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Why the Thai Education System is Running so Poorly. The Main Problems & Possible Solutions 2016

It’s no secret the Thai education system has many problems. In recent years Thai government schools have been the object of much criticism, not only from sources within the country, but also from the international community.
But why are Thai government schools performing so poorly, and is there anything that can be done to create a better learning environment for the thousands of students suffering in the dismally run national education system?
In this article we will attempt to identify the biggest problems within the Thai national education system, and at the end of the article we will explore some possible solutions to some of these issues.
This article will deal exclusively with government schools, as I really don’t same in-depth experience to comment on the Thai private education system.
So let’s get right down to it.

 The Focus is on Appearance, not Education

Thai Students

Thai students dressed in uniform~ Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/txd/

Thai students are expected to keep their uniforms pristine, their hair cut a certain length at all times, their homework papers looking flawless, and for any preparations for events (which there are a lot of) to be completed with the utmost attention to detail.
Every morning the students are drilled into perfect single file lines where they do a daily routine of signing the national anthem, which is followed by a Buddhist prayer.
A huge amount of discipline and attention to detail is directed towards these matters– assemblies, uniforms, the layout of tests… anything to keep up appearances.
If even one line of students is askew at the morning assembly, the students may be subjected to a mild military style punishment of push-ups, jumping jacks, or what have you. If a boy’s hair is longer than it’s expected to be, then a teacher may come up and start cutting that student’s hair.


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Students in single-file lines at the morning assembly

But where the hell does that discipline and attention to detail go once the students enter the actual classroom?
The students are consistently late, often times by more than 15-20 minutes, and there seems to be no repercussions whatsoever.
There is constantly trash, half-eaten candies & half drunk cups of soda all over the classrooms, and both the students and teachers walk right by it without even batting an eye.


There is very little consistency with the material being taught, and almost known of the material caters to the actual proficiency level of the class.
So while on the outside things appear to look crisp, well-taken care of, and organized, once you get inside the actual classroom, none of that attention to detail can be found.

Test dates, and curriculum deadlines are constantly changing with no notice, and ridiculous new standards are constantly being introduced, for seemingly no reason.
To be honest it’s a very difficult concept to grasp unless you have actually seen what I’m talking about, but to put it simply:
There are a lot of resources and focus put into maintaining appearances, but little to no emphasis on teaching strategies, proficiency levels, classroom management, or student accountability.

 Lackluster Instructors

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And another great sign…

 

There are some really great teachers all throughout Thailand, teachers who go out of their way to plan lessons, and cater their materials towards their student’s abilities, especially at my school.

That being said I have seen the same amount of teachers at schools throughout Thailand who parallel that puritan work ethic with extreme laziness.
I wish I was joking when I tell you that I’ve seen teachers who sit in the corner of the classroom and play Farmville while the students stare blankly at giant worksheet packets that have been photocopied from an English book, published 20 years ago, which none of the students understand.
I’ve seen teachers sit in the hallway with a handful of students and chat in Thai, show each other pictures on Facebook, all the while just laughing and having a good time. Then the bell rings, and oh, what do you know? English class is finished.
I have seen teachers write ten random sentences on the board and tell the students to copy them 100 times, while they do mobile Facebook in the back corner of the room.
“I like to eat cake. I like to eat cake. I like to eat cake. I like to eat cake.”

You get the picture.

When students are solely taught to copy and regurgitate, they are not learning how to synthesize information and formulate their own ideas.

To put it simply, the students are not being taught how not to  think.

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One of my student’s caught cheating. heheh

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that plagiarism and blatant cheating is so rampant, and overlooked in the Thai school system. The students are not being taught to think for themselves, and so they resort to copying from others with the hope that they will be told the correct things to say and think.
The laziness and general lack of care from some of these instructors is not only heartbreaking, it also sets a precedent for students to think it’s acceptable for them to be lazy too.

 Corruption

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During the strike at my school, which caused the school to shut down for three days.

Corruption in the Thai school system was one thing I always assumed was greatly exaggerated… Until the students at my school went on strike for three days because of rumors that the school director had been embezzling school funds.

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Another picture from the strike. I think the message is pretty clear.

Despite the wild figures that were spreading around the school, the Director was never found guilty of any charges, and her name was completely cleared.

But the incident got me thinking about just how far a little bit of extra money could go to help the school.
I mean the doors are literally falling off of the classrooms. We have several very heavy window frames, barely hanging by a single hinge on the third floor, and if one of them falls and hits somebody, it’s game over.

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Here is one of several window panes on the third floor that actually did fall, and has never been replaced.

The desks in our classrooms have holes so big you can’t put a notebook on them, or it will fall through.


 

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The strike was a huge event… and a huge distraction from actually being in the classroom and learning

Corruption is rampant within the Thai school system, and the money that’s taken is detracting from student opportunity. Hopefully in the coming years we will see this change.

 Questioning the Hierarchy

Questioning the hierarchy

So why is there so much corruption within Thailand’s education system?

Well the reasoning is simple—
In the Thai hierarchy system that governs most professional settings, including the schools, it is very taboo for an employee to ever question something one of the higher ups does.
To challenge someone higher up than you implies that you don’t trust their expertise or judgement, and can lead to a potential loss of face. Losing face is one of the biggest embarrassments in Asian society, and is avoided at all costs.
Which means that if there is someone in the chain of command embezzling student funds, it’s likely that most people would avoid calling them out for as long as possible because of fear for making someone lose face.
The hierarchy system disallows a free flow of new ideas and innovations because anybody who is not of an established rank within the system is unable to voice their ideas or concerns. Furthermore the rigid hierarchy system protects the parasitic corruption that is corroding Thailand’s schools, by making the higher ups unquestionable, and untouchable.

 No Fail Policy

student shaming

Thai students will automatically pass a class no matter what. Now there are a lot of problems with a no fail policy, but I’ll keep this brief.
Here’s what happens when a lot of students know they will pass a class no matter what…You ready?
They don’t do anything! They come to class 30 minutes late, or don’t come at all. They sit in the back of the class, talk, play on their phones, and disrupt the students who are actually interested in learning.
There’s no incentive for participating in class other than the desire to learn, which many of these students haven’t really developed yet.
So you end up having a lot of students who go to school just for the sociability of it, and those students are a big distraction to the students who actually want to learn because they can see the benefit of a good education, and they are interested in more than just an easy diploma.

The Second Semester Breaks

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The second semester at government schools runs from early November to early March.
During that time, there is sports week, scouts week, New Year’s break, Language and Culture Day, the King’s Birthday, Constitution Day, two weeks of testing (during which there are no classes)… and basically a million other holidays and events that cancel class.
Which is fine, everyone loves a holiday… The problem is that they usually happen on the last half of the week, and the result is that you have two months of no school on Thursdays, Fridays, and sometimes Wednesday.
As a teacher it’s extremely difficult to plan a curriculum around 2 and 3 day class weeks, especially when a majority of the students will forget most of what you taught them by the next time you see them.
Not only that, but the students also have a really hard time focusing on class work, when they know that another 4 day holiday break is right around the corner.

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Language and Culture Day festivities… a really fun event that required three days of cancelling class to prepare for

The other kicker about the endless holiday situation is that many English classes in the Thai government schools are only once a week.
So… if you are a student who has an English class during the second half of the week, you might not have class for three to four weeks, and you still may be expected to take the same test that students who have been in class the whole time are taking. It’s ridiculous

Class Sizes

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A monster sized class

Class Sizes may not be an issue with some of the smaller schools, but at my school of 4,000 students the majority of classes have 50 students in them.
50 students is a huge management responsibility for any teacher. There are simply too many students in the class to manage any behavioral issues, and the second you turn to put out one fire, there could be another one starting on the other side of the room.
Furthermore, having a room jam packed with 50 students makes it very difficult to circulate around the room and check to make sure everyone can hear and understand whatever lesson it is you are teaching.
Another big issue with having classes this big, is that grades and attendance become very difficult to keep track of. I teach 14 different classes of 50 students every week, which totals out to over 700 students to keep track of.

  Diet and the Availability of Sugar

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Here’s the student snack shop, and right there in the window you can see two different ice cream freezers

Ok… so do me a favor, visualize a 90 degree classroom full of fifty 14 year old students.

Now imagine trying to teach a lesson after each one of those students just drank a Pepsi and ate two packages of Swiss Rolls.
Did your eyes roll back in your head, and your brain explode?
Although there are some healthier options at the canteen, sugar and candy are available at all times, all over campus. There’s even huge bottles of sugar at every table, which many students use as a condiment on their noodles or rice.
It’s pretty common to watch students eat ice cream for breakfast, rice covered in Carnation milk for lunch, and a Pepsi and sweet roll for an afternoon snack.

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Subconscious advertising in the hallways?

There seems to be zero education on the harmful effects of sugar, and the students eat sweets with nil moderation. Thai students are constantly buzzing and crashing from sugar highs.
There’s no doubt in my mind that if the students could cut out even just a little bit of their sugar consumption that their focus and motivation would increase tenfold.

Proposed Solutions

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Mor Hin Khao~ Chaiyaphum Province

So now that we have examined some of the biggest problems within the Thai national education system, let’s take a look at some possible solutions.

More Technical Schools/ Availability of Alternate education

Alternative PD

Since there seems to be little to no hope of ever changing the no fail policy within the Thai school system, I think one way we could provide better guidance for students would be to provide more alternative schooling options.
If it’s obvious that students are performing poorly in their normal high school classes, they could attend a different school and get training to be a plumber, electrician, mechanic, or what have you.
Now I know what you’re thinking, that many of these trades are taught in the homes and by the families of the students. And while this is certainly true, having alternative school options would at least give students who feel they have no hope of really understanding the material taught in the high schools, another avenue to find success.
Many students who fall far behind are likely to give up trying in classes, and this can often lead to disruptive behavior. By giving students an alternative option, you can help take some of the disruptive behavior out of the classroom.
Not only that, but having more apprenticeship and alternative school options will help lower class sizes, and increase employment by providing more jobs for teachers, building contractors, and all the staff necessary to run an alternative school.

More Guidance/ Career Counselors

With more guidance counselors and career counselors in charge of monitoring student progression, schools would be able to keep better track of students who are falling behind, and either help them get on the right path with their studies, or push them towards an alternative option such as a trade, which they more be more successful at, and have more interest in.
More counselors in the schools also means more jobs for the local Thai people.

An anonymous electronic idea box

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Photo Credit: Pictofigo

Since questioning authority is such a taboo in Thai culture, and since this leads to a damming of new ideas and innovations, I propose setting up an anonymous suggestion box that different teachers, and members of each department can submit their ideas to without fear of being scorned or losing face.
Perhaps once a month each department could get together and discuss these suggestions, which would hopefully lead to new ideas and innovations being implemented.
The anonymity of the suggestion box would hopefully allow the free flow of ideas to progress in a non-judgmental setting.

Passing Periods.

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Thai tardiness is a serious problem in the schools. The students are consistently late, and hardly ever held accountable. Part of the reason they are not held accountable is because there are no passing periods in between the classes.
As soon as the bell rings and one class finishes, the next class is immediately expected to begin, and there is no time for the students to walk between their classes.
Often times the students are able to blame their previous teacher for letting them out late, or saying that they have a far distance to walk, and thus cannot make it to class on time.
Simply implementing a 5-6 minute walking period in between each classes, indicated by bells, and enforced by detentions, would really help to at least give the students an idea of when they need to be in their next class. Hopefully over time, a passing period would help students practice punctuality on a regular basis.

Second Semester Holidays lumped into a large break.

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Floating Krathongs from the November Holiday. Learn about Loy Krathong here!

So as mentioned earlier, the endless spree of holidays during the second semester in the Thai government schools makes actual student progression very difficult, because almost every week there is an event or holiday that distracts the students from their class work.

Well how about we just take all of those big breaks like Scouts Camp, Sports Week, and New Years, and just lump them into a massive 2-3 week break.
That way everyone will still get their holidays and the students will still get to have their fun events. When it comes time to hit the books again, then maybe by having routine five-day school weeks, the students will have an easier time focusing on education.

Limit Candy Sales, and Increase Education on Sugar Consumption

Kit Kat PD.jpg
Now how can we cut some of that sugar abuse out of these student’s daily diets? Well it’s pretty simple, increase education on the negative effects that heavy sugar consumption can have on a person. Hang posters in the hallways perhaps.

You could also have a smaller selection of sweets stocked at the school, or have select hours that sweets are sold during.

Sigh… Now what about the corruption?

As for corruption… this in, in my opinion, the most difficult issue to deal with.

There always seems to be some new governing body that’s supposed to help monitor corruption, and it always seems to  get corrupted just as soon as it’s founded.
These are issues that Thai people will need to buckle down and put the work in if they want to see any change.
Dictatorial structures and control methods over the educational institutions are sure to lead to corruption, and the only way to steer away from that is to try and have multiple people from multiple departments involved in administration duties, and at least some sort of checks and balances system to help keep people from dipping their hands in the cookie jar.
Eradicating corruption from the Thai school system is going to take some serious restructuring within the administrative systems, and that’s going to require new approaches, a continued effort, and a good chunk of time.

Conclusion

I realize the solutions laid out here are far from a fix all, and to be honest, barely scratch the surface of the issues inside the national education system of Thailand.
That being said, it’s important we focus not only on the problems plaguing the system, but also on crafting positive solutions that can help us fix these problems and move towards a better future for the youth of Thailand, and the nation as a whole.
If we ever expect the system to really change, then we need to focus on forward thinking, abandoning strategies that have been proven to fail time and time again, and implementing new, creative solutions to the overarching issues causing Thai schools to perform so poorly.
Do you have any thoughts on how we can change the Thai school system?

Do you have any comments about the post?

If so please comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Interested in reading more about education in Thailand? Check out my other post on How to be a Successful Teacher in Thailand.

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Thanks for reading, and happy educating!

J. G


18 Comments

  1. Do you want to have a private school view?

    I agree with you on so many of these things. SUGAR!! BAN SUGAR ON CAMPUS!!

  2. Great article! From my experience teaching at a government school, you have highlighted all of the issues perfectly. I also teach at quite a large school with classes of 40-50 students, and the wide range of proficiency levels in class is astonishing. In just one class I have students who complete a 10 question test within a few minutes, and then others who are unable to write their name or number at the top. From what I have gathered, this is due to the no fail policy and image. These students are not encouraged to try because they will pass anyways, and their parents would probably never consider having them moved to another class or seeking help with a potential learning disability or ADHD. This makes it difficult as a teacher to plan lessons and tests to cater to the wide range of proficiency levels. The advice I’ve been given by Thai teachers is to ignore the students who can’t sit still or act out because that’s just how they are. It is impossible to ignore them when they disrupt and distract the rest of the class, and I want them to learn too! I am still trying to find ways to get them engaged and to at least try. So I try to make my lessons as fun and engaging as possible, and motivate them to at least try with lots of praise and a promised activity at the end of class. Maybe there is more I can do?

    • Hey Natalie,

      Thanks for reading the essay!

      Teaching in a Thai school can be a really tough job sometimes. There is always going to be at least one student who seems hell bent on destroying your lessons, no matter how you try to cater to their interests and sense of fun. My advice would be to separate the extremely disruptive students, even if it’s just temporarily, from the students who don’t want to learn.

      At the end of the day your job is to teach, and to be a positive educational role model. If you are constantly putting all of your energy into managing disruptive behavior, then you are not actually teaching.

      Sometimes if I have a really hyperactive student, I will give him a broom and some paper towels and make him clean the classroom during the lecture. It gets the student up and moving, gives the student something to do, and somewhat quells the disruptive behavior.

      Unfortunately until there are more changes within the system, our solutions as effective educators are certainly limited.

      Hope this helps, and know that the desire to help someone achieve greater knowledge is a noble and selfless desire, no matter how fucking frustrating it can be 🙂

      Cheers!

  3. Introduce the fear factor {failure}. Educate parents on the fear factor and make them responsible for the child’s schooling. Basicly if any student doesn’t make the grade they should be made to retrain NOT retest and pass them. This will then put more responsibility on the parents who will NOT want to pay again for retraining, which will encourage students to be more punctual and assertive in class. But yes it’s very frustrating as you get a good student pass genuinely and a classmate who is not a good student pass with the same qualifications, let’s just hope he/she doesn’t become a doctor. ARRGG!

    • Haha! All good points Mark, I completely agree. A lot of responsibility does fall on the parents with these matters. If the parents don’t push their children to study, then there’s no hope.

      Real change is going to take a team effort from parents, students, teachers, administrators and the government.

      Oh, and thanks for reading the blog btw 🙂

  4. This is going to be a long reply:
    If I was head of the education system I would implement the following
    1/No more “Job for life” To many teachers decide going shopping or to the coffee shop during school time, than going to classes or taking care of students during activities. Have independant accessors, visiting schools and monitoring teachers in the classroom. Grade the teachers, if they are not showing improvement. Get rid of them. Reward the better performing teachers
    2/Students and teachers to sign in and out of every class or scan in and out of every class. Attendance will increase.
    3/Block all social networks during school time (it can be done)
    4/ Canteens only open during breakfast and lunch times
    5/Provide free drinking water
    6/ Employ independant auditors to check the books every 3 months
    7/ Make it a minimum of 18 hours teaching for all teachers, not just a few.
    8/ Have a 3 strike rule. You miss 3 classes, you make up those classes after school
    9/ Stop putting so barriers in the way of Foreign Teachers. If they have been teaching in Thailand for 5 years or more. Have wives or homes in Thailand. They are proving they are serious and dedicated teachers. Issue them with automatic 5 year teaching licences.
    10/ Create a new and up to date curriculem for Thai schools to follow.
    These may not be the complete answer but could go a long way to start improving things in Thai schools. Some of these ideas have come from Thai teachers themselves.

    • Hey Steve,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog, and sorry for the late reply!

      I think minimizing social media and cell phone access during class time is a great idea. Cell phone use is a really big problem in my school.

      There are a lot of students at my school who are cell phone addicts, and they have a really hard time focusing on anything that isn’t their cell phone screen.

      I also agree that long term foreign teachers need to have an easier way to stay teaching in the country. So many foreign teachers leave Thailand after 1 or 2 years, and it’s not hard to figure out why.

      It can be a real bitch to stay in the country and at a school.

      I guess we’ll have to take it in baby steps

      Thanks again for stopping by the blog brother!

  5. Dear teacher
    Thank you for giving me more understanding about,why my daughter probably
    Need to enter a different school.
    My daughter,twelve year now, need to move to next school for secondary low.
    The Public school does not seem good for her,also while she struggle with her dyslexia.
    But what options is there if you are not super rich?

    Yours

    • jaiguytravels

      January 24, 2017 at 1:49 am

      The public schools don’t have a lot of systems in place to help students with learning disabilities like dyslexia. That being said, the public institutions are great for creating a meaningful social life. There are lots of fun events and clubs that the students can join in on, and even though the educational curriculum could be improved, there are other benefits to attending the public institution.
      they
      My recommendation for your daughter would be to find a private tutor. They can run anywhere from 300-700 baht an hour, and they can be very effective because the teaching sessions are one on one. It sounds crazy, but there are also tons of free education resources on youtube.com

      I learned a lot of skills by watching youtube videos and doing research online. Maybe you could plan to spend an hour a day with your daughter, watching educational tutorials on youtube, followed by additional learning sites on the web.

      Keeping your daughter enrolled in the public school will allow her to make local friends in the town. Getting a tutor, and spending some time surfing the educational resources available on the net is a good way to subsidize the public education.

      Thanks again for stopping by the blog! Best of luck to you and your family.

  6. Your point of view as a foreigner is very interesting and insightful. When talking about Thai education’s failure, most Thais are unable to realize how their conservationism and hierarchy system hurt the education a lot because they get used to it: it is a part of their life. There is a joke that there is no liberals in Thais but central-right who are accused as liberals. Hence, they blame something else without knowing the core of the problem. The other problem is, whether good or bad, Thais hate and resist change/reform at all cost due to their conservative nature. In their mind, saving face is never a problem because they think it is necessary so they always take a detour, ineffective method to solve any problem, which mostly causes another problem later. The other problem I saw as Thais is the elitist mindset, “all or nothing” and “one fits for all”. Thai education’s philosophy is like only a strong prevails and they strongly believe everyone should be put in a one, single education mold. If you don’t do well in a class, it is all your fault. No one gives you a hand. They only focus on a few elite students to make a fame for their school. Thai’s education philosophy is so messed up and rotten to the core, and most Thais never realize. This is the part where I find the biggest obstacle to solve the education problem in Thai.

  7. I’m one of thai students and I realize that we’re having a big problem but I can do nothing all the thing that you’ve written in this essay is true It’s been like this for 60 years or more but they never try to improve or never realize that there is a problem comments and suggestion from the students are nothing . the teachers and minister care only about the image and the scores I’ve more to explain interm of thai students hope you’re interesting! pray for my future and sorry for any mistakes here

    • jaiguytravels

      August 9, 2017 at 5:08 pm

      Hello! Sa Wat Di Khap 🙂

      Thank you for stopping by my website.

      Your English is excellent, and you are courageous for reading such dense material and writing such a poignant and excellent response.

      Even though there are many problems with the Thai school system, there are also many good things. Thai schools have a warm and loving emphasis on community. During my time in Thailand I had the privilege of attending lots of amazing school events, seeing incredible student art work, and meeting some incredible teachers.

      I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up article about things I like about the Thai school system.

      No educational environment is perfect, but it’s a process that takes time and commitment.

      Thailand is an amazing place with great people. I am hopeful that positive strides will be made in the education sector in the coming years.

      Thanks again! Chok Dee

      J

  8. Naowarat Marshall

    August 20, 2017 at 7:10 am

    Thanks for good article…
    I am writing a book in Thai about how bad is Thai society. To read your article is helping me to find a final conclusion….
    Thai education system is the core of most problems in Thailand…
    learned to copy and excluded how to think…. which bringing up most of curruptionsin Thailand because most of Thai can’t find a solution as a result they have never questioned authority…. busily copy the best method from others, not to look at the problems themselves.
    Thanks for your thoughts…..
    Most Thai people can only have find answer in multiple question…

    • jaiguytravels

      August 20, 2017 at 5:55 pm

      Hey Naowarat,

      Sa wat di ka.

      Thanks for stopping by the blog.

      There is certainly lots of space for improvement in the Thai school system, but it is far from hopeless.

      I had some amazing students and teachers at my school. That being said, there are many factors working against student success.

      I wish you the best of luck on your book, and I hope you draw conclusions that lead to solutions, instead of just identifying the problem.

      Chok dee kap 🙂

      Justin

  9. Naowarat Marshall

    August 20, 2017 at 8:51 pm

    Khob Khun khar…
    Thank you…
    I really hope so … for the sake of future Thai education system.
    I can only write … but how many Thais will read and accept these facts…. more importantly take it seriously to even try to do something….
    Thanks again Justin

  10. Hi J,
    “To hit the nail on the head.”
    Yes, I strongly agree with your essay!
    Politicians, policymakers: too many exquisite policies! Hahaha

    SV Pak

    • jaiguytravels

      December 5, 2017 at 6:11 pm

      Hey Pak,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog.

      Ah, I miss Thailand a bit, such an awesome country.

      But yes, so many failed initiatives and intense policies happening in the education world there.

      Would love to see more focus on creativity in subjects like math, science, and English.

      It’s difficult with limited resources and big class sizes though.

      Little by little things will get better though. I feel optimistic for the future 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by and liking my page Pak.

      J 🙂

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