Thursday, January 3, 2013

5 Wishes for Education in Malaysia For 2013

As we enter a new year, we reflect back on a year full of trials and tribulations. From the pending abolishment of PMR to the flitting about of PPSMI, from the Rawang school of terror to the plight of Orang Asli education, Malaysians have had their fair share of drama in the education scene. 

Which is why, we have to look forward and strive to do much much better this year. Here's a list of 5 things  everybody from the government to the ordinary citizen should look into for the sake of our children.

1. A revamp of the History syllabus
The issue: The History syllabus as it is, is too myopic in its scope. The Russian revolution, Ottoman Empire, Alexander the Great, Kublai Khan all used to be part of Malaysian history syllabus. It is little wonder that a complaint against fresh Malaysian graduates is that they lack general knowledge. Important figures of history like Yap Ah Loy have also been reduced to a mere footnote. The History Syllabus is also incredibly rigid: the textbook lists a few factors causing an event, and anything out of the book is usually considered wrong. History becomes an exercise of pure memorization. I highlighted many of these failings in greater detail in another article here.

The proposal: We need to broaden the syllabus to reflect an increasingly globalized world. It is ironic that while the rest of the world has become more inclusive of other cultures and histories, Malaysia the melting pot of cultures, better positioned than many others to take advantage of globalization has gone the other way.

The increasingly insular nature of our education is most apparent in Geography. In-depth learning is restricted to Malaysia and superficial discussions of weather across vast swathes of land in Europe and Asia. Again, the lack of general knowledge is disconcerting. I probably learnt more about the world through TV than Geography!

2. A less rigid, more flexible style of education
The issue: This was mentioned briefly regarding History, but I think perhaps Moral Education is a far better example of the sheer frustration of the system. Moral Education is an exam-based subject, where students memorize the definitions of various values such as responsibility and tolerance, and regurgitate them word for word. Should there be a mistake in terms of the specific words used, even if they carry largely the same gist, marks are deducted. By doing this, Moral Education becomes the one thing it should never be: a theoretical exercise in futility that has no practical applications.

The proposal: The problem is widespread in the education system. Rigid mark schemes and teachers fearing to make their own decisions make the safer choice the premier choice. Certain syllabuses need to be restructured: Moral Education being one of them. For example, Moral Education should include community service and discussion of current ethical issues such as the crime rate in Malaysia. And for crying out loud, don't make it a SPM exam subject.

3. More opportunities for all
The issue: There is the perennial problem of scholarships for tertiary education. While those are important and certainly should be maintained, we should also recognize that university-going students are a minority in Malaysia and that it will likely remain so. We need to offer opportunities for vocational education and improve the capabilities of our skilled workforce. To offer an anecdotal example, my father's mechanic finds it increasingly difficult to hire good mechanics. The reason being that many graduates are given little practical experience, or have a poor command of language that rules them out from reading car manuals.

Students at Benz Training School.
The proposal: In Germany, a rich and relatively egalitarian society, only 16% of the population has university degrees. Bear in mind also the fact that university education in Germany is virtually free ( for the average German) at 500 euros per term with easy loan terms and scholarships abound. Their secret, and the real driving force of the German economy are their skilled workers, who go through vocational education centres that are partnered with firms like Mercedes Benz. These companies send trainers to these schools, as well as offer top students apprenticeships with the company.

Malaysia should do the same. The government should encourage companies to partner up with vocational training centres, and incentize these companies in setting up training centres of their own. Perhaps some CSR tax benefits may be in line. This way, the government reduces unemployment, companies get tailor fit and capable new recruits, and we all benefit along the way.

4. Resolve the PPSMI debate
The issue: Whether its BM or English, let's just get it over and done with. This flitting about in the span of a few years has thrown everyone from parents to teachers to book publishers in disarray. As seen in the TIMMS survey, Malaysia has had a huge drop in rankings, with deterioration in both Math and Science subjects.

The proposal: Education reform is a long, grueling process. Teacher trainers need to be hired, teachers need to be trained, book publishers need to write, examiners need to reach a standard of largely uniform marking. With Math and Science reverting back to BM after only a few years, one can imagine the dismay of fresh teaching college graduates who trained for PPSMI. The whole system needs time.

The same goes for the new school self-assessment that is to replace PMR. The remedy is simple enough: choose a system, and stick to it, at least for 10 years or so. And if there is to be a change, all stakeholders must be informed, consulted and planning must commence way before.

5. A more holistic education
The issue: PE class has been reduced to a young substitute teacher giving children a ball and letting them do whatever they want. Art class has degenerated into teachers giving random assignments and uninterested students messing around. Our education system emphasizes the superiority of the Science stream above the "dumb" Arts stream.

The proposal: In its current state, our education system is skewed. How are we to nurture the next generation of artists, sportsmen, skilled workers and accountants if they are told at every turn that they are not as important as Science students? Again, it boils downs to the same issues: better teachers, better syllabus. For example, PE teachers should be properly trained to teach vital and basic issues such as warming up before exercise, proper rules of games played and how to deal with a pulled muscles etc.

At the end of the day, many of these issues have been highlighted again and again. My proposals are far from comprehensive, I am young and still learning, but I hope that as we enter this important year of change, we will bear in mind these issues. Whatever your political inclinations, I'm sure we can all agree that education for our children is an important thing, so make sure you ask your MP/ ADUN what they intend to do about it!

Originally published on Education In Malaysia.

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