Malaysian social media is currently abuzz with concerned citizens and stakeholders wanting to express their views on how education in Malaysia should progress and change. The plethora of views offered shows how willing citizens are to be involved in change and how much they care about education in Malaysia.
There has been a less than positive aspect to this as well. It has, at times, degenerated into name-calling and attacks on various individuals and groups. This shows that our country still has a long way to go, in order for us to have different ideologies, ideas, philosophies and beliefs and have respect, tolerance for and acceptance of those who are different.
Unity is not the same as homogeneity. The strength of Malaysia, I feel, is in our unity and diversity. We speak different languages, and also the same languages. We have individual beliefs and shared beliefs. It seems like quite a few Malaysians calling for more homogeneity, that everyone should go the same school, speak the same languages, and learn the same things and that without that, it is impossible for Malaysians for be united. I feel that we should go in the opposite direction, philosophically, that we should embrace difference and diversity.
The problem with conventional education is that it is about uniformity – the worst result of this is that children who are different, such as those with different abilities, are left out. You are different, and you have to go to a different school under a different system. The thing is, all children are individual and unique. They all have different abilities and the best education practice is not treating the children as if they are one uniform, homogeneous group but as unique individuals, giving them each the help and support they need to be the best people they can be. This means not judging everyone by the same metric, but valuing different types of achievement and talent.
I’ve done a lot of reading, trying to get a sense of what Malaysians are thinking and writing about education. People want changes, very drastic changes. We should introduce this. We should completely get rid of that. We shouldn’t have school uniforms at all. We should copy Singapore. We should copy Finland. The “wish list” goes on and on. Everyone wants something.
This is a good development, and everyone should share their views. It must however be understood that not all opinions can or should be translated into policy. Policy should be based on 1) context and 2) research.
Firstly, we should not just copy whatever fad is popular at the moment in education. We cannot blindly take another country’s system and apply it in Malaysia. It simply has to be properly adapted to our needs. It makes sense that before introducing policies and changes, what the public so eagerly awaits, policy-makers will conduct thorough and rigorous research into the Malaysian education system. Research is what we need, long before we need policies. To use a simple analogy, a doctor cannot treat a patient until his or her symptoms are known and the underlying problem diagnosed. Antibiotics cannot treat cancer, chemotherapy, no matter how well carried out, cannot cure the common flu. Let the policy-makers carry out critical research and look at what is needed, and where.
Many of the Malaysians commenting on social media are urban, educated Malaysians, mostly in the Klang Valley. We do not know what the situation is like in other areas and we don’t see the whole picture. While there are many things we would like to see happen, it’s important to realise that the country cannot progress if urban education is modern and innovative while children in rural areas don’t even have access to schools. Most likely, the areas that need the most urgent help are not those in our direct range of vision, so changes and improvements may go unnoticed.
My second point is similar. We need to base policy on research. Policy-makers cannot be visionaries and anarchists – we cannot get rid of all “schooling” altogether and just live in a happy hippy world. We really like to use “Finland” or “Singapore” as examples – I even do so on this blog. However, it is not the practices or the curricula alone that we should look to. We need to look at the research. Singapore, for example, developed its highly successful mathematics curriculum not by copying what everyone else was doing but by looking into theories of cognition and the work of researchers such as Jerome Bruner. The principles behind these systems are what we should be looking at, the research that’s telling us what works and what doesn’t work and where education is going in the 21st century. We won’t achieve recognition of our education system as “world-class” simply by doing as other successful countries do.
Finland and Singapore dared to be different in their educational approaches (they are also vastly different from each other). They based their systems on sound research and practice. These takes take years to happen. It does not happen overnight. Changes should not be drastic. Malaysians have long felt that “flip-flopping” and changing policies have been difficult for students and teachers. The reason why the Education Blueprint will continue under the present government is for stability.
Policies cannot be just about what we want, but what the country at large needs. They should be well-researched, appropriately contextualised, evidence-based, and, very importantly, well-implemented. Great ideas may seem fantastic on paper, but they are only so great as as their implementation. Implementation is also not the end in itself – there must be further evaluation and reflection, then improvement.
We may think “this is a problem” and “that is a problem”, but in order to determine what the problems actually are, we need to conduct research such as in the form of tests, observations and interviews.
One final point that I will make is that we need to looking at two crucial areas: human resources and the early years.
The early years will set the course for a child’s life and research into economics has shown that investment in the early years has the highest return of investment. The early childhood care and education sector in Malaysia is vastly under-funded and under-developed. I hope to write more about this at a later date, especially after getting ahold of some recent studies conducted in this field.
Secondly, we need to be looking at the people who will actually implement the curriculum. As I said, any idea is only as good as its implementation. The people who bring the curriculum directly to children are our teachers.
These two areas, I believe, are the crucial issues to focus on in order to bring our education system to the next level.
I also hope that we will stay the course and not just be excited about change for a short time, losing interest when the euphoria has died down. Let’s do what we can and continue to be active and concerned citizens.