IN the preface of his latest book Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, British historian Niall Ferguson laments that his children "were learning less history than I had learned at their age, not because they had bad teachers but because they had bad history books and even worse examinations".
He pointed out that for about 30 years, young people at Western schools and universities had been given "the idea of a liberal education without the substance of historical knowledge".
They were taught "isolated modules", not narratives, much less chronologies, and trained in the "formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the skills of reading widely and fast". As educators we should take note.
FIRST, consider the "bad books". Visit any bookshop in town and you will easily find the well-defined sections for "UPSR", "PMR", "SPM" and "STPM". There are versions of revision books and notes, past years' examination questions and answers; model answer books; guides, tips and help for examinations. It is all about scoring in examinations.
Where are the real textbooks for learning? The examinations books are at best "smart" solution books that help students to score in examinations.
Knowledge is presented in isolated "modules" and solutions to questions approached in a "formulaic analysis" manner.
This approach does not build up true understanding and mastery of the subject matters.
It is time our writers write serious textbooks in the form of narratives and chronologies. Books of substance will answer questions of the four Ws and 1H: who, where, what, when and how.
SECOND, consider "worse examinations". They have deteriorated in terms of formatting and quality. Whatever merits may be ascribed to the multiple-choice question format, it is an easy escape route for those who have not studied.
Gone are the days when we were required to write out in full all the steps needed to arrive at a solution to a mathematical problem. Essay answers are getting rarer, and some questions can be predicted. So, students come with prepared and memorised answers.
Yes, the Education Ministry is revamping the examination system. We are now beginning to have school-based assessments (SBA) which promise to assess more thoroughly and innovatively.
But, the downside is, plagiarism is gaining ground -- cut-and-paste and outright copying by students to get their assignments and projects done on time.
It is time to review the SBA. Perhaps cut down the number of project works, integrate projects of related subjects and encourage team work.
THIRD, consider the "key skills of reading widely and fast".
Our reading habit has always been a bone of contention. We need to encourage the reading habit and train the skills of reading fast among our students.
There are various reading programmes promoted in schools; the Nilam (nadi ilmu amalan membaca) programme is an example.
How serious is everybody about the programme? Besides getting students to read, are teachers and school administrators themselves well read?
Knowledge is expanding exponentially. We need to read fast and smart to keep pace with our areas of interest and specialty later in our career.
Start the students young. When their reading habit is developed and they have the skills, they can target wider and broader readings.
Liong Kam Chong, Seremban, Negri Sembilan New Straits Times Letters to the Editor 31 Aug 2013