Sunday 14 Jul 2024
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It is about the Malaysian education system, again. The causes for its decline are complex, ranging from the change of medium of instruction from English to Bahasa Malaysia, the lowering of recruitment criteria for teachers, their unattractive salaries and the lack of career prospects, the juggling of three languages at vernacular schools, an overemphasis on grades, lip service to extracurricular activities and government inertia in the face of talent poaching (including top students) by our neighbour. Rather than delve deeper into these maladies, I want to approach the issue differently. I am going to give the reader a glimpse of how the decline occurs. Using a common historical fact, I will illustrate how teaching and assessment might fail to meet international benchmarks.

Malaysians who completed their secondary education at public schools would be familiar with the Capture of Malacca in 1511 by Alfonso de Albuquerque. We would have memorised the year of this watershed battle and contrived to spell “Albuquerque” correctly. Truth be told, many of us were probably bored by it, having encountered the topic twice — in lower secondary and upper secondary. Is it wrong to repeat the Capture of Malacca in the curriculum?

In 1956, a team of cognitive psychologists at the University of Chicago, led by Benjamin Bloom, devised a learning framework that would guide the design of curriculum and assessment strategies. Focusing on the cognitive domain, the learning outcomes would vary from the ability to “remember”, “understand” and “apply” to “analyse”, “create” and “evaluate”. Logically, the learning outcomes should ascend in difficulty as students progress through the programme. If a student is expected to “remember” and “understand” in primary and lower secondary, the student should be able to “apply” and “analyse” in upper secondary.

If we say a lower secondary student should remember the year of the Capture of Malacca and understand its historical significance, we can test these outcomes through multiple-choice questions (MCQs). By upper secondary, however, the learning outcomes should include some elements of analysis. MCQs should not be the only test. The teacher might wish to supplement this with an essay question, perhaps along the lines of: To what extent did the Capture of Malacca influence the political development of the Malay Peninsula in the 16th century? Among other things, students could discuss the cusp of colonialism in Southeast Asia, the rise of the Johor Sultanate, the various attempts to recapture Malacca and Johor’s alliances with other Malay states and the Indonesian archipelago. However, if an exam question asks: Identify the important events and main personages in the Capture of Malacca — analysis and critical thinking are not required. Cleverly arranged, an assemblage of facts will guarantee top marks.

Unfortunately, in the age of ChatGPT, this sort of assessment is largely meaningless.

Assuming that one revisits the Capture of Malacca at an undergraduate level, how should this topic be assessed? At the tertiary level, we certainly want to see more nuanced analysis with competing views and comparative approaches. Perhaps the instructor could set a group assignment with the title: Critically evaluate the legacy of colonialism in Malaysia, starting from the Capture of Malacca. The question is quite broad, since there were several colonial powers in the Malay Peninsula — the Portuguese, Dutch and English. Moreover, the question could be analysed politically, economically and socially. Comparisons with some Asean countries would be a plus, seeing that Spain ruled the Philippines, the French were in Indochina and the Dutch had control of Indonesia.

The problem is, students who largely “remember” and “understand” aren’t adept at analysis. Thus, they would be hard-pressed to “analyse” at the level expected of undergraduates. Critical analysis has to be taught, fast! And some students learn faster than others. With the democratisation of education, tertiary educators now manage far more students from a broader band of competence. In reality, the swim or sink philosophy has to be mediated by the provision of life jackets and lifebuoys. This is complicated by the frustrating parental assumption that, whatever academic shortcomings their children might have, they will fix them at the university!

In short, the Malaysian education system lags behind partly because of the unimaginative way we teach and the pedantic way we assess students. Now, transpose this problem to virtually every subject at every level of primary and secondary school in the state school system over the course of 30 years. The outcome? A large majority of intellectually docile young people who aren’t equipped for the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Of course, the issue is far more complicated and filled with edu-speak. I simplify. Because why would the reader want a tedious and technical diatribe against the education system? Besides, to quote Albert Einstein: If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

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