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  • Writer's pictureRiver Valley Student Editorial Club

OVIA 2023: Education systems across borders

By Lim Jing Xiang Jovan (23J20)

Photo credit to the OVIA team and teachers

River Valley High School organised an Overseas Values-In-Action trip to Thailand from 21 to 27 Nov last year. After a gruelling interview selection process as well as frequent group planning sessions, we have sadly come to the end of OVIA 2023. This experience was a fruitful one and I still hold a bittersweet feeling whenever I look back on this trip. As such, in this travelogue, I will be sharing my experiences and takeaways.  I am certain many may think ‘Going to Thailand is so common!’ or ‘What is there to do there except shopping?’ However, Thailand has offered an eye-opening experience for me in many ways. From the local school experiences there to the food I savoured, this trip has left a lasting impression in my mind. 

My trip is filled with many unforgettable memories but due to limited constraints in this travelogue, I will be discussing the parallels and distinctions I noticed in the education systems in Thailand and Singapore.

To give a little background context based on my research:  Thailand is ranked eighth amongst ten Southeast Asian countries in terms of the quality of education. As a result, youths in Thailand, especially those who reside in the farmlands, may not receive a  comprehensive education and getting into a university may not be a route that everyone will take. While Chiang Mai is considered the second largest city in Thailand, there are still many parts of the city that remain rural and countryside. With agriculture being many families’ main source of income, parents tend to want their children to help out in the lands instead of pursuing education. Thankfully, due to the government’s initiative called the ‘free meal programme’ and their new push for compulsory basic education, many parents have agreed to send their children to school. 

Our group photo at Wat Pa Tueng Huai Yap School

We spent 4 days in Wat Pa Tueng Huai Yap School—a school situated in the village Lamphun which provides education to nursery-aged children all the way to secondary school students. Our team conducted English and Crafts lessons for the primary school and kindergarten children as well as helped to refurbish their school facilities by repainting their game panels, playground and sports courts.

Here, I am painting as part of the refurbishment of their game panels

Before the trip, I had the impression that the school would be extremely worn down since I had read articles about children living in poverty. Coupled with the widespread digitalisation where the media portrays the people living in third world countries to be living in extremely sparse conditions, what I witnessed when I visited the school proved a surprise to me. 

The school was built up with concrete and classrooms were fully equipped with tables and chairs. There was even a computer lab equipped with computers, albeit models that we used to use in the past with CPUs and desktop monitors. Despite all that, while better than I expected, I still observed the simplicity of the school building, where walls, floors, tables and chairs were weather-beaten and faded, facilities were still not the most cutting edge and there was a humble yet rustic charm to the school. 

Visiting the school has made me appreciate the school facilities that we have in our school. Unlike their school, our school is equipped with cutting-edge facilities which enable us to be holistic and privileged learners - from air-conditioned tutorial rooms and lecture theatres to art rooms and the library to allow us to unleash our creativity, to up-to-date science and computer labs where we can gain a deeper understanding of the world around us.

Students in their classrooms working hard on painting their bears

One stark difference I realised would be the food they were served for lunch. It was all very simple food, like rice with crab sticks in curry and a wafer biscuit as dessert, prepared and served by the canteen aunties. No other option was available and the portions seemed small to me. I learnt that the food was provided by temple sponsors in the vicinity and the milk packets were provided by the government. These had to be rationed among the different levels because of the limited supplies and hence the smaller portions. While assisting with the serving, I observed that many of the students still looked content with their simple meals, eating heartily and happily chatting with their friends. This contrasts with the wide array of cuisines at our own school canteen. 

Also, another difference was that the students had to wash their food trays and cutlery after eating. I observed that this was done without any supervision and it seemed like a very natural habit amongst the children. From the queuing of food to the washing up after themselves, it was done in a really orderly manner where there was no pushing and shoving or cutting of queues. I could feel the ownership, discipline and responsibility the students had for their school. 

Their canteen and the simple lunch they were served

This trip has been a humbling experience as I managed to experience the simple pleasures of life. In  Wat Pa Tueng Huai Yap School, students are often seen engaging in free play during their lunch breaks. From outdoor activities like football and volleyball to origami games like blowing a paper car (which was my favourite game!) to skipping and tug-of-war using rubber band chains, all games excite the students to the extent that they will quickly finish eating for more time to play. It was really heartwarming to hear the bustle and laughter fill the air during mealtimes. 

The students and I playing with paper cars

Honestly, I loved the paper cars so much that I never even played the other games. To summarise, players are to blow a paper car on the ground and the one who blows it the furthest wins. It may sound simple, yet the thrill I experienced was incredible. The game constantly placed me on the edge of my seat as everyone took the game really seriously. Despite having a larger lung capacity, the students still beat me in this game😭. These games brought me back to my primary school days when we used to play such games during recess. Today we can see many RVians mugging away or just scrolling through their social media and such innocent childhood games are no longer played in school. Most of the time, sports are only done during structured play and not many of us actually treasure the time spent during our break times having fun with each other in school.        

The teachers there played a crucial role in educating the students. Similar to the teachers we have, the teachers in Thailand plan interactive lessons to keep the students engaged and ensure they maximise their learning. Yet in this school, for so many levels of students, there were only 20 teachers and I could see the teachers busily scurrying around classroom to classroom for lessons. They also gamely conversed with us in English when we were there and helped with translation despite them being not so fluent. They also enthusiastically joined in the dance segment with the kids even though they were teachers.  The passion and excitement for learning that the teachers had really rubbed off on the students as I witnessed the same passion for learning in them. 

Thailand’s education system may not be as advanced as that of Singapore, but I do believe that they do have some pointers that we could learn from. 

We could be more open to unstructured play—trying tangible games and outdoor games during our break times with our friends. Our education years are not just the best time to learn, but also to play and have fun with the people we see nearly daily. Furthermore, such games may be beneficial to us as they not only act as a form of stress relief but also reduce our screen time and provide us the opportunities to interact with our classmates. 

Secondly, we should try to adopt the carefree attitude the Thai students I interacted with have. Although I must admit that such an attitude may not be wholly suitable for Singapore’s competitive education system, there must still be times we let go and enjoy ourselves and not take academic success as the only pursuit of our lives.

Furthermore, the resilience and enthusiasm the children have for education is commendable and something we can learn. During our time there, we conducted basic English lessons for the older primary students and handicrafts sessions for the kindergarten/lower primary students. Unlike many Singaporean students (like myself) who will do anything to not answer a question in class, these students proactively participated in class and those who finished their handicrafts quicker would even lend a helping hand to the peers around them!  

‘If not now, then when?’ Take chances and it just might blossom into something magical—that's what I did. At first, I was hesitant to join OVIA, thinking I might not be able to commit or, because of all the planning required for the trip, my grades might suffer. Thankfully, my friends’ persuasion helped me decide to sign up for the interview. I went into the interview with the mindset ‘What is the worst that can happen?’ To my surprise, I got accepted! And till today, I still do not regret my decision.

Our last group photo with Wat Pa Tueng Huai Yap School

To conclude, the students at Wat Pa Tueng Huai Yap School embraced us with warm hugs and high-fives. Their cheery, bright smiles will forever be etched into my mind and these memories will become my guiding light as I manoeuvre through difficult times. Thailand is truly the ‘land of smiles’ and there was never a dull moment. Furthermore, it is the group of students and teachers whom I will remember forever. Thank you for this opportunity, RV! 

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