LAMPLAIMAT, July 25 — Our students trickle in. They come from different villages, after work, after farming. They take motor-scooter taxi rides, ride their own scooters or get rides from friends or family members. As they arrive, Khun Tom keeps them entertained with jokes (not all of which elicit laughter) and discussions to get to know each other.
When all 14 students arrive, we begin a few ice-breaker exercises intended to relax the group, acclimate them to a new environment and create a sense of membership among this otherwise separate group of individuals. They go through introductions, play a hot-potato-like game (instead of moving, a bottle of baby powder is passed around, and when it stops, that person applies a handful of baby powder to his own face or that of someone else). They smile and laugh as if they met long before they walked through the door minutes earlier. As they finish, Khun Prahat, the elder professor for the evening, introduces the evening, the lesson and us.
We introduce ourselves and ask a few questions. How many are rice farmers (about 10 of the 14), how many have another business (6: working in a call center, electronics repair, growing fruit, growing vegetables, raising fish and frogs), how many are in debt (all, including, at the moment, the authors). With this common bond, we hope that the lessons will help the villagers grow their businesses, get out of debt and be more prosperous.
As we follow along, partly through translation and partly through noting the timing, we’re struck by how the students are, well, acting like students. They take out pens and paper to take notes. They ask their neighbors clarifying questions. They ask questions of the professor. They answer questions from the professor. It’s a real classroom, and a real lesson – and only days ago it was just words on a computer screen and an empty multipurpose room.
After Khun Prahat tells and leads an initial discussion of the stories, Khun Tom again leads the students through an activity to make the investment lesson more real. He divides the students into groups (through a musical-chairs like activity) and assigns roles. In each of two rounds, four of the students play rice farmers with extra profit from their rice crop. Each has a choice of what to do with the same amount of extra profit: save it, grow more rice or invest in a number of different items, morning glory seeds to grow flowers, tadpoles to raise frogs, a baby pig to fatten into a sow or seeds to grow bean sprouts. Each investment has a different maturity length and thus can be sold at a different time and for a different price. Some players can choose to reinvest their additional profits or hold them.
They engage in the game, seeing the different results and wanting to make other choices. At times they are prepared to make the game more sophisticated than we initially planned, like by having the morning glory investor invest in fish when morning glory season is past its prime. As they discuss the results, many are aware of the idea of investing as we’ve presented it but hadn’t thought of some of the examples. We discuss other options for investing extra profits, the pros and cons to different investments, the different seasons in which they are relevant and the pros and cons of long- versus short-term return.
We step back a number of times to marvel at what we’ve created and how it is now alive, indestructible. Knowledge and information, now released into the open, cannot easily be undone. Knowing this, we’ve been a bit nervous that this wouldn’t work, that the students would be bored, withdrawn, insulted at the simplicity or cultural mistakes or oversights we’ve made. At some level, we partly expected some unforeseen error to grind everything to a halt. Remarkably, it didn’t. Instead, the lesson flows smoothly, the students are interactive, smiling and participating, and the teachers do an incredible job of managing the classroom and guiding this group through the first day of the Barefoot MBA pilot. Locals who, two weeks ago, had not met us have taken our ideas and brought them to life.
As the day comes to a close, our biggest takeaway is that the lesson was a bit too simple. The villagers want more practical skills about things like marketing and production. They want an instruction book, not ideas. They, like many students, want the answer, not the lesson. We’ve tried to provide a simple lesson, and, through activities with usable examples, very applicable activities to better understand that lesson, but we have intentionally stopped just short of providing instructions. Instead, we hope students will come to those on their own, through guided discussion at the end of every day. We also hope that tomorrow’s lessons on marketing and production will be a bit more challenging and more appropriately meet their needs.
We quickly realize that the students’ praise and asking for more extends beyond the gracious Thai culture. As we enjoy dinner together after the lesson, many of the students come up to thank us, either in Thai or a simple but telling English “thank you.”
It’s perhaps the most genuine and meaningful thanks we’ve heard.