Archive for the ‘Educational Reforms and School Improvement’ Category

Make remote learning a norm

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

New norm: Digital learning will continue to be a crucial part of post-MCO education, experts say. – File photo

COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill but it has also helped pinpoint weaknesses in the education sector and presented opportunities for new norms and changes to kick in.

But, sufficient government funding is a pre-requisite for any sort of meaningful reform, Universiti Malaya (UM) Faculty of Education dean Prof Dr Rohaida Mohd Saat said, adding that effective management of the Education Ministry’s RM64.1bil budget for Year 2020 is imperative for the education system to move forward.

The government can also consider creative means of financing such as cross-subsidisation, crowdsourcing or CSR models, said Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) acting deputy vice-chancellor (academic and international) Prof Datuk Dr Ahmad Farhan Mohd Sadullah.

A post-MCO budget, said Malaysian Economic Association deputy president and Sunway University Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development senior fellow Prof Dr Yeah Kim Leng, could be better managed if a spending review is conducted.

“Reprioritisation is needed to address the pandemic’s impact on schools. Reviewing the budget offers an opportunity to strengthen the education system’s resilience.

“The first step is to ensure that the necessary funds are available to support the implementation of remote teaching, learning and monitoring in all schools, in case another crisis occurs.

“Rural and ill-equipped schools should be given greater attention to address unequal availability and access to digital resources and remote learning. It is important that both students and teachers are equipped with the necessary tools.”

Noting that a post-MCO budget should prioritise the development and use of digital resources and capabilities to improve educational outcomes, he said it is advisable to increase resources to create sharing platforms for teaching and learning resources among public and private institutions.

Pointing out that the ministry’s total operating and development budget was raised by 6.4% to RM64.1bil in 2020 from RM60.2bil in the previous year, Prof Yeah, who is also an external member of Bank Negara’s monetary policy committee (MPC), said the adverse impact on the education sector could be mitigated by reallocating, reprioritising or postponing spending on the various activities and programme should a budget cut materialise.

“Allocations for services and supplies, assets and grants can be redirected towards activities and programmes that maintain health and safety of students, maximise student learning, support teachers and staff, and sustain operational effectiveness.”

He added that schools, education districts and state education departments should also conduct their own budget reviews to identify changes in needs and spending priorities in the post-MCO environment.

“Pooling and sharing of teaching and learning resources as well as holding joint programmes and activities could be explored to lower cost and maximise utilisation of resources.

“Engaging the community in funding extra-curricular activities that benefit students by exposing them to the larger societal issues and challenges can also be done, ” said Prof Yeah.

Pointing out that the ministry has implemented outcome-based budgeting as evidenced by the summary of achievements of the targeted outcomes accompanying its annual budget, he said further scrutiny of the reported progress and achievements together with the adoption of external yardsticks and third party independent assessment by educational experts would be helpful to identify weaknesses in implementation and improve the budgeting process.

New norms

Besides making improvements on Internet accessibility and ICT facilities, Prof Ahmad Farhan said the current exam-centric, fast-paced education system needs to change. This has become painfully evident during the MCO.

The current system’s definition of success is narrow and based mainly on grades rather than outcome attainment as well as competency and character building.

“The same instructional approaches have remained for years. It was very difficult to change the educators’ mindset and the way they teach, despite learners having already adapted to new ways of learning.

“Educators want to stay in their ‘comfort zone’ as they want learning outcomes to be met. They are often unwilling to experiment with new approaches fearing that the learning process will breakdown, ” he said.

Sharing his sentiment, Prof Rohaida said educators of our ‘traditional system’, especially at school level, do not know how to proceed with classes when a shift to e-learning became necessary.

Teachers’ attitude towards technology – which is linked with their readiness to use new teaching methods – must change.

“Teachers need technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK) to enable them to use the right tools and deliver lessons based on the nature of the subject.

“Training is already in place at varsities and at teacher training institutes (IPG). In-service teachers too have been given training to upgrade their competencies in technology-based instructions. But the question is have teachers been integrating technology in their classrooms?”

Sarawak Teachers’ Union (STU) vice-president Adam Prakash Abdullah hopes that an education system free of the “conventional pen and paper test” will become reality after the pandemic.

“Rescheduling the school academic calendar and public exams as an immediate measure is reasonable but this action plan must be reviewed for the coming school session.

“Public exams will have to be thought through and appropriate alternate assessment has to be the new norm in schools and institutions of higher learning. The conventional written test has to go and assessments must be revamped.”

Parental support

The community must be empowered and parents and teachers must rally together to build a strong support system amid this crisis, said Prof Ahmad Farhan.

“Parents play a role in educating children when they are at home. This includes providing a conducive environment for learning and keeping distractions at bay. Parents must get their priorities right and they must be committed, ” he said, adding that teachers and schools need strategies to ensure that learning outcomes are achieved.

“Educators must give personal attention to each student if effective learning is to happen.”

Prof Rohaida said some parents have the perception that learning will take place by simply making the child sit in front of a computer.

“Children need support when using online platforms. But parents and guardians too need pedagogical competencies in assisting their children with online lessons.”

She, however, is optimistic that things will fall into place eventually.

Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) Malaysia chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim said schools must maintain clear and constant communication with parents. A guide for parents who have to multitask between remote work, household responsibilities and helping their children with school work, is needed.

Parents and guardians can also build their own support system via chat and social media groups to exchange ideas and experiences.

“We need a video library with content developed according to the national syllabus and curriculum, and accessible via digital devices.

“Rethink the scheduling of classes in line with remote learning. Physical attendance is only for teachers and students to touch base, ” said Noor Azimah.

This method of learning however largely depends on students’ motivation, she added.

“Motivation must come from students themselves. Unfortunately, it will inadvertently filter those who want to learn and those who are less interested, ” she said.

Melaka Action Group for Parents in Education chairman Mak Chee Kin said everyone must come together to improve the learning process.

Acknowledging that it is easier said than done, he said not many parents and teachers are in regular contact.

“Most parents only meet the teacher on Report Card Day or when the child has an issue in school. Many do not even bother with Parent Teachers Association (PTA) meetings.

“Perhaps it is time to take a cue from private schools and enhance the parent-teacher engagement sessions, ” he said, suggesting that classrooms be made smaller to make it easier for teachers to get to know and engage with the students and parents.

National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Harry Tan said the union is in the midst of conducting research into pedagogy for social distancing.

“We are aware that students from remote areas are losing out due to lack of infrastructure.

“Ensuring connectivity to the whole country is a major reform which needs careful planning and deep pockets.

“At the moment, the ministry has been trying to reach out to students through educational TV programmes that are in line with the syllabus, ” he said, adding that teachers need to be retrained to conduct distance or online teaching.

“Once the teachers have the skills, they will do whatever is necessary to ensure their students learn.

“Teachers are resourceful and do their best despite the many constraints, ” said Tan.

Effective education

Sunday, April 19th, 2020

Effective learning: Online learning allows students to ask questions and express opinions freely.

HIGHER learning institutions (HEIs) which invested time and resources in online learning are now reaping the benefits.

Since the movement control order (MCO) was implemented on March 18, student attendance had improved as teaching was done online, said INTI International University Faculty of Business Communication and Law lecturer Assoc Prof Dr Lee Kar Ling.

“Students are more comfortable with online learning. Online learning allows students, particularly those who are shy, to contribute and share views and questions without being judged for saying the wrong things or making a mistake.

“They feel that there is a sense of anonymity.

“Taking attendance is also a breeze, ” she said, adding that an attendance report can be generated from the Blackboard Learning Management System – INTI’s online platform for seamless teaching and learning.

The institution had begun online learning initiatives since 2012. Students were required to participate in two-hour online lectures, where one hour was allocated for tutorials and another hour was dedicated to self-directed online learning.

It is during the one-hour of learning that students engage in Blackboard activities such as self-check quizzes, additional review of articles, case studies as well as video assignments.

A firm believer in the effectiveness of online education, Prof Lee said online tests made it harder for students to cheat.

“Tests conducted on Blackboard are open book, but that’s not a guarantee that you’ll be able to answer.

“Some avoid the online tests as they find it to be more challenging as it involves problem solving and critical thinking, ” she said, pointing out that online marking is environmentally friendly and allows effective marking of tests and assignments.

“Once marking is completed, students can instantly review the marks and the feedback to help them improve in future assignments or tests.”

Describing online learning as convenient and simple, INTI Business Administration Masters student Abdul Samad Akhunzad, 26, said he was able to cope with lessons easily.

“We were already using Blackboard for our coursework such as assignment submissions and online learning sessions even before the MCO. I faced some difficulties at first, but everything was sorted within minutes. Tutorial videos and guides helped me utilise the platform more effectively, ” the student from Pakistan said.

His classmate Kalzhan Mukhanbetzhanova, 27, was delighted when INTI implemented full-time online learning during the MCO.

“I have never experienced full-time online classes before. It saves so much time compared to traditional face-to-face sessions. And, online classes can be recorded and viewed again later, ” she said.

Accountancy student Choo Shi Hang, 22, said some of her peers may feel shy or awkward asking questions in a classroom full of students but online learning allows them to do so in the chat room in real time.

“I hope online classes will continue even after the MCO.”

The correct edu reform

Friday, October 4th, 2019

If the Ministry of Education had wanted to reform the school system, it could have chosen an issue that is impactful to the reform effort as well as one that would obtain a broad consensus across all stakeholders.

It could choose, as an example, to improve the teaching of languages in our schools. It could also choose to improve the teaching of mathematics and perhaps introduce programming language in schools.

Any one of these would likely obtain a consensus among most stakeholders, and either one would have formed the first steps towards reform. Improving the teaching of languages or mathematics, key subjects in any system that emphasises the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), will lead to the improvement of teaching in the other subjects as well. Literacy and numeracy form the foundation of any learning enterprise.

This would be a possible outcome if the MoE, from its political leadership to its professional staff, were to look at education as purely educational. Alas, this is not the case in Malaysia. It has never been the case since we decided to live together and govern ourselves.

As mind-boggling as it is to understand why the ministry decided to make introducing Arabic calligraphy in Malay classes in Chinese and Tamil schools a key policy initiative, such a decision, unfortunately, fits a long-established pattern of not looking at education as just education. Both the supply and demand sides of the educational equation have never been just about education. The policy prescription and the reaction towards it are therefore not unexpected.

Education has always been looked at through the prism of politics and since politics in this country is largely race-based, education comes with the colours and odours of race and, therefore, religion. Neither the means nor the ends of education are just about education. It has never been “just” about developing the mind and exploring the true potential of a child for them to be good and productive citizens of this country. Therefore, it has also never been about consensus building — it is divisive and fragmenting. Education, a tool for national development and unity, becomes divisive and mediocre as a result.

Racial politics has made our educational institutions less about education and more about furthering our own racial prejudices and religious beliefs. We do not only separate our children, we imbue in them the sense of differences, not in the sense that there is diversity in this life but that anything different is somehow less, worse, or to be feared and avoided.

The Pakatan Harapan government would do well to start deracialising education and pivot the economic development agenda around this educational reform, but evidence thus far has been disappointing. And at the root of this inertia against change is racial politics, the proposition that the interests of a community are best preserved by members of the community themselves. The ruling coalition from the time of Merdeka has been a coalition of race-based parties, although the origins of nationalism in Malaya — be they the more rural Malays or urban Chinese — were left-leaning, class-based rather than race-based. The radical Malay left got associated with Indonesian nationalism, which was republican, and the labour-based Chinese urban politics was associated with socialism and more damagingly with the communists.

Neither the spectre of Indonesia Raya (greater Indonesia, which would include Malaya) or the threat of the Domino Theory (communism) were palatable to the British and the path towards self-rule in Malaya became a union of distinct entities defined by race instead of the politics of class. Such a union was a convenient platform towards independence and government during the early days but it contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Nationally, this racially defined logic and dynamic also became incongruous with the somewhat different dynamics of Sabah and Sarawak, which were more reminiscent of pre-World War II Malaya. The challenge of Malaysia remains a fundamental one — how we see ourselves as distinct individual identities in the context of who we are as Malaysians. How do we locate ourselves, not as individuals but as groups within this imagined construct we call Malaysia?

The race-based politics that dominates and colours public discourse and policies tends to divide rather than unite. Over time, the political division of labour by race sharpens the racial divide rather than create a larger common denominator within a coalition. The imagined construct of Malaysia gets dominated or is relegated to the periphery and, increasingly, the reality that is lived is one that is defined by identity and race, which tends to lessen one’s appreciation of diversity, hence its tolerance — a vicious and insidious cycle.

If calligraphy were introduced as an art form in arts class — a graphical representation of letters and, therefore, of words and phrases of different kinds of alphabets, then it would have made sense from an educational perspective. Introducing the jawi script, effectively the Arabic script, for the study of Malay literature, too, would have been normal given that classical Malay literature was written in Jawi. But to introduce Arabic calligraphy in a Malay language class for non-native speakers is silly and, given the racially charged environment, the reactions to such a decision were equally silly. So, things get blown up, divisions get amplified and the education system is no better.

I am now inclined to believe that policy debates on education and on the economy, too, would have been much more productive if the debates around these issues were based on class politics instead of race. There is economics to households and communities but there is no economics to race. Economics can, however, explain the sub-optimality of outcomes in a racially segregated community. An obvious consequence of segregation is that the factor markets in such a community are also fragmented, which suggests a production structure that is equally fragmented catering for a demand side that is also fragmented. A racially fragmented economy is the sum of its distinct parts and therefore a sub-optimal economy.

As an example, there are various public policy interventions in entrepreneur development programmes but these are understood to mean bumiputera entrepreneur development programmes, which can still be argued as a legitimate policy objective given the lack of such entrepreneurs, but the racial framing of the problem and the pervasiveness of racial considerations made the solution to this national problem a sub-optimal one. The participants in and the managers of the programmes will then be almost exclusively bumiputera and they will design and implement programmes with bumiputera product concepts catering for the bumiputera market using bumiputera channels. This approach contains the seeds of its own failing for it lost sight of the main objective of a business to sustainably make profits by offering the market — the broadest possible market — what it wants and can afford to pay. But we continue with the same approach despite the negative results because we cannot get away from the racial perspective. The political market that decides these things is held hostage by race and identity and national problems continue to be solved by compartmentally applying a segregated perspective.

Leadership should rise above these narrow, parochial interests and be more inspirational. If leaders are unable to lead then the people must lead, as they do in any class struggle. They must be made to realise that while the rhetoric of race used by leaders may be appealing to the heart, the majority are not made better off as a consequence. The policy prescriptions and programmes derived from such rhetoric are ineffective to improve the welfare of the general population and only serve the narrow interests of the political elites. Maybe this ruinous politics of race can be moderated by appealing to class arguments. Perhaps this is something to ponder on this Merdeka month.

By: Nungsari A Radhi.

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Positive learning attitude key to change

Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

Dass (centre) guiding the participants in completing their tasks during the teacher workshop.

WHEN Omar Awwaluddin Ghazali turned up at The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) workshop held in SMK Seri Dungun, Terengganu, early this month, he was curious to find out what was in store for him.

The SM Imtiaz Yayasan Terengganu Kemaman teacher confessed that he had rarely used newspapers as a classroom resource.

“The problem is we don’t have enough to distribute to the classrooms, ” he said.

He also admitted to being unfamiliar with newspapers, as he usually obtained the latest news online or from the television.

But when the workshop began, Omar could be seen paying close attention to Star-NiE freelance consultant trainer Lucille Dass, actively contributing to discussions and even taking charge of his group’s hands-on activities.

It was precisely this kind of positive learning attitude that Dass urged the English language teachers in attendance to adopt in their profession.

Quoting Alvin Toffler, who wrote Future Shock, she said: “The illiterate of the 21st century are not those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

“Are you open to learning? Learning starts from the womb to the tomb – that means there is no end to learning. Once you stop learning, you are brain-dead. This is very serious, especially for teachers. If you don’t accept other people’s views, you are brain-dead, ” she explained.

“As teachers, we must first of all be learners. When you learn something new, you unlearn what is old and useless – you throw it away because it is of no use anymore at this point in time – then you would have relearned.”

Dass also emphasised the need for teachers to cultivate a genuine love for languages among their students.

“When your students enjoy learning, they take ownership of their learning; they become motivated, inspired and independent learners – that’s what you must aim for.

The students getting to know each other at the start of their session.The students getting to know each other at the start of their session

“Make them fall in love with the language, whatever language it is – then they want to learn, not because it is a school subject but because they love to learn – that is the kind of attitude a teacher must have, ” she said.

“A textbook is just a guide. Exams are only a snapshot of their abilities. It is better to use the language for life, ” she added.

Learn, unlearn and relearn

Sponsored by Petronas to support the use of newspapers in the classroom, the NiE workshop in Terengganu saw the participation of 35 primary and secondary school teachers, as well as the Terengganu Hired English Language Personnel (T-HELP).

The oil and gas giant is also sponsoring RM150,000 worth of NiE pullouts to supplement the Trenglish (Transforming English in Terengganu) programme for the third year.

Introduced in 2015, the Trenglish programme, involving 50 schools in the state, is a collaborative effort between Petronas, the state education department and Yayasan Terengganu to improve English language proficiency among students.

At the end of the teacher workshop, Omar was so inspired by Dass’ session that he gave it a nine out of 10 rating.

“Before coming here, I wasn’t exposed to such activities. I didn’t know I could use the newspaper in such a way to teach English, for example, getting students to find pictures and having them write their own descriptions.

“Now, I have more activities to apply in class. I will use The Star newspaper and the NiE pullout more often from now on, ” he said.

Omar is grateful for Petronas’ initiative to provide a better classroom environment and resource for teachers and students.

“The students in Terengganu lack the opportunity to use the English language in their environment. Because of Petronas’ sponsorship, they get more chances of familiarising themselves with the language through the newspaper, NiE pullout and student workshop, ” he said.

Teacher Zaini Kussin from SMK Kuala Jengal, Dungun, could also be seen eagerly raising his hands and sharing his answers several times during the workshop. Although this was his second year being a participant, he found new ideas worth exploring in his classroom.

“The instructor gave us two activities that I found interesting and lively – the kinaesthetic activity where we used the newspaper to mime some actions, and the pronunciation activity where we practised our intonation to the beat of a tambourine, ” he said, adding that he is inspired by Dass to use the maracas and other musical instruments in his English language lessons.

Zaini also shared that after attending the NiE workshop last year, he entrusted his school’s T-HELP Soleha Soleh with conducting newspaper activities during relief classes.

“I gave her a set of NiE activity cards I got from the workshop. She has tried them out with the students, ” he said.

Soleha, who was a first-time participant at an NiE workshop, rated Dass’ session a full 10 out of 10. She shared that she carries out newspaper activities four times a month.

“The students like using the newspaper. Every time they see me, they expect something different. I use both the newspaper and the pullout.

“I usually adapt the activities in the pullout if the level is too difficult for my students. We focus on fun, simple activities such as coming up with dialogues for characters in comic strips and pictures, ” she said.

While Zaini acknowledges the effort that Petronas is making to boost the state’s English language proficiency, he feels more can be done to ensure that the programme produces results.

“It’s a good thing that Petronas is doing this. But right now, it’s up to the teachers to use the newspaper. If we are not doing it, there won’t be results. Maybe Petronas and The Star can come up with a competition that can motivate us to be more active, and get the students to produce some work. It will cost more for Petronas but if you don’t have an exam, students don’t have the motivation to learn because they have nothing to worry about; likewise, if there’s a competition, it will challenge them to do more, ” he said.

For teacher Toharah Omar, the NiE workshop was a timely refresher as she attended a similar workshop some 10 years ago in Pahang.

“Sometimes the same teachers go for workshops while the others don’t get the opportunity. I’m thankful that I’m here for this. I hope Petronas and Star-NiE organise more workshops for teachers so that we gain new ideas and be more confident when carrying out newspaper activities in the classroom, ” she said.

As an English language teacher at SMK Tengku Lela Segara, Toharah has done her part to broaden her teaching repertoire through the use of newspapers.

“The students are more excited when I use the newspaper and NiE in the classroom. It’s a new experience for them because not all the teachers use it as a resource. They like to look at the pictures. It’s also useful because they get ideas and information which help them to enhance their essays or in debates, ” she said.

“I always advise my students to refer to the dictionary to learn new words from the newspaper, and not rely on me as a walking dictionary, ” she added.

Enjoyable experience

Later on the same day, 52 students – ranging from Forms One to Four – attended the student workshop held at the same venue.

Toharah’s student Nur Syamimi Zuhayra Mohd Razini found the experience enjoyable.

“This is my first NiE workshop. I realised there are many things I didn’t know about the newspaper. I learned new terms like jump line and byline.

“I particularly enjoyed the group activity where we were asked to label everything that we saw in a picture. It was so interesting and allowed us to practise our vocabulary, ” she said.

A passionate learner of the English language, the Form Two student hopes to see her articles published in the BRATs section of the NiE pullout.

“I like writing compositions and often look out for stories written by the BRATs participants, ” she said, referring to The Star’s writing platform for teenagers.

Nur Syamimi is grateful for Petronas’ sponsorship, which enables her to read The Star once a week.

“I bring home a copy from school every Wednesday and my family reads it, too, ” she added.

A second-year participant of the workshop, Form Three student Aleya Maisarah Azmi from SM Imtiaz Yayasan Terengganu Dungun found new takeaway points.

“I learned new vocabulary and many new things that I can do with the newspaper. I’m always excited when my English language teacher uses the newspaper in class. I especially like reading the comic section. I wish I could experience more of the NiE activities, ” she said.

Written by a team of experienced English language specialists, the NiE pullouts are packed with engaging hands-on newspaper activities for the classroom.

With 33 issues published per year, the 12-page NiE pullout presents activities divided into elementary, intermediate and advanced levels to suit students’ English language proficiency.

The pullout is syllabus-based and endorsed by the Education Ministry.

The teacher and student workshops in Dungun were part of four workshops sponsored by Petronas. The two other NiE workshops – one for teachers and one for students – were held at SM Imtiaz Yayasan Terengganu Kuala Terengganu last month.

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Asli backs education system reforms

Monday, February 18th, 2019

PETALING JAYA: The Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli) has expressed support for the Education Ministry’s efforts to reform the education system.

Asli Centre for Public Policy Studies chairman Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam said it was a commendable effort which should be supported by all.

“The ministry’s policy commitments in delivering holistic, value-driven education and engaging the private sector in reforms intended for the education system and dedication towards ensuring quality education for all is commendable,” he said in a statement yesterday.

Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik had revealed plans to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) a way of life.

“STEM education will be updated to become STREAM, including the vital components of Arts and Reading.

“We will also shift the priorities of teachers and lecturers nationally to focus on teaching STEM in a fun and experiential way, thereby making STEM accessible to all,” he said at an open dialogue on Malaysian education on Thursday.

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Education panel plan a good idea

Thursday, January 17th, 2019
Pupils celebrating their UPSR results. Public consultation on the setting up of a National Education Policy Committee is a win-win situation for the Education Ministry and the people. – NSTP/File Pic
By TAN CHEE YONG - January 16, 2019 @ 11:26pm

I welcome the Education Ministry’s proposal to establish a National Education Policy Committee to consult the public on improving public education (“Public invites to submit proposals to improve education system” — NST, Jan 12).

Since the introduction of the National Education Blueprint 2015-2025 in 2013 under the previous administration, the implementation of its policies has received mixed results.

Its results on reducing the urban and rural gap on education performance is, nonetheless, remarkable.

The ministry said the gap was reduced by 31.6 per cent based on pupils’ 2016 Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah results compared with that of previous years.

It has allowed more pupils who are socially disadvantaged to perform as good as their urban peers.

However, there was a reverse trend in certain areas, which the Blueprint intends to address. Among them was the effort to improve English language proficiency.

In 2017, the ministry acknowledged the fact that more than 10,000 schools, and even teachers’ command of the language, was not at a standard expected in the Blueprint.

A more comprehensive approach must be adopted to bridge this gap.

Public consultation is a win-win situation for the ministry and the people.

It allows us to voice our concerns about problems and provide suggestions on ways to improve them.

Equally, the ministry can benefit from the expertise and suggestions to boost the education system.


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Teachers, keys to quality in education

Monday, November 26th, 2018
The high quality of the Finnish school system is based on a clear national ethos that people are the nation’s most important asset

TEACHING is an attractive career choice in Finland, and is often mentioned in the same breath as professions such as medicine and law.

Finnish Education Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen said the secret is that the teachers in Finland are extremely well-educated.

All comprehensive school teachers must have a Master’s degree. This high level of training allows them the autonomy to select what methods and materials to use.

Regardless of the schools’ size, the qualifications of teachers are uniform everywhere.

Education at school is compulsory for Finnish children. Compulsory education begins the year the child turns seven and ends when they have completed the nine-year comprehensive school syllabus in full or after 10 years of compulsory education, At grades one to six, class teachers teach all subjects as a rule. They usually hold a Master of Arts degree in education, with emphasis on pedagogical skills.

At grades seven to nine of comprehensive schools and in upper secondary schools, subject-specific teaching is provided by teachers who have a Master’s degree in the subject and have completed pedagogy studies.

Pupils from Vesala Comprehensive School take care of the animals in the large greenhouse under the supervision of teachers.

Pupils from Vesala Comprehensive School take care of the animals in the large greenhouse under the supervision of teachers.

The number of candidates who apply to teacher training is five times higher than the actual intake.

Grahn-Laasonen said the education system is based on trust.

“We trust our teachers. They are well-educated professionals who know what they are doing, and that gives us excellent results,” she added.

The national curricula must be followed, but teachers have the freedom to choose their teaching methods and learning materials in the classroom.

Teachers are independent specialists who know the needs and strengths of their pupils and respect the common objectives.

University of Helsinki professor of educational psychology Dr Kirsti Lonka said the success of Finland’s education system has always been founded in world-class research-based teacher training.

“The teaching profession is particularly valued in Finland.

“The Finnish school was built on a solid foundation of equality and the world’s best teachers.

“These are the values that we wish to hold on to in the future as well,” she added.

Finland is the first country in the world to provide school children with free lunches in 1948.

Finland is the first country in the world to provide school children with free lunches in 1948

To remain at the cutting edge, she said both the school system and learning methods must change to keep up with the changing world.

Rapid changes in society, such as globalisation and the transformations in work, have introduced new challenges for schools and learning. Work is now increasingly done in projects, with non-permanent teams solving complex issues together. Information is not only acquired, but also created together.

“These are the very challenges that we seek to answer at the University of Helsinki by developing sustainable, research-based teacher education.

“Traditionally, teachers have primarily taught school subjects. Today, however, we are moving away from subjects and towards a future where teachers will increasingly teach comprehensive learning skills. This will make teaching more and more problem and phenomenon based,” she said.

As a result, she said future learning will take place in multidisciplinary projects that centre on complex phenomena and develop learners’ problem‑solving and thinking skills.

New technologies, she added, will also be integrated into teaching, and learning environments will be increasingly modified to promote learning.

Finnish education is in high demand internationally.

The Huvilakatu art noveau architecture of Helsinki. — Photo by SHARON KARVONEN

The Huvilakatu art noveau architecture of Helsinki. — Photo by SHARON KARVONE

“But we should not export the school system we used to have, because we are among the leading countries in creating new innovations in education.

“Instead, we should as we do develop new export products in collaboration with universities, universities of applied sciences and companies.

“Retaining our place at the global top is possible only through continuous development, research and learning.

“If we want to continue to be the best, we cannot hold on to today or the past. Instead, we must invest even more in education and in the top research that drives it forward,” she added.

Finland has long been one of the top performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is where 15-year-olds worldwide are assessed on science, maths, reading, collaborative problem-solving and financial literacy.

In the 2015 report, Finland was ranked fourth in reading, fifth in science and 12th in maths, out of more than 70 countries and economies participating.

This, despite dropping down the ranks in the science, reading and maths tests as compared to the previous Pisa survey.

Nurturing from young

Education in Finland stresses learning through insight and encouragement in assessing performance.

It is not based on continuous assessment, the grading of performance or competition between pupils. Instead teaching focuses on finding learning methods that best serve each pupil and on supporting those who have challenges in learning. Every pupil is offered the chance to continue studying.

The first national examination is at the end of general upper secondary education. It comprises four compulsory tests which are mother tongue and according to each candidate’s choice, three of the following namely the second national language, a foreign language, mathematics or one subject in general studies such as humanties and natural sciences.

In a recent visit to the Vesala Comprehensive School in eastern Helsinki, pupils from various backgrounds including those with special needs such as dyslexia learn together in class.

Its principal Juha Juvonen said the school provides the 920 pupils in grades one to nine with quality basic education with an emphasis on nature and science.

Most of the pupils are from the neighbouring suburban area, he said, adding that around 40% have immigrant backgrounds. The socioeconomic status is considered lower than the average.

“The school has a large greenhouse with a variety of plants and animals, which different pupils take care of under the supervision of teachers.

“Someone who moved to Florida gave a turtle he had owned for many years to the school and placed his shoes there to make sure it feels at home here,” he said.

Any pupil, he added, can attend the school here as long as he lives in the area.

School starts at 9am and finishes around 2pm.

At Vesala, some lessons are designed to be fun and integrate concepts from various subjects. As an example, a robotics lesson teaches pupils to explore science and mathematics concepts. They also speak in Finnish and English to solve issues with their robots.

During the visit to Vesala, Sheha Fahrid Rashid, 11, was working with her classmates Vilma Vallin, nine and Pauvo Palamaki, 11, on a robotics project.

“It is fun to do this,” said Sheha.

Other skills such as teamwork and problem-solving will also equip pupils for the real world.

When children enjoy a lesson, they want to learn more, said Juvonen.

“Special education also has an important role at Vesala. Around 80 to 100 integrated pupils study in mainstream classes and five special education classes offer specialised education in smaller classes.

“There are two preparatory classes for immigrants and two work emphasised classes,” he added.

It’s an inclusive system with the same curriculum for all in school, said counsellor of education Riia Palmqvist who is with the Finnish National Agency for Education.

“Everyone is supported to ensure there are equal opportunities for all,” she added.

All pupils of compulsory school age have the right to general support, that is, high quality education as well as guidance and support.

Intensified support must be given to those pupils who need regular support measures or several forms of support at the same time.

In Finland, education is free at all levels from pre-primary to higher education.

A free lunch comprising a hot meal including salad, milk or other beverage and bread is provided to every pupil.

In fact, Finland was the first country in the world to provide school children with free lunches in 1948.

Upgrading skills

Many adults return to school to learn new skills or update existing ones, even though the courses they take may not lead to a degree.

Nearly all municipalities have at least one institution offering liberal adult education.

Omnia Education Partnerships CEO Mervi Jansson said those taking courses at the institution can be any age with some in their 60s.

“They want to earn new things about their work,” she added.

As an example, vocational college Omnia offers adult education courses such as management, cooking and even refurbishing old furniture.

Employers also encourage their workers to upgrade, with some offering to sponsor their course fees and paying them their full salaries during their studies.

By Karen Chapman
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Rethink goals, vision

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

(File pix) Revamping the education system needs to be carefully done. NSTP/ Mohd Hilmie Hussin

THERE has been much talk of revamping the education system. It needs to be carefully done, lest we see a regressive, instead of a progressive, future generation.

Much is expected of the new government. Having been in the education field for many years, I believe this sector needs to rethink its vision and re-chart directions. An efficient team must take charge of the revamp to ensure a fair, viable and progressive system is put in place.

The present curriculum is losing its relevance as society edges towards modernity. Besides the mushrooming of home schools, which offer an alternative curriculum, getting a licence to operate an education centre seems effortless.

Universities and colleges are filling up vacant shoplots. Though lacking in facilities and faculty members, they are still able to recruit students from all over the globe. Students today have a plethora of choices; this is a concern, especially when quality is being compromised. Education not only reinforces socialisation in a family, it also prepares students for the workforce, and inculcates traits and values so that they become responsible citizens.

The education platform is colourless — it is a training ground where students, regardless of race or religion, are allowed to make mistakes, chase and live their dreams. It is also a platform where students learn to connect, collaborate and integrate — a platform where every individual is respected and given the chance to show his worth.

It is arguable that meritocracy in learning institutions seeks out the weed from the garden, and in so doing, each is rewarded according to merit. Fair and just, it seems, as it embraces the concept of equal opportunity.

Sadly, the mechanism may not be so. When some students fail, they are labelled “drop outs” and ushered into the vocational stream.

Most of them are from impoverished neighbourhoods, with no access to resources or private tuition. These students continue to lag behind. In schools, teachers are busy boosting their private earnings through tuition fees.

Some tutors scorn weak students because they mar their records. Without good grades, it is almost impossible for these underprivileged students to enter public universities, and with the escalating fees in private colleges, their future is bleak. It appears that not just students have lost their dreams, private colleges, too, appear to have lost their vision.

From the way some are run, it is evident that their vision is motivated by individual gains. Education ceases to achieve its goal, that is to empower young minds, but more of a computation of numbers, for numbers equal ringgit and sen.

The top management sets targets, and many become so absorbed in securing numbers that they forget the very purpose of education. For instance, language educators know well that language learning does not happen overnight, still, the top management expects miracles. They hire foreign students who are not articulate in the language, hence, the expertise of language educators is ignored.

Perhaps, before the ministry overhauls the curriculum, it should take a closer look at the quality of the existing learning institutions, and rethink the way these institutions are to be run, the recruitment and remuneration of teaching staff.

We should look beyond scrolls and papers, and more at the industry and professional competence and genuine passion of the teaching staff. Without any industry experience and professional training, what is taught and what is happening outside will remain two different worlds.

It may help if we pause and decide who should benefit from education.

Has education bridged the gap between the haves and have-nots, or has it widened the disparity?

Why do we need schooling? Has schooling achieved its purpose? How is schooling aligned with societal goals and directions?

By Jenny Maganran Goh,

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Transformation begins at the top

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

THE transformation of the school education system has to start with the transformation of the school head teacher.

Restructuring schools and improving teacher quality have always been the Education Ministry’s vision to transform the school education system.

However good infrastructure in schools and quality teachers without a strong and able head teacher cannot improve and raise the student achievement rate of a school.

A head teacher is the most senior teacher and leader of a school. The head teacher is responsible for the education of all students, management of staff and school policy making

The job entails a strong presence around the school and in some cases with the local community as well as a certain amount of desk work.

There needs to be a transformation of the role of head teachers.

Their role as administrators and as managers managing budgets, discipline, schedules and meetings needs to be redefined.

Head teachers need to cultivate a culture and a way of life that depicts values and character traits through the liturgies of practice that govern the school day.

The school culture should influence and shape the students’ mindsets to realise their own development and potential in life.

The school should be a platform for subtly and powerfully influencing students’ attitudes and behavioural patterns through the way school walls are decorated to display school values, galleries dedicated to celebrate teacher and student accomplishments and the atmosphere of trusting relationships.

The school culture is set by the head teacher’s character and behaviour. They have to be highly charged and driven to be constantly circulating through the school building.

The character and personality traits of the head teacher makes or breaks a school set up.

Successful head teachers need to be in the classroom as teachers and as supervisors observing teachers teaching in the classroom.

They need to make spontaneous classroom visits observing teachers and offering feedback to teachers to improve on their teaching and setting standards.

As the head of the school, the head teacher sets the working tone and environment in the school.

Head teachers need to allow teachers to participate in decision making.

There should be a two-way interaction between the head teacher and the teachers.

Successful schools have a collaborative bond between head teachers and teachers.

Head teachers need to earn the respect and love of their teachers for the school to function effectively and productively so that teachers will give their heart and soul to the children and the school.

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Getting schooled on the arts

Sunday, September 2nd, 2018
Working wonders: It’s proven that arts education can enhance students’ critical thinking, emotional well-being, and cultural awareness and appreciation – participants in Five Arts Centre’s Teater Muda programme in 1994 performing ‘Suara Rimba’, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’.

Working wonders: It’s proven that arts education can enhance students’ critical thinking, emotional well-being, and cultural awareness and appreciation – participants in Five Arts Centre’s Teater Muda programme in 1994 performing ‘Suara Rimba’, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’.

FROM surprise visits to schools, replacing white shoes with black, and referencing the Finnish education system as a possible one to emulate, the new Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik has made waves with his fresh approach.

Expectations are running high and the field of arts education is no exception – many are buzzing for the ministry’s plans to open a new Malaysian Arts School in 2019 .

The right kind of arts education can do wonders for nation-building, says Dr Joseph Gonzales, Head of Academic and Contextual Studies at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

“We have seen what arts education can do. It is not just about learning to be an excellent dancer, singer, musician and so on.”

“I was in Aswara for 20 years and played a role in developing a curriculum focussing on traditional theatre and dance. It was shocking how little most of us knew at the beginning. Coming from a Western arts background, I had been missing out on beautiful theatre forms practised in Malaysia.

“When we started we also saw that Malay dance, Chinese dance, Bharatnatyam all had factions according to racial lines. But as time went on, we were able to offer a multicultural education in which our students developed a cultural understanding of each other,” says Dr Gonzales, who has also authored a number of books on Malaysian dance.

It took eight years to fine-tune the curriculum, he notes.

“We had to have the best teachers possible and that included bringing Malaysians who were overseas back.”

“To me it’s not about becoming very good, and of course we have had seven dancers who are great at Bharatnatyam, none of them Indian. It’s about being unafraid to embrace another’s culture and that is so beautiful, and that was only possible through empowerment through dance.

Cultural understanding: Dr Gonzales performing a traditional Malay dance in 2011. He believes that embracing another culture is vital in today’s Malaysia.

“The study of other cultures does not make them any less of a Muslim or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or an atheist. The point is that they become open. And that is imperative in this Malaysia today. We need to stop being afraid of ‘the Other’.”

His views are echoed by local arts company Five Arts Centre, who says in a recent statement that arts education should be made integral to the education curriculum as it has proven to foster young people’s abilities in areas of creativity and multiple intelligences, cultural confidence, participatory engagement, and academic competencies.

In calling for a cohesive arts education policy and curriculum, Five Arts Centre says, from its various integrated arts-in-education programmes, it has witnessed “the intrinsic benefits and joy that the arts bring to young people, while at the same time enhancing their critical thinking, emotional well-being, and cultural awareness and appreciation.”

Dr Gonzales recalls how when he was growing up, the arts stream was usually deemed inferior to the sciences.

“It’s a reality. I ask myself if I had children, would I want them to pursue arts professionally? I can’t answer that because I know that unless that child has incredible talent and work ethic and the right mindset, it’s going to be very challenging. Before you get that ‘Yes, I want you in my show’, you will get thousands of rejections and criticism. “I certainly remember days of depression, struggling as a dancer, thinking, ‘why am I doing this?’

“I am a science graduate from Universiti Malaya and I was thinking, maybe I should have just worked in a bank. Prestige is one thing, but financial security is another.”

Dr Gonzales recounts how for him, arts education is something he arrived at almost accidentally.

“I never thought that this would be my journey. Since the age of 20, I have been involved in performing arts and making a living from it. I realised that you must equip yourself with knowledge on how the industry is changing.

“Being on stage in UK in the late 80s and early 90s was the pinnacle of my performing career and eventually I moved to education. I was thinking, ‘how do I upskill?’

“So, 10-15 years into my career I did a Masters, and then enjoyed it so much that I did a PhD. My father prioritised education, he may not necessarily have been thinking dance education, though! In the 1980s, I was a showbiz boy prancing around in tights pretending I was in Fame, and now I am this dance professor with all this knowledge.”

Dr Gonzales cites Prof Datuk Dr Ghouse Nasuruddin, Janet Pillai and Prof Mohd Anis as leading dance scholars with a global profile and urges the new government to take advantage of the expertise available.

He also urges the new government to be more open than the previous ones, adding that less censorship would invariably increase the quality of arts in the country.

“The government needs to be less thin-skinned. Both cartoonist Zunar and people like Fahmi Reza are creative and provoke a response with their work. They annoy a lot of the conservatives, but that’s art, as opposed to sanitised musicals of our political leaders. We have such a sycophantic mindset, which is disturbing.”

Dance is a little different, he says, as it’s non-verbal.

“Marion D’Cruz, for example, is a politically-driven artist, who has done political works – like at the Emergency Festival! 2008 (in Kuala Lumpur), where she performed a dance piece called ‘ISA’. We also did a performance on the detention of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and the deaths of Altantuya and Teoh Beng Hock. And they ran to full houses, so an audience is there (for these types of work).”

Dr Gonzales believes we need to expose children to the arts at a young age.

“It must be compulsory, like one hour a week. It doesn’t have to be examined. Talk to them about Usman Awang, mak yong – we can present it all lightly through games but it must be done.

“It just needs proper planning. We need to look at 13 years of arts education. Ideally, we can provide incremental learning without students thinking it’s another subject they have to do.”

Dance producer Bilqis Hijjas calls for the strengthening and development of the arts sector in the country, as well as wider arts education.

“I would love to see more art schools. There are studies showing what dance does for you in terms for communication, collaboration, problem-solving and even living a longer life. There is much about arts education that shows it’s not just arts for arts sake. The world needs holistically formed individuals,” she says.

She would also like to see some specific changes in the form of the arts, especially dance, being offered as a minor course.

“I think it would be great if we could have students doing a business major and dance minor for example. Right now with the emphasis on the dance degree, we do have the irresponsibility of graduating kids, knowing that they can’t get jobs.”

Global star quality wanted: Our arts training has improved but we have yet to produce our own Akram Khan.

She concedes that not many dance professionals agree with her.

“Mine is an unpopular view in the industry but I think we shouldn’t necessarily push for cushy jobs and the opening of the next new dance department.

“I think there is nothing wrong with holding a day job in another industry or teaching part-time and then also working in the arts. You can argue that it may impact on quality but we want a sustainable situation. I think we cannot have a situation where there is too much dance education, but not enough work for dancers.”

Dr Gonzales stresses the need for synergised infrastructure.

“We have three great places like Istana Budaya, KLPAC, Damansara Performing Arts Centre and yet none of them are easily accessible by public transport. In the UK you have Convent Garden that everyone can access.

“I would call on the government to look at a theatre district. Maybe six to eight theatres, with bangsawan everyday, wayang kulit, mak yong, musicals with good salaries, and high levels of performance, and then the audiences will come.”

Dr Gonzales and Five Arts Centre also point out the urgency and value of having programmes at grassroots level in places like Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah, Sarawak.

“They are rich in culture, yet many of the art forms are faced with extinction if we don’t encourage it at that level.

By Martin Vengadesan
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