If Malaysia is to compete in an innovation-led economy, we need to have a system where students learn to think independently while teachers provide the necessary support.
OVER the last two years, the Education Ministry has been busy adapting the national education system to current needs, such as abolishing the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) and a soft landing for the discontinuation of the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English. After over five decades, it is now embarking on a total review of the system, and with it, the chance to resolve the most pressing problem: our exam-centred educational culture.
In imperial China, the passing of imperial exams enabled one’s family to rise in social prestige. Modern Asian parents now view a university degree as the sign of good parenting, and will do anything to ensure their children pass every exam leading to that goal.
Hence the goal of schooling is to attain the highest grades. Students buy compilations of past exam questions with model answers to memorise before exams. From young, they spend most of their spare time doing homework or attending one tuition class after another. Teachers help to predict exam questions and provide practice drills. Exam grades are used to label a child as either clever or stupid, or a school as either good or bad.
While China’s best minds were mugging for exams, Western intellectuals asked questions about natural phenomena and made discoveries leading to technological advancement. The Western educational culture is based on the Socratic tradition of dialectic and critical questioning. In Western classrooms, teachers regularly dialogue with the students, who freely express their ideas and opinions. Even the views of the academically weaker students are valued. Unlike us, their top exam scorers are not publicised in the newspapers like national heroes.
Some Asian nations claim to offer world class education because they regularly beat the United States (US) in tests such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. However, when it comes to Nobel prizes, these countries are nowhere near the US.
Research and publications have increased in Asia in line with economic growth, but the dearth of high impact research can be seen from the fact that there is no Asian nation among the top 20 countries ranked by the average number of citations per published paper.
Many Malaysians take up Singapore’s Asean Scholarship expecting to experience high quality education. The reality is they are in for an even higher level of exam-centredness than here. Increasing numbers of Singaporeans are sending their children to international schools or migrating to the West to enjoy education that is not grades-obsessed.
If Malaysia is to compete in an innovation-led economy, our educational culture will have to be drastically changed as we need to think out of the box.
The ancient Chinese learning tradition is one where the teacher imparts information directly to the learner who receives the teaching passively in quiet deference.
Globally, education is shifting from this teacher-centred approach towards a student-centred paradigm where students learn independently while teachers provide support. This is needed now because what we teach will soon be outdated, so students must know how to actively find information and apply it to their situation. Hence we need to be teaching the sciences using inductive methods such as problem-based, enquiry-based and discovery learning.
Active learning methods
Next, we need approaches that increases student motivation and information retention. Language teachers should make liberal use of active learning methods like debates and role plays. Experiential learning is facilitated by lab work or field trips where knowledge is acquired by seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching.
Authentic learning can take place by bringing the Mathematics class for an outing to the supermarket. Teachers should be asking students open-ended questions and encouraging them to think up and share ideas. Students should have a wide range of subjects to choose from, without the restriction of arts-science class distinction.
Last, our assessment methods must change.
National standardised public exams must be kept at a minimum to discourage exam-centric learning and tuition culture. There should be less questions testing simple factual recall, which promote rote learning of superficial knowledge.
Instead, questions that require justification of answer or problem solving help to foster higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and application. Students should be given projects where they are graded for original thought, collaborative work and presentation skills. These are the abilities needed in the k-economy where wealth is generated by creating new knowledge, not regurgitating old knowledge.
Peculiar to our country is the frequent report that more non-Chinese are attending Chinese schools because of better discipline and use of Mandarin. Traditional Chinese education is teacher-centred, with the cane being used to force compliance.
However, the need now is not greater conformity, but creativity. Asia is still better known for imitation than innovation. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said that China has failed to foster enough outstanding talents to meet the needs of the nation. He has headed education reform to “address the issue of fostering creative and outstanding talents in China to support China’s intention to transform its economy from one built on cheap labour and cheap resources into one built on innovation”.
When the ministry implemented the teaching and learning of Science and Mathematics in English in 2003 (better known by its Malay acronym PPSMI), many parents with children in Chinese primary schools were pleased with the increased exposure to the English language.
However, many schools ended up teaching in both Mandarin and English, not because those subjects were best taught in Mandarin, but because their teachers were mostly incompetent in English. One of the consequences of having national and vernacular schools is the sustained national decline in English proficiency.
The affluent and well connected resolve this problem by sending their children overseas or enrolling them here in private and international schools. We cannot have an education system where national schools are perceived as a substandard option for the underprivileged.
To have a national education system accepted by all communities, we need a single public school system where the English language curriculum is at par with those in English-speaking Western countries, with Malay as a compulsory-pass language, and both Tamil and Mandarin as optional subjects.
Initially, English can be offered at both a lower basic level, and a higher level incorporating English Literature. At the lower level, it will be a must-pass subject, but students can opt for the higher level on passing a qualifying test. If English-medium schools are reintroduced as an option (via a referendum or otherwise), only Malay would need to be a must-pass subject.
When the ministry’s current nationwide dialogue is over, they should hold roadshows to inform Malaysian parents of the educational culture their children need in the 21st century. The most important role of the Education Minisry in this education review is not to please as many parties as possible, but to design an education system that equips Malaysian children for new global realities. If they get it right, we are headed for a great future.
The writer is from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Kuching. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org