A Sarawak education system blueprint for the 21st century

OPINION

Education in Sarawak must adopt these four priorities:

1. Nurturing talent

Talent cannot flourish where the dominant culture in education is getting high exam scores. In such settings, the high achiever is often not engaged or transformed by his learning, but someone who knows how to navigate his way through the system.

Children are natural learners. Our teaching methods must leverage on their innate curiosity and natural capacity to learn. If we continue with factory model education in a testing-centred culture, learning will be boring and irrelevant when it should be fun. If our kids actually look forward to being in school, we will not have a problem with truancy, school gangsterism, student drug addicts or dropouts.

There is now a push to increase student numbers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. However, there are students whose innate talent is in the arts and humanities, and they will be a failure if they did anything else.

If we recognise that and allow them to try different disciplines to discover their gifts, they can succeed in those disciplines beyond our imagination. Hence students must be able to select from a broad range of subjects in the sciences, arts and humanities. Creativity is strengthened by seeing perspectives from multiple disciplines.

Students should also be informed of all the pathways available to them to pursue their vocational interest whether via TVet (technical vocational education and training), university, internship or starting a business. An educational culture that does not insist on only one pathway to success will ultimately produce more success and a full range of talents needed for the state.

Just as each student has an innate talent, so each learns best in a certain way and progresses at different rates in different subjects. It is hard to nurture

talent using a ‘one size fits all’ factory model approach. To maximise the potential of each student, they can be grouped according to ability and interest, rather than age.

It is not necessary for every student to be given the same content in the same sequence, but teachers can customise learning according to individual needs and situations. Whenever a learning disability is encountered, a specialist in special education should provide the needed help.

2. Invest in 21st century school infrastructure

Our rural schools are in need of repair but we no longer want a factory model school. Our school infrastructure must support our 21st century learning methods. Aside from halls for large

groups and quiet personal work spaces, we need learning spaces for small groups to learn collaboratively, brainstorm and work on projects. This can be sited in full view of teachers from their office spaces.

Classroom furniture should be reconfigurable for rapid conversion from lecture format to learning in groups or pairs. There should be a learning management system software that enables classroom interaction, analysing student performance, facilitating collaborative learning, content sharing and out-of-class learning.

3. Teach using 21st century pedagogies

Many of us can remember being taught by professors who were very poor teachers. A teacher should not be just someone with content expertise. Teaching is an art. If the teaching does not lead to learning, then there is no education going on.

Education has helped transform Finland from an industrial-agrarian society into an innovation-based knowledge economy. All Finnish primary or secondary school teachers have a master’s degree in education. Each year only about 10 per cent of the applicants for the master’s programmes are accepted, some only after repeated attempts.

Good teachers can foster learning because they know how to engage, inspire and mentor

their students. In addition, all teachers need to be trained in the new instructional strategies because they themselves were never taught in those ways. The newer teaching philosophies may even be at odds with what they have always believed about education. Newer instructional strategies include active, collaborative, experiential, project-based, problem-based and discovery-based learning.

These pedagogies foster 21st century skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, leadership, and self-directed learning. They are often employed when the educational philosophy is

student-centred learning, where students take ownership of their learning while teachers support and guide. There is little point in spending on 21st century school infrastructure if teachers still end up as the ‘sage on the stage’.

4. Make education equitable

Equity in education refers to giving students of all backgrounds the same educational opportunities. A child from a less advantaged background, such as a rural school, must be able to receive the same quality education as one from an urban, educated family.

All students must also have

access to healthy food, medical and dental care. Improving the educational attainment of students can increase employment rate, lifelong learning and ability to cope with technological transitions while reducing criminal involvement, unhealthy habits and even teenage pregnancies.

The cost of school dropouts is high for individuals and society. Therefore, primary schools in particular must have a sufficient number of teachers trained in special education to monitor at-risk students and intervene early, so that students do not drop out but complete secondary education.

I teach problem-based learning to medical students. Despite years in the Asian educational culture, they are able to adapt to learning in a new way. In education, I find it is the adults that resist change. It is not possible for a digital and knowledge economy to be underpinned by an education system designed for the industrial economy.

Though education is a sensitive issue in a multiracial society, and changes need time to produce results, Sarawak is the most well placed to succeed, with its ethnic harmony and political stability. The goal is not minor improvements but a totally transformed public school system superior to all existing models. With a new ministry in place and autonomy talks in progress, the time to change Sarawak education is now.
Dr William K Lim is associate professor in the Department of Paraclinical Sciences, Faulty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).

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