The Middle Way

BLENDING LOCAL AND FOREIGN CURRICULA

By Jay Maxwell (view are author’s own)

If you are a foreign teacher at a government school or an English Program school  in Thailand you will have dealt with the Thai Basic Curriculum (TBC) for Foreign Languages of 2008 at some point. 

Those that have worked with it (or with similar local curricula elsewhere) will know how different it is compared to what you may have used back home.

Not only that, there is little in the way of English language research and journal articles available here to ground your interpretations of it. Consequently, the basis for this article is instead observations on improvisations.

That said, when it comes to using the TBC and planning effective lessons for learners there are some benefits to working with it. Even to the point where it can be synthesised with foreign curricula so students both learn skills that are useful and perform well in traditional exams.

The best of both worlds - or as I like to call it the ‘foreign teacher’s middle way’.

First, The Silver Lining

When it comes to meeting the learning objectives of two culturally  different documents it can initially seem daunting.

However, there is a silver lining.

The Thai Basic Curriculum of 2008 is different to what Western trained teachers will have encountered before. Organised into four level of three years/grades a piece some outcomes may be only touched once per level.

As the TBC for foreign languages is designed for two hours of English as a Second Language (ESL) in government schools, it’s easy for English Program (EP) schools to meet all outcomes with five or more hours per week, a much better student:teacher ratio, and generally higher student proficiency in English.  In the year level I am responsible for, we met all of the TBC’s outcomes by the end of Term 1.

However, the structure of the TBC does raise questions.

If concepts are not scaffolded each year (especially true for Maths and Science) is the knowledge internalised or merely surface learning?

In contrast the National Curriculum in England should be something foreign teachers are much more comfortable with even if you haven’t worked with it before. It’s logically scaffolded skills based approach makes objectives seem more concrete. There are no English language professional journals for teachers in Thailand, nor is there much in the way of education research papers produced in English. This leaves us with little choice but to cobble together a methodology that works for us in the Thai context.

Essentially the approach of both documents couldn’t be more different and the sanest strategy is to embrace that very fact. It’s in the western mindset to make order from chaos and do so as consistently as possible based on evidence. It may be more constructive however to view this from another way.

You may know the story of the middle way.

The Middle Way

Briefly, a musician was on a boat going downstream and told his student  “If the string is too tight it will break, and if the string is too slack it will not play.” The future Lord Buddha heard this, and the philosophy of ‘The Middle Way’ as a path of moderation between all extremes was born. This approach works for foreign teachers planning lessons where the curricula are the extremes. It is a useful and naturally occurring solution in a Buddhist society.

In short don’t try to reconcile the two approaches, synthesise them into what works for you.

If the TBC has sparse outcomes that are quite achievable in one term at an EP or bilingual school embrace that and extend the children’s learning through adding foreign curricula. California, England and New South Wales all have great curricula.

There’s probably more than that, I just haven't worked with them yet. However, it’s best to just choose one per school for the sake of consistency.

In the Thai classroom social collectivism (Prpic and Kanjanapanyakom, 2004) is a reality no matter what kind of school you work in. A sense of security is gained by feeling part of several larger groups from school to city to religion to nation. Risk-taking by learners in the classroom is possible; but it needs to be a carefully crafted experience if a child could lose face in front of the group they so value.

So how to navigate the above minefield while meeting the learning need of the children?

For any lesson plan or full scheme of work (whichever approach you prefer) have the TBC objectives be your base competency objective. This allows them to gain face, confidence and basic competency which in the Thai context allows risk taking to take place without losing too much face. Typically at lower primary level this can be the first 20 minutes of a lesson. Often as long as they can focus for anyway so a win win.

Given this, the foreign objectives/outcomes can extend the lesson and be where the risk taking takes place (and often the deep learning). This can be the second 20 to 30 minutes of your standard 50 minute lesson. Now would be the appropriate place to show you a lesson or unit of work illustrating this but they remain the intellectual property of the school under Thai law.

An entirely hypothetical example could be if you were starting by using a text with a thematic unit the TBC objectives would support the text work:

Thai Strand 1: Reading Standard T1.1

1. Accurately and fluently read aloud words, texts short stories and simple verses.

2. Explain meanings of words and texts read.

3. Pose questions and give logical answers about what has been read.

7. Read explanatory paragraphs and follow instructions or suggestions.

Thai Strand 2: Writing Standard TH2.1:2. Write to describe things clearly.

Thai Strand 3: Listening, Viewing and Speaking Standard TH3.1

2. Give the main ideas from what they listen to and view.

3. Pose questions and answer questions about what they listen to and view.

The foreign curriculum, as below from New South Wales, could support any pairwork, groupwork, creative writing tasks or oral presentations that extend the lesson when students are prepared for a little risk taking.

NSW EN2-9B:

Uses effective and accurate sentence structure, grammatical features, punctuation conventions and vocabulary relevant to the type of text when responding to and composing texts.

Reading and Viewing: Understand how texts vary in purpose, structure and topic as well as the degree of formality.

Spelling: Integrate a range of spelling strategies and conventions to accurately spell most words, including words of many syllables, when composing imaginative and other texts.

Writing: Identify and use a variety of strategies to present information and opinions across a range of texts.

If you teach both mathematics and science in this context there is also a hidden bonus of cross curricular data collection. If alike units line up (such as graphing and weather for example) you can save a lesson here or there (valuable if there are many ceremonies or morning activities at your school) by covering one skill in two subjects at the same time. This meets two sets of TBC outcomes at once (albeit not in the Foreign Language section so it’s another kettle of fish) and is compatible with one type foreign approach.

Whatever you improvise, it is essential to bear in mind the following: 

You always need to regularly reflect on any approach you take and ask does this meet the needs of the learners, the national curriculum and what can I do better next time?

This is not a uniform consistent approach to planning lessons.

It's not research based because there isn't any available.

It's simply doing what teachers the world over do: improvising. That with a dash of baptism of fire, a bit of cultural sensitivity and you too can cobble together a reflective teaching practice that works for you and more importantly, gets your students involved.

If a participatory society is desirable (Pollard, 2002) then a participatory classroom is a necessity.

By Jay Maxwell (view are author’s own)


references

Department of Education (2013). The National Curriculum in England Key Stages 1 and 2 Framework Document. [online]. gov.uk/government/uploads/system/ uploads/attachment_data/file/425601/PR IMARY_national_curriculum.pdf

Pollard, A. (ed) (2002) Readings for Reflective Teaching. London: Continuum.

5 Prpic, J. K & Kanjanapanyakom, R (2004). The impact of cultural values and norms on higher education in Thailand. [online].

Ministry of Education, Thailand. (2008) The Thai Basic Curriculum. Bangkok: Basic Education Commission. http://www.act.ac.th/document/1741.pdf


INTERESTED IN INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION?

The Teacher’s Guide is getting around!

Seen here in Thailand with a happy reader - and his new best friend. When we said ‘a companion to your international adventure’ we didn’t quite mean that kind of companion!

Grab a copy (in English or in Thai) to take on your own adventure or listen to a short sample here (4 mins).