I recently met with a retired teacher and we were engaged in a conversation about teaching. It seems like a simple topic, but there are some perspectives that you normally do not see as a student, or a parent. She spoke with flair, and was reminiscing about her days in a reputable national school for over 20 years. I was taken aback when I was told of how different the education system is compared with the days I was in school back in the ‘90s. It clearly shows the perspectives of a teacher and a naïve student are worlds apart. And all I was concerned about when I was in school was popularity among my peers.
Smart School or Wasteful School?
The school that the retired teacher taught in was (or is?) a highly acclaimed “Sekolah Bestari” or “Smart School” in English. It is one of the identified Malay elite day schools chosen to follow a new system of education called the “Teaching & Learning” concept, which was apparently adopted from Kings College of London after a government officer attended a course there. The irony is that it turned out to be just an empty concept without proper guidelines given to the teachers other than the use of computers in teaching four subjects namely Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mathematics and Science.
Millions of ringgits were spent on establishing the T&L software and books where information in books were extracted and transferred into computer software. Unfortunately, these materials were not used for long as the medium of teaching Mathematics and Science were changed to English. These books and software were kept in the storeroom for years and were eventually sold by school janitors to the recycling centers as side pocket money! I don’t really know the exact amount that was spent, but I would think it was significant enough for the janitor to bring home a larger loaf of bread to his dining table!
Being an exemplary “Sekolah Bestari”, the school was equipped with computers and other modern infrastructures provided by the Education Ministry. The school was then promoted to be the “Premier School” in Malaysia and was the de facto benchmark of other similarly chosen schools. As such, the school was frequently visited by education ministers and officials from many countries to showcase what the ideal smart school should look like.
Besides being blessed with free computers and other modern infrastructures, the school is also given RM 1 million each year, on top of the normal education grant. The responsibility of a sum this big landed on the shoulders the school management board, which then became the responsibilities of the teachers on how to distribute the funds to different needs of the school. Some of the funds were for buying additional books and teaching aids, but eventually, the teachers ran out of ideas on what else to spend the money on.
So, school excursions (lawatan sambil belajar) were organized on a yearly basis. I’m not talking about half day visits to the National Zoo. The students were sent on international trips to countries like New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Bangkok and England, chaperoned by their teachers, all expenses paid using this million ringgit pool.
Many teachers who are true believers in justice and fairness feel that it is misappropriation of funds, unjustified and unfair to the less fortunate neighbouring schools who are still to this day struggling to have proper amenities (notice boards, tables and other basic school facilities) while the more affluent schools are splashing tax payers’ money on luxury trips overseas. Many of them have poured out concerns on these issues but their concerns fell on deaf ears.
The education ministry has recently introduced a new school assessment method called the Continual Assessment (PBS) in place of public exams (UPSR, PMR, SPM and STPM) or mid-year/year end exams. This continual assessment system has recently been implemented this year for all Standard 1 and Form 1 students, designated as the pilot group for initial implementation. Students are assessed on their academic ability as well as soft skills such as mannerism, working habit, moral values, ability to work as a team, tidiness, systematic and discipline in daily work, etc.
It is a formative test, meaning after each lesson, students are tested of their understanding through exercises and quizzes. A teacher will assess the student from his/her exercise books or through questioning and observation. Teachers are to inform students of their weaknesses and if students show improvement in the next exercise or test, the teacher will put them in a higher band for this learning area. Tests can be in the form of daily exercises, quiz, project, laboratory experiment, presentation and so on. Students are given chances after chances to improve themselves.
Initially, schools were told that there would be no examinations for these students. However, the regional education department submitted a contradictory directive to schools stating that mid year exams are compulsory to students. The basic organizational structure of the education ministry is as follows :
Very often, the directive from the state education department and regional education department are different, in fact contradictory, which results in confusion among teachers.
There is no PMR exam for this year’s Form 1 students. However, there is still no news on SPM. Most probably SPM will be retained, with maybe 30 to 50% formative test and 50 to 70% summative test. No matter what the education department decides, Chinese schools have their own way in governing their system by adapting the conventional method, which is examination-based.
Teaching & Learning strategy (T&L) is also changed to be more student-oriented. Teachers are no longer the content provider but more of a facilitator. Teachers are not supposed to teach (chalk & talk or lecture method) with students listening passively (monologue), but they are required to play an active role in learning and acquiring knowledge through discussion, demonstration, hands on experiment, discovery method, problem-based solving method, field trips and so on. Students can learn beyond the limit of the syllabus set by the education ministry.
Teachers are motivators who bring immediate change in their students’ lives from being knowledge receivers to knowledge seekers. They should be able to seek knowledge from books and the Internet. Schools are equipped with computers and Internet services so that students are able to learn and obtain raw information from the Internet. Teachers are also trained to design lessons and put up notes on the Internet, so that students are able to learn at anytime and anywhere (E-learning, something that is popular in today’s Generation Y).
Teachers are instructed to make learning fun and interesting. They are required to provide a conducive learning environment more in-tuned to the current needs of this generation of students. As such, there are many T&L strategies to suit various learning capabilities. According to Howard Gardner (an American developmental psychologist), there are 7 types of learning capabilities: logical-mathematical, linguistic-musical, kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal & intrapersonal.
For example, students who are kinesthetic, unlike linguistic students, will not be able to learn well if the teacher lectures with chalk and talk. The student will need to move about and is able to learn better through hands-on, practical lessons. Musically inclined students learn well by interacting with others as opposed to textbook-based learning.
Teachers are supposed to make these changes in schools but many teachers themselves are not willing to change. They are the main obstacles that hinder the success of the new education system. When the syllabus for Mathematics and Science was changed to English in 2003, teachers were provided with ample opportunities to learn English and fundamental ICT skills. Teachers were also given allowances to improve their skill sets. Sadly, because of a lack of a control system to provide check-and-balance and tracking, the allowances given were unfortunately misused for individual personal benefits by some teachers. This becomes a form of small scale corruption.
Many teachers are also not committed in their work, and many are more into making the extra Ringgit by giving personal tuition. Skipping classes are frequent occurrences in schools among teachers and even the school’s management.
In some urban schools, some teachers including the head of school has never marked examination papers. What is more alarming is that students are told to create and key in their marks online to be sent to the education department. Coursework which are developed by the education department are sent to schools at the last minute together with answers. Some teachers especially those who give tuition will post these papers and answers on the Internet for students to modify the answers before submitting their papers, which are obviously not marked. At this point, you’re probably feeling less respectful of teachers in general, but it’s really the horrible few teachers who give good teachers the bad reputation.
Some science stream students have never been to laboratories, even if they were in Form 4 and 5. Only theories and principles were taught. The reason being is that it is “too dangerous” to have students in the laboratory and after all there seemed to be no real reason since practical examinations have been abolished in SPM.
In summary, although all is not lost, and there are many admirable teachers, the system seems to be flawed. There are some good efforts by the government to provide a more wholesome environment for learning, but unfortunately, the intentions are not followed through to each school and their teachers. Some teachers still have passion to see their students excel, but other teachers just want to pass the day and collect their paycheck. The government needs to provide strict enforcement with accountability along with the funds given so that quality of education is maintained and integrity is preserved. What has been told above are not lies but a way of life for some schools in Petaling Jaya. One will be left to think of what is happening in rural schools. Perhaps there are many other shocks and surprises, which are left untold.