Meaningful “Moral Studies”: A Change in Approach?

I have recently enjoyed being part of a discussion on Malaysian “moral studies” in which parents and former students weighed in with their thoughts on the subject.

“Moral Studies” is a compulsory subject taught in Malaysian public schools and tertiary institutions. I remember learning a little of it in primary school, and, more recently, in college. It is an alternative to Islamic Studies for non-Muslim Malaysian students.

Most people agreed that moral studies are important. We generally take issue with how the subject taught, not what is being taught. Unfortunately, as with most subjects in Malaysia, the experience of the overwhelming majority of us is that the information is presented, then tested in exams. We had to memorise various definitions verbatim – little attention was paid to actually understanding and applying the subject.

Everyone knows that the best way to teach moral values is not by making students memorise a bunch of words and have them regurgitate it for exams.

According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, “knowing” and being able to remember and repeat information is just one aspect of learning. Often, moral studies pedagogy even fails on that point because the focus is on repeating the exact words of the definitions given, and not even on explaining the concepts in our own words or giving examples of how they are applied.

mage by Niall McNulty

Moral studies should, above all, effect personal change in the life of a learner. For example, he/she should not just tick all the right boxes in the exam, but actually have compassionate for the less fortunate, tolerance and respect for people from different backgrounds and a concern for the environment.

I would suggest the following changes be made

1) Chuck out exams. Exams mean nothing and tell you absolutely nothing about moral development. They can test science and mathematics skills to a certain extent but they are completely useless for assessing the effectiveness of moral education. Maybe a short quiz can be helpful here and there but that’s about it!

I feel very strongly that exams, especially for this subject, are like whitewash. They give the appearance of learning to mask the fact that very little learning occurs and that the system in general is  not being competent. It can very easily degenerate into a situation where students, parents, teachers don’t care what the students gain from the subject as long as most of them get “A’s”. For example, a student may know how to tick the box, “Don’t Litter” but may actually throw rubbish all over public spaces with wild abandon.

2) Bring in hands-on project learning. Everyone learns by doing.

Imagine how much more effective it would be to bring students to visit a landfill or to pick up trash in a public area. They would think twice about throwing trash about after doing a “beach gotong-royong” (clean-up).

Perhaps, get students to do group projects in different areas, for example, environmental protection, social welfare, national unity and character building. Perhaps have four different themes, then let students do social projects for each of those themes. For example, for environmental awareness, students can create awareness campaigns about different issues such as the need to preserve our rainforests or protect turtle nesting beaches. Maybe let students focus on a different theme in each year of their secondary schooling and be fully immersed in learning about it in detail.

Expose students to different needs and problems in Malaysian society, let students be creative and help find small solutions. Afterwards, get them write journals or give presentations reflecting on what they have learned through these experiences. Let them learn to be confident communicators, unafraid to express their thoughts and feelings. Take away the “spoon-feeding” and encourage students to take the initiative.

3) Bring in the community

Moral values is about the larger community. Maybe take the students on field trips or invite community members into the school. For example, to teach tolerance, invite people from different religious groups to represent their beliefs. Invite therapists, doctors or nurses to talk about public health and the dangers of drug addiction and smoking.

Teachers could have the Pendidikan Islam students come in and give presentations about Islam. Have the Moral Studies and Islamic studies classes work on social projects (raising money for charity, visiting orphanages or refugee schools, volunteering in soup kitchens) together to foster national unity and a shared sense of purpose.  When I was in college, there was a joint field trip organised for both classes (they shared the same lecturer), so it definitely can be done.


The fact moral studies is a subject in the national education system is pretty important because it tells us that education is more than academic knowledge. It is about the whole person. After all, there no point in being brilliant without  being “moral”.

Perhaps these things are already being done in schools and colleges. However, there are definitely things can be improved in the general sense. After all, what means more in real life, an “A” from a Moral Studies exam or the personal qualities that set an individual apart?

If we let students reflect on learning, then we can assess their  moral and personal development to identify the learning objectives that were achieved. Not every student needs to accomplish the exact same thing or learn the exact same thing. It is enough that he/she has grown, matured, and is set on the right path for life.

Finally, students learn the most when their learning experiences are emotionally impactful and memorable. For example, if they had fun and if they were struck with compassion or a sense of duty, then the learning objectives are more likely to “stick” with them for life. Meaningless repetition of information focuses on short-term learning and superficial results. We need to cultivate students who will be active citizens throughout their lives. That is how we can build a “Better Malaysia”.




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