fresh milk, the young Wichian was fat and deemed incapable of playing sports or representing the school in any activity, despite his childhood dream to be an athlete.
With strong encouragement from his sixth grade teacher, Wichian applied to secondary school and walked 8 kilometers each day to attend classes. Upon high school graduation, he moved to a Bangkok slum and earned money by selling grilled sausages on the street. A few months later, he was awarded a scholarship to enroll in the new teacher’s college back home in Mahasarakham Province, northeastern Thailand. In that era, however, the government scholarship only provided free housing and a job guarantee upon certification. Wichian earned money for tuition and food by playing cards, washing his professor’s laundry, and cutting lawns.
Since then, Wichian has served as principal in three public schools and holds a Master of Education. Wanting to change Thai public education on a broader scale for quite some time, Wichian abandoned his high rank and fast track to success in 2003, when he met a like-minded supporter of his idea. The James Clark Foundation, which provided seed money for Lamplaimat Pattana School, continues to fund one-third of Lamplaimat Pattana’s operating budget.
With the aim to change educators from within, Wichian has authored several short story collections and illustrated children’s books, including The Wind and the Prairie, awarded Outstanding Book of the Year (2009) by the Ministry of Education. He is also frequent contributor to the Chalk Talk column in The Nation, a major English-language daily in Thailand.