Thursday, October 21

A Sarawak education system blueprint for the 21st century


IT is timely that education in Sarawak is now under a dedicated ministry. As Sarawak heads towards a digital economy, rapid technological advancements will outpace our organisations and human development.

Despite recent tweaks, our schooling system and educational culture are still of the industrial age, meant for producing mass literacy and assembly line workers, not the knowledge workers of a developed state. Our state education system requires nothing short of a revolution for it to power Sarawak’s coming economic transformation.

In the 19th century factory model of education, schools consist of long rows of classrooms occupied by students sorted by age. Every 30 minutes a bell rings and students are taught a subject unrelated to the previous one. Every student receives the same facts at the same time to remember for the same exam. The system is controlled by a central command that issue policies to make it run efficiently. The goal is to produce large numbers of similar workers for farms or factories, with only a small number needed for higher positions.

In addition to having this factory model, our present educational culture views entry into Cambridge or Harvard as the highest achievement in education. Consequently, most finish their education thinking they are not very smart.

Since university entrance is by scores in standardised tests, parents pressure their children to get high grades, and occupy their free time with extra tuition. Students try to maximise their scores by all means, including rote memorisation and leaked exam questions. Teachers focus on exam drills to produce more high scorers for the school so as to attract more funding from the ministry.

Finland is a small country to which many go to study their education system because their 15-year-olds regularly top the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). Yet Finnish students do not sit for any high stakes standardised test until just prior to university entry.

We need a revolution in the way we understand organised education and its three components – curriculum (what we want students to learn), pedagogy (how we help them to learn), and assessment (measuring what they have learnt).

First, the curriculum. Human knowledge is now said to double every 13 months. Whatever propositional knowledge we teach will not be sufficient to equip our students to solve problems in the very different world they will find themselves in. Even now, a significant proportion of our graduates remain unemployed or underemployed.

In a 2014 survey of 400 US employers, 91 per cent agreed that for career success, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major”. Hence the curriculum must be taught in a way that fosters these new skills.

Further, the majority of employers and students surveyed agreed that long-term career success requires not just knowledge and skills in a specific field, but also those that apply to a broad range of skills.

Though many parents think a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) discipline has better job prospects, students should be given choices from a broad range of both science and arts subjects. For languages, while Bahasa Malaysia and English are taught from day one, students should have the additional option to choose Mandarin and other languages the school can offer.

Secondly, pedagogy. In the factory model teacher-centred classroom, the teacher decides what and when students should learn, and how they are to learn it. The teachers do most of the talking and students passively conform. Students even need to raise their hand for permission to speak or leave their seat. How can we expect students in such an environment to become independent and collaborative learners, and critical thinkers?

An education system where the students have no voice or choice and where only the teacher’s answer is ever right creates in students the fear of being wrong. It is difficult to become creative or be an entrepreneur if one is not willing to take the risk of being wrong.

We want our students to be creative, but at the same time we are educating them out of their natural creative capacity. We cannot expect them to be creative and innovative just by telling them to, by joining innovation contests or answering a different type of exam question. They need an education system where they are can take ownership of their learning, acquire knowledge actively and solve real world problems.

Before the information age, knowledge was in the hands of the teachers. Now, kids are online most of the time, having a device in their hands that can access a world of information. They need not be given information they can find for themselves, or memorise information that is retrieved faster electronically. Our pedagogy must change to reflect these new realities.

Thirdly, assessment. This is helpful in education because it enables the student to know how well he is learning. Ideally students should receive a description of their performance (and not just an A or B grade) so that they know what remedial steps to take.

When the assessment is by a common test taken by all the students, student performance can be ranked against each other. Often such ranking is used for high stakes purposes like entry into limited university places. The problem with that is students and teachers start teaching and learning to the test until getting high scores becomes the goal of education itself.

When this happens, the assessment actually reduces learning because students are only trying to meet the standards of a test which cannot cover everything, and with no outlet for creativity. Hence, assessments should be used to diagnose and remedy a student’s knowledge gaps, but high stakes standardised testing should be avoided until it is absolutely necessary.
To be continued tomorrow.
Dr William K Lim is associate professor in the Department of Paraclinical Sciences, Faulty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).