March 7th, 2016

Of labels and perceptions

I WAS feeling rather smug, pleased that students’ achievement in my subject had improved significantly when the SPM results had just been announced, some years ago.

Mine was an average performance school and up till that year, there were not many students who had exhibited exceptional academic potential.

But they had worked really hard preparing for this major examination. With all that extra effort and motivation, the students had done pretty well and five of them had scored an A grade – which was to be honest, against all expectations.

Later that day, while I was wandering through the local supermarket aisle still basking in the afterglow of the results and mentally patting myself on the back for this totally unexpected “success”, I heard a familiar voice behind me.

It was a teacher from one of the schools in my district whom I had met on a few occasions during subject panel meetings.

“SPM results were out today, how did your students perform?” she asked. “How many As from your class?”

“Not bad,” I replied. “I’m really pleased with them. In fact, five of them actually got an A for the paper.”

“Only five?” Her lips curled a little. “ I had 32As ... every single student in my class got an A.”

She gave a little affected laugh and went on, “In fact, our school had 100% passes in the subject, but then of course we have such excellent teachers ...oh, that’s the district officer ,” she said catching sight of a smartly dressed gentleman who had just come in. “I must tell him the good news.”

She turned quickly and wheeled her shopping cart in the opposite direction. “Tuan Haji,” she called in a shrill voice. “Tuan Haji, I have some very good news to tell you ...

I moved away to another aisle thinking of what I would have liked to say to her.

“Of course everyone got an “A” in your class. Of course you got 100%. Yours is a high achieving school. Your students have been specially selected.

Everyone comes in with brilliant results. Not like our students. Do you know how difficult it is to get just one A from the students we teach?”

When I thought about it later, I realised that my response to what I’d heard although unexpressed was not entirely justified.

This teacher happened to be posted to a high performance school where admissions are extremely selective and reserved for students with exceptional academic achievement and potential.

Nevertheless, she had every right to take pride in her students’ outstanding SPM results.

But I knew also that what I felt was something familiar to many other teachers who like me, taught in average performance schools where we had students with different levels of cognitive abilities and academic potential.

For most of us, our personal goals of success as teachers were not measured so much by the number of As our students produced or even the percentage passes in our subjects. Rather, it was the day-to-day, individual progress of our students.

What rankled most of us however, was that at times, some teachers from these “special” schools made remarks implying that they were somehow superior to teachers who taught in other schools.

As unjust as it seems when a teacher’s competence is considered a function of where she is teaching, we seem to have no choice but do the same thing when we form perceptions of our students based on the classes they are in school.

Many of us older teachers will remember the times when students were grouped in alphabetical order beginning from A, B, C based on their school examination performance.

The aim of this “tracking” system which has been in use for scores of years in our schools, is to place students of somewhat similar academic potential in an environment where teaching strategies could be matched with their abilities.

Whether intentionally or not, there are times however, when teachers display different attitudes and treatment of students based on their classes.

If you were from the “A” class, then you would automatically be perceived as a smart, role model type of a student. But if you were from the ‘D’ class then chances are you weren’t very bright.

At one point I remember that there were directives from the top, discouraging the streaming of students but most schools found it difficult to comply due to the wide gaps between students in terms of ability and learning readiness. It was very hard for teachers to decide on suitable content and strategy when there was such a broad range of academic ability in one class.

Discreet grading

So the obvious “A,B,C”’ streaming was dropped. Later attempts at a more discreet form of tracking continued by using names of flowers, colours and so on.

This was to help prevent students from comparing themselves unfavourably against those in “better” classes and to reduce preconceived assumptions about students based on their classes.

But not all flowers were equal, nor all colours the same and in the end, some flowers and colours became etched in our minds as being superior to others due to the classes of students they represented.

The truth is that labels do affect perception either from the outside or from the inside.

In certain situations however, student grouping becomes necessary for effective teaching and learning.

Many schools while continuing the practice of classifying students according to academic ability, do try to maintain some semblance of equality by using motivating labels for the different student groups.

On the other hand, either due to ignorance or sheer insensitivity there are schools which have used labels like Kumpulan Elit (Elite Group) or Kumpulan Ekslusif (Exclusive Group) on student groups which consist of those with high academic achievements.

We can only wonder what a student who is not privileged enough to be in these groups would feel about himself, and the message it is sending to those who are.

Students never come in neat packages and even among those in the same group, there will always be mixed abilities, learning styles, background knowledge and learning preferences.

Teachers will readily attest to the fact that there is no ‘one size fits all’ in their teaching experience. In fact, a differentiated instruction approach with different avenues to learning needs to be used for effective teaching and learning to take place.

Perhaps with time, perceptions of students and their potential will no longer be based on the labels of their classes.

Perhaps with time, the quality or competence of teachers will be seen by everyone as being independent of the kinds of schools where they teach.

System is far from being world-class

WHEN cracking a joke, there should be a limit. Otherwise it may sound stupid. Chan Weng Kit’s letter, “Our education is world-class” (The Star, March 4), refers.

When the writer says Univer­sity College London’s ranking (seventh overall) against Universiti Malaya (50th) is “barely a whisker above”, I laughed. On a serious note, the writer seems to use highly superficial means to claim our education is world-class. Having a comprehensive syllabus (no matter how advanced it is) alone does not mean our education system is a high quality system, let alone a world-class system.

On paper, we have adequate laws, comparable to advanced countries, to fight corruption, crime, traffic violations and so on but can we proudly claim that we are comparable to those countries in those areas? Even in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013–2025, it is acknowledged that “improvements in students have not always matched the resources channelled into” our education system. Delivery counts for a lot and this is where our weakness is evident.

All along, questions have been raised in the way our schools are run, syllabus implemented and political interference. The thriving private and international schools in our own backyard seems to imply there is a loss of confidence in our system. We are still groping in the dark, in spite of over 50 years of independence, over whether to teach Maths and Science in English or Bahasa Malaysia and yet the writer has the audacity to claim our system is world-class!

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and other ranking tools may not be the perfect way to test the skills and knowledge students have acquired before entering high school or colleges. However, they are a good benchmark to help improve our system.

For a start, I would like to ask the writer a few questions. Why are students in Malaysia sitting for PMR (equivalent to Year 8 studies) at the age of 15, when in most countries a student at that age would be doing Year 9 studies? Why should secondary school studies take five years to be completed when in countries like Singapore it can be done in four years?

Aren’t we slowing down the progress of our students? If our students are spending more time in secondary schools, logically, shouldn’t they do well in those ranking? Why are we even ranked below Vietnam? How can it be disadvantageous to us when we compare our students to those of other countries?

Perhaps the writer should study the actual education system in Singapore, for example, instead of merely checking it out on the Internet. As a teacher in Singapore now, having taught in Malaysia for six years before, I can tell how competitive the education system here is compared to Malaysia. Let us admit that our system is far from being world-class and start working towards making it better. V. Chandran Singapore The STAR Home News Opinion Letters 7 March 2016

Need to address other aspects of education

I REFER to the letter “Our education is world-class” by Chan Weng Kit of Ipoh (The Star, March 4).

I hail from an era (1970s) where local universities were overwhelmingly the first choice rather than foreign universities. Although I had an overseas tertiary education, I do acknowledge that there are aspects of the Malaysian education system that are noteworthy and indeed there are even pockets of excellence within the system.

Rankings alone cannot be the arbiter of quality. Also, the comprehensiveness or range of the syllabus cannot reflect the overall quality of the system. Taking the example of a car, what use are world-class tyres or steering systems or any single component if the sum total of the other parts – like the engine, transmission and suspension – do not do the job competitively?

Why are Malaysian universities churning out huge numbers of unemployable graduates who lack critical thinking, relevant language skills and confidence? I suspect a typical 17-year-old Austra­lian or British student will likely be able to hold his ground better in a debate than an average graduate from our local universities.

Why is there an official government programme to re-train thousands of our unemployed graduates? Does this happen anywhere else in our region?

We need to look at the issues in our education system in a more holistic manner. Education is not only about knowledge.

In fact, knowledge is diminishing in relative importance because of the easy access to information due to ICT.

What is durable and relevant are problem-solving and process skills, communication skills, confidence, leadership, people skills and character. Ask any recruiter and he or she will tell you that these thinking and soft skills will trump a head full of knowledge which a machine can store more efficiently. What are we doing for our students in this area?

A wise person once commented that “we should not let school get in the way of our education”. There are other aspects of education that we need to address.

Our bane has been that our education policies have been buffeted by seemingly fickle policies and political agenda. It is no wonder that perception of the quality of our education over the decades has eroded greatly. As a result, today we see parents and students heading in droves to local private and foreign alternatives.

Perception is reality and we had better face up to the elephant in the room. SPI C75 Shah Alam The STAR Home News Opinion Letters 7 March 2016