Unbeknown to some, preschoolers in Thailand are becoming stressed as parents go all out to get them a spot in a good primary school
“Congratulations,” said Wicharn “Charn” Manawanitjarern, Co-founder of Taamkru, an e-learning website and app, “You’re on par with a four-year-old.”
We had first met at Echelon Thailand Satellite 2014, where his startup emerged winner, and we will soon meet again in Singapore this coming June at the main Echelon event where Taamkru will exhibit as part of Startup Marketplace.
The Thai startup, whose name translates to “ask the teacher” in Thai, aims to help preschoolers in kindergarten get a head-start without pulling all their hair out.
Since its launch on January 16, 2013, in conjunction with Teachers’ Day in the Southeast Asian country, the startup has seen more than 80,000 monthly unique visits for its website, and garnered more than 70,000 downloads for its iOS app. The Android app is slated for release later this month.
While the startup has been bootstrapped since day one, it has been generating revenue through advertising on its website. One of its advertisers, for example, is Thailife, an insurance company.
“Taamkru is my second startup,” Charn shared. He had started his first company with Haamor, a Thai-based diagnosis website. Similar to WebMD.com, Haamor helps people who might not be sure whether they should head to a clinic decide with real physicians on board.
When he saw that Haamor is doing swimmingly with more than five million unique visitors in two years, he decided it was time to set his sights on another industry. The industry, in this case, was preschool education. Taamkru’s website offers three features: a school search directory, 24/7 web board where teachers can come in and help parents on preparing children for primary school, and curated tests.
“What we discovered is that parents … look for schools near the office, not the house. … Our school search has a radius feature, which is very popular,” noted Charn, who added that the schools listed in its directory are also ranked according to an auditing process conducted by a private company commissioned by the government.
The audit results are then saved in a publicly available PDF file. What Taamkru does is extract the information and present it in a neat and systematic manner.
He also explained that by having the tests available on the website, it has boosted Taamkru’s search engine optimisation. “Usually people don’t stay in a website for too long. … Our average time spent per user is 15 minutes. We get thousand of keywords on Google’s search engine,” he said.
The app version of Taamkru, on the other hand, gives users — mainly preschoolers — a direct way to access the tests. At the moment, all tests are available free of charge. However, Charn told this author that the startup will be releasing advanced tests at an unconfirmed fee of US$1.99 very soon.
Competitive parents, stressed out kids
While there are many apps catering to preschoolers, a lot of them are not specific to preparing for primary school. They belong to the ‘entertainment’ category, with an abundance of animations, talking animals and matching of ‘apple’ to the alphabet ‘A’.
“It’s fun — they spend hours playing it. But how can I know that if my kid plays this, is he or she going to pass the first grade test?” asked Charn, who voiced out against apps which disguise themselves as games. His tests, on the other hand, are curated by Taamkru’s Chief Editor, ML Chankrisna Pholvivat, who wrote and sold teaching manuals to more than 1,000 kindergartens. “She knows the syllabus, and what’s good and not good about it,” he added.
What Taamkru is offering might not be a game, but according to Charn, children’s faces light up when they are solving Math puzzles on the tablet.
When he was involved in Channel News Asia’s reality television show Start-UP Asia, he had the opportunity to prove that his product works with a Singaporean audience. “We tested it with Cherie Hearts — it’s pretty famous — and conducted with 10 kids. They were first all over the place. But they enjoyed and loved it very much. We take the stress out,” added the entrepreneur.
“I think it’s so stressful,” said Charn, adding, “You imagine a five-year-old kid who will need to be prepared for so many things. Saturdays and Sundays are default days for tuition. Sometimes, (their parents) mix in Taekwondo.”
In that case, isn’t Taamkru adding the truckload of stress on the child’s shoulders? He laughed and said, “No, actually, we offer them a solution. He explained that regardless of his efforts to help these young ones learn with technology, their parents will still continue to stress them out. “But we make it more fun for the kids. They enjoy our app. … Think about the workbooks and black-and-white copies they have to do all the time. None of the kids ever smile,” added Charn.
A mother of two once told me that parents often focus more on the eldest child, and put less attention on the younger ones. When people are new to parenthood, there is a certain fear of messing it all up. Thus, they are more focused on making sure that the children receive the best education, are healthy, and are living the most rounded life.
Furthermore, parents will often find themselves being unsure of the right things to do, especially when their child is five or six years old. My guess is that these parents do not remember how their own parents fussed over schools at that age, and thus, have fuzzy memories to use as references.
“After the kids get into primary school, if they don’t get kick out of the school, they will last until grade 12, because there’s a trend in Thailand that every primary school will have high school as well,” said Charn, “Although Thailand is a big country, the seats are very limited in the primary school. … And because the schools have limited seats, parents have to fight so hard. And one of the ways to fight is to get their kids to score (well). By their last year of kindergarten, they will pay for so many things because they want their kids to go to a good primary school.”
He also explained that these seats are often so elusive that parents would join associations and expose themselves to the primary schools, in order to get a better chance. In addition, as each school is different, parents would have to prepare their kids in many different ways.
“Some schools focus more on numbers, so Math will determine whether the kid (gets enrolled). If you want to go down that route, you need to focus on that. Some other schools focus on people skills,” said Charn.
Aside from online tests, Taamkru also holds offline competitions. It just held its second competition last month with more than 1,000 preschoolers in the final round. The test, known as Taamkru Kindergarten Aptitude Test (TKAT), works with an algorithm that gives participant a harder question every time they get something right. “It measures the true mental age,” he said.
In a normal classroom scenario, a six-year-old will only be able to complete worksheets prepared for his or her level, and score full marks for it, even though he or she has the aptitude of a eight-year-old. In contrast, Taamkru allows six-year-olds to work on questions meant for eight-year-olds as long as they show the ability to.
Leaving the phone to a five year old
I wasn’t convinced that children would enjoy doing exercises, regardless online or offline. So, I decided to run my own little experiment.
A five-year-old girl was fiddling with her mother’s computer when I entered the room. “I’m playing Dora,” she said, her gaze riveted on the screen. I sat next to her, opened Taamkru on my smartphone and waved it at her. “Do you want to play this?” I asked, casually.
She took a glance, and answered me with a question, “What’s this?” I didn’t reply her, but tapped the screen to choose ‘block count’ as a topic. I asked, “Do you want to answer this question? How many blocks are there?”
All of a sudden, her eyes lit up. She left Dora on pause, and counted the blocks. “One, two, three, four, five, six. Six. I can’t count very well,” she said. Bingo. She continued playing, and we rushed through multiple exercises like “sizes”, “composition” and “similarity”.
At the end of the day, I guess learning isn’t all fun and games, but there is really no harm incorporating fun into learning.