Minds on Fire
This chapter looks at community development and how knowledge is shared collectively. It starts with an analogy of how locals and expatriates worked together to put out a fire at the Hua Ror market. I ask what students could accomplish if they work together to produce original community-based research.
In the northeast corner of Ayutthaya Island many old wooden houses are layered in rows. Many of these buildings are 50-60 years old, which is a short life when compared to the old ruins that this city is famous for. The wooden houses are not built in the traditional Thai style, but in the form of rapidly pieced together homes with a shop at the ground level. Some are them are very beautiful with historic significance. These timber constructions were put up shortly after Thai citizens were allowed to purchase land titles on the island in 1938.
This area, adjacent to the Hua Ror and Chao Phrom markets, became the trading and tourism center of the new Ayutthaya. Naturally, these wooden houses are slowly being replaced with concrete department stores and modern-style homes. Others have been incinerated by fire. In 1999, a large number of these wooden buildings were lost to a massive blaze. This tragedy is still legend among teachers and expatriates in Ayutthaya. Some of us helped to put out the fire with buckets of water. The Ayutthaya community joined together to douse the flames and save family processions from the devouring blaze.
So what does burning houses have to do with English teaching? Last week, I required students to write a report about their neighborhood. It turns out that at least two of my students lost their family homes to this fire. One student added a drawing that portrayed a line of people passing buckets of water down the row. The local community instinctively rallied together to focus on the project of saving these fragile wooden homes. Each person made a small contribution that added to a common goal. One isolated bucket of water would have had little impact on a large fire. The value came from combining it with others.
While reading their reports, it struck me that this is how knowledge works. Each individual adds a bucket of unique information, but the actual merit of education comes from the collective blend.
To elaborate, the student’s drawing created a strong physical image that I could learn from as a teacher. The next layer was added by a personal story about how one student’s father was forced to make a new living afterward by selling pork skewers at a street stall. It added the human touch. I then sought out detailed information from teachers who had been at the fire. They discussed experiences such as pulling a motorcycle out of a home before the vehicle could burst into flame.
In addition, Thai business owners took me to the fire’s location to point out evidence that still remained. As each bucket of information was added the “big picture” began to take shape. The next stage was collating this information together and handing it back to students like a new pail of water. This knowledge was constructed from physical artifacts, personal narratives, hands-on experience, and actual research. Lectures had little to do with it. Ultimately, our shared goal was to preserve one chapter in the community history.
There is no final step to knowledge, since wisdom keeps moving. Information continues to be passed onto others down the line. Learning is a dynamic circular process. Each individual contributes something to the pool of knowledge, and data gets echoed back in return. What I am talking about is community-based language learning.
With this teaching method students are not the only ones that learn. It is designed to produce information to share with the community. I learn, students learn, administrators learn, local business owners and foreign tourists also learn. Likewise, I am not the only teacher in our classroom. My students will also be instructed by Buddhist monks, older family members, boat drivers, tour operators, government agencies, and randomly met bystanders along the way. My students will hand this knowledge to the person waiting next in line.
This teaching method will not work in all situations. Therefore, I need to make it implicit as possible that I am using this method to teach small groups of tour guides (12-15) for the International Studies Center at our Rajabhat university. My students need to be comfortable speaking about Ayutthaya. They also need to learn more about unusual places to take tourists. We are producing maps, collecting research, and designing future tours with these goals in mind. My students experience tourism first hand when I show them around the city. I am providing an example of how a new tour can be done. They will learn to create their own later. The overall function is to develop new information to share with colleagues and visitors.
Different teaching methods work for different situations. In my writing classes, I deliver short lectures about grammar and require students to practice it with in-class assignments. If my students are children, as they were in Korea, I will introduce games and play more fun activities. In other classes, I have experimented with drama and art. Each class is different. Therefore, I tear up my lesson plans at the end of each semester and start fresh. The only information that gets recycled is that produced by students themselves. The foundation established by one class is used to reinforce the next. Hopefully, this body of knowledge will survive any flame.