It’s testing time at my high school, at least for my classes. Each semester we’re required to have five exam marks per pupil scribbled down in our Big Blue Books Of Bureaucratic Bollocks ™, these being the mid-terms, finals and three randomly assigned tests. I teach three Units from the textbooks per semester so it’s a no-brainer, three end-of-chapter tests and my job is done.
Such simplicity conceals a deep, underlying problem though, two of them actually. Two cancers gnawing away at the heart of the Thai educational system which are responsible for the country’s perpetually pathetic performances in educational tables across South-East Asia and the world at large. One of the problems is actually a major reason why I’ll be leaving here after the end of my year’s contract and heading elsewhere, somewhere over the rainbow where education matters and school is more than a glorified day-care centre.
The first is the age-old problem of copying. I’ve been to school, I remember what it’s like. Exams have, since time began, been exercises in sneaking surreptitious glances at you neighbour’s paper in the hope that they were paying attention while you were doodling/drawing/drunk. It never reached epidemic proportions though, usually being limited to a few of the more difficult questions for a few of the lazier students. In Thailand however it’s a way of life.
On any given paper there’s a good chance that at least half of the answers you see will have been taken from someone else without a second thought. No brainpower behind it, just simple copy, paste and hope for the best. The evidence comes when marking – how often have I seen a ridiculous answer (“Where does Jane go to school?” “School name her is of England”) repeated across five or six papers from students who coincidentally were situated in the same cluster of desks? It’s beyond a joke.
I’ve almost given up on it to be honest. I tried reasoning – “If your neighbour has the wrong answer then you’ll be wrong too”. I tried appealing to authority – “Anyone caught copying will be sent to the Principal”. This time I threatened failure – “Anyone seen copying loses 50% of their marks. Anyone allowing someone to copy from them loses 25%”. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just something I’m going to have to live with.
And that last attempt at eradicating the copying problem, knocking marks off student’s final results? Well that leads me nicely into the other problem, the serious one and the one which prevents me from ever being able to properly teach a student in this country, or at least at the schools where I’m employed.
How to you punish a student with failure when failure is against the rules?
Believe it or not I’m actually not allowed to fail these students. If they score less than 50% then they re-sit the same paper the next day. If they fail again then they get another try, and so on ad infinitum until somehow they miraculously manage to make marks on the paper which approximately correspond to the correct answer. They simply cannot fail. To my Western mind this whole concept seemed ridiculous so I brought it up with the Thai staff and the explanation is so mind-bogglingly simple that I’m amazed I overlooked it. You see my high school kids are on an advanced multi-lingual programme set apart from the rest of the curriculum. They had to sit an entrance exam to get on the course therefore they’re smart. And if they’re smart then how could they possibly fail an exam.
D’uh, it was staring me in the face. Never mind that some can barely recognise a written word, that some will struggle to write a single paragraph of English over a 55-minute writing lesson. No, these are smart kids. THEY CANNOT FAIL.
This is a serious problem. If they can’t fail then we churn the same useless kids through the system year after year. The same useless kids who should be forced to resit a given year again and again until they get it right are simply thrown up to the next level, adrift and clueless, monopolising all my time which should be directed towards the students who actually give a fuck. Their lack of ability leads to distraction, which leads to behavioural problems, which leads to disruption, delays and a lower level of education for the kids who want to be there, who are despearate for an education and who have done nothing wrong but be thrust into an educational system which doesn’t care for them at all.
The longer I’m here the more I recognise that passing grades are nothing more than badges of merit for course organisers and school principals, tickets to bragging rights among their peers. As a result the futures of a lot of bright kids are washed away as their education is viewed with suspicion at best and contempt at worst by the rest of the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love teaching. I love Thailand, I love most of my students and I’ve had an amazing year here. I’ll continue to put everything I’ve got into my classes, to work well over my contracted hours making sure that my kids at least have the opportunity to learn should they so desire. I’ll make their games, design their worksheets, spend every second I can listening to their questions and helping them out. To pretend that my job is any more than a sham at times would be dishonest though, and that can be one of the most demoralising realisations in the world, one which led me to quit my previous career without a second thought.
Roll on South Korea, better time are most certainly ahead…