December 3rd, 2013

A story to remember

BEATING the odds slowly’ (StarEducate, Nov 24) was truly a heartwarming account by a mother of a boy’s struggle at school.

At a time when everyone is obsessed with excellence, it comes as a welcome surprise and a breath of fresh air to read about the struggles and challenges faced by students on the other end of the spectrum.

The account of Firdaus encapsulates the arduous journey of children who struggle between passing and failing in the education system.

Firdaus represents the average Malaysian child but his school life was made more difficult when his parents enrolled him in a Chinese vernacular school.

Apart from Bahasa Melayu and the English language, every other subject was taught in Mandarin which was the medium of instruction in a Chinese vernacular school.

He had to learn Mandarin from scratch because no one at home spoke the language.

In the early years, he was struggling but with determination and perseverance, he beat all odds to succeed.

He did not succumb to failure but took it upon himself to improve in his studies.

His parents were supportive and were happy with his achievements.

They have been a beacon of hope and faith to Firdaus. They have shown that the entire journey of education is a teaching and learning curve for themselves and Firdaus.

Most importantly, the parents showed that grades are not everything. It does not matter at the end of the day. They understood his feelings and emotions.

What matters is the transformation of Firdaus from being insignificant to attaining enlightenment. He is now able to take each stride at his own pace and chart his own destiny.

How many parents can be supportive of their children in their studies or interests? How many parents can guide and support their children in attaining their dreams and wishes?

How many parents can break free from the As mentality that pushed children over the limit in achieving excellence in examinations?

The story of Firdaus is a beacon of hope for the majority of parents. Society fails to realise that there are children who have different kinds of challenges in life.

It is the story of the silent majority who do not make the headlines whenever examination results are released.

SAMUEL YESUIAH Seremban The STAR Online Home News Education 01/12/2013

Restore credibility of public exams

PUBLIC examination leaks have become a common and embarrassing trend in our country.

There are reports of leaks in public exams but we do not see or hear of action being taken against the culprits.

If the Education Ministry, especially the Examinations Syndicate, is serious about ensuring the validity and reliability of our exam papers, they have to take every single report on leaks by individuals seriously and investigate them.

If this is not done, the problem of leaks will be an ongoing disaster that will not only mar the credibility of the exam papers but also tarnish the image of the ministry.

In the past, “evidence” has been produced that led to the truth of leaks in exam papers but have been brushed aside as rumours.

However, this year, the complainant was bold enough to go to the press and that has made all the difference.

Even if the proof provided comprises only a fraction of the actual paper, investigations must be carried out and action must be taken.

It will then serve as a discouraging factor to others who intend to do the same in the future.

Exam leaks have far-reaching consequences. It is unfair to students who have slogged day and night for years to ensure they obtain excellent grades.

It also defeats all the genuine effort put in by teachers to ensure their students shine based on hard work and determination.

Parents who sacrifice their precious time coaching their children, motivating them and spending money on tuition classes will also end up demoralised.

How do we get the culprits? The trend is simple and straightforward; there are reports of students getting leaked questions from seminars.

These seminars are held just before the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah, Penilaian Menengah Rendah and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia exams and some of the organisers charge exorbitant fees for the seminars.

Some of the advertisements for the seminars are done through the newspapers, on the Internet and even aired over the radio.

Do the Education Ministry officers check on the seminar organisers? Do they know what questions are discussed and what is revealed during the seminars?

Exam leaks, as simple as they may seem, have detrimental effects to a progressing country like Malaysia.

We hope the ministry will consider having a watchdog to ensure the confidentiality of public exams. For now, the trust is lost and they must work to regain it.

GB Seremban The STAR Online Home News Education 01/12/2013

Don’t just study, have fun learning

The process of educating children should be such that their needs are taken into account, and not just the views of the adults.

ABOUT a year ago, after two weeks into her Year One of primary schooling, my daughter caught me with a blunt question: “Why are we not learning in Malaysia?”

At that time, we had just returned from the United Kingdom where she had spent three years studying in nursery and primary school.

Baffled by the question, I asked her: “What do you mean?” Without hesitation, she replied: “In Manchester we learn, in Malaysia we study.”

Still clueless of where she was going with this, I tried to dig deeper: “What’s the difference between the two? Aren’t they the same?”

I was dumbfounded by the simplicity of the answer: “Learning is fun. Studying is for grown-ups.”

I couldn’t have seen it any clearer than that. That was the key to what was fundamentally wrong here. The main issue is in our philosophy, or lack of it, of how education should be delivered.

The main stakeholder in the educational process is the children themselves, and they should have a say into what it should entail. Unfortunately, we have been treating this from a one-sided angle, from the grown-ups’ perspective.

And in doing so, we are leaving out what matters the most — whether the process is favourable to the children.

Learning can be exciting to children, when what they learn answers certain questions they pose themselves or when what they learn is directly applied into what they intend to do.

Studying is normally a grudgingly dreary and tedious process, imposed primarily by the compulsion to excel in exams.

Simply put, learning is driven by curiosity whereas studying is driven by fear. Only a few can truly muster a desire to learn out of this “fear” to study. We definitely don’t want our education system to serve just a few.

The essence of the issue is that adults and children view the world differently.

While we take education more seriously with important goals to achieve, young children are definitely more carefree about it.

What they care the most is whether they have fun or not.

Parents want their children to outperform other children in exams. Teachers want their pupils to behave well in class.

Headmasters want their schools to perform in national exams while governments want to be able to say that their education systems are one of the best in the world.

But have we ever asked what the children actually want?

In a system that we have set up for them, are the kids enjoying their education or do they have to “endure” it? Looking at our statistics, I would say the latter is more likely the case.

The problem of not being able to cultivate a conducive environment for all children to learn is not a new one.

John Holt, in his classic 1964 book How Children Fail, argued a similar case for early learners in the United States. Holt wrote that children fail because they are afraid of getting wrong answers and of disappointing adults who have high hopes for them.

They also get bored with the trivial and boring things they are told to do at schools, which undermines their real capacity.

How then do we build curiosity into children? To imbue this tendency on a national scale will definitely take years to succeed.

Our greatest challenge here is to change the cultural and intellectual environment that our children are in, to free them from any unnecessary “boundaries” that are limiting their potentials.

One way of doing this is to support letting nature take its course. Children, by nature, are inquisitive when it comes to the things around them. They are not shy to ask, even if it sounds silly.

Rather than being annoyed and shutting them off, as grown-ups normally do to children who “ask too much”, we should instead entertain their curiosity and nurture that inquisitive attitude.

If we choose to constantly shut them out from asking too many questions with primitive excuses, we will be the ones who are guilty of killing their curiosity in the long run.

Coming back to the riddle between learning and studying, we definitely need to start listening to our children more.

Sometimes, they can see more clearly the things that we have been accustomed to.

ZULFAA MOHAMED KASSIM teaches aerospace engineering at Universiti Sains Malaysia. The STAR Online Home News Education 01/12/2013

Of teachers and technology

AN article on technology and pedagogy in StarEducate some weeks ago, caught my attention.

There has been strong interest in using technology in education and as a result, many institutions are investing billions of ringgit in equipping their buildings with state-of-the-art technology.

In today’s world, visuals that focus on futuristic classrooms and labs are often featured by learning institutions to woo their students.

I agree with the writer that we must never forget that in the end, it really boils down to the human factor — the teacher.

While many of us are in awe of the magic of technology and how it can be used as a teaching aid, where interesting and effective apps can be found and installed within minutes, there is still a need to have a teacher to “direct” the entire learning process.

This is a classic case of the “channel” and the “content”.

Technology can provide a very effective “channel” through pre-recorded lectures by experienced professors, 3D applications, as well as information that can be accessed through Google.

While technology remains the “channel”, the excitement, interest and encouragement is the “content” and that can only be provided by the teacher.

Having the latest technology without a good teacher will not make a lesson interesting.

However, having a good teacher but without the latest technology will not drastically affect a student as a teacher will find ways to spark the enthusiasm among his charges.

I have heard of a pre-university programme where students were told to view a video of a recorded lecture of 30 minutes for every lesson.

This was then followed by a teacher who explained the topic and answered queries on the subject.

Students were bored with the recorded lecture segment and after a few sessions, requested that they do away with the video while asking that the teacher be retained for all lessons.

We should not be too concerned about acquiring the latest gadgets or catching up with the competition; our focus should be on getting competent teachers.

The authorities should do their best to encourage, support and inspire our teachers.

The primary role of the teacher cannot be replaced by technology ... there needs to be human interaction.

WONG WAI LEONG Petaling Jaya The STAR Online Home News Education 01/12/2013

Giving credit where it is due

MUCH has been said about our education system and what it lacks but I believe that there is always room for improvement.

My son studied in SK Seri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur, and Nov 15 marked his last day in primary school.

I have always believed in giving credit where it is due and I believe that the school, although not perfect, has given him the right foundation for his future.

He and his friends were fortunate to have been taught by some teachers who exemplify the concept of dedication and commitment.

These teachers had taken the trouble and gone the extra mile to not only teach during school hours but organised special sessions on weekends and before school to provide extra coaching to the Year Six pupils.

There were also teachers who identified and encouraged certain pupils to take part in competitions so as to broaden their horizons.

This helped to unearth hidden talents and encouraged the children to believe in themselves.

I dare say that if not for the encouragement and coaching of these teachers, the pupils themselves would have never known that they had talent or the capability to succeed in certain fields.

The school, together with the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), also organised various extra classes to coach the pupils in preparation for the UPSR exams.

After the exams, the Year Six pupils had various activities to keep them occupied such as an inter-class football tournament, a MasterChef competition and even a batik painting session.

I would like to publicly express my gratitude to all the teachers of SK Seri Hartamas and in particular to those who coached my son — in the classroom, on the school field and in extra-curricular activities.

I must also thank the PTA for their work.

It has been my honour and privilege to have had you play a role in the formative education of my son. Thank you.

DHARM Navaratnam Kuala Lumpur The STAR Online Home News Education 01/12/2013

Hippocampus lights the pathways

GIVING MEANING TO MEMORY: What reading does to the brain has fascinated many people for so long

TEACHING aims to activate the brain of the taught. Maybe we're jumping ahead here: we hope to start a reaction in the brain of the person we are trying to teach. A writer tries to do the same thing, and this makes a difference between clichés and evocative writing. A cliché is an easy, laid back way but it does not provoke much reaction because it is passé, uninteresting and hmmm, the I-know-that-already trigger.

Neuroscientists have found that words have powers to evoke and stimulate the hippocampus, that part of our brain that deals with spatiality and things that we learn anew. We should be speaking of hippocampi, really, because there are two of these horse-shoe shaped parts in our brains, the right and the left. And they deal with the memory and learning that comes streaming in, much of that from words.

Words are not native to our brain, but once acquired, they leave trails and trigger parts that you don't normally reach by sitting still.

What reading does to the brain has fascinated many people for many years. Proust's description of his Mum's petites madelines soaked in tea, for instance, is a hippocampus moment that invigorated him when the spoonful of tea with the cake soaked in it touched his palates, when "at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory".

The hippocampus lit the pathways pathways: in other words, it gave meaning to the memory.

Reading is an escape, maybe, but far from taking you away, you are steeped even further into yourself, in ways that are often beneficial. The Madeline soaked in tea was filling him with "a precious essence". Proust said: "This essence was not in me, it was myself."

Prousts's madeline passages are among the most evocative in literature. They show how words connect in your head, and just as linguists are learning how the brain processes words in the most complex way, from recognition to classification and so on, we're now also learning how they bring changes in yourself and even introduce new experience into your brain's pathways.

We imagine things in some of the areas of the brain that we use to experience and understand real events. This is something that the plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz discovered many years ago and it was seized by many personal development gurus to design exercises for the body as well as the mind. In writing, words that describe the doing of things so vividly can trigger the same experience, it will be as if the reader is undergoing the same course.

"Oh I feel tired just reading that!" is an expression that goes beyond mere emotion.

What we are basically touching on here is the cognitive activities that whirr in the head when you are reading. Different styles of reading trigger different reactions, shallow reading will stimulate the mind but deeper reading will work it even deeper. Reading about the social issues discussed by a character will make the reader's brain think about those issues too, not necessarily in a conscious way. This is the value of literature at school. Teachers can engage the students in ways that will improve their cognitive ability.

The way that our brain is designed to perceive is interesting from the writer's and the reader's point of view. The movement of inanimate objects, for instance, is read by our brain differently from the movement of animate objects. Bodies moving in space is 'read' differently from leaves that fall. Connectivity creates sympathy and the identification of one with another. I have often wondered why the tram journey by Zafon's characters in their journey to an important place in Shadow of the Wind has had such a hold on me that I vividly heard the whines and even shared feelings that they must have felt as the tram clanked its way. Words gripped and awoke pictures in the head as did the madeline in tea as did readers of Proust drinking his Mum's parlour.

The lure of words in the brain is inestimable, not just in reading but also in story-telling. Taking time to tell stories to children will open their minds to not just words but also to their understanding of narratives and how sequences flow.

Lia Grimanis, a worker with the homeless in Canada urges writers to write to inspire an urge in human beings to move from their own static corner to new realms, to dream and rewire their brains for the better. Our speech, words, narrations trigger this flow of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter connected to the brain's reward centres, and she believes that this gives the boost for the homeless, for instance, into new frontiers. In The Brain That Changes Itself, used by Grimanis as a her source, psychiatrist Norman Doidge says that dopamine is an important trigger for neuroplasticity, the process that creates new pathways.

Words have powers that are now being proven by neuroscience. Perhaps one day neuroscience will be taught in creative writing courses at universities.


Wan A. Hulaimi is based in the UK New Straits Times Opinion Columnist 01/12/2013