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Thailand Cave Rescue Provides Lessons in Listening and Learning

As children head back to school in Kansas, it's a good time to remind students about the importance of listening and learning. The degree to which students pay attention plays a large part in determining what kind of lives they'll lead. As Commentator John Richard Schrock points out, students in Thailand learned over the summer just how important some lessons can be.

Commentator John Richard Schrock is professor emeritus at Emporia State University. The retired educator spent decades teaching students and training many of them to become teachers. He lives in Emporia.

Production assistance for this commentary was provided by KPR News Intern Taylor Smith, a junior from Salina, studying news and information at the University of Kansas.

(Transcript of original commentary. The version that aired on KPR was slightly edited for broadcast purposes.)

Citizens worldwide celebrated with relief when the twelve students and their coach were safely rescued from the flooding caves of Thailand. Many applauded the brave Thai Navy divers and the wider community that came together to accomplish that dangerous feat. But then the public moved on to other events.

We missed the fact that this rescue centered on education. And this episode indicates how most of our band-aid educational reforms are woefully inadequate when it comes to real teaching.

Many teachers worldwide saw that this was life-or-death teaching. In our teacher hearts, we felt what the scuba-diving teachers and their new students were going through. “Oh my God, pay attention!” And they did... because their lives depended upon it.

No one sent in laptops for computer simulations. This was hands-on learning. The students had to trust their scuba teachers. But trust was not enough. Students had to have the minimal ability to learn and perform correctly for two and a half miles. There could be no “do overs.” No time for so-called “personalized learning.” This was hands-on learning by a group. And they gained confidence as they learned as a group. When the first four got through, the last eight knew they could get out too, if they learned enough.
Despite the outside assemblage of government officials, health workers and military commanders, there was only one set of experts to pay attention to: the Thai Navy divers. Their expertise was essential and central. Everyone else was merely there to serve those divers and the students.
    —No “alt route” divers whose only qualification is they were a lifeguard.
    —No high ranking administrator commanding obedience to his “transformational leadership” style.  
But most important of all were the students and their motivation. Their ability to focus and learn was just as important as having well-trained and experienced scuba diver teachers. This lesson had real consequences. No student could walk away from their situation by changing their major. No student could claim that he was “not ready” and wait for another semester. The strongest could go first, but the weakest had very little time left, as the monsoon rains would soon flood their cave.

I am proud of those Thai Navy divers who were great teachers, and am just as proud of those kids who were great students. Yes, they learned because their lives depended on it. But our students who will soon return to our classrooms should also realize that their lives also depend on being just as attentive and focused in class as those Thai students were in the cave.
No, our students won’t drown in a few days if they don’t learn. But they run the risk of living a deadened life, that is so much less than it could be, because they failed to learn the academic life skills that our best teachers struggle to teach.

At their best, teachers try to help students avoid an unhappy life in an unfulfilling job. If a student gains no love of reading, or art, or music...if they have no life to come home to after spending the day making a living—this is a tragedy too.

Just as in the Chiang Rai caves, all students share a heavy responsibility for learning just as we teachers have a responsibility for teaching.

We need more students who will concentrate on learning, as if their life depended on it.

Because in so many ways... it does.


Schrock attended Indiana State University in Terre Haute, where tuition was $8 a semester hour in 1964, completing a bachelor's degree in biology teaching and a master's in science education. He began teaching in Kentucky before he graduated from I.S.U., and completed his degrees during summers. Schrock taught five years in Alexandria, Kentucky middle and high schools and two years at the I.S.U. Laboratory School before going overseas to teach at Hong Kong International School for three years. Schrock completed his Ph.D. in entomology working on insect ecology and systematics at the University of Kansas and, upon graduation, worked for the Association of Systematics Collections for three years. When the A.S.C. moved to Washington, DC, Schrock took the position at Emporia State University, directing biology teacher training. He was on the state biology committee and closely involved in the Kansas evolution debates of 1999. He writes a weekly Kansas newspaper column on education, produces public radio commentaries, and appears monthly on Kansas television.