The Unanswerable Question
Last spring, I had the opportunity to return to Thailand and visit my high school. My teachers and friends were excited to see me because I just returned from studying in America. They asked questions about the differences and the similarities between Thai and American educational systems. Most of these questions were easy to answer; however, there was one question asked by the dean of the academic department that required careful consideration. He asked, "As you have studied in both systems, which system do you consider to be more effective?" After I had analyzed both systems, I found out that his question was unanswerable because each system had advantages and disadvantages.
I first looked at the disadvantages of Thai schools, and I found that the course selection in Thailand is poor. In the high schools, students can not choose their own schedules. Each semester consists of a thirteen-course curriculum. This was a disadvantage because it was hard for the students to focus on all the courses. Another disadvantage in Thai schools is that students have no chance to drop, withdraw or repeat classes, so the students have no chance to improve their grades and understand the material better. During a semester, teachers neglect to monitor the progress of students because there are only two major exams. To fail a required course means students can not pass the entire academic year. They instead would need to do a project or assigned work to pass the academic year. This system, therefore, has many disadvantages for it does not give freedom to students to choose their own courses and to improve themselves.
In contrast, I found that taking courses in American high schools was more efficient. Students have opportunities to choose their courses with only a few required courses. They do not have to take courses that they are not ready to take. They also can take advanced courses if they are capable and motivated enough to do so. This system also gives chances for students to improve themselves and repeat courses if needed. Students can drop, repeat, or withdraw from a course which they feel deficient or in danger of receiving low grades. In a semester, students take about only 5 to 7 courses, so they can concentrate on all of their courses.
On the other hand, there are some advantages which the Thai schools provide that American schools neglect. Thai students that are capable and willing will be able to take advantage of many topics offered throughout a particular course. They study every aspect of a subject. Thai students, for example, study physics for three years in high school, and each chapter of physics will be discussed for at least a month. Students need to learn how to solve different types of problems in order to be prepared for the questions assigned by their teachers. It is also expected of them to know everything about the subject. Certainly, they must be able to analyze problems and use what they have learned in the classroom or even aside from the books. Taking an exam is challenging for the students because they are unaware of what is going to be on the exam. The best way to prepare for an exam is to understand all the material that was taught throughout the year. Teachers can ask anything from the books, their lectures or any other topics of the courses they feel is important. The grading system in Thai schools is also tough. The students are required to know and understand everything in order to get high grades. They need to be smart and careful in order to answer the multiple choice questions on the exams. Even though it is possible to get points from guessing, teachers solve these problems by making five choices which are similar to one another in order to decrease the possibility of guessing the right answer. The system seems to be hard; however, it helps and encourages students to learn and thoroughly understand the material in the course.
In contrast to a Thai high school curriculum, an American curriculum contains less material for a student to study. "We studied only one or two years of physics in high school," said Phil, one of my American classmates. Teachers teach each chapter for only a few days, and beyond that students need to learn themselves. Students are usually responsible for knowing only material covered in lectures or books. Sometimes teachers even tell students what topics are going to be on the exams. This system certainly makes it easy for students to study for exams. On the other hand, it discourages students from learning more about the subject and studying the material hard because they can limit the topics they need to study. This grading system also makes it possible for students to get high grades because they rarely have multiple choice questions. Students can get partial credit on equations from the work they show. This shows that they understand some material yet not enough to get the right answers. In contrast, multiple choice questions which are usually used in Thai high schools require students to know everything in order to get the right answers. In order to be successful in Thai school, a student must understand the material covered in class, on exams, and also understand other aspects beyond the course. Therefore, material covered in courses and exams are important to encourage students to be more active in and outside classroom.
I also noticed that Thai schools focus more strongly on academic competition. This stimulates the students to get involved in these competitions. During an academic year, there are many competitive academic events which Thai students may participate in. For example, in August, there is a academic week where many students are able to participate in competitions and contests. Four years ago during the science week, for instance, I was in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand, to compete in the National Scientific Question Answering Contest. After this serious competition, I received second place in the national level. Two years later I had a chance to compete in the National Parliamentary Question Answering Contest. This time I won third place in the national level, and I also had a chance to meet the Prime Minister of Thailand. As prizes, I received scholarships, and, particularly, reputation and honors from students and teachers in my school. Schools and teachers strongly support their students to get involved in these types of academic events. Not only do these activities create an academically exciting atmosphere in school and stimulate students to study, but they also encourage students to learn more while being entertained in competition. Teachers and students certainly give high value to a clever and outstanding student who brings fame to their schools.
American high school students rarely participate in academic competitions. "There are some competitions in a year, but they are not as popular as sports," said one of my friends when I asked for her opinions about how involved students are in academic competitions. "Students want to participate because of their own interests not because of the competitive environment in school," she stated further. My writing tutor at CWRU, David Sierk, once said, "Teachers do not give high value or big honors to the students who win competitions." He suggested that the reason the academic competitions were less popular than in Thailand was because students were not strongly encouraged from teachers and their educational environment. Students, therefore, do not have a need to be the representatives of their school and are not eager to increase their learning further in order to compete in contests or competitions.
The college admission process in Thailand causes a great disadvantage for those students not accepted. The Thai admission process for college, certainly, scares Thai students. They study many years in preparation for the entrance examination. Grades, activities, or any recommendations are not considered in the admission process of a student. Only high exam scores will get a student accepted into a college. One disadvantage for Thai students is that in one year there are about only 20,000 freshman spaces available in colleges in Thailand. Therefore, the other 100,000 students have no place to study. This fact causes a big panic in high school when the examination approaches. In the studentsí minds, the examination is the identifier of their future. Thai students do not have to participate in extracurricular activities. They need only the diploma from the school in order to apply for the entrance examination. The average grades of a student do not make any difference; the only thing that matters is if students scores high on the entrance exam. Although it rarely occurs that students with low GPAs will score high on the exam and enter college, it does happen. The academic administrators have carefully considered this factor and are going to change the college admission process to be like the admission process done today in America.
In contrast, in the American educational system, students have at least three years in high school to prepare for their college applications. Not only can they take as many standard tests as they want, but they also have chances to improve their grades. The colleges look at all of these factors when considering a student for admission. Even though students may not be accepted into the college of their choice, they still can apply to other colleges. American students do not depend on only an exam to gain entry into college. Educational opportunities are certainly more open for American students. Students also care about activities such as sports offered by schools because when they participate in these activities, they have chances to show their abilities and characteristics to their teachers so that the teachers know them well. This helps the students to receive strong recommendation which are included in a college application in America.
Without a doubt, the American and Thai academic systems both have advantages and disadvantages. It is not possible to say which system is more effective because each one is suitable for each country and culture. However, there is room for change and improvement in each. The Thai national academic administration, for example, has improved the Thai educational system by considering the other admission processes and trying to change it to be more effective. It shows that the administrators have seen the defects in their own system and are trying to improve these deficiencies. This is a good beginning for the development of the future of educational systems in Thailand. Hopefully, the American administrators have seen their defects and are trying to improve them also.