Innovative Business Ideas

Revamping Thailand’s education system

13 July 2012

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Edwin Sim looks at revamping Thailand’s education system to sustain future economic growth.

Recently, I was a guest at Sasin Business School’s “Asia in Transformation” forum and would like to share some of my experiences with you.

Thought-leaders from around the world and Thailand as well as Thai discussed Asia’s pivotal role in future global economic growth.

Although some time was spent discussing the effects of an imminent European meltdown, many participants warned that cheap-labor can no longer continue driving economic growth in Thailand and the rest of Asia.

Thailand undergoing structural transformation

Nonarit Bisonyabut, PhD of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) said that Thailand was indeed undergoing structural transformation.

“The transformation will require major changes in human capital, industry business models and institutional structures,” he said.

A critical element of Thailand’s continuing economic growth, Nonarit said will be revamping its current public education system.

“The Thai education system is currently characterized by poor quality and inequality in delivery,” he said.

Nonarit said that recent Organization for Economic Development and Development (OECD) studies show that Thai students scored below-average in age-level mathematics, reading and science exams. At the same time, a fellow developing nation China scored first in all three categories.

In addition, he noted that income-levels were also key determinants of student numbers at all Thai education levels. The current Thai education system simply has not been able to adequately address lower-income citizens’ educational needs despite extending free education to 15 years.

What CEOs are looking for

In our executive search business, company CEOs and shareholders often tell me they want future managers and leaders that are excellent in written and spoken communication, critical and creative thinking and perhaps most importantly with superior abilities to collaborate across distances and cultural differences.

They also want people that are flexible and are able to take risks in changing environments. Top-level technical and quantitative knowledge are assumed as givens for top level managers.

In today’s fast-changing business environment where people expect to change jobs four to six times in a lifetime, highly specialized skills have a tendency to quicker obsolescence.

New education paradigm

Recently, in a “Fast Company” series on education, Duke University professor and co-director of the school’s PhD lab in Digital Knowledge, Cathy N Davidson said education policy makers must figure out how to train today’s youth for a “smartphone world that brings the workplace to your ear 24-7 or where your email at work also brings every imaginable distraction”.

“What do we do to re-jigger scientific learning management for a world where self-organizing networks can bring down governments or be surveilled and exploited by them? “

She also asks how our educational system can take advantage of the Wikipedia world, where humans volunteer not only their knowledge but their editorial skills to create the largest, most multi-lingual encyclopedia the world has ever known,

“Networked forms of communication change human interaction, human attention, and human labor. How do you reform education for this world?”

In Thailand, we are still grasping with how we can upgrade our human resources by improving our education test scores. In many ways we are still trying to upgrade an education system that was designed for long-past 19th and 20th century environments.

Our university entrance examinations and all its preceding processes including grades, IQ tests, timed individual achievement tests, machine-gradable multiple choice tests, teaching to the test, the credit hour, the Master’s in Business Administration, Scholastic Aptitude Tests, GREs, Law Boards, are part of what Davidson calls “scientific learning management.”

“It’s the educational arm of what the great theorist of industrialism, Frederick Winslow Taylor, called “scientific labor management,” the emphasis on production quotas that kept the assembly line running smoothly and led to the creation of MBA programs.” .

Putting kids in rows, all starting at the same age, beginning at the same time, dividing knowledge up into subjects taught in 50-minute chunks was all part of retraining a humanity for the regulated time, regulated work, and predetermined, regulated productivity that were key to the division of labor, home from work, labor from leisure.

To ensure Thailand does not become mired in a dreaded middle-income trap, we must do better.

I suggest that we should initially seriously consider Alvin Toffler’s “unlearning” method of instruction that advocates that “in times of dramatic change, when your old habits are preventing you from succeeding against new odds, you have to first see what trouble your old habits get you into”.

Before we can move forward, we have to see that our best intuitions, skills, and patterns not only aren’t helping us move forward; but they are holding us back.

I welcome your comments edwinsim@humancapitalalliance.com

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