LiBeL Column

A Worrying Thought

Columns from The Nation newspaper

Bizarre Thai student behavior

“Teaching is a misnomer – no-one can teach anyone anything.”


Individuals learn and all that anyone else can do is provide a, hopefully, conducive environment for this to happen in. (OK, it’s a bit deep at this point but it gets better, bear with me.)

Learning takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It can’t happen if you pop a magic pill. It won’t happen if you feed your head with the contents of Thai Rath’s entertainment pages. Surprisingly enough, it’s one of the better reasons why we have schools and universities.

A reasonably pleasant environment also helps, but is not absolutely necessary. Landscaped gardens, flamingo filled lakes, mock Greco-Roman architecture does help a little but it can only go so far.

Another way to look at it is that someone who is cold and hungry probably won’t grasp the intricacies of nuclear physics quickly, but they will very soon learn how to keep warm and find food – unless of course they’ve spent their entire life relying on the Burmese maid for everything.

Other components required for a half decent stab at successful learning, in no particular order, are background, motivation, confidence and skills.

It is impossible to learn something without having the necessary background knowledge and /or skills for it. No one runs before walking, or walks before crawling. Unless, like some lab rats, your DNA has been tampered with and you emerge from the womb as a fully functioning, genetically programmed hunter gatherer, fired up and ready to go.

Similarly, and pretty obviously, no one can understand complex numbers without understanding normal numbers, or negative sentences without understanding positive ones etc. Understanding such as this isn’t shared equally amongst all God’s creations. This is something individual, determined largely by the physical and social environment which we’re all exposed to. Plankton, Chihuahuas and some Mattayom 1 students tend to end up with the arse-end of the deal. Their share of the ability to understand has been cruelly ripped from their double helix by the hand of God and divided amongst dolphins, chess prodigy’s and people who’ve figured out how to order numerous main courses at a Thai restaurant and have them all served simultaneously, rather than at twenty minute intervals.

What I’m getting at is that learners thus vary greatly in their ability to learn particular subjects and/or skills. Not only ability to understand intellectual concepts but also physical ones. One youth’s motor skills may not be up to par with another’s. Remember how it was always Sod’s Law that the kid with the hand-eye co-ordination of Helen Keller ended up on your team during basketball practice? Note: This discrepancy is natural and must be respected. Calling your teammate a ‘spazz’ doesn’t help one iota.

Motivation is a prime factor in how well and how quickly something is learnt. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Not strictly true as experiments with the effect of Vindaloo curry on the horse’s palate have proved in the past.

Learners need a reason to learn. In a perfect world this would mean something other than the usual “in order to pass the exam, go to university and get a good job” sort of

response. Unfortunately, this isn’t Nirvana, this is Thailand, and as reasons for learning go the aforementioned is top of the charts and has been since time, or perhaps more importantly, Chula University, began.

What usually happens is if students don’t see the course content as relevant to their future (beyond the need to pass the four exams per year) then there is little motivation to learn it. A crazy, ‘out of the box’ kinda idea would be for schools and universities to continually reexamine their curriculum in order to ensure that it is meaningful to someone other than the teachers. The most meaningful aspect for them being a course that’s easy to teach and which lends itself, almost eerily, to no other form of exam other than multiple choice.

Real learning, demands an understanding of why the things being learnt are as they are. In other words, the content must be put in context. Taking your teacher to be infallible and everything your teacher says as being true, being the only option possible, being impossible to contradict and going without question isn’t an ideal way for students to think creatively and feel encouraged to free their minds. As far as possible, students should be helped to discover the ideas and principles themselves.

Clearly, there is a problem of time here. Give monkey a word processor and an infinite amount of time and eventually he’ll produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Fine and dandy, except for the fact monkeys have a finite lifespan and an even more finite ability to touch type. However, if you treat the exercise as a sort of ‘teacher guided discovery’ which provides the rationale for what is being learnt, then within a few weeks the monkey will be banging out columns for a national newspaper.

Having the confidence that you can learn is also vital. Continual failure can easily kill motivation and mean that students don’t even attempt to learn new things in the future. If all a likeable, but slightly thick kid hears when he’s growing up is “No”, “Wrong”, “Don’t do that”, “Stop it”, “Take your finger out of there” etc then he’ll grow up fearing failure and will never venture to stick his finger anywhere remotely interesting during adolescence.

Unfortunately, there’s a flipside; without failures, nothing is learnt. So I guess it’s important to provide an environment in which learners, of all ages, experience continual small failures, but can find help and support to correct and learn from them, thereby achieving their long term goals successfully. Whether that goal is discovering cold fusion or sticking their index finger in a plug socket, in the case of the majority of less than inspirational students.

Support + Understanding + Darwin’s Theory = The master race.