Thursday, February 05, 2009

Comprehension vs. Understanding

A popular book on education right now in Thailand is called 'Westerners understand, Thais comprehend', and highlights some of the differences in education between the two countries both procedurally and culturally. It looks pretty pop psychology so I haven't picked it up yet, although I may.

The biggest difference seems to be that in the U.S. the burden lies on the student to prove that they are learning, while in Thailand it seems to be on the teacher to prove that they are teaching. Now it seems to me in both cases a middle ground would be best; make the student prove that he is learning adequately while also periodically checking to make sure that the teacher isn't teaching that the earth is flat or Columbus, Ohio was discovered by Columbus, Christopher. But the U.S. tends to default to one side, and Thailand the other.

Most of my time at UNC was filled with truly delightful professors. Doctor Worley, Doctor Santos and Doctor Kleinfelter, for example, are three true scholars and deeply committed individuals. While most of the staff were more in their league there were, of course, those on the other side of the graph; and in my sophomore year I met the worst of them all. I cannot remember his name for the life of me, likely for the best, but he did seem to fully believe if we didn't do well it was because we were not paying attention. Not, say, due to the fact that he was vicodin addled most of the time and not in the awesome Dr. House way, interrupted students during presentations, and would not let students say they didn't think Emily Dickinson was a good poet. And yet some of the students who told their parents were assured they probably just needed to listen more or study harder. Not me, fortunately. I, uh, just didn't tell my parents.

Now on the surface the other side, ateacher having to prove they are teaching sounds like a good idea, but what it does is change the job of an educator. I can't be concerned solely with guaranteeing my students understand, I have to prove it. Everything has to go in to their notebooks, even tests have to be stapled in, or else parents don't think I'm teaching. Never mind that their students can now speak twice as well as they could before, since they do not have a piece of paper I must not be doing my job. It is somewhat frustrating to have the burden of proof for a student's education fall entirely on what I staple in to their notebook, not their actual level of comprehension. Its like having to take the CSAT (the Colorado standardized test, if I have any out of towners) as a teacher. And maybe only a little frustrating because it means I don't yet get to put the burden back on my students. But that would be mean.

So its interesting to experience a difference in perception and expectation, something I probably wouldn't have experienced back home all things considered. I'm treating it as a benefit, the opportunity to expand my working style and learn other educational approaches; it is certainly not an expectation I would have worked with in the U.S., and I can see how this might help me watch myself from becoming complacent when I do teach in the states. So a benefit, at least until I get fed up with it.



  1. Dear Matthew,

    Interesting post - and as I recall stapling things in notebooks was always a favorite of yours! Thanks for the ICBHB. It was definitely a first for me.



  2. Hi Matthew,

    An interesting posting. I read it this morning but wanted to take some time to think about it and my response.

    I think what you say about your role as a teacher in Thailand is very interesting. I agree that there must be some teacher accountability but we definitely need student accountability and parental accountability, as well. These days it seems as if the student and parent part of the equation is missing in a lot of cases.

    I will respectfully disagree with your comments on teachers in the US not being measured. Your comments are based upon the student's side of education in the US because that is what you have seen. And I'll agree that perhaps at the college level teachers are not held accountable as they should. We can look at our own worst professors or even Ward Churchill as good examples of that. However you have not been on the teacher's side in K-8 in the US so you don't have as good a feel for what goes on there. Teachers in Colorado are evaluated based on their students' CSAP scores and, in some cases, compensated on those scores. Remember this is an exam that does not affect the students in the least. They really have no skin in the game so many are not interested in doing well on the test. Yet the school and the core teachers are evaluated based on those results. In addition, I am evaluated these days in part based on what I have on my walls. Do I have things on my walls and in my room that the district requires such as standards, objectives (also called SWBAT for student will be able to), word walls, library (in each room) materials, etc. Are all these things labeled so people who enter the room can identify them? The students know what they are but others need the labels. Distict superintendents, our administrators and other teachers come into our rooms to evaluate us based on these things. Supposedly having these things on our walls improve student learning, or so we are told studies say. I'm not sure how I received the great education that I did without them but that's for another time! :)

    Anyway, I think you'd be surprised at how similar things really are back here in the US. I also hope I wasn't too long winded!

    Take care and post more and more pictures.

    Love you,

  3. Bah, if I ever try to publish my travel writings I'll have to have a section of discursive notes for the comments, which makes me a pompous writer guy ;)

    Even with those standards the teacher there is still given a lot more chances to prove what they are doing, and a lot more chances to get it right I think than teachers here. I'll do another post here on Education in Thailand in general to try to explain.

  4. Ok, for the record: I was not saying mom's comments were too long. Discursive notes are when a scholar uses his notes/references section to discuss things rather than just citing. When used well it is enlightening, when not used well it is infuriating (and may just be an excuse to attack other authors).

    My comment was on me writing in my own comment section to converse, not on anyone else ;) Please, write as much in the notes as you want! I love to hear the feedback.



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