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Reformers say parrots not welcome

THAILAND

Each morning the 2,600 primary pupils at Bangkok's Phyathai school stand to attention for the national anthem and make a prayer-like bow to their teachers.

The assemblies and the gestures are repeated across Thailand as a sign of respect for king, country and classroom. This tradition endures in a climate of radical change as the country attempts to drag its education system and teaching methods into the globalised era for which few teachers are equipped to cope.

The immaculately-dressed youngsters at state-run Phyathai are the lucky ones. It is one of the city's most popular schools and they have teachers like Ms Oraporn Yamsopa who has been named a Master Teacher by state education evaluators, due to skills that focus on child-centred learning. Instead of being spoon-fed, she encourages pupils to learn science by doing and analysing and thinking for themselves.

Child-centred teaching is now the staffroom buzz-word nationwide. But while many welcome the concept there are legions of teachers who have little idea what it means, either in theory or practice. Some even consider such teaching methods "unThai" and, worse, too Western. In a country that has taught generations by rote, thanks in part to techniques handed down by chanting Buddhist monks, questioning the teacher has traditionally been perceived as rude and challenging. Many teachers think it should stay that way. Such attitudes no longer sit well with education reformers who know that Thailand needs analytical thinkers, rather than so-called "parrots", if it is to remain competitive.

Thailand is now in the middle of a revolutionary reform programme that began with the 1999 National Education Act, the first major upgrade for Thailand's schools in more than a century.

Science teacher Ms Oraporn says not all teachers readily adopt the new methods. "In some schools where the teachers have taught the teacher-centred way for years, they can't wait for the answers because they are so used to telling the students."

Just down the road at the ministry of education, Mr San Worainthara, director of the Bureau of Teacher Education Development, says Thailand is finding it difficult to implement the reforms.

Among the problems are teachers' poor pay and their declining status which has led to a drop in the quality of candidates, as well as a lack of resources for training teachers. But the key problem is changing the mindset of both the lecturers at the 41 teacher-training institutes and the teachers already in the 40,000 state school classrooms.

"In their hearts they do not believe in the new way of teaching," he said. Some saw questions as challenging to their authority.

Changes in the pipeline to aid reform include workshops with follow-up evaluation, the creation of super teachers termed "master" and "national" teachers who are given extra funds with which to develop classroom education, a planned pay rise and the extension of teacher training from four to five years.

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