29.01.2017

"Democracy needs active, informed and responsible citizens"

An interview with the director of the Thai Civic Education Center in Thailand on the role of civic education for a democratic society

Photo: Athapol Anunthavorasakyl by Thai Civic Education Center

“If people are not born democrats, then education surely has a significant role to play in ensuring that democrats are made,” says Athapol Anunthavorasakul. Besides being an academic and professor at the Faculty of Education at Thailand’s largest higher education institution ― Chulalongkorn University ― he is a very active practitioner. Since 2016 he is the director of the Thai Civic Education Center (TCEC), an independent educational institution that is committed to nurturing democratic citizenship culture in Thailand.

The TCEC has emerged from the Thai Civic Education project, initiated by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Thailand. The project served as a platform for dialogue and conceptual work to support governmental and non-governmental actors in re-thinking ideas of civic education.

After publishing a Conceptual Framework for a Thai Democratic Citizenship Education Curriculum in 2013, which became part of various public events and capacity building programs for teachers and experts in the field of civic education, the core working group of the Thai Civic Education project founded the Thai Civic Education Center in 2016.

In Thailand, the approach to civic education is habitually attached to the three national values: the nation, religion and the monarchy. These values are recognized as the principal target of a government-led educational reform process underway since 1992. Citizens are expected to merely vote and be what the majority defines as a good person. As an alternative approach to the mainstream idea of the good citizen, the TCEC seeks to strengthen a justice oriented image of citizenship as a condition for a lively democratic society.

At the onset of 2017, we spoke to Athapol Anunthavorasakul about the importance of civic education, the role of the Center in Thailand, the achievements and the future plans.

Connect: As an academic, your focus is to improve the quality of education in subject matters related to social sciences. Why is civic education important?

Athapol Anunthavorasakul: Civic Education and Social Studies can be seen as two sides of the same coin, in the sense that both aim at social participation, students’ active engagement and the virtues of ethics. The collaboration between Civic Education and Social Studies shares the same goal in building and bringing about good citizenship.

Important for us at the Centre is the promotion of civic competencies and democratic dispositions

Every country and every government, progressive or conservative has its civic education program with different political purposes. Important for us at the Centre is the promotion of civic competencies ― knowledge, intellectual processes, critical thinking ― and democratic dispositions required of students to be active and engaged participants in public life.

Connect: What is the role of the Thai Civic Education Centre in Thailand?

AA: The Thai Civic Education Center provides critical support to teachers, teacher-educators and educational organizations in their effort to contribute to a democratic citizenship culture through education. We are working as a coordinating body or a steering-group, based on a network model. We are pooling resources, knowledge and funding, from partners. Together we create a set of long term, innovative activities and programs including curriculum development, in-service teacher training, youth camps and public fora for sharing ideas and practices on civic education and related fields.

Connect: In one of the programs of the Centre you focus on training and capacity building for teachers. What kind of things do you do under this program?

AA: The Thai education system has been facing some reforms imposed by the junta government on different subjects of study: history, social studies, moral education, etc. Within this context, the civic education program in schools has been affected by the new policy. Thai students will have an extra course based on the five core values of the new curriculum on civic education: Thainess, love of the three tenets of the country (the nation, the religion and the monarchy), being a good citizen in democratic society, resolution/ conflict resolution, and discipline.

To respond to this condition, we have initiated trainings that enable teachers to translate the abstract concepts for the classroom by using the Thai democratic citizenship education concepts as the framework for interpretation.

The training program is based on an integrated and holistic approach in teaching democratic citizenship. Under the same umbrella, different subjects of study are integrated together to highlight the issues important to be brought in the classroom of the 21st century: political literacy as a transversal core issue, environmental education for sustainable development, media literacy and multicultural education combined with human rights and conflict resolution. Two more topics are in the pipeline for early 2017, namely teaching history for citizenship and reducing hate and global citizenship for peace.

Connect: What are your achievements so far and how do you measure them?

AA: So far, we have generated several public discussions on education and democracy. Each public event is attended by 80 to 100 participants from different academic and social backgrounds. So far, we have trained 100 people in two groups consisting of teachers, teacher educators and academic supervisors from around 50 schools, 15 universities and 15 education service areas. The third group will start in 2017.

We have established cooperation and partnerships with universities abroad under various programs: the Thai-Australian teachers’ exchange programme is up and running and a research project on perceptions of democracy among Thai teachers is under way with Sydney University. Soon we may work together with Amnesty International Thailand and the Institute for the Didactics of Democracy (IDD) at Leibniz University in Hannover.

Connect: The Thai Civic Education Centre seems to be successful. What are some of the challenges you are facing at the Centre?

AA: The main challenge is sustainable support of the institutional structure, by which I mean the staff salaries. Our partners can only provide funding for our activities.

Democracy in Thailand and elsewhere needs active, informed and responsible citizens

Another important issue is that in all our decisions we must constantly take into consideration the political context that Thailand is facing. We are in a transitional period in which the democratic movement is struggling to survive and the society is in search for a new narrative. In this context, our work is more important than ever because educating a democratic citizenry is a crucial element to overcome the transformation crisis undergoing in Thailand over the past decade.

Democracy in Thailand and elsewhere needs active, informed and responsible citizens; citizens who are empowered and able to critically follow public debate, articulate their interests, monitor political actors, scrutinize political processes and legitimate decision makers on an informed basis. These capacities do not develop unaided. The ability to engage in public life intelligently has to be learned. If people are not born democrats, then education surely has a significant role to play in ensuring that democrats are made.

Connect: Where will you be taking the Civic Education Center next? What’s on the program for 2017?

AA: Mainly, we will continue the public discussion on education and democracy. And in 2017, we will be hosting a panel discussion at the International Conference on International Relations and Development with national and international recognized experts on the issues of education, citizenship and democracy.

The findings of the research on the state of civic education in higher education, led by our partner, the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies (IHRP) under Mahidol University, will also be presented.

The teachers training will welcome its third generation of young teachers who are interested in our innovative programs and are willing to implement them in their classroom. In addition to the teachers’ trainings, we are planning to develop two more platforms, the development of “Professional Learning Community (PLC)” and ”School as Learning Community (SLC).”

Teaching materials that have been developed in 2016 will be launched in 2017 as well and we are planning to organize Democratic Citizenship Education Camps with partners from the government and the non-profit sector.

All in all, in 2017 we’ll continue from where we left 2016. In Thailand, there are around 500,000 teachers and 35,000 schools (primary and secondary), so we have many years of work to do to reach them all.

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FES Connect team would like to thank FES Thailand Office for the support in producing the interview.

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