Learning in the forest
Thailand's schools are changing the way they teach as part of an national education reform. The revised National Education Law allows schools to "tailor contents of the national curriculum to the social needs of each community" . Although learning objectives for primary school students - such as the acquisition of basic mathematics skills - are still mandated, the curriculum's content can now be developed locally by village herbalists, silk weavers, other practitioners of indigenous knowledge, teachers and the students themselves.
Learning From Forest Life in Ban Narai
The forest is the basis of Ban Narai's local curricula. The villages surrounding Ban Narai School depend on the fertile soil to grow cash crops such as rice, corn and sugarcane. There is a large rocky mountain surrounded by a community forest, which the villagers value both for its natural resources as well as for its spiritual significance. The forest mountain is a source of food for the local people who eat mushrooms, bamboo and several different kinds of insects from the forest. The forest also protects their crops from soil erosion and flooding.

Discussing local curriculum with the herbalists from Ban Narai Local Wisdom Group

Forest fruit
Curricula Developed from Local Wisdom
The first step in developing the curricula was a brainstorming session led by village elders and herbalists from three neighboring villages. This Local Wisdom Group met with teachers, community leaders and five student representatives from the 5th and 6th grades to share their ideas on what children should be learning. The teachers used the groups suggestions, listed below, to make the 5th and 6th grade lesson plans for the next academic year.
  1. Exploration of the Ecosystem
  2. Consciousness Raising
  3. Reforestation
In the first part, "Exploration of the Ecosystem," the children explore the geography of the forest with village elders, learning about its current condition, the various plants, animals, and the mutual benefit of these organisms for the ecosystem. The children are taught medicinal uses of plants, such as which herbs will treat infections and which ones to boil and drink as a cure for ulcers.
The "Consciousness Raising" component teaches the children about the importance of the forest and inspires them to fight to keep the local forest alive and healthy. Some of the children have returned from exploration trips with the herbalists to demand of their parents: "Why are you destroying our forest…it is our natural supermarket?"
During "Reforestation" students organize community activities and invite their parents and other interested community members to replant trees and reestablish biodiversity in the local forest. The students also learn about local ways of forest management.


Learning with village elders

Germination of forest fruit plants
Elders and Children Learn from Each Other
Village elders are proud to share their experiences. "This is the first time that we have been invited to participate in curriculum development. We are honored to serve as teachers," states an elderly man from the Local Wisdom Group in Ban Narai. "We learned about the medicinal value of herbs from our mothers and fathers. At that time, there was no hospital other than the forest, so learning about it was extremely important," remarks another member of the Local Wisdom Group.
Children have also become a source of innovative practices for reforestation. On one of the forest exploration trips, a group of girls and boys noticed that there were patches of soil where no trees or plants had ever successfully grown. This arid ground is locally known as 'din preo' or 'sour dirt'. Asking themselves why this is so, the children decided to plant a strain of wild lychee in the 'sour dirt.' The plant took nicely to the unusual conditions, and subsequently several villagers have started planting this robust plant in other areas with arid soil.
Learning Through Local Skills in Ban Daeng
In Ban Daeng, another village in Northeastern Thailand, the local curriculum emphasizes indigenous vocations rather than environmental issues. Community experts are invited into the classroom to teach practical skills such as hair styling, chicken raising, herbal medicine, silk weaving and other skills. Although most of these skills have been passed on informally for generations, the difference is that now they are recognized as educational content.

Results in the classroom
All subjects are made more relevent by presenting them in a local context. Students learn:
  • Mathematics by calculating percentages related to wildlife diversity in the local forest
  • The Thai and English names of curative natural herbs
  • Essay writing using the forest as a topic
  • Science by mixing herbal shampoos and teas
  • Technology by designing traditional Thai 'mutmee' silk patterns on the computer
"The local curriculum offers children opportunities for hands-on learning. We have built a miniature village behind the school, complete with samples of many of the plants found in the local forest," explains Ajaan Samai, a teacher who has been instrumental in the development of the local curriculum at Ban Daeng School. We take trips to the local forest to harvest wild mushrooms and the children practice their skills daily. The children seem happier and less stressed as their learning environment is not confined to the classroom. Many of the students have excelled with the local curriculum, even those who are usually not motivated in the classroom."

Admiring plants that eat insects

Back in the classroom

Kids lead exploration near Paa Yaa mountain
Challenges with Local Curricula
One initial hurdle in Ban Narai was the lack of confidence among teachers and the Local Wisom Group in their abilities to develop a course curriculum themselves. Having always received the complete lesson plans from the central education authorities in Bangkok, it was a momentous task for the elders and rural teachers to begin designing a curriculum from scratch.
Even now that the curriculum is developed, it is a constant challenge to update and improve the curriculum as these rural villages lack access to educational materials available in urban libraries and via the internet.
A challenge for Ban Daeng Primary School is that few students are fortunate enough to continue their education past grade six. Many children must take on farming or other occupations as a way to contribute to their family's income, which prevents them from studying at the secondary level.
Even if the primary students do have the luxury of continuing their studies, the secondary school in Ban Daeng has not changed its curriculum yet. This will limit the effect of the program.
What Does the Future Hold?

Ajaan Samai hopes to link the school's activities to development in the village. "One thing I would like to see in the future is for the students to begin tackling community issues by using what they have learnt through the local curriculum. Many of the families in our community lack a steady source of income and could begin to sell herbal shampoos, organic fertilizers and homeopathic medicines as a way to profit from our local knowledge."
When asked about the importance of developing and using local curricula, the 5th grade students in Ban Narai had no trouble offering their ideas. "So we can save money…we can gather herbs and plants from the forest, rather than buying them at the market," commented one student. "So we learn about animals' homes, and especially how not to destroy their homes," added another child. Yet another student hoped that their exposure to the value of local forests would motivate more young people to participate in local activities to prevent deforestation.

(click on the lotus leaves above)
Before, school was a government program that the children passively attended. Now village elders, parents, teachers and students are discussing challenges that face the community and taking stock of local knowledge and community resources. They are making hard decisions and taking responsibility for their schools. This shift in attitude is, in itself, a major accomplishment and a clear indication that education reform in these villages is on the right track.
For more information, email Mr. Chalin Subpamong , Program Support Manager c-thaila@plan.geis.com
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