Staying current

To stay relevant, educators and policy makers must understand that today’s learners have different mindsets and demands.

EACH generation is different from the last, and therefore we cannot expect the same tried-and-true methods to work in overcoming today’s challenges.

For better or for worse, we have to accept today’s students are a whole new race of people with different mindsets, with novel ideas and needs, with a different code of conduct and ethics and with a whole new set of rules to govern their lives. This is brought about by new units of families, ways of doing business, access to information and an inacceptance of being told what to do.

We can choose to engage with the players, i.e. students, or to impose on them outdated systems that are becoming more and more irrelevant by the minute.

Let’s meet the new student.

The new student is first and foremost a creature of immediate passions wanting quick outcomes, and this is perhaps the vital reason that our education system does not meet his needs. Consider what they grew up with! Fast food, instant online services catering to every whim and fancy, instant messaging and e-mails, fast cars, faster highways; you know we are all being conditioned to respond immediately and to expect immediate responses.

Children are being conditioned to react immediately to first felt emotions, experiences and encounters — a direct result of the fast life. Unfortunately, regardless of the “gut feeling”, first felt passions are seldom right, and responses usually stem from shallow and materialistic wants and needs. The ability to look below the surface is an ability that manifests only when nurtured and trained.

Perhaps the first relevant question we should ask is whether we should be catering to this demand for fastness and new ethics, or if we should slow them down instead – to teach them to reflect, to process information before reacting.

But I believe we are no longer in the driver’s seat of that decision, as the global community of young children and adults have already clearly expressed their choice and demand for speed to be inserted into every aspect of their lives.

If we do not cater to what has become now a “need”, then we are not going to be able to capture attention, sustain interest or make knowledge relevant and meaningful. Putting aside all the other reasons, our education system has to change simply to meet the new students on some of their own terms.

New approach

A dynamic, vibrant, meaningful, inclusive and real world based classroom environment has never been a trait of the Malaysian classroom. Previously, this has never been a problem.

But the current generation of students has no fear of discussing their teachers on Facebook, openly insulting teachers who are disrespectful and not inclusive in their managing styles, and will challenge teachers’ knowledge of relevant and real-time updated content. They also do not accept “facts” that are presented and are quick to attack one-sided perspectives of the world. I must say that this does not bode well for our current versions of history and science.

From the view of a neuroscientist, I know that compared with adults who grew up in the Industrial Age, children who grow up in the Internet age have bigger cortices, more efficient synapses, brain networks and neurotransmitters, different networks of blood supply and different active regions. Even from this narrow perspective, it is clear that these “new brains” – and also new ways of thinking and knowing – will have new demands.

Combine these with the power of social networks; an organism that is the combined strength of thousands of student brains coming together as one on Facebook, and I hope you begin to see the dilemma. Students are no longer dependent on teachers or parents. They have capabilities and skills that are not addressed by our current school curriculum.

What we all need to understand is that our students are changing overnight, and the change is dynamic – never staying put at one level. Physical classrooms with tables and chairs are no longer needed for “learning” to take place. Teachers and headmasters, who equate good discipline to silence throughout a lesson, should be made to retire.

We need new learning tools. Imagine a paperless classroom environment, and perhaps even exams that are non-standardised — since the point is to train all our non-standard student human beings to achieve their potential.

This is a world of multiplicity and anti-centralised habits, and the fact of the matter is: everything we hope to achieve as a nation starts with education. It is time for the relevant ministries to become ministries of educators, not politicians who make decisions without regard to academic consequences. In the long run, governments that are willing to hand power to the students and autonomous educators will be the ones who stay in power.

Knowledge is the liberator, and our new Malaysian students should have the freedoms and trust to explore, learn and discover their own truths.

by Dr Theva Nithy, a senior lecturer at The School of Educational Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. The School is working to contribute towards the transformation of the landscapes of Malaysian schooling and higher education systems. He can be contacted at

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