How Theological Education in Thailand is Different from the West

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

If you spend enough time in Thailand, one of the phrases that you’ll hear often is “Same, Same but Different,” meaning that two things are almost exactly the same… but not really.  The difference may (or may not) be substantial, but that depends on your point of view.  A vendor is trying to sell you a wrist watch and you ask if it is a genuine Rolex.  Well, it is same same from the vendor’s perspective. But the buyer’s might view it differently.

When it comes to theological education in Thailand, there is a lot that is same same as theological education in the Western world…but there are significant differences too.  My point is not to say one in genuine and the other is fake, but rather that on the surface the two have many similarities.  But when you dig a bit deeper there are important difference as well.  These differences have an impact on how teachers teach and how student learn.  Therefore, whether you are teaching Bible school students in Bangkok or running a modular leadership training program in Chiang Rai, it is important to have a heads-up on factors to consider if your previous experience of theological education has been primarily in the West.   In this post, I want to briefly consider, in broad brushstrokes, what is the same between Western and Thai theological education, and three things that are different.

seminary class in chapel


Same, Same…

In most theological education in Thailand, especially at a formal Bible college or seminary, you will have classes, teachers, curriculum, textbooks, homework, reading assignments, written papers, and a standard range of Bible school or seminary type courses, such as New Testament, Old Testament, Preaching, Evangelism, Church History, Systematic Theology, and so forth.   Students take exams, memorize Greek vocab from flash cards, give practice sermons, and go to chapel.  They enroll for a Bachelors or Masters degree, or sometimes a Diploma of some sort.  If someone from a Western theological school were picked up and were dropped into a Thai theological school, the overall format and organization would look nearly identical.  Even the titles and authors of some of the translated textbooks would be familiar. 

Despite frequent discussion of contextualization, contextual theology and learner-centered approaches in some circles, the Western model for education is still the accepted standard for quality in today’s world.  Whether it should be is another question.  But functionally, many schools, both religious and non-religious, look to the West for models to emulate.  Some innovative schools chart their own course, to varying degrees of success, but accrediting agencies often maintain traditional Western standards for validating the degrees offered at a school.  If you want recognizition, you need to meet the standard.  I am not trying to say that this is necessarily a bad thing.  There is a lot of value in having an external standard that pushes you to excel.  And there is a lot that is done well in Western theological education.  That said, striving for an internationally accepted standard can create challenges in adjusting your teaching, delivery methods, and expected outcomes to fit the local context.  The “same sameness” between theological education in Thailand and other part of the world is due in no small part to precedents inherited from the West.  However, the Thai context is not exactly the same as the United States, Great Britain, or Australia.  And that difference must be accounted for if the ultimate goal is to prepare students to teach and minister in their own local contexts in Thailand and neighboring countries.  

…But Different!

While I don’t want to exaggerate the ways that Thailand is different or to promote Thai exceptionalism, I have observed subtle (and not so subtle!) ways in which teaching in a seminary in Thailand is different from the theological education I have experienced in Western schools.

1. Orality

The vast majority of Thai people can read.  That has not been an issue with the students I’ve taught in Bangkok.  But do they like to read?  Are they used to reading a lot?  Can they effectively process and analyze the material they are reading?  Will the people they teach after they graduate be able to read?   Many people in the world today, including many Thai, are preferred oral learners.  That means that they can read, but they don’t like to.  When they want to know something, they’d rather ask somebody or watch a video instead of grab a book.  Western theological education, however, assumes a high level of reading ability and assigns many texts to be read and processed, often through writing essays and exams.  Some of my students like reading, fewer enjoy writing, and some don’t appear to enjoy either.  With that in mind, is a very text heavy approach to theological education the best? 

In some ways we can not, and should not, avoid the written word in theological education.  God gave us His Word in a book and a lot of the things that students need to learn are in books.  There is simply not enough time in the day to deliver everything orally to people.  But some (many?) of my students may not learn best with their nose in a book all the time.  And a written test may not be the best way to evaluate what they’ve learned.  And even if my students do okay with book learning, the people they minister to the hills of Northern Thailand or rural villages of the Northeast may not be functionally literate.  How can we prepare students to minister to complete (or nearly complete) oral learners?   

In my own classroom, I have introduced more oral testing, requiring a 10 minute oral interview with each student in lieu of the short answer and essay section of exams.  I also give students a choice between an end-of-term written paper and an oral presentation in front of the class (though they still have to submit a written bibliography).  For church history courses, I ask students to present in front of the class a 5 minute devotional using Scripture and an example from church history.   In missions classes, I introduce my students to oral Bible story telling to make them aware of another method for the studying the Scripture with people besides preaching and traditional text-driven Bible study methods.  I would never want to do away with preaching and Bible reading but we need to have more than one tool in our tool belts to address different styles of learning.

2. Educational & Cultural Background

Due to educational background and cultural conventions, many Thai students are not used to expressing their opinions in contexts where that opinion would contradict what others have said.  Thai are generally concerned about losing face or causing someone else to lose face.  For that reason, many students are hesitant to answer their teacher’s questions and are not accustomed to asking questions because it might imply they were not listening or that the teacher did not explain something well.  This is especially true at the bachelor’s level, and somewhat less so at the master’s level.

Traditionally, the goal of Thai education has been to prepare people for civil service, and only more recently for jobs in various business or industrial sectors.  Learning for learning’s sake and critical thinking have received low priority compared with producing patriotic citizens who know their proper place in society.  Much education in Thailand is done through rote learning and the most important thing for students’ success is being able to reproduce on a test what their teacher told them.

Analyzing the pros and cons of anything is difficult for many students, and classroom discussions are challenging when few students want to be seen as disagreeing with either the teacher or another student.   Coming into a bible college or seminary from the public school system, students have not learned how to read and evaluate various sources, to categorize and synthesize, and to come to their own conclusions based on what they’ve learned.  Most have never learned how to properly footnote or to compare various sources.  Many are unsure how to decide what is important and not important when reading a book, or how to write up a paper with a logical progression of argument.  Many papers are slapped together from various sources without enough thought.  Is it on Wikipedia?  It must be true.  Is the information in a book written by a Christian?  It must be reliable and accurate.  Of course, Western students are not totally immune to these problems either.  But from what I have seen, these issues are more exacerbated and systemic in Thai education than in Western education.

That said, I don’t want to overstate the case.  The students I’ve taught can generally write a book report and piece together a paper on a given topic.  And I have been highly impressed with the thoughtfulness, astute questions, and well-written papers of some students, especially at the masters level.  But at the same time, the ability to discern, analyze, and critically evaluate and synthesize sources is many times not where one might hope for bachelors and masters students.

3. Lack of Resources

Compared to the English-speaking world, there are extremely few Thai language materials available for biblical and theological studies.   There are some Bible commentaries, but some books of the Bible have only one or two commentaries, and those are not always readily available or easy to locate.  I once tried to find a book on Islam from a Christian perspective to give to a church member who had been chatting with some Muslims but I couldn’t find any because there are none.   There is no Thai-language book-length biography of Martin Luther.  There is no Thai-language critical apparatus for the Greek New Testament so students have to try to make heads or tails of English-language commentary on textual variants. One of my students wanted to do a research paper on the history of Presbyterianism but she could only find a short summary in a church history survey book.  As a result, she asked to write on Pentecostalism because there were at least a few books on the history of that movement. 

The library of the bible college where I teach has 25,000 volumes (book, magazines, pamphlets, etc.) but 75% of them are in English.  That might be okay in someplace like India, the Philippines, or Nigeria where the majority of students have a high-level of English ability.  But in Thailand, only a small minority of students know enough English to make much use of the English resources in the school library.  The others limit themselves to what they can find in Thai and sometimes struggle to get something out of an English book or two.  As a result, the breadth and depth of what student are able to learn is more limited than the West because there are few resources in a language that is accessible to them.

This lack of resources may also be partly responsible for the state of biblical and theological knowledge among Thai Christians generally as well.  The average incoming Bible college or seminary student in the West may not know the intricacies of the history and theology of Calvinism and Arminianism but they have probably heard about predestination and free will.  Most incoming students in Thailand haven’t heard of either.

The Differences Make a Difference

Theological education in Thailand can be effective in preparing students for ministry and service to the church.  But it can not be assumed that just because the structure, format, and curriculum of a bible college or seminary in Thailand look similar to a Western school, then the teaching approaches and content should be the same and will have the same results.  There is a lot to be learned from Western approaches to theological education but it is unwise to assume that what’s done in the West can simply be cut-and-pasted to other parts of the world.

Adjustments need to be made in light of local conditions, some of which I have highlighted above for the Thai context.  Other places in the non-Western world may be similar, but they may be very different.  They key is to start with what you know but pro-actively learn what you need to adjust to make your teaching effective where you are, with the resources you have, and with the actual students you have, not the students you don’t have. 

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