Sunday September 25, 2011
Active voices offer hope
By TAN EE LOO and PRIYA KULASAGARAN
Educationists, advocates and student leaders passionately present their views on how to improve the system and stop the cycle of passive thinking in schools and universities.
WHILE the country scrambles for ways to stem the outflow of talent, Curtin Universiti Sarawak Malaysia’s (Curtin Sarawak) student council president James Chai Chung Zeng offers a more deeply entrenched reason for Malaysia’s brain drain.
“Our students are not able to solve problems by themselves or take ownership of current issues. If they can’t solve something, they just flee.
“Ultimately, passive learners become passive workers, passive employers, passive citizens – which all in turn lead to a passive nation,” he said.
James was speaking at the Education Nation Conference 2011 held in Kuala Lumpur recently.
Organised by the Asian World Summit, the two-day conference aimed to discuss and present solutions for Malaysia’s education-related issues by gathering experts and practitioners from the field.
But instead of experts, the session that generated the most feedback featured three university student leaders — James, Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Mass Communication Students Association council member Huda Mahmoud, and International Medical University’s Student Representative Council president Prabhsimran Singh.
With the students’ eloquent presentations and lively audience debate, the entire session aptly summarised how the local education system is failing our youth.
Taught to follow
The way students are currently assessed was held up as a major reason as to why schools are not producing independent thinkers.
Teachers are pressured to “teach” students to follow the answer scheme, said Huda.
As a result, she said, students were not thinking of logical and intelligent answers that would reflect what they had learnt in school.
“I ask that teachers mark the papers according to students’ intelligence and not follow the answer scheme blindly because it doesn’t do the students any good at all,” she said.
James questioned whether students were being taught in a manner suited to the influx of new media.
“There is a vast and diverse range of information available to students now, so we should teach students how to absorb, filter and digest the right information.
“Instead, we promote submission; teachers who forbid their students to ask questions in class imply that we don’t want students to question anything,” he said.
He added that instead of separating the arts and sciences, students should be allowed to take up whatever subjects they wished to study.
“This will require students to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning experience,” he said.
Prabhsimran said the “theoretical measures” in place to inculcate soft skills among students were not effective at the grassroots level.
“Participation in extra-curricular activities may be compulsory, but the fact is that a lot of societies and clubs in schools are redundant.
“Students just show up (for extra curricular activities) to get marks for attendance, but don’t actually do anything – how is this going to help them build leadership skills?” he said.
Prabhsimran added that students should be encouraged to take part in class discussions and debates from a young age.
“We need to cultivate a culture of ‘speaking out’ in our classrooms.
“By doing so, we can improve students’ skills in language, articulation, and critical thinking all at once,” he said.
Agreeing with the panellists, some teachers in the audience expressed their frustration over the restrictions they have to work with.
“The ministry says that we need to produce holistic students,” said Shariffah Afifah Syed Abbas, principal of SMK (P) St George, Penang.
“Then why are schools still ranked by how many straight-A scorers they produce, and not by how holistic they are?
“I would rather have my students be well-rounded and productive individuals, even if it means that their grades will dip slightly.”
Change will not happen soon because the current crop of teachers are products of the same system, said a primary school teacher with 30 years of teaching experience.
“GTP (Government Transformation Programme), NKRA (National Key Result Area), the government has all these grand plans.
“However, the method of dissemination of these plans is lacking, from the ministry to the school level down to the teachers in charge of implementing them,” she lamented.
The Education Ministry’s High Performing Schools Division management and relations head assistant director Faridah Yang Razali said ministry was aware of the problems plaguing the education system.
“That’s why we’ve introduced policies and programmes to address this, especially under the GTP, and change is imminent.
“At the same time, we have to avoid simply repackaging old ideas and just implement whatever good policies we have effectively - we need to go back to the basics,” she said.
Gaps in the system
Pointing out the acute disparity between urban and rural schools, Prabhsimran said that policy-makers need to be more aware of how policies will impact both sides of the divide.
“With the Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (better known by its Malay acronym PPSMI) policy for example, there were so many implementation problems because rural teachers could not cope with the change.
“Likewise, there is no point in introducing initiatives such as providing free laptops if some rural schools still don’t have regular access to electricity,” he said.
This gap was also brought up in other forum sessions, such as the one featuring Teach For Malaysia co-founder Keeran Sivarajah.
“In the course of setting up Teach For Malaysia (an education-based non-governmental organisation), I have visited remote schools all over the country, and I can safely say that education inequity here does not recognise ethnicity or religion.
“The main problem for me is that people seem to think that it’s okay for poor children to do ‘just so’ in school, instead of being the best that they can be,” said Keeran.
In yet another session on the role of technology in education, an audience commentator unwittingly illustrated how rural students had poor access to new media tools.
“We have actually developed good new media platforms,” said the commentator.
“For example, our EduWebTV initiative has a lot of good material and lesson plans available to teachers for free – but you need stable and high-speed Internet access, which is a problem for rural schools.”
Additionally, the subtext of other forum discussions shed light on other gaps apparent in the education system.
“It’s fine for top performers to say that they’ve done well for themselves despite the weaknesses of government schools,” said LCCI International Qualifications Asia chief operating officer Mark Disney at one session.
“But what about the rest of the rakyat, the average and low performing students – who is going to help them?”
“Malaysia lays claim to producing so many smart students, with 14A’s or more – but where are the innovations by these bright individuals?” questioned Universiti Sains Malaysia researcher Prof Dr Fong Soon Fook in his panel session.
Parents Action Group for Education Malaysia (Page) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim asked the audience from her panel session if they believed their children would have a better future in private schools.
Saying that only 20% of the population is able to afford private education, Noor Azimah said the average medium income earner in the country (40% of the population) in 2007 had a gross monthly salary of RM3,282.
The estimation of the amount spent on average for education for a majority of Malaysians is 2% of their monthly income, translating into RM60 per month for those in the mid income bracket.
“To be able to afford these (private) school fees, they would have to increase their education expenditure to 14%, and that is for one child.
“In contrast, the national school (system) offers affordable education – but is it, was it and must it be lower quality?” she asked.
Most disturbing of all were the statistics reflecting the number of young people who drop out of the system, as shared by Talent Corporation Malaysia’s Strategic Programmes general manager Mohamad Kamal Nawawi.
“We lose 45,000 students every year when they fail to make the transition from Year Six to Form One.
“An additional 14,000 students then go on to drop out from secondary school anually,” said Mohamad Kamal.
University and employability
Huda said her main concern with local tertiary education is its lack of flexibility.
“Those who strive to do more and go further than what is required by the university should be compensated for their efforts – otherwise they will become disenchanted and stop trying to better themselves.
“If a student takes extra initiative in class discussions, and always participates in a lot of activities outside the campus environment, this should be reflected in his or her grades,” she said.
“This doesn’t mean that you have to dismantle the whole system, but rather, allow the system to be adaptable enough to accommodate talented students,” she said.
Speaking to The Star, Huda shared the problems she faced when trying to transfer course credits between two local universities.
“I’m currently pursuing a degree in journalism, but I had previously completed a diploma in the same field at a different university.
“Because the administration had such arbitrary guidelines for credit transfers, I had to retake the same subjects I had already excelled at in my diploma for two whole semesters.
“It was a total waste of time in my opinion – I could have graduated earlier,” she said.
Highlighting the uncritical nature of local university students, James was blunt in his appraisal of some of his fellow coursemates.
“When I went to university, I was expecting a change (from secondary school).
“But because the students are products of the local system, it’s the same thing all over again – narrow mindsets and passive thinking – sometimes I feel like I’m in a ‘high school university’,” he said.
The discussion over the quality of local graduates naturally led to issues of their employability.
“We want graduates to be able to communicate and engage with others well, think and solve problems, and to have leadership skills,” said an audience member, who identified herself as a Bank Negara talent recruiter.
“English language proficiency is crucial, but language skills can be easily learnt later if they have the right attitude and soft skills to begin with.”
Huda agreed, adding that the current workforce is “very one-dimensional”.
“The mindset of many young graduates is that they will not do more than what is expected of them,” she said.
During a separate session on graduate employability, Manpower Malaysia country manager Sam Haggag offered more insight on the issue.
“Only 12% of Malaysian graduates have gone on to work in multinational companies,” he said.
“Plus, employment rates are higher for private university students, because they are seen to be of better quality and are more work-ready because of the tendency for private institutions to have close collaborations with the industry.
“From personal experience, I do find it more difficult to engage with public universities in terms of streamlining their students into the workforce.”
Haggag added that universities should ensure that their training fits in with employer needs.
“Often a lot of money is invested in training students for the workplace, unfortunately the training is of no value to employers,” he said.
As the students’ session progressed, it was apparent that some did not take too kindly to the criticism raised.
This was exemplified by a rather sarcastic question levelled at the panellists: “All of you complain so much about what’s wrong with the system, so I want to know whether young people like yourselves are willing to leave your ‘urban comfort zones’ to work in rural areas to improve the situation?”
Acknowledging that the youth had to realise their role in nation building, Prabhsimran said that many initiatives are underway to bridge the urban-rural gap.
“For example, we have Interact Clubs, Teach For Malaysia, and other student leadership programmes,” he said.
“However, we have to increase the scale of these projects and reach out to more students to make them understand the importance of their contributions in helping to develop the country.
“Isn’t this the sort of thing that should be inculcated in subjects like Moral Education, instead of simply making students memorise definitions of ‘values’?” he said.
Meanwhile, Huda quipped: “I can’t speak for my entire generation, but I will definitely work in rural areas, but will my ideas be rewarded and accepted?”
A more heated comment came from an audience member who claimed to be an Education Ministry staff member.
Saying that the government had done “everything that is possible”, she said that the main problem the ministry faced was the “lack of involvement from parents”.
Unfortunately, the rest of her comment remained unclear, before she finally concluded by saying: “I apology for not able to communicate properly.”