Since I’ve come to Thailand I’ve gone from being Professor Stoll or Mr. Stoll to Teacher Steve. While I have no problem with my new, less formal persona, I’ve become particularly uncomfortable with some of the meaning behind the new designation here in Thailand. The attitude here is that a teacher is totally responsible for learning. If a student doesn’t do well on a test, it is the teacher’s fault. Teaching is seen as passing information to someone even if they are passive. I hadn’t given it much thought in the past and never saw myself as the great pontificator. As a college professor I saw myself as a facilitator, as someone who presented information for the students to challenge, to study, to question and in the end to use critical thinking to analyze. While, of course, I was always right, I relished the students challenging me in my lectures and researching my positions. In 12 years of teaching I never had a student who challenged me on any issue and presented supported scientifically valid arguments in opposition. I always encouraged them to take good notes and Google the points that I made that they questioned to verify their accuracy.
In my university work and in my mind, teaching is only half of the process. Learning is the other half and this is done by the student. I learned a great deal with many bad teachers as I had to do more of the work myself. With good teachers I learned even more as they challenged me to work even harder. I don’t see teaching as an assembly line activity in which the students line up and I pour knowledge down their throats. Education is a process in which those who learn are active in the process not passive. Some may be able to learn some things and actually most can probably learn basic things in a passive manner as those things are being taught and reinforced in society around us. Things like the math surrounding basic use of money, basic communication and such. But, higher learning; scientific and mathematical skills and critical thinking and reasoning require the active participation of the learner. The learning of a language certainly goes in this category.
I teach English now as a foreign language and have students who expect me to pour English directly into their heads. They take no notes, do no homework, make no real effort but since they’ve paid their money and get their piece of paper they should know English…I should teach them. I’m talking about my older Thai students. My kindergarten kids love to practice and try and have made a lot of progress in the classroom this semester. But the older Thai students I’ve had from high school to technical college and employees in companies do virtually nothing outside of the classroom to learn English. I always encourage watching English movies, Youtube videos, Ted Talks as “homework” but they do nothing. I am now teaching Thai English teachers and true to form, there are never questions, no one takes notes and no one does anything outside the classroom. Much of class time is spent talking in Thai and paying little attention as I’ve seen in other teaching here. My kindergarteners listen intently, but somehow, somewhere in the Thai educational process they lose the focus and there isn’t a commitment to learn one needs to master a language or the more complicated disciplines. In the Asean alliance of nations of which Thailand is a member, American English is the language adopted as the common language for member countries. Thailand ranks last among these nations in its mastery of English.
Teaching is the importation of information. Good teachers impart information in an easy to understand, perhaps enjoyable and inspirational manner while bad teachers do it in a boring and stifling manner. But learning comes from what the students do with this information and the work they put in to the process in and out of the classroom. My best students in University would have learned with or without me…perhaps I inspired or angered a few to do more work, but for the most part I could tell the first day who was going to do well and who wasn’t. That first day the students with a notebook, pen and their textbook and who were writing as we went over the syllabus were going to get at least a B in my class. The ones who came that first day and hadn’t purchased a text, had no pen or paper and didn’t pay attention as we went over the syllabus would fail my class. It is the effort of the students to learn, not the ability of the teachers to teach that is the formula for success in the classroom for the most part. We teachers can believe we have much more to do with the process than we do and certainly administrators, parents and students themselves put way too much emphasis on the teaching and way too little on the personal responsibility to work hard and learn. In Thailand it is the latter, the personal responsibility to undertake hard work outside of the classroom that will be the key to the successful future of this wonderful little country.
Steven Lance Stoll
February 5, 2016