Thais learn in a different way to farangs. This is not an opinion. This is a fact. There are a number of reasons why this is so, and unless you understand this and adapt the way you train Thais, you will fail. Make no mistake. You will suffer frustration and possibly lost business when you try to train Thais in the same way you would with farangs.
Training Thais is no more difficult than training farangs. It’s just different. However, recognizing that there is a difference is only the first step. Just like an alcoholic who admits he has a problem and needs help, you have to accept that it is you and not the trainees who need to change. You are seriously outnumbered, behind enemy lines and dealing with a very well-established culture here. Once you have identified the differences and opened your mind to change, there is only one step left to successfully bridging the cultural gap. You must walk the walk and actively adapt your approach to suit your trainees.
In my capacity as an English teacher, I taught, and indeed still occasionally teach, tens of thousands of Thai students over almost a decade. These ranged from the occasional and reluctant pre-teen class all the way up to the most senior business executives. However, the vast majority of the students I taught were university students, entry level staff or middle management. As a manager myself, I was also responsible for training Thai staff and teachers of many nationalities. I’d like to share my experiences and observations with you on the way that Thais learn and, hopefully, provide some useful pointers.
Of course, everyone is different, regardless of national or cultural identity, and people learn in different ways. Every trainer should familiarise himself/herself with Stephen Krashen’s theory of multiple intelligences before he/she is unleashed on impressionable minds. I know that I am a very visual learner but that doesn’t mean that I should train only in this way. A successful trainer will read his or her trainees and adapt to them. However, this is a universal need. Thais have other specific idiosyncrasies that we need to be aware of before we consider how we can maximize the effectiveness of our instruction.
First, we have to understand the ways Thais have learnt to learn. It is a very different environment to Western education models and there are a number of important cultural factors to consider here.
The Thai education system relies on a predominantly rote learning technique. With languages, this means that students are forced to memorise tedious grammatical structures; in history, they are forced to learn names and dates without attaching any particular significance to them. Basically, Thai schools don’t teach the students how to think; they teach them how to remember. As a result, Thais in general have poor analytical skills and need to have clear explanations and examples to follow in their training.
Thais are also used to learning in passive settings. They will happily sit in silence taking notes, but take them out of that safety zone by asking them to participate or solve a problem, and they are like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. However, we can’t allow this situation to continue because participatory learning is far more effective. It more closely reflects the situations where the trainees will find themselves needing to apply their new skills, and it also allows us to gauge their assimilation more effectively.
Fortunately, adapting the trainees’ to the training style rather than vice versa is easy here, provided we follow some guidelines. Instead of singling out a trainee to demonstrate something, put them in pairs or small groups. Have them role-play or solve problems in this way, and they will find the transition from passive to active learning much less daunting. Thai culture is highly collective but the use of pair and group work also reduces the potential for a trainee to lose face if they don’t know something.
Next, if Thais think that training is going to be too serious, they will mentally switch off and make minimal progress. The result of this is that they will be more productive and learn more effectively if they enjoy the training. This is deeply ingrained into their culture, and we aren’t going to change it in one workshop. In fact, why should we want to change it? We should be flexible enough to adapt the way we train to our trainees’ learning styles.
Introduce an element of fun wherever possible. You should never underestimate how important this is to Thais. This doesn’t mean that you have to resort to slapstick, but equally don’t come across as an impatient disciplinarian if you want your trainees to feel comfortable with you. Don’t drone on in a monotonic monologue, and don’t hide behind visual support. Be lively, enthusiastic, animated and entertaining and you will reap the rewards.
The third point to consider about how Thais have learnt to learn relates to the over-emphasis on exams. This, unfortunately, serves only to place more importance on rote learning rather than accumulative and analytical learning. It has also turned cheating and cutting corners into a national pastime. In terms of your training, it is just another reason for you to keep the sessions interactive.
One final factor to consider goes back to the losing face phenomenon. We have already looked at this, but let’s explore it some more. Thai students won’t admit that they don’t know or didn’t understand something. Therefore, you should never ask closed questions such as “Do you understand?” or “Do you have any questions?” because even if they didn’t understand or they do have questions, they will not risk losing face by admitting as such. It is, therefore, vital that you gauge assimilation regularly by keeping the training interactive and having the students demonstrate or at least summarise what they have learned.
Fortunately, an increasing number of Thais are studying in international programmes or overseas. Thais who attended international schools in Bangkok have much better analytical skills than students who studied standard Thai curricula. This differential is also in existence although much less tangibly so with students who studied Thai curricula before attending universities abroad. Knowing the study background of your trainees and adapting your training accordingly will further increase your chances of success.
If you want to be a successful trainer of Thais, steer away from boring lectures and tests. Use games, pair-work, group-work, competitions and activities as much as possible to keep the sessions lively and interactive. Make your training fun, and you will find that not only do your trainees enjoy your training, but they also learn from it.