The Teacher’s Middle Way: Blending Local and Foreign Curricula

One of the attractions for parents and students of the international and EMI school sector is the promise of an education based on British, American or other ‘Western’ educational norms. An inclusive approach in these settings, however, ensures that local educational sensibilities and expectations are not subsumed by imported curricula and teaching approaches. Jay Maxwell, Year 2 Coordinator at Assumption College English Programme, one of the longest-standing international/English language programmes in Thailand, describes his approach to blending Thai and British curricula for an inclusive approach to his students’ education.

9_Mr. Jay Maxwell_Teacher (1)

Jay Maxwell

If you are a foreign teacher at a government school or an English Program school in Thailand you will have dealt with the Thai Basic Curriculum (TBC) for Foreign Languages of 2008 at some point.  Those that have worked with it will know how different it is compared to what we may have used back home. Not only that, there is little in the way of English language research and journal articles available here to ground your interpretations of it. Consequently, the basis for this article is instead observations on improvisations. That said, when it comes to using the TBC and planning effective lessons for learners there are some benefits to working with it. Even to the point where it can be synthesised with foreign curricula so students both learn skills that are useful and perform well in traditional exams. The best of both worlds or as I like to call it the ‘foreign teacher’s middle way’.

When it comes to meeting the learning objectives of two culturally different documents it can initially seem daunting. However, there is a silver lining. The Thai Basic Curriculum of 2008 is different to what western trained teachers will have encountered before. Organised into four levels of three years/grades a piece, some outcomes may be only touched once per level. As the TBC for foreign languages is designed for two hours of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) format lessons in a government school it’s easy for English Program (EP) schools, like my school Assumption College, to meet all outcomes much more rapidly. I enjoy five or more hours of English lessons per week, a favourable student – teacher ratio, and generally higher student proficiency in English.  In my experience we tend to meet all of the TBC’s outcomes by the end of Term 1. The structure of the TBC does raise questions. If concepts are not scaffolded each year (especially true for Maths and Science) is the knowledge internalised or merely surface learning?


Assumption College English Programme

In contrast the National Curriculum in England should be something foreign teachers are much more comfortable with even if you haven’t worked with it before. It’s logically scaffolded skills-based approach makes objectives seem more concrete. There are no English language professional journals for teachers in Thailand, nor is there much in the way of education research papers produced in English. This leaves us with little choice but to cobble together a methodology that works for us in the Thai context.

Essentially the approach of both documents couldn’t be more different and the sanest strategy is to embrace that very fact. It’s in the western mindset to make order from chaos and do so as consistently as possible based on evidence. It may be more constructive however to view this from another way. You may know the story of the middle way.

Briefly, a musician was on a boat going downstream and told his student  “If the string is too tight it will break, and if the string is too slack it will not play.” The future Lord Buddha heard this, and the philosophy of ‘The Middle Way’ as a path of moderation between all extremes was born. This approach works for foreign teachers planning lessons where the curricula are the extremes. It is a useful and naturally occurring solution in a Buddhist society.

In short don’t try to reconcile the two contrasting approaches, synthesise them into what works for you. If the TBC has sparse outcomes that are quite achievable in one term embrace that and extend the children’s learning through adding foreign curricula.

In the Thai classroom social collectivism is a reality no matter what kind of school you work in. A sense of security is gained by feeling part of several larger groups from school to city to religion to nation. Risk-taking by learners in the classroom is possible; but it needs to be a carefully crafted experience if a child could lose face in front of the group they so value.


Celebrating Loy Krathong in the English programme, bringing East and West together

So how to navigate the above minefield while meeting the learning needs of the children? For any lesson plan, have the TBC objectives be your base competency objective. This allows them to gain face and confidence which in the Thai context allows risk taking to take place. At lower primary level this can be the first 20 minutes of a lesson. Given this, the foreign objectives/outcomes can extend the lesson and be where the risk taking takes place (and often the deep learning). This can be the second 20 to 30 minutes of your 50 minute lesson.

If you were starting by using a text with a thematic unit the TBC objectives would support the text work. The foreign curriculum, could support any pair-work, group-work,  writing tasks or presentations that extend the lesson when students are prepared for a little risk taking.

If you also teach both mathematics and science in this context there is also a hidden bonus of cross curricular work in areas like data collection. If alike units line up (such as graphing and weather for example) you can save a lesson (valuable if there are many activities at your school)  by covering one skill in two subjects at the same time.

Whatever you improvise it is essential to bear in mind the following:  You always need to regularly reflect on any approach you take and ask does this meet the needs of the learners, the national curriculum and what can I do better next time?

In conclusion, what is outlined here is admittedly not a uniform consistent approach to planning lessons. It’s not research based because there isn’t any available. It’s simply doing what teachers the world over do: improvising. That with a dash of cultural sensitivity and you too can cobble together a reflective teaching practice that works for you and more importantly, gets your students involved. If a participatory society is desirable then a participatory classroom is a necessity.

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