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How this Thai educational movement empowers rural students

More and more in Thailand, rural students learn in traditional classrooms, but with an emphasis on hands-on activities. The idea is to empower young villagers to bring economic development to their communities, as well as learn leadership, empathy and compassion. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro returns to Thailand to talk with the man leading the effort there.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now: going beyond reading, writing and arithmetic to teach leadership and empathy to high school students.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro traveled to rural Thailand for a return visit with the man leading an effort to modernize education in that country.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    It's not something you typically see in a Thai public school. There's dancing, games and paper-making. And the teachers on this day were visiting students from a unique nearby high school.

    It's part of a new approach the government is seeking to expand across Thailand. It's begun with an initial 180 schools, and is based on the nonprofit 7-12 grade Mechai Bamboo School named after its founder, Mechai Viravaidya.

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    We have so many schools now wanting to join. The schools want it, the communities want it, which is really very, very positive.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The Bamboo School was started nine years ago in rural Eastern Thailand as a way to inspire young villagers to bring economic development to their communities.

    On a typical day, students might be performing for patients at a nearby hospital. That's after handing out meals they had prepared at the school kitchen using produce grown in the school garden. Students do learn in traditional classrooms, but the emphasis is hands-on.

    Soon, these math students are outside taking measurements and making real-world calculations about how much can be planted in a pot.

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    So, this is mobile. You can take it into the village from one house to another on the back of a motorbike.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    It's a portable solar-powered water, pump designed, he said, by the students.

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    And this is what we're always trying to do, and let the kids to think how to improve whatever we do. And they come up with many good ideas.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Mechai Viravaidya is an economist who became famous in the 1970s for colorful family planning campaigns. He used the media, Buddhist monks and humor, like condom-blowing contests, to help a conservative culture overcome embarrassment about sexuality, as he recalled when I first talked to him in the mid-'90s

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    We said, look, one must not be embarrassed by a condom. It's just from a rubber tree, like a tennis ball. If you're embarrassed by a condom, you must be more embarrassed by a tennis ball. There's more rubber in it.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Thailand's fertility rate went from six children per woman to less than two today. It is now considered a middle-income country, but rural communities have not benefited as much from improved living standards.

    Mechai says modernizing the education system is key to closing that gap.

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    The school is more than just a school that all of us used to know. A school is a lifelong learning center and a hub for social and economic advancement in the communities.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    It means that, in addition to academics, each student must start a small business, whether it's selling food or handmade paper or large water storage pots.

    Instead of paying tuition, students and parents perform 400 hours of community service a year, providing day care for mothers from the community or teaching workshops about gardening to senior citizens. And through internships and partnerships with the business community, students learn about career options in agriculture, commerce, education.

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    And these are the things we have to teach them, life skills and occupational skills.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The emphasis at the Bamboo School is on leadership and empathy. Students often lead group discussions, like this sex education class, which included Mechai's hallmark condom-blowing contest.

    And students conduct interviews to determine who is admitted and which teachers get hired. The rules that this boarding school our firm. Students do chores every morning. There is one hour of cell phone use a week.

    When rules are violated, a student panel helps determine the consequences. A few years ago, four seniors were caught smoking.

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    So, the student council said that they should be expelled. And they were expelled from the school.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Really? That's pretty radical.

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    The issue of discipline is very important for them to realize that it's not difficult to be honest. It is not difficult to obey the rules and the laws. Start them young, and, when they get older, it will be sort of second nature to them.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The Bamboo School goes out of its way to recruit students who have been marginalized by society, such as Chanida Nithikajorn. She's from a minority group in an isolated region of Thailand, and she cried when asked how her life has changed since coming here.

  • Chanida Nithikajorn:

    I never thought I would have a chance to pursue education. I have always wanted to be a doctor, but I thought I wouldn't be able to achieve that. But now things have changed a lot.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Ninth grader Nut Monis is deemed stateless because her grandparents came to Thailand illegally from Myanmar.

  • Nut Monis:

    Being stateless is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person. You are deprived of many liberties. I wasn't allowed to travel outside my village.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Thanks to intervention by Mechai, Nut was allowed to attend the Bamboo School and eventually hopes to go on to college. Eighty-five percent of the school's graduates do so. But they're encouraged to come back to their rural communities.

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    Have a look at this.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    It's one reason for the sophisticated horticulture taught at the school.

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    So, this is a way of proving that you can stay in rural settings and earn a good income and be scientific about things, rather than having to migrate like other people.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    It's an idea that graduate Jindarat Maneeterm has taken to heart. She's now in her senior year of college, majoring in business management, and as her final project works an intern back at her alma mater.

  • Jindarat Maneeterm:

    There's been a huge migration and most people have disappeared from the village. I'm trying to convince youth to come and see the importance of village life and maintain some of it.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Technology has connected once remote villages to the larger world, but Jindarat says it has also had a corrosive effect.

  • Jindarat Maneeterm:

    When I was young, I would go out in the fields and help my parents. It was part of the village culture. Now young children spend their days on cell phones watching YouTube most of the time. I want to play a role in developing ideas for businesses in the village, while preserving village identity.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    At age 77, Mechai shows no signs of slowing down. While most of his time is spent trying to raise money, he still regularly meets with the young scholars.

    At this student council meeting, he listened to a proposal to start actively recruiting students who are orphans. He says it's all part of the plan for students to continue the work that he has begun here.

  • Mechai Viravaidya:

    And they come back, older ones, to teach younger kids. We say it's like a relay race. Whatever we receive, we must pass on to others.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    It's that legacy that Mechai hopes will continue to grow, as the new public school model expands across Thailand.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Fred de Sam Lazaro in Buriram Province, Thailand.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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