Before this last year, I’d never really worked in education. There was a brief stint volunteering in a 4th grade class, but other than that all my experience in the realm of education came from the 17 years I spent learning in it. In college, I studied Communication with a focus on documentary filmmaking. But, I decided to take a job working with a small alternative education program, mainly for the fact that I wanted to return to Thailand and this seemed like a good way to do it.
I’ve spent the last year working in the Northeast of Thailand. Originally started in 2004 by the mayor and NGO workers, Khon Kaen Education Initiative has reinvented itself nearly every year. Today, it is a group of Thai and international educators who work together in an effort to reform education in the city of Khon Kaen. With a small group of teachers from three different schools participating, each classroom is run differently, with the group acting as a support system and way to share resources. In a country where alternative education is still very much in it’s infancy, especially among native teachers, it’s an important first step in trying to change Thailand’s current and flawed educational system.
This past year, I worked mainly in a very alternative classroom full of boys who had learning or behavioral difficulties. It was taught by two Thai teachers, one who had been teaching for over 30 years and one who had only been the a teacher for a few years. The students had been chosen by the other teachers at the school to participate in what they called The Class of the Endless Sky. With boys ranging from 8 to 12 years old, the class was home to a variety of different students, all with very different needs. Some of them were on medication, some of them lived in shacks, some of them didn’t have parents, and some of them were beaten by their parents.
It was the first year, and so it was very much about trial and error. The basic idea of the class was that these kids couldn’t function in the traditional classroom setting, and that by giving them the freedom to follow their interests, they would be able to find more success. A typical day involved a small class discussion, an opportunity for the kids to decide what traditional subject they wanted to work on in the morning, a nap in the afternoon, and then free time or group activities for the rest of the day. The teachers, wanting to create a classroom that allowed for flexibility, stuck firmly to making no lesson plans.
I think that it’s important to be open to spontaneity. Some of the most magical teaching experiences are the ones that happen when you stop trying to teach. There was one morning when the kids were sitting around and listening to a story. One by one, they each got up and left class in search of something more interesting to do. By the time they had all left, we decided to follow. When we got outside, we found all of the boys playing with a giant pile of sand. They began to dig holes and tunnels, one of the boys finally suggesting that they make a re-creation of the local dam. And it was amazing to see them work together in a way that they rarely did. All of their qualms with one another faded away and they focused at the task at hand.
But, moments like those were too far and few between. For the most part, class was not very productive. From my perspective, very little learning was actually going on, both in the traditional and non-traditional sense. As the year went on, the students became less disciplined and fought more often. Cliques formed and bullying increased. The students weren’t interested in what the teachers had to say. And, finally, they simply stopped coming to class. They would be in school, but they were rarely physically in class. On an average day, there would be 3 to 5 students who spent a majority of the day in the classroom. By the end of the year, a total of 5 students were moved to the regular classrooms, a decision made either by the students themselves or their parents.
While other classrooms were suffocating their students, this class was giving them too much room. They went to an extreme and had a total lack of discipline and the students had no consequences for their actions. The teachers even held the belief that they shouldn’t interfere when students were fighting. When a student threw a knife at me (though, admittedly, from far away and not very hard), he had he knife back in 10 minutes without so much as a word from the teachers. The teachers felt that if the students were given the opportunity to learn in an open environment, that the discipline would come organically.
I spent many afternoons pondering the dynamic of the class or having discussion with my coworkers about what was going on. To me, they were rebelling from this lack of structure. So many of them had no structure or strong support system at home, and then were going to school everyday only to be faced with a similar lack of structure. They were young kids who were being told that they should be shaping their lives and doing it without much guidance from adults. They didn’t have the confidence in themselves yet to believe that they could do it. While it is important for children to explore and learn on their own, it can’t be done without support. Children with still developing minds need to be given paths and then given the opportunity to decide which one they want to go down, not expected to make their own path.
After a year, my position with the program is over and I’ve come back to the United States. It was a year full of new experiences and reflection. Everything that I thought I had known was at one point or another challenged. At the end of many school days, I was left feeling raw and exposed. As I try and look back over the experience, I’m left with more questions than when I began.
I’m scared these students are being left behind and that once they leave the safety of the Class of the Endless Sky, they will fail. I’m afraid that they’re not academically being challenged and this will negatively affect them. But, at the same time, I wonder if that is okay. As I said, it was a year of trial and error and I came to except my failures. I felt as if they were failures that needed to happen in order for progress in the future to happen. But, is that a healthy way of looking at things?
Can a new educational system be put into place without these failures? Are the failures really necessary in order to find success? And what becomes of the children who are part of that trial and error? We as educators were able to grow, but is that enough?