Reforms must have substance

A FEW weeks ago, I attended a public event where a representative from the Education Ministry gave a powerful and passionate speech about the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025.

One statement really caught my attention: the fact that globally, 70% of countries embarking on education reform, fail miserably.

What I personally find interesting about the recent wave of global reforms is that the strategies being used by the majority of the reforming countries (both successful and unsuccessful reformers alike) are remarkably similar.

They involve rolling out a standardised set of education policies related to teacher training; curriculum reform; uniform and regular student assessment; teacher accountability measures; and decentralisation. Malaysia’s education blueprint has drawn heavily from this playbook.

At first sight, it seems like many countries are adopting the same education policies and that some are achieving a lift-off while others are crashing.

We obviously need to look at this carefully to ensure that ours is a success story.

Back in 1974, the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman told the story of Tanna Island in the Pacific, during World War II. A small population of indigenous islanders witnessed thousands of US troops land en-mass with vast amounts of military equipment and supplies.

When the war ended, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping the cargo. The islanders were utterly distraught and longed for the now missing supplies.

They undertook their own in-house strategies and concluded that if they could replicate the conditions that existed when the Americans were on the island, the cargo would be air-dropped again.

They set about creating runways, picked their strongest men to march up and down the “airbases”’ and fashioned radio headphones from coconuts.

One islander donned the “headphones” and played the role of air traffic controller, guiding the planes in.

The Tanna islanders successfully replicated most of the features of island life during the American occupation, but unsurprisingly the planes still didn’t come back!

Feynman called the phenomenon Cargo Cult Science which has become a widely-used term to describe situations where organisations try to make improvements by copying the features of another successful reference group but they get it spectacularly wrong — by focusing only on the irrelevant features.

New policies

I think there are some education reforms that have gone down the path of the cargo cult phenomenon.

It would explain why so many countries adopt similar reform policies but with varying degrees of success — because there is some other hidden “wiring” in the strategies of successful reformers that seriously gets lost in translation. It’s really important that Malaysia avoids this.

In CfBT, a not-for-profit organisation that I work for, one of the common reasons for failure in cargo cult education is that the reforms stop at the classroom door.

Everything gets reformed, except the micro interactions between the student and teacher inside the classroom. But it’s easy to understand why policy-makers focus their reform efforts outside the classroom.

Things like changing class sizes, the content of exams, the written curriculum, school facilities or the terms and conditions of teachers are a lot easier to achieve than the mindset shift of a single teacher.

by Dr Arran Hamilton.

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