By Deborah Loh | 27 July 2010 | The Nut Graph
VARIOUS concerns about Malaysia’s education system emerged from the The Nut Graph‘s latest forum, Found in Conversation: Creativity and Innovation in Education. But they all centred on a key and not unfamiliar complaint: that education is too politicised.
Whether concerns were about the curriculum, the lack of critical thinking, obsession with scoring As, lack of sex education, or ill-equipped teachers, the forum panelists agreed that Malaysia’s education system is too highly centralised. Teaching and learning is rigidly top-down, from the Education Ministry to teachers, and from teachers to students. Decisions lie with politicians and not with other stakeholders like parents, they said.
“If there was one thing you could do to improve the way children are educated, what would it be?” was the question that kicked off the forum on 25 July 2010 in Kuala Lumpur. The panelists were 3R executive producer and social commentator Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir; educator and Five Arts Centre co-founder Datin Marion D’Cruz; and homeschool practitioner KV Soon. It was moderated by The Nut Graph editor Jacqueline Ann Surin.
Parents, not politicians; passion, not grades
Soon said parents were not involved enough in their children’s education under the public school system. The most the system required parents to do was to collect their children’s report cards. “Parents are locked out of schools. They should be brought in, and the politicians taken out,” said Soon, who runs the homeschoolers’ resource blog Learning Beyond Schooling.
When parents are not involved, and when a child’s learning is left to the system, the process of automation, or “education industrialisation”, as Soon called it, begins. “Schools provide only two events for students – exams and grades. They do not teach resourcefulness, or initiative, or the desire to learn. The saddest thing is to see a person with no desire to learn,” he said.
It’s what drives homeschool practitioners to pull their children out of the public education system so that they can be directly involved in the child’s learning according to the child’s interest and pace, Soon explained. Because such learning is not purely academic, the emphasis becomes less on avoiding mistakes and achieving grades, and more on passion and curiosity. “It doesn’t matter if the child changes interests, it’s more important to teach them passion,” Soon added.
Marina, however, questioned whether it was realistic to remove politicians from the education system. “What we should do is question them more,” she said.
D’Cruz said the government did not show clear understanding on what it would take to improve the quality of students. Merely increasing the number of graduate teachers, as the government planned to do, was insufficient, she said.
If the government would engage more stakeholders, including homeschoolers who are unrecognised by the Education Ministry, there could be transfer of creativity and ideas into the public education system, Soon said.
D’Cruz said an education think-tank that was interdisciplinary, intercultural and interclass would be an ideal start to reforming the education system by getting the widest input possible.
She also raised some assumptions which she said would have to be challenged if the system was to be more creative and innovative. For one, teachers had to stop treating students like empty vessels into which they deposited information. “Learning is a two-way street,” she said, adding that she learnt from her students all the time.
Secondly, she noted that the divide between arts and science was artificial and detrimental to learning. “Students need to dance as well as do math,” said D’Cruz. “If they are not taught to question or be creative from young, they won’t be able to think by the time they reach university. I ask my university-level students to think and they look at me like I’m mad.”
Soon said the highly centralised management of schools resulted in social control, where teachers and students are told what and how to think, and what to do.
“We need to rethink how schools are managed. It’s students who now sometimes have more information than teachers, [so the top-down approach doesn't work].”
While democratising education might be better for children’s learning, there were questions from the floor as to what degree of centralised control was necessary. Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Ivy Josiah, who used to be a teacher, asked if there should be control over alternative learning systems that might teach values contrary to the mainstream. An example that was cited was religious fundamentalism.
Another problem noted was the inability of vernacular school students to speak English or Bahasa Malaysia in university.
The panelists conceded that the solution was more complicated than the issue. D’Cruz suggested a combination of approaches and balance between a national and alternative syllabi, adding that subjects like Bahasa Malaysia and English were necessary.
Soon noted that the Education Ministry’s role in building human capital had to be redefined if education was to be decentralised. He added that as a start to addressing the issues arising from decentralising education, all stakeholders had to engage and understand one another’s position first.
Where have the good teachers gone?
Other questions from the floor were on teacher training and where good teachers were today.
D’Cruz said there were still many good teachers in the system who were struggling. “There are many fighting the system, but the system is like a huge cancer which eats teachers up over time,” she said.
Theatre practitioner and former teacher Anne James, who was in the audience, said the problem in teacher quality began with the type of people who get into the teacher training course or Diploma of Education. Not everyone training to be a teacher was passionate about teaching, and many considered it just another job to earn a living, she said. “You don’t get sieved to be a teacher, you get sieved just to get into the course.”
Other problems she said she faced while teaching were politics and conservatism. “Schools reflect the most conservative aspects of our society. We need to take political and religious approaches out of how we fashion education policies,” James said.
The forum also broached the topic of sex education, which has yet to be implemented as a separate topic in schools due to political conservatism.
Marina said educators and politicians were still debating over the need to teach sex education in schools when students themselves wanted it. She said the topic is being taught piecemeal through different subjects like physical education, moral or religious studies, and biology, but was not addressed realistically.
“Let’s assume kids are going to have sexual relationships. They see it on television all the time. How do we educate them about managing it?” said Marina, who is also former Malaysian Aids Council president.
That teachers were “shy” to talk about the subject was of concern because “they are parents, too, and it makes me wonder what or how they teach their own children,” Marina said. Educators have to learn that “there’s no such thing as a sensitive subject, only how you approach [the topic],” she added.
D’Cruz said many teachers were simply ill-equipped to handle the subject. “I knew of schoolgirls who would sit and grope each other in full view of teachers passing by to attract their attention so they could have someone to talk to about sex. But their teachers just walked past and ignored them.”
She also spoke about other instances where she felt teachers did not know how to handle disciplinary issues, such as when they locked up students who were late to school. “Teachers need to create safe spaces for students to talk about things that are troubling them,” D’Cruz said.