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Up, Up And Away




By Andrew Biggs

Nong Max was born into a rural Thai family 15 years ago in the far north-eastern province of Nakhon Phanom.

That province is 750 km from Bangkok, which makes Nakhon Phanom about halfway to Macau in China.

It’s not exactly on the tourist track; Ho Chi Minh did hide out there, plotting the Viet Minh independence movement, from 1928 to 1931 in a small under-the-radar village called Ban Nachok. I once visited his home there and while historically significant, it is probably not worth driving all of 750 km to see it — unless you were on the way to Macau and needed a pit stop. But let us get back to Max.

This soft-spoken Thai kid lived in Nakhon Phanom throughout his primary school years. Then life threw him a curveball. His mother met and married an Australian, who took his new family to live in Australia. Suddenly he was a student at Indooroopilly High School in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

So what happened to this introspective Thai country boy who got thrust into a school of 1,500 boisterous Australian students? Did he sink or swim?

I am writing this column from an inner-city hotel in Brisbane, in the middle of a fascinating week exploring the education scene in Queensland, my home state in Australia.

Readers may be surprised to learn that your sophisticated Bangkok Post columnist actually has his roots in a southern Brisbane suburb of Sunnybank, where the word “chic” was only ever uttered when followed by “-ken coop.” Sunnybank, when I was little, was a semi-rural community, full of British expats making their new homes amid the custard apple, strawberry and avocado farms of the region. And chicken coops, like the farm next door to us.

(While Sunnybank may have been exquisite in its mundanity, we did receive a visit from Queen Elizabeth in 1970. She was taken to a swimming pool and mini-zoo complex full of mangy koalas and rabid kangaroos called The Oasis in Sunnybank. One can only imagine the number of stifled yawns behind royal gloves on that sweltering day.)

Back then there was one Chinese family living there. Jump forward to today, and Sunnybank is entirely Asian. As I said during a speech at the newly-opened Thai Consulate in Brisbane this week, there is probably only one single white Australian family living in Sunnybank these days. Facetious, I know, but written with love.

Brisbane has to qualify for one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet. What was, just four decades ago, a city of a million white people has doubled in size and now features every single race and color. And yet we still retain our slightly nerdy, hillbilly flavor as Australia’s biggest country town.

Take Cavendish Road State High School, for example. Back in the 70s “Cav Road” was a bit of a rough old place with limited resources and not exactly an honor roll of students.

You should see it now; its 1,500 students come from 60 different countries and a top-notch sporting program.

It is a statistic that repeats itself over and over. Max’s school, Indooroopilly High, now has 60 different native languages on their campus, and it teaches the International Baccalaureate program along with some very unique programs as you are about to discover.

Queensland’s main vocational college, TAFE, used to be the place to go if you weren’t so academically minded but had to study somewhere because your parents forced you to. The coin has completely flipped; this year 125,000 students from 60 countries are enrolled in 180 courses. And you should see the educational resources they have; the Nursing course features a mock-up of a hospital complete with ageing anatomically-correct mannequins. Yes, dear reader, I looked.

Queensland has is now what I believe to be the best place in Australia for a Thai to study. The old system of rote learning is out the window, as the state grapples and experiments with new methodologies that are student-oriented and stress analysis and critical thinking.

Cav Road, for instance, is trialing the new method of teaching known as STEM, incorporating the four subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It was fascinating sitting in on two STEM classes this week, as Grade 8’s and Grade 11’s sat in groups experimenting with ways to solve gravitational and velocity problems using those subjects.

Every Thai student I spoke to said they preferred the system in Queensland because “the teacher’s aren’t as strict and there isn’t so much testing.” That is interesting, considering that’s the opposite of two fundamental tenets of Thai education and yet without them, you have an educational system far superior to what we have in Thailand.

The emphasis in Australia appears to be moving away from one-size-fits-all-evaluation, too. It doesn’t rely on sub-standard, badly-written national tests like the ones we have in Thailand. Instead education appears to be both centralized and de-centralized at the same time. Under the new system, teachers are required to submit their teaching plans to a central committee for approval — but teachers are able to devise their own curricula based on their local communities.

At this point in my column I must hurry to say that Queensland isn’t perfect. The overhaul of the national curriculum is causing headaches everywhere. Schools are sometimes wracked with internal politics and media scandals, but where isn’t?

The state also has crime and political bickering. It has social problems including race issues; we just re-elected the odious Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party that preaches hate towards Asians and, more recently, Muslims.

Despite all this, it is the face of education that excites me the most.

An example is the main picture on this page. You’re looking at the Grade 11 class for the subject called Aerospace at Indooroopilly State High School. It’s taught by some very dynamic teachers including one former commercial airline pilot (the lady in red at the back).

These students spend most of their time out on the field building rockets and drones. In the classroom they study topics like Aeronautics and Astronautics. Best of all, they have their own flight simulator where they learn to take off, fly and land in any type of airplane in any major airport in the world.

So for all its faults, the Queensland system does recognize diversity in student skill sets, and is willing to invest in it with resources. It is a world away from the Thai education system, where we seem to place greater importance on constructing the most impressive marble school sign out the front of the campus.

Speaking of recognizing diversity, just look at the array of ethnicities of these Aerospace students. This is the new face of Australia.

And if you look very closely, right in the middle of the class pic, wearing the biggest smile, is our very own Max from Nakhon Phanom!

Of course he didn’t sink. He swam for his life, excelling in Aeronautics. He’s a still a little quiet and gangly in a typical teenage Year 11 sort of way, but he’s not far away from his dream of becoming a commercial pilot. Best of all, he has promised to upgrade me if ever I happen to be a passenger on any of his flights.

And indeed, it was with a tremendous sense of pride not just in Max but in his capacity as a Thai student that I sat next to him in the flight simulator, watching as he took off, flew around Brisbane and then crash-landed in a terrible conflagration after missing the runway. Twice. But hey, that’s what flight simulators are for. He made it the third time. That’s all that matters.



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