THE products of our school system are generally ill-prepared either for higher education, work or life in general. Most of our undergraduates lack achievement orientation, have poor analytical and writing skills, fear public speaking, and have been "conditioned" by our schooling system to be spoon-fed.
Employers complain that our students and graduates lack self-confidence, communication skills, strong work ethics, interpersonal skills and that they are poor team players.
It is not the two public examinations, Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah and Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR), per se that are at fault. It is the "what" and "how" (form) of our examinations (assessment) that need a major overhaul, together with our instructional strategies (besides having truly competent teachers and effective academic leadership).
The vast majority of questions in UPSR and PMR focus on lower-order thinking (recall of factual knowledge) which, consequently, fosters rote learning. This is not surprising because assessment drives learning; it is the nature of the assessment tasks that primarily influences students' orientation to learning. Hence, teachers focus on preparing students for exams instead of preparing them for life and the workplace.
Our current education system generally promotes surface and passive learning instead of deep and active learning which are crucial for creating a quality learning environment.
My interactions with thousands of teachers over the last decade reveal that vast majority have no clear understanding of critical thinking. Hence, it is not surprising that teachers seldom pose higher-order questions to students.
The Education Ministry needs to review the current assessment system in schools in the context of systemic change, and not as a piecemeal approach. The pertinent questions that the ministry should be ruminating on are:
- Do we have explicit desired learning outcomes for our schools?
- Do current instructional strategies and assessment methods promote quality learning and holistic development of students?
- Do schools promote self-directed, independent and lifelong learning?
- Do schools provide adequate formative assessment to bring out the best in learners?
- Do schools promote deep learning and active learning?
- Do our schools have high-quality teachers and school leaders?
- Is there a constructive alignment between learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and the assessment tasks?
It may be wise for the ministry to begin with the end in mind by determining explicitly the desired learning outcomes. As stated by retired academic John Biggs, learning outcomes are reasonably specific statements describing what students should know, understand or be able to do as a result of learning.
In this regard, I would first like to propose that schools should help students (besides having a command of a significant body of knowledge) to develop a sense of achievement orientation with high self-esteem and resilience; strong and persuasive communication skills (both oral and written); problem solving and critical thinking skills; interpersonal skills and teamwork; emotional intelligence; ethics/citizenship; information literacy; and lifelong learning skills.
Second, we need to review the curriculum. The ministry should explore the possibility of reducing the number of core subjects and eliminating unimportant content. The trend worldwide is to reduce disciplinary content to the core essentials and to focus on student understanding and application of core knowledge based upon the famous mantra of Professor Howard Gardner: "In a lecture, less is more."
Third, the ministry needs to ensure that teachers are competent enough to utilise appropriate teaching and learning strategies that will contribute towards attaining the intended learning outcomes. Teachers need to focus more on active learning (role play, drama, brainstorming, debates, case studies, reflective journals) and cooperative learning (group presentations, problem solving in teams) which foster critical thinking, teamwork and interpersonal skills.
Fourth, we must ensure schools provide adequate formative assessment (assessment for learning). Students need frequent feedback that emphasises continuous learning and self-evaluative reflection. We should also promote authentic learning wherein learners are given adequate opportunities to actively apply what they know to meaningful, real-life tasks.
Fifth, we need to develop a good and varied system of assessment (including student projects, performance tasks and student portfolios) that measure a broad range of student abilities (e.g. critical thinking, effective communication, teamwork) besides core disciplinary knowledge, attitudes and values.
In this regard, the ministry can determine an appropriate mix of school-based and nationwide assessments (public exams). Student projects, student portfolios, product assessment (e.g. essays, paintings or posters), assessment of personal qualities and performance assessments (e.g. oral presentation, teamwork) are best administered at the school level with explicit guidelines and scoring criteria (perhaps including monitoring) formulated by the ministry to ensure some semblance of uniformity among schools.
Sixth, the ministry and schools must ensure that there is a constructive alignment between learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and the assessment tasks.
Seventh, the core business of schools is to promote quality teaching and learning which is dependent on having truly competent and dedicated teachers. In this regard, the million-dollar question is whether the ministry is hiring the right candidates or has teacher quality been sacrificed in favour of non-meritocratic factors.
Take heed that no amount of reforms will bring about substantial improvement in the quality of our education system without having competent and dedicated teachers.
With regard to the examinations, I am in favour of retaining both. We need standardised exams to ensure school accountability and a uniform measure to ensure results are fair and comparable. It should be noted that Singapore (internationally renowned for its high-quality education system) has a national examination (Primary School Leaving Examination) to determine competence for secondary education.
What needs to be reviewed are the "what" and "how" (wider range of assessment tools) of assessing student learning and deciding an optimal blend of school-based assessment and public examinations.
DR RANJIT SINGH MALHI Kuala Lumpur Source : NST Home» Letters to the Editor 2010/07/23 Examinations : An optimal blend the answer