Sunday, 29 July 2012

Transforming our educational system: The brutal truth — Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi

JULY 29 — The fact that our educational system needs immediate and drastic transformation is clearly evident. In the 2007, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) said around 20 per cent of Malaysian students failed to meet minimum benchmarks for both Mathematics and Science, compared to only five per cent in Science and seven per cent in Mathematics in 2003. According to the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) 2009+ report, Malaysian students ranked 55th out of 74 countries in terms of reading literacy, 57th in Mathematics and “only marginally better” in 52nd position for Science literacy. The number of unemployed graduates with either a diploma or degree from local institutions of higher education has risen since the 1980s to a record of 24.6 per cent in 2010.

Our educational system generally promotes surface and passive learning instead of deep and active learning which are crucial for creating a quality learning environment. The products of our school system are generally ill-prepared either for higher education, work or life in general. Our students lack critical and creative thinking skills because our educational system promotes conformity and uniformity. Worse still, they have been “conditioned” to be spoon-fed. Our graduates lack soft skills sought by employers, particularly communication skills, a strong work ethic, achievement-orientation, pro-activity (initiative), planning and organising skills, problem solving and decision-making skills, and human relations skills.

As aptly stated by Datuk Johan Jaaffar, national schools have become Malay schools and have failed spectacularly to become the school of choice for non-Malay students. In the words of Tan Sri Musa Hitam, “… the quality of education in these national schools is known to be so low that they (non-Malays) have no confidence their children will get the right or proper education there.” Mediocrity has also crept insidiously into our universities. A 2011 World Bank study has found that the academic standards of the University of Malaya have fallen due to race-based quotas and political interference in the university’s management. Based upon my recent interactions with hundreds of university lecturers (including numerous professors) from four local public universities through my workshops on effective teaching and graduate employability, the vast majority of them have a poor understanding of critical thinking and lack basic presentation skills.

We don’t need foreign experts to tell us what ails our educational system and how to go about transforming it. What we need is to face stark reality and the brutal truths about our educational system. We have sacrificed meritocracy and quality teaching for mediocrity, politics and an overdose of social reengineering. We have sacrificed “quality” of graduates to “quantity” of graduates. In the words of Tan Sri Arshad Ayub, “Appointments (in university administration) should be on merit and apolitical. There should be more women and non-Bumiputeras.” Similarly, Tan Sri Prof. Dr. Ghauth Jasmon (the Vice-Chancellor of University of Malaya) has reiterated that “We must bring in high quality professors into the system in all fields regardless of who they are.”

The first step in transforming our educational system is to “begin with the end in mind”. The million dollar question is to ask what should be the desired attributes of our students and graduates i.e. what kind of knowledge, skills and personal traits should they have to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century world. To my mind, Malaysian students and graduates should possess adequate disciplinary knowledge; be self-confident and achievement-oriented; persuasive and effective communicators; demonstrate integrity and a strong work ethic; fast, self-directed, self-reflective and lifelong learners; resilient; demonstrate good interpersonal and teamwork skills; good problem solvers with analytical and creative minds; computer and information literate; and productive and responsible citizens with inter-cultural tolerance. Towards this end, schools and universities should provide a high quality, broad-based and holistic education with emphasis on cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, moral intelligence, spiritual intelligence, physical well-being and aesthetic aspect.

Regarding the various measures needed to transform our educational system to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we should take heed of lessons learned from the world’s best-performing education systems such as that of Finland, South Korea, Singapore, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. First, the main driver of the variation in student learning at school is teacher quality. According to William Glasser, “The only way education is going to change is if the classroom teacher makes it happen.” Research shows that over 30 per cent of the variance of school student achievement resulted from professional characteristics of teachers, teaching skills and classroom climate. Indeed, students placed with high-performing teachers are likely to progress three times faster as those placed with low-performing teachers. In this regard, it is crucial to get people with the right competencies to become professional and highly motivated teachers who practice self-reflection, self-correction and continuous improvement.

Second, transformational leadership with a strong focus on instructional leadership (enhancing the quality of teaching and student learning) is the second most important determinant of student learning. Transformational leaders are visionary, inspirational, change-adept, and more importantly they nurture a high-performance school culture which brings out the best in others and transform them into peak performers.

Third, high-performing schools generally have high and realistic expectations of teachers and students; a nurturing and motivating classroom climate; effective assessment (primarily formative) and feedback; a close community-home-school partnership; and adequate funding and resources.

Fourth, it is important to adopt an integrated and systemic approach (and not a piece-meal approach) towards transforming schools. School transformation efforts must encompass clear educational outcomes, a broad-based and holistic curriculum, competent teacher recruitment and development, effective school governance, varied and student-centric instructional strategies, optimization of e-learning, appropriate assessment and feedback, and a high-performance school culture committed to excellence and continuous improvement.

I sincerely hope that my letter will stir up a healthy and frank discussion among fellow Malaysians. The destiny of our country lies squarely in our hands. We should not gamble with the future of our beloved nation nor sacrifice the well-being of our future generations by sacrificing meritocracy for racial or political considerations. Failure to transform our educational system based upon systemic and brutal change will erode our nation’s global competitiveness, organizational productivity and individual well-being.

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