From 2010-2012 Build Project Australia provided a two-year residential training programme for 17-25 year old migrants from Burma. The Institute of Academic and Practical Studies (IAPS) based in Mae Sot, Northern Thailand was established to assist these young people and their communities by providing a relevant, skills based education with a focus on leadership and community building. The goals of IAPS were to:
help students to develop skills and experience relevant to their context and needs
promote critical thinking and independent learning, supported by a broad-based curriculum
bring together educational experts, advisors from the local Burmese community and well-prepared English-speaking volunteer workers to develop and deliver a high-quality curriculum
facilitate dialogue and mentoring within the Thai and Burmese migrant community.
Students at a high school for Burmese migrants provided the inspiration for this project. In their lessons and outside the classroom, they showed an incredible eagerness to learn new things, understand the world they live in, and develop new skills.
Workshops with some of these students, held over the course of 2008-2010, were integral to the planning and design of this programme. By working with a small, student-led working group in Mae Sot we were been able to gauge the direction the programme should take. Student input was sought on the strategic and operational design of the program, including the curriculum and household arrangements. A student working party provided essential assistance and community liaison during the planning and setup of the institute.
Local community leaders, including directors of community based organisations, were approached for input and feedback throughout the IAPS program design phase.
Students were closely involved in the decision-making and daily management of IAPS, as well as planning events and activities. In keeping with the Build Project's values of transparency and accountability, students were given exposure to operational and budgeting decision-making and were encouraged to question management decisions.
Relevant, Real-World Skills
The overarching curriculum and lesson content were guided by students' personal goals, and needs imposed by their circumstances. This enabled students to build a wide range of skills for work, so that young people can support themselves and their families, and broaden the economic base of their community. Teachers worked with students to explore and pursue their own areas of interest.
All subjects (with the exception of Thai language) were taught in English as this was regarded as an essential skill for employment and other opportunities. Core subjects at IAPS were ICT, English and Thai; these were supplemented by humanities and social sciences, vocational learning and project-based learning.
Learning approaches were highly interactive, focusing on projects of real-world value, research activities, class discussions and peer learning. Problem-based learning and critical thinking skills were central to many of the learning activities. Opportunities were sought to incorporate development of skills such as critical thinking, intercultural awareness, business skills, ability to think critically about power relations and political structures.
All students were provided with access to classroom computers and the internet for the duration of the programme. Learning activities required extensive use of computers to build confidence in using technology and promote independent learning. We put a high priority on teaching safe and responsible use of the internet, as many students had little or no prior exposure to information and communication technologies.
IAPS adopted a modular curriculum consisting of short 6-week teaching blocks to ensure continuity of learning regardless of changes in teaching staff.
To develop student's capacity for leadership and for strengthening community, students were engaged in a range of community activities, including projects with local primary schools, and relief efforts during disasters. Global studies, history and politics lessons enabled students to build their understanding of how grassroots action can have real impacts for communities and individuals. To build inter-ethnic understanding and develop relations with the local Thai community, people from local businesses, organisations and the local communities were invited to participate in teaching and other school activities. Opportunities for hands-on and practical application of skills were also sought through work experience placements and volunteer roles.
IAPS provided boarding, food and basic living essentials for students. Student teams performed domestic chores and household maintenance as well as planning and budgeting for housekeeping and improvement of the facilities. These activities are seen as an exercise in project management and problem-solving, and also as an important step towards independence.
IAPS extra-curricular activities included art, drama, music and sport as well as social events organised by volunteers or student teams.
A driving principle at IAPS was that the same opportunities should be open to men and women and that. Amongst students and volunteers, it was important that gender bias in potential achievement, studies and other activities was challenged and minimised.
The IAPS governance and learning frameworks allowed the institute to be run and managed by volunteers.
Reporting to, and supported by the CEO of The Build Project, a volunteer in-country manager was responsible for the day-to-day operations and management to ensure the smooth running of IAPS. This role required a minimum commitment of 6 months.
Volunteer teachers and youth-workers provided learning and personal support to students. To enable short-term volunteer placements, teaching was organised into 6-week 'terms'. Volunteers were encouraged to participate actively in the life of the school, getting to know students and supporting their personal well-being and development.