The Three ‘R’s in Thai Schools: Risk, Responsibility and Resilience

The Three ‘R’s in Thai Schools: Risk, Responsibility and Resilience

Feature image: Scout Camp, Banklothor School

By Liz O’Sullivan

In late January 2020 Liz O’Sullivan began her mentoring role to assist local Thai and Karen teachers at Bankhlotor and Umphang Public Schools in developing English basic proficiency, global citizenship awareness through teaching, and specific outdoor activities. Liz has chosen to stay in northern Thailand throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Do children need to develop better resilience? Kids in our contemporary ‘Western’ world seem to be used their safe bubble-wrapped lives. In Australia we see numerous rules and safeguards in place to protect citizens. For better or worse, many parents want to protect and shelter their children from perceived dangers, obstacles, and disappointments.

In Australian schools, teachers are required to fill out a multitude of risk assessments and schools must be extremely vigilant when it comes to workplace health and safety practices. There is no denying that safety is important in schools. But is it about risk management or total risk aversion? If young people are prevented from dealing with any risk, how will they learn to solve their own problems?

We see students in Australia who often have difficulties completing challenging tasks independently. Some don’t know how to manage their emotions or interact effectively with others. Some are used to being spoon fed. Are we raising a generation of kids without the freedom to do things for themselves? Will they know how to be resilient?

By contrast, young people in the rural communities of Northern Thailand have a very different upbringing. From a young age they are expected to do things for themselves. They are often left to their own devices.

At first, from my sheltered westernised viewpoint I was slightly concerned at some of the practices in schools here. Certainly the priorities around workplace health and safety and supervision are very different from those in Australian schools. Even in the general community kids as young as ten ride motorbikes without a helmet or walk long distances on their own. It’s just an accepted part of the cultural norm. 

A Year 4 student cleans his classroom after school

With freedoms and an element of risk there also comes great responsibility. At Banklothor School where I am living, students are responsible for the cleaning. When we ran out of water due to a faulty pump, students were instructed to collect water for the school from a single nearby hose. The high school boarding students are given money to shop for food and cook dinner for 100 children every evening.

I had the pleasure of experiencing the school Scout camp early in the year before the spread of Covid. The Scout program is part of school curriculum in Thailand. Students from Years 4 – 12 attended the camp and were expected to bring all their own supplies and food.  With some guidance they proceeded to build their tents and campsites by hand, using only rope and machetes. They formed amazing looking tents complete with a kitchen area made only with bamboo and tarps. I looked on in awe, thinking I wouldn’t even know which end to hold the machete. The students built their own campfires and were responsible for cooking each meal for their group. The teachers then tasted the meals and scored the students, ‘Masterchef’ style. The students also took part in a range of activities from rope climbing to games involving going through the mud and creek. Throughout the camp I witnessed so many skills developed by the students working together in teams. They were responsible for the maintenance of their own campsite and responsible for their successes or failures. What I did not see was students upset, whingeing or refusing to take part.

Scout Camp, Banklothor School

The children here do not always have an adult holding their hand and are generally expected to do things for themselves. However, people here do work together interdependently, often helping others without even being asked. From my observations, people in Thailand behave very respectfully towards each other. Students are expected to be courteous and follow the rules and for the most part this is evident.

From a young age children are taught to accept their lot. Complaining is not a big part of Thai culture. Here it seems to be expected for people to be polite so as not to cause offense. People are relatively tolerant when things go wrong or they learn to fix things themselves. They also know how to be patient. While this may not be a completely perfect model for society, it certainly gives us some points to reflect on.   

So what can we in Australia take away from all this? Firstly, I believe kids can’t be explicitly taught resilience through some school-based program filled with lesson plans, posters, video links or guest speakers. Resilience is developed through lived experiences. It should become part of the culture of the school and the everyday environment. Resilience also needs to be encouraged at home but that is not always a priority for all families. For example, a child cannot learn to tie their own shoes through an instruction manual, nor will they learn if their shoes are always tied for them by an adult. If they are given only Velcro shoes to wear then they will never learn. In the same way, children must be allowed to fail and work things out for themselves.

No risk, no reward

Surely the best thing for us to do as adults is to try to take a step back and allow children to grow while also fostering responsibility and discipline. 

You can support the education of students at Bankother & Umphang Public Schools by giving a recurring or one-off donation to the project here.