Placement of students based on aptitudes

THE Education Department recently issued a directive to Chinese primary schools in Kuala Lumpur to abolish their policy of placing students in classes based on their grades, starting next year.

This means the long-established performance-centric practice will now be replaced by random placement. Classes will no longer be termed as elite and regular classes.

For parents and teachers accustomed to the old system, the change is bound to give rise to concern and anxiety.

Parents worry mixing students with varying capabilities in a class will have a negative effect in that the slower ones will have to work harder to make up ground which is a step forward, but regrettably, at the expense of the smarter ones who will be forced to ‘wait’ for the slower ones to catch up.

The fear is that such a system will result in failure on the latter’s part to realise their full academic potential.

Moreover, teachers are worried as well that if the level of learning in a classroom is too uneven or if the gap is too big, they will have to find a happy median to benefit both sides. The task is easier said than done, given the vastly different intelligence levels.

Chinese primary schools uphold the present placement system in the hope that teaching students in accordance with their aptitudes will be better in bringing out their potential.

Confucius advocates teaching people according to their aptitudes, emphasising respect for individual differences and requiring teachers to provide ‘targetted teaching’ based on different temperaments, abilities, intelligence, character and interests of students.

Although mooted more than 2,000 years ago, this teaching is still being upheld today. However, as the students’ abilities are to be based or judged solely on their test marks, it is important to know that exams are merely a summation of a teaching phase.

Test marks can only represent a part of a student’s intelligence at best. If this is overly depended on to classify a student’s potential for all-round development, isn’t it too arbitrary and one-sided?

Assigning students to classes based on test marks may be convenient to teaching, but education is an activity aimed at nurturing and developing talents. It is not a production process where only economic benefits are considered or where efficiency and convenience are the main pursuits.

Will a child’s psychological development be negatively impacted it is forced to attend regular classes as well as after-school classes?

Perhaps, we should not focus on just reading books and passing exams but also devote ourselves to the harmonious development of intelligence, emotion and physiological health.

Learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together are the four pillars of education, proposed by the UN Commission for Education for the 21st Century and they have become the basis for education in over 100 countries around the world.

Can we really ignore the changes brought about by time and continue to regard intellectual education as the sole basis for human capital development?

The abolition of the traditional method of assigning students to classes based on grades may not necessarily be the same as giving students quality education but as long as the practice of deeming a student’s success and failure based on grades is still adhered to, we will never escape the ‘curse’ bound to intellectual education and will continue to link ‘competitive grades’ with ‘personal development.’

The abolition of the traditional method does not mean giving up teaching students according to their aptitudes, but rather that teachers should be able see the differences in students from a wider perspective.

The focus should be on multiple development and flexibilty, using different relevant activities so that every student will have the opportunity to progress and bloom.

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