As a kid, Sundays were spent at home watching sport: tennis, cycling, golf, whatever was going. There would be drinks, a barbecue, and the arrival of friends or distant relatives.
This was not at all a lazy, passive affair. There was much cheering and jeering, cursing at inane referees and linesman, and name-calling of players with inadequate training or talent. That the action was taking place in distant locations like Roland Garros or perhaps at some point in the past made no difference to the vocal counterpoint that accompanied the events on the TV.
In advertisement breaks or lulls in the excitement would come arguments, analysis and opinions: "The referee is useless", "The policies of the organizing body are clearly out of date", "That player obviously bought his position on the team" and the like.
On Monday morning, further agitation after the newspaper reports on the transcript of the driver's communication with the pit crew, or the results of the governing body's rulings.
In some ways, this sideline committee commentary is similar to what happens with teachers in school staff rooms. There are lots of things that go on in schools and in the teaching community which affect teachers but over which they have no control. Like sports fans watching the game from afar, teachers can only comment, analyze, criticize, sigh and roll their eyes, offer hypothetical solutions that seem obvious to them, and sometimes indulge in a bit of name calling.
It's similar, but there is one important difference. The people watching the Tour de France or the Ashes, as I remember them, were all drinking beer and had not engaged in much physical activity for years. This fact would be announced proudly at some point, "I played football at school, you know" roundly implying expert knowledge and an intimate understanding of the strategies that would lead to world dominating success. Those Sunday TV couch-warriors were outsiders.
Not so with teachers. In our staff rooms (and in the newspapers too), we comment on the deplorable state of our students' language skills, or the insanity of how little teachers are paid, or the idiocy of how technology is ignored in the curriculum.
However, we are not simply spectators - we are actively involved in the game, and we think we have an intimate understanding of the strategies that will lead to success. We have valuable insights, and useful opinions that we can share. If only someone would listen to us teachers, things would be better. Right?
But do we really know better? If you were head of department, could you do things better? What changes would you institute if you were principal, or if you owned your own school?
Could you create the 'perfect' educational environment? In these positions, you'd have the power over some of the issues facing us every day as teachers, but not all. Some problems can only be addressed higher up the chain, at the ministry level.
For example, according to the 2015 English First English Proficiency Index, Thailand comes 62nd out of 70 nations, and is the third worst in Asia. What can be done about this? Working hard in the classrooms may ameliorate this problem to some extent, but a joint concerted effort from the top might be needed here, as it probably involves big questions like teacher training, assessment and evaluation of students, and the allocation of resources to schools.
If you were the minister of education, how would you handle these top level headaches?
In the Ministry of Education Game you get to be Thailand's Minister of Education and make hard-hitting decisions about what can be done about English language teaching and learning in Thai schools.
The aim of the game is to improve on the ministry's current performance (calculated on nine national and international criteria). With a budget of 2 billion Baht, you can choose which projects are worth investing in, and how big the projects should be. At the end, you get to a report on how effective your decisions are in improving things: scores in green show improvement, and scores in red mean you will shortly be shipped off to an inactive provincial post.
I am the Minister of Education
Right away, let me admit that I'd not make a very good minister. In my latest attempt, I decided to increase the number of hours allocated to English language teaching in the school schedule, thinking that it would be good for schools to give more time to English lessons, especially considering how little access to English students have outside the classroom.
This awesome idea led to an increase in English performance on the ONET examinations across the country, but because I'd taken time away from other school subjects, the overall educational quality ranking of Thailand fell from 78th to 86th in the world. Nevertheless, there was still money left and lots of other interesting projects available that could redress the problem I'd created.
Since I believe in the benefits of teacher training, I added a nice big training project for teachers upcountry. I also changed the national examinations, and incorporated some technology into the curriculum in the form of learning apps. All up, my projects resulted in a 7% improvement in Thai education, but did not affect the EF EPI score. Hmm.
The game is a fun challenge. It requires you to consider the benefits and implications of how the budgets are allocated, and to then balance competing considerations, including the needs of up-country schools and marginalized communities.
In addition to being interesting, it is a good test of whether we know what we are talking about: or are we just more of those sideline weekend-warriors?
To play, go to this link. See if you can beat my score.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.