This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on September 13, 2021 - September 19, 2021
While the reopening of schools, tentatively on Oct 3, takes centre stage, all kinds of proposals have been suggested by the public and stakeholders as to how schools should prepare themselves to do so. To complicate matters, about 2,500 teachers are still refusing to be vaccinated. But with constant persuasion, we believe it will only be a matter of time before the matter is resolved.
Our immediate concern is that when schools reopen, what the new normal will be in terms of teaching and learning. We all know that we should not return to what was but instead leverage digital learning in schools, and what and how teaching and learning should take place moving forward.
Everything digital has its pitfalls and students must be made aware of them. Nonetheless, we should be prepared for any eventuality, be it face-to-face learning, hybrid learning, offline or even independent self-learning.
Every year, the Ministry of Finance invites stakeholders to Putrajaya to present, discuss or dialogue with them as they craft the next budget. The Budget 2022 dialogue session had a twist as far as education is concerned. Related civil society organisations and social enterprises were invited to give their recommendations via Zoom on how best to get students back on track post-pandemic, especially for the lower income group. Everyone was given their five minutes of fame and there was a flurry of ideas, suggestions, approaches and strategies as each participant pitched his or her wares.
Being a keen observer of online learning at my neighbourhood school, it is apparent that while some teachers have excelled, some have not, despite the ongoing training. While learning was already minimal as it was, some teachers failed to utilise the limited time to interact adequately with their students, thus losing even more learning than what had been lost.
It is time that poor teachers, who had been problematic prior to the pandemic and who continue to be ineffective, be terminated in accordance with the exit policy that has been put in place. If they remain in the system, there is no telling what the potential damage will be to students.
One of the earlier efforts of the education minister was to enhance the television screen as a learning tool. While it seemed a good idea at the time to reach out to students who do not have internet accessibility, it now appears that 70% of teachers do not utilise it, resulting in a poor return on investment. Do we continue to invest in this or are there alternatives?
The recommendations made by the participants who are constantly on the ground were food for thought.
There was full consensus that students would need to be assessed upon their return. It is still unclear as to the success of learning, if at all, conducted during the school closures. Once assessed, the outcomes will need to be differentiated to pinpoint the appropriate strategy to take. The magnitude differs between schools, therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Without doubt, the foundation needs to be built and it needs to be firm. Give the students the skills to conduct self-assessment. Customise funding to the needs of each school.
Relook the recommendations of the National Education Advisory Council 2018-2020 regarding the English language, special education needs, private-public partnerships, religious studies and teacher professionalism. Contract the curriculum and teach what is pertinent; give more time for science and mathematics; optimise devices and their maintenance; consider tablets as a cheaper alternative; and rethink community learning hubs facilitated by a teacher for small groups to gather.
Enhance the Delima (digital educational learning initiative) platform into a dashboard by leveraging big data to help with interventions; review the methodology for mathematics such as mental calculation to address the perceived loss of interest; and invest in teaching assistants, who provide support beyond the classroom and provide tutoring services such as those in the UK, which has a budget of £1 billion (RM5.7 billion) for this.
Other recommendations include building professional learning networks; providing socioemotional support; helping school leavers to re-sit the SPM; funding and engaging psychologists; improving and providing psychological services and interventions; addressing the stigma of adversity and the lack of resources; involving the community; providing online upskilling of teachers; considering tax vouchers; crowdfunding for devices ... the list goes on.
Specifically invest in teachers to create a more resilient system by giving an extra allocation to those who serve in the interior, providing offline solutions for them and cutting out the red tape that they have to endure to obtain what little funding is due to them.
It has been equally difficult for parents as they juggle with dwindling savings, loss of income, loss of employment, Covid-19 deaths, quarantines, mental issues and putting food on the table. Parents need support too. Return the most useful education ministry hotline (preferably toll free) to guide parents with learning matters. Provide parents with micro-learning kits for basic teaching and learning.
Kudos to the dedicated participants from Arus Academy, Connecting Dots, KNK, KRI, LeapEd, Magic Matematik, Pemimpin GSL, Pintar Foundation, Project ID, Sunway Education, TFM, Thrive Well, UTAR and Yayasan Amir, who clearly amplified the passion, talent and commitment needed to meet the objective of bringing our students back on track.
It would be most detrimental to our children if the National Budget Committee and the education ministry do not consider and evaluate every proposal that has been recommended.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders
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