The school that sets its own course
Meet Wichien Chaiyabang, headmaster of a school that really stands out in this country - no strict curriculum, no exams and, despite producing some of the best national results in science, no science course.
Wichien, 41, graduated from Rajabhat Maha Sarakham University with a teaching degree and spent 10 years teaching in the civil service. But despite his best efforts to improve things, it was "like being in a very big pond" and he was never able to raise a ripple.
His belief that there's a better way was restored soon after he became headmaster of Buri Ram's Lamplaimat Pattana School when it opened eight years ago. He chose the right strings to pull and the results came fast.
"It's just a small school, but it's having an impact elsewhere," Wichien says with modest understatement. More than 20 state schools are now following its example.
In 2006 the University of Tasmania ranked it as "world class". The following year its students sailed through the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment with "excellent marks" under 13 criteria.
Lamplaimat Pattana School's founders, the Population and Community Development Association and the James Clark Foundation, envisioned it as a model for schools where rural children could receive a solid education and learn to be good members of society.
"Compared with students at rural state schools, ours are really full of confidence, determination and tenderness," Wichien says.
Lamplaimat Pattana holds no exams, he notes. "I don't believe multiplec-hoice exams can identify which children are smart."
The lack of testing hasn't stopped the youngsters from doing exceptionally well on national examinations. They routinely score higher than average in the Thai language, math and science.
"Actually, we don't even have a science course," Wichien says.
There is no strict curriculum and no purposemade textbooks. No bells ring to signal the end of classes.
"Our class time is based on short lessons," Wichien explains. In learning Thai grammar, for example, the students are told a story and then quizzed about it, thus honing their ability to memorise, understand and analyse.
"We'll ask them what they would do if they were in such a situation," Wichien says. "That's how they learn how to apply what they've learned."
From there, the teacher might move on to any other related subject, such as design.
"The students could be asked to design a setting for the story. And to further stimulate their imagination, they could be asked to suggest different endings for the story."
Wichien says all of the school's teachers are committed to maintaining a happy learning environment with "no coercion".
They're required to treat their students the way they wanted to be treated when they were children, and to show love and respect.
"Good relationships can be very useful!" Wichien says.
"They have to see the students' good points and boost their potential. They must not let a single student fail."
Every Monday evening the teachers meet to compare notes on the previous week and plan for the next.
Wichien admits he tries to push the teachers beyond their comfort zones so that greater achievements become possible.
"We've also involved the parents and others in the local community. We want them to know they have a responsibility to the school as well."
Parents are regularly invited to conduct classes.
"They can tell a story or teach the kids how to cook something, but they must come, so that they get to know their children's friends," Wichien says.
The parents, he says, at first wanted to see their children learn to read and write in the conventional way, believing it was essential to gaining admission to a prestigious school and a brighter future.
"But over the years their attitude has changed. They've come to understand that Lamplaimat Pattana teaches their children to be good people and efficient problemsolvers. Their children will be able to live a good life."
Satisfied at having made a difference in education, Wichien is thinking about retiring from the school after two more years to pursue his dream of writing.