Rural Training Center, Thailand (RTC-Thailand)

The Origin of RTC-TH Community-based Education Methods

Mar 27, 2006

[Note: The original article was published in Jan 2002 in the Earth Systems Science, Inc. website Newsletter. It is presented here with minor revisions to reflect the current RTC-TH adaptation and use of community-based education method.]

The non-traditional community-based education methods used at the RTC-TH are adapted from Earth Systems Science, Inc. (ESSI). But the roots that go back 1964 and spans the globe. The RTC-TH community-based education methods are an effective teaching approach with a proven track record.

Gregory Lee started cultivating the seeds for this non-traditional teaching style as a high school student assisting in summer day-camp programs for elementary students. He assisted in conducting native craft sessions weaving various figures and objects using a combination of native plant materials and modern threads and yarns. The shortage of teachers prompted the use of other fast learners to "teach-back" to other children. Thus, the kernel of the idea that "teachers" are really "sharers" emerged. They don't have to be adults, have a college education or diploma.

Another essential truth that emerged at this time was "flexibility" or "adaptability." Shortages of materials and supplies called for improvising. "Rules" about what was the "right" or "proper" materials for the project gave way to "this is all we have, so use it." This ability to improvise gave birth to the broader concept of not accepting limitations and of using creative thinking to get on with the lesson.

In the private sector, he honed his problem solving skills in environmental consulting engineering. Using an integrated systems approach derived from his Geographic training, he worked effectively on interdisciplinary geo-technical teams on domestic US and international regional planning projects, industrial facilities siting studies, environmental impact reports, and resource analyses. He employed teach-backs in cross-training co-workers and local workers. This required simplifying technical language for rapid learning and easy translation.

During the early 80's, these (and other) basic teaching/learning skills and insights led to creating an effective teaching program for sailors at sea. Greg taught for the US Navy onboard ships deployed to the western Pacific and Indian Oceans. As a civilian teacher in a military environment, there were additional challenges beyond the usual teacher-student-subject realm. The students ranged in age from their late teens to mid-fifties. Not only were they a culturally diverse group, many did not have prior successful school experiences. Some were returning students who hadn't been in class for several years. These diverse and sometimes adverse teaching conditions led to developing teaching and learning strategies that later became part of the "student survival guide" he uses in his college classes today.

In the mid-80's, he spent two years teaching English in smaller Chinese universities in Shandong and Zhejiang Provinces. Though not formally trained as an English teacher, (his degrees are in Geography), he created innovative English lessons in speed reading, pronunciation, writing, listening comprehension and teacher training. After 4 months of studying a Chinese-English dictionary and countless discussions with students about their difficulties learning English, he devised hands-on practical lessons for Chinese students to perfect their pronunciation of the 5 most difficult English sounds. The lessons relied on manual bio-feedback techniques. He also trained Chinese teachers of English to teach the method to their students. While in China, he was the first foreign teacher to speak and present papers (in English) at a local provincial teachers conference on foreign language teaching methods. The keys to success were similar to his other teaching experiences: take an integrated systems approach to identify the problem and needs, adapt to the local conditions; make the lessons simple, clear and relevant; multiply the presence of one "expert" teacher by training others to do teach-backs. On his own time, he also conducted training workshops for rural Chinese teachers of English. He returned to China several times in summers to perform this work, many times for no pay. These later efforts were conducted on a people-to-people basis without government funding. For his efforts, he was made an Honorary Professor at one university and a Visiting Professor and Honorary Board member of a small private college in China.

But the real test of fire for community-based education was a volunteer project he led for the Los Angeles Geographical Society in northern Thailand from 1999-2000. Prior to starting this project, he scouted the countryside of Chiang Rai Province partly as a traveler on "vacation" but with the wary eye of an environmentalist. He was struck by the poverty of the region. After 5 summers of informal travel and study of the region, he brainstormed a volunteer conservation-rural economic development project. For two weeks in the summer of 1999, he and Clarice Albert (a student volunteer) conducted hands-on training in the farm fields of one rural Thai village. Neither spoke Thai. One person in the village had learned English in school, but never used it outside the classroom. The lessons involved soil assessment, soil erosion control, non-toxic pest control, reduced use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and composting. The "plain English" of the lessons made the basic translation to Thai easier. The relevance of the lessons combined with practical hands-on training also made a big difference. But the motivation of the self-selected "sharers" and "learners" was the magic ingredient that resulted in a high degree of cooperation in spite of the language barrier and cultural differences.

Greg and Clarice trained 5 Thai volunteers who pledged to share their new knowledge and skills with others using the "teach-back" methods Lee used as a high school student. The following summer, two other American students went with Greg. Another Thai volunteer was added to a follow-up training session with the original 5. Three years after the start of the project, more than 600 Thais in more than 19 villages have been trained. The frosting on the cake came when the Thais took the training to a higher level. They formed 8 teams and began composting commercially. Every 3 months, each team produced about 3,000 kg/3.3 tons of compost to sell. Demand exceeds the supply, so every batch was sold before it was done. And the return on their investment is almost 10 times their cost! And amazingly, this project was done at no cost to the Thai government. The American volunteers paid their own expenses. Once again, direct people-to-people efforts produced results! What started as a conservation effort became an rural economic development activity because the local Thai farmers were empowered by the training and motivated to succeed. The power of the concept cannot be denied. Direct people-to-people community-based education method works!

The long development of community-based education is based on experiences gained by traveling, living, studying and working in 45 of the 50 United States and more than 25 countries. It is the core of all RTC-TH training.

?¿½ 2006, RTC-TH. All rights reserved.

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