Feb 012011
 

Neil Amas, Director, Panyaden School (English school Chiang Mai, Thailand)

A conversation with Neil Amas, Panyaden School Director

The Human Spirit

Identifying and creating opportunities in order to realize the true potential of people is what motivates Neil Amas in his life’s work. Neil is the School Director of Panyaden. He has been involved in education, research and humanitarian work in Thailand and the UK for 20 years.

Neil’s career history includes running an English literacy and language program and serving as a School Governor for a London primary school. He has also worked in refugee camps, as a health and social care manager and as a radio journalist. His varied job experience has taught him much about the human spirit.

“What continues to motivate me most in life is observing in both myself and others, the realization of potential. I have been fortunate on many occasions to have been able to contribute to removing barriers and identifying opportunities towards that realization.

I have seen that a child is naturally curious, eager for the playground of knowledge and experiences that life provides. As parents, as teachers, as adults, the very best we can do for the next generation is to enable and encourage this natural desire to learn.”

What is your role at Panyaden School?

“My role is to help with the day-to-day management of the school, liaising with parents particularly foreign parents, supporting foreign teachers, cross-cultural management, and to bring my own life experience to the school and its curriculum.”

What kind of life experience do you bring to the table?

“I hope I bring international experience and knowledge to the table. I have a long history of working with children and young people, of developing people’s capacity to improve themselves, of leading and developing organizations and of cross-cultural management.”

What you are saying seems to point to a bigger picture about developing your own mind, about what ‘real education’ should be. Would parents have a cause for concern that their children will not be taught the syllabus properly?

“My answer to that is two-fold.

1. We are not just teaching life skills like growing your own food, using resources carefully and so on. That will be there but we are still teaching Maths, Science, languages and all the required academic subjects. We will ensure that we are academically competitive and meet the standards of the Thai Ministry Of Education. How we teach those will be the difference.

2. No matter which school you are heading to, here or in the UK or America; to university or grade school, the best preparation is for you to be able to think for yourself, to be well rounded, and most of all to be happy within yourself.

We will ensure our pupils leave Panyaden with these attributes as well as the required intellectual capability. That’s my answer to the question. It might take some convincing but I think people will appreciate this.”

How are you going to teach these attributes? What is the teaching method?

“The focus is to develop a child’s natural curiosity and initiative through experience-based learning. For example, instead of telling children ‘This is a hammer, this is a nail’, start by saying ‘Here are some objects. What do you think they are used for? Show me how you might use them, create something.’ By doing so, we are trying to develop children’s natural curiosity and to encourage them to think creatively.

This style of teaching also applies to academic subjects like science when children may be taught how plants grow by observing the process for themselves, planting seeds, exploring what happens when you add or take away light and so on.”

Is this what’s unique about the Panyaden style of education?

“I see Panyaden School as the perfect environment for this process of development and learning.

Firstly, the approach is about natural learning, encouraging children to question, to think for themselves, to be independent, to work things out, to get outdoors, to get dirty, to use their minds and their hands, to create. I see these things in my daughters. I want them to be in an environment where their natural creativity is allowed and encouraged. Panyaden is offering something different. Both as a parent and as a member of the staff, I see it as a fantastic opportunity.

Then there’s environmental mindfulness. Some people may have the idea that a ‘green’ school means a return to some sort of idyllic, pre-industrial age. That’s not true. It’s about nurturing people who care about how we interact with the environment. I would never discourage people’s natural motivation to learn about and develop new technologies. The crucial thing is that we use them responsibly.

Thirdly, the school’s Buddhist approach. I like the fact that Buddhism is not dogmatic. Buddha didn’t say you must follow this or follow that; on the contrary, he urged us to question any theory and to verify it for ourselves. It makes a lot of sense.”

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Is it possible to integrate Buddhist principles into a modern education?

“Yes, experience-based learning is at the core of Buddhist thinking as well as of many modern educational approaches. Buddhist principles are as relevant now as they ever were and will continue to be. If today’s school children are tomorrow’s leaders, then we have a duty to teach them to be mindful of themselves, of others and the environment, to use what they know responsibly. This can be integrated with a modern education because after all, it is about encouraging people to be good citizens which is a key role of education, Buddhist or not.”

This style of education seems very different from what we are generally used to in Asia. What are some challenges the school will face?

“New ideas always offer a lot of challenges but I strongly believe that unless you put it out there and lead, you can’t change anything. I expect challenges, I expect children and parents to raise their eyebrows and ask ‘Why?’. If you go back in history and research any new idea someone has come up with, people have said “this is weird; this is strange”. It takes time to change people’s minds.

Some parents may challenge the way we are doing things. I think they will eventually support us as long as it is clear that children are not only learning how to speak and write good English and Thai and so on, but also learning about themselves, about inner happiness, about how to become well rounded adults.”

Note: A summary of Neil’s teaching & management experience can be found on Panyaden’s website page, Our Team.