Who says Collin College professors can’t make the world their classrooms? Certainly not Collin history Professor Dr. Matthew Ware Coulter. Dr. Coulter presented “Experiential Teaching and Learning in History” at The Classroom Discovery Process and Procedure Conference in Bangkok, Thailand this summer. Held at the Santiratwitthayalai School in Bangkok, the conference was mainly comprised of secondary teachers from Thailand. Dr. Coulter was invited to address the conference by the English for Integrated Studies Association of Thailand.
Did anything in Thailand surprise you?
I read quite a bit about Thailand, its history and culture, before going there, but I was surprised to see how the things I read about displayed themselves in everyday situations. I was in Thailand to talk about experiential learning, and while there I received a lesson in experiential learning.
How is Thai culture distinct?
Experiencing the hierarchical nature of Thai culture was different from reading about it. In a large and overt way, I saw it on the streets and in the public buildings where huge pictures of the Thai king appear on fences and walls. These large photographs are everywhere, with sayings and slogans from the king printed underneath. Imagine in America having huge photos of President Obama hung up in all kinds of public places, and in some private ones, too.
In less overt and more subtle ways, the hierarchy was always present. Many times I was treated to meals in Thailand. For those meals, there was no discussion of where, what, or when we might eat. In some manner which was unfathomable to me, it was determined who among the dinner party held the most prestigious position, and he (and it was always a he) made all of the decisions. And I do mean all of the decisions.
How is teaching different/the same in the U.S. and Thailand?
I had the opportunity to observe teachers in the classroom at Santiratwitthayalai School, a high school in Bangkok. Based on that, I would say the teaching process in the U.S. and Thailand is more similar than different. The teachers mainly lectured, using PowerPoint and other visual aids, and students took notes and occasionally asked questions. Students’ texting in the classroom is an issue for Thai teachers, just as it is for American teachers.
Thailand, like many East Asian countries, puts a heavy emphasis on testing and a standardized test pretty well determines one’s future. Students are focused on memorizing material for that test and teachers are focused on the same goal. Applying knowledge to a particular situation is less emphasized, and an individual student’s thoughts or opinions on an issue are not necessarily sought out in the classroom.
In Thailand, a major effort is underway to use English in the educational system. At the high school where I observed, several teachers were English-speaking expatriates from the United States and Europe. Talking with them helped me better understand the joys and frustrations of westerners trying to contribute to educational achievement in Thailand.
What benefits did you share about the issue of critical thinking (prized in the U.S.) versus rote memorization (common in Thailand)?
I focused on how much more engaged the students will be if they actually experience doing the things they read about or hear about in the classroom. I also showed samples of student writing that demonstrated how students applied some of things they had learned about in class to the experiences they had. For example, I discussed an assignment I use at Collin College in which students can visit the Dallas Museum of Art and look for art pieces that relate to material covered in the classroom or the textbook.
What did you learn in Thailand?
I could probably write a book on this question. In Thailand, there is an intense focus on the harmony of the group, and the individual is not supposed to do anything to disrupt the group. In America, we have a much stronger focus on the individual. As an individualist American, I sometimes felt like a stranger in a strange land. Experiencing that feeling has allowed me to better understand how some of our international students at Collin College might feel in adjusting to American ways.
What do you want to share with your Collin College colleagues?
Experiential learning is not something to be reserved for our students; as professors, we can engage in it, too.
What was your most unique experience?
I did not think I would make it to rural Thailand to visit the Bridge on the River Kwai. I saw the movie more than once, and watched it again before leaving for Thailand.
A little bit of history
The bridge was built by Asian forced laborers and by Prisoners of War (POWs) held by the Japanese during World War II, and some of the POWs were American. My main area of historical research is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s foreign policy, so the bridge and all it represents fall right into my academic interests.Thailand had a complicated history during World War II, and the Thai government, under pressure from the Japanese, actually declared war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor.
A Thai museum near the bridge covers the history, and it was an eye-opener to see how that history was presented. The museum’s exhibits seemed to me to be more critical of the U.S. for bombing the bridge than of the Japanese for brutally exploiting the Asians, including many Thais, in building the bridge.
What was your favorite Thailand experience?
When some conference participants found out that I played guitar, I was asked to play a few songs during breaks between meetings. Someone handed me a guitar, and I introduced the Thai teachers to some American classics, including Route 66. It was my first and only international guitar performance—something I will always remember and treasure.