31 January 2009

Thai Cheaters

Thai students like to cheat. They will do it during class time, and they will do it during exams. If you give them homework you can be sure that quite a large percentage of what you will get back will be exact copies of someone else’s work.

In a way it is not really surprising. Cheating actually seems to be far more tolerated in Thailand than it would be in say Ireland or the UK. There seems to be this belief in Thai society that the important thing is the piece of paper, and the means to getting this qualification is hardly ever questioned; that is except when some scandal reaches the national press because some powerful person’s son has been caught cheating on an important exam.

I seem to remember that there was a research study conducted on the Thai public’s opinions about cheating. This study found that the vast majority of respondents claimed that they saw nothing wrong with cheating to achieve a goal. I can easily believe this research paper, because everything I see in Thailand seems to support this conclusion.

This is not to say that everyone in Thailand cheats. I’m not saying that. What I would say though is that there is far more acceptance of it then elsewhere. The Thai national attitude of tolerance and ‘mai pen rai’ (nevermind) also applies here. Many students, who might otherwise do poorly in education, benefit because of this lax attitude. Is that always a bad thing? I’m not sure. But I do feel sorry for students who work hard all term and come out with the same result as somebody who has done nothing all year.

When I first arrived in Thailand some of the old-timers, who had been teaching for a while, warned me about the amount of cheating that went on in schools. I often scoffed and believed that these sounded too much like tall tales. My view soon changed though when I witnessed the full extent of this phenomena.

I remember when we first moved to my wife’s village a few years ago. I had already a bit of experience of teaching in Bangkok, and I had decided to help out in the local schools. Because of this offer of help I was pleased one afternoon when a group of students arrived at my door. They were led by my niece, and they all clutched pieces of paper. My niece explained that they had an exam, and they needed my help with the English paper. I thought it odd that they would be allowed to take their tests away from the school to elicit the help of others, but I decided to do what I could.

I sat my niece down while her friends gathered around, and tried to explain the questions to her in the hope that this would help her arrive at the answer. She looked at me in a very confused manner, and just pushed the paper towards me. She did not want to know how to answer the questions, she just wanted me to answer them so that she could share them with her friends. I tried to explain that there was little benefit in me doing her exams, but this seemed to only add to her confusion.

My reluctance to help these students cheat would likely seem a bit odd to many Thais. This is a culture based around doing favours for people and getting favours back in return. If a teacher leaves an apple for a teacher it is usually accompanied by the student’s conviction that they will later get some type of pay-back for this gift.

Of course I had seen cheating occur in my own school, and to be honest I probably would have had no problem doing it myself if I thought that I would get away with it. The thing was though that the only people who did cheat were the very brave or the very reckless. When I was at school the chances were that if you cheated you would be caught. It’s a different story here in Thailand. Students usually make little effort to hide their cheating and when caught they have this attitude of ‘hey, why are you making such a big deal about this’. When I cross out the copied work or deduct marks they will act as it it is me who is in the wrong.

The thing that I find most strange is that even when I spoon-feed the students the answers there will still be people copying off their friends. This occurs even when I highlight the correct answer on the board. It seems like that it is their instinct to copy even when there is no need.

When I receive homework the copied answers could not be more obvious then if the student’s had actually written in red pen ‘ this work is not mine’. They copy everything word for word with no attempt at disguise. The saddest thing though is that this work is usually copied from someone who is equally as hopeless at the task at hand as they are. Not only is the work a copy, but it is a copy of something that is wrong.

The internet has become a great tool for the Thai cheater. Students have no shame in copying and pasting large chunks of someone else’s work and trying to pass it off as their own. They really think that nobody will question why suddenly they are so competent in English when they usually struggle to answer the most basic question in the language. To add insult to injury they will sometimes forget to remove the telltale signs that it is taken from the internet. I will begin to read a students work and realise that it is full of Google ads and jarring messages saying ‘click here for link’.

The truth is though that cheating is rarely punished in Thailand. There is a lot of pressure in schools to ensure that students pass, and if they don’t pass it is the teacher who is seen as failing and not the students. Failing someone is a big deal, and can be a real uphill struggle with school administration putting pressure on to change a failing mark to a pass.

Despite whatever view the foreign teacher in Thailand might have it would seem that cheating is endemic in the culture. I don’t think that it is our place to try and change this, but instead to work within the system as best we can. If change is to come it will come from the Thai people themselves, and not due to what they would see as interfering outsiders.

I try to minimise cheating as much as possible, but have turned my focus towards just doing my best for the students in the hope that they will gain some knowledge and maybe even develop a love of learning. In the end this is what is really important; at least in my opinion.

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