By Tanika Panyarachun and Jessica Lander
When Thailand’s Armed Forces took over the country in 2014, military authorities declared that they would establish key reforms to ensure successful democracy — and the new government highlighted the need for educational reform. But any government that wants to lay a strong foundation for democracy should embrace education reforms that celebrate inquiry and ingenuity.
The military government created a list of “12 National Values,” and since last October has required that every student recite the values at the start of their school day. Critical thinking is conspicuously absent from the list. Instead, the values promote order, respect and honor of authority, discipline of body and mind, economic modesty, and selflessness.
Over the past 80 years, Thailand has striven to define its unique kind of democracy as a constitutional monarchy with a revered king, punctuated by a series of military coups. Thailand has successfully navigated the upheavals of the 20th century, establishing a stable and vibrant economy.
Insisting that students unquestioningly recite and internalize official values inhibits student’s ability to develop as independent thinkers. Intellectual curiosity – the drive to question and the tenacity to seek answers – is a skill that the Thai government should be nourishing in its next generation. It is needed by inventors, creators, entrepreneurs and leaders – and by an educated citizenry who can be active participants in healthy democracy.
Encouraging critical thinking is not a new ideal for the Thai education system. The goal has been cited in in written reforms for more than 30 years. But the structures and pedagogy in many Thai classrooms remain antithetical to cultivating critical thinking. Classes are large – averaging 50 to 60 students per instructor – and often rely on rote learning. And, a deep cultural respect for hierarchy and deference to one’s elders translates to classrooms in which teachers are the unquestionable authority.
By international standards, Thai students rank low on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures, among other things, students’ ability to think critically. In the 2012, PISA, out of 65 participating countries, Thailand ranked 50th in math and 48th in both science and reading – on par with Kazakhstan and Malaysia, but far behind neighboring Vietnam.
Cultivating critical thinking will require structural changes and a shift in mindset. Reforms will need to support smaller classes and curriculum not tethered solely to high-stakes tests and to rethink teacher training and pedagogy, to provide tools and skills to develop critical thinking in students. Some teachers may even be dubious about encouraging critical thinking – equating questioning with insolence rather then engagement.
The current government has yet to publish a detailed vision for its education reform. Nationally there are signs that students and universities are clamoring for critical thinking. At major universities, there has been an uptick in the number of class discussions and debates taking place at major universities. A high school student-led movement demanding an education system that encourages free-thinking has garnered over 17,000 Facebook likes. Some of the most respected universities are beginning to offer classes that actively teach critical thinking.
In the opening episode of a new popular Thai TV series, the main character, Wynn, a rebellious student, refuses to wear his school uniform. To his principal, he explains that they have never been given a concrete reason for uniforms other than tradition. To his friends, he says good-naturedly that he is not defying authority, “just posing a question.”
Wynn couldn’t be more right. Successful democracy cannot exist unless citizens ask questions and think critically.