This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on March 13, 2023 - March 19, 2023
In his recent budget speech, our 10th prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, commonly called PMX, referred to a report titled “A Nation at Risk” when he spoke about the budget for education. There is some irony in quoting this US education reform report that was completed in 1983 by the Reagan administration. One wonders if PMX was making a reference to the report or was it a soul-searching self-reflection, a statement about the state of our own nation’s education, or could it be something else that can be read between the lines?
“A Nation at Risk” was a landmark publication that brought the discussion on education to the forefront, an issue that was never seen as a problem, let alone regarded as in crisis, prior to the report. It jolted the conversation about failing schools, the declining standards of achievement, the cause of the sluggish American economy at the time. But in hindsight, the situation called for such a narrative and distraction as the US was going against Russia, combined with the fact that it had tough competition against Japan and Germany.
President Ronald Reagan needed a winning and believable story to gain political support at the time, and the report was arguably commissioned for that purpose. There was evidence that the data used in the report was misrepresented, misquoted and flawed, to justify Reagan’s political manoeuvring. A political game it may have been, but the positive impact was that education received the attention it deserved from then on. Politics and education are somehow intertwined, whether we like to admit it or not.
It is undeniable that political will is needed to make any reform happen. So, with PMX announcing the education budget with gusto and quoting this report, we hope his leadership will bring about the modernisation and improvements that are much needed by our schools.
We hope the Ministry of Education (MoE) and this government will keep its promise made as per the announcement of the budget and more. The RM55.2 billion allocation for education mentions only a certain portion that has been specifically assigned, such as ensuring there is learning infrastructure for all schools, which would include repairing and upgrading dilapidated schools, maintaining all types of schools including their toilets, ensuring disability-friendly school amenities for the schools that require them, building open halls, establishing seven new schools, providing free school meals that will benefit 940,000 children in schools and MoE pre-schools and, lastly, equipping schools with 50,000 laptops for teaching and learning.
It seems that PMX is serious about equipping schools with the laptops because he reiterated that the minister of education should be answerable for the delivery of the laptops — although he might have been mocking the previous programme, which was not a success. It had promised to deliver 150,000 laptops for home-based learning during the pandemic, but it took almost a year to complete the distribution of the gadgets in 2021, after the Budget 2021 announcement. By that time, schools had reopened and the laptops were no longer desperately needed.
But in PMX’s budget speech, it should be noted that providing 50,000 laptops to enable teachers to play their role better is insufficient. The objective of the allocation is for teachers to adapt to modernised teaching and learning methods, ensuring that they can follow the turning of the tide in digital technology. However, there was no mention of a budget allocation to upskill and train teachers to effectively use digital technology, or on how the tools can be merged into the current curriculum.
In essence, there must be bigger discussions about the need to modernise, improve and upgrade our teaching and learning methods too. This is the soft infrastructure that needs to be budgeted for and allocated to ensure the building blocks of the future.
To prepare for the digital economy and Industrial Revolution 4.0, and reduce operating costs in education in the long run and ensure better outcomes for the money spent, we need to be firm on a teacher exit policy for non-performers, and ramp up good future-ready programmes like the trust school programme, the dual language programme (DLP) which focuses on STEM subjects, and the highly immersive programme (HIP), which focus on improving the English language.
It is a no-brainer why we need to improve our English. We can leap through this digital age and learn much faster with English, without having to wait for the translated version. Artificial intelligence and augmented reality learning are at our fingertips. This is why we are strongly and persistently advocating for the DLP programme. The DLP and HIP programmes must be given priority and recognition as the foundation for digital learning.
What about the learning losses and remedial learning that needs to take place to ensure that our preschoolers and early primary pupils will achieve the 3Rs — reading, writing and arithmetic — before progressing to the next level? Sekolah Enuma, a digital content platform, is designed for young learners to master the 3Rs and reach the baseline requirement. It is an interactive gaming and learning work “book” loaded into touchscreen tablets, available for the subjects of Bahasa Malaysia, English and Mathematics. The content is in line with the Malaysian curriculum. It has been piloted in a few schools, and some parts of the world, with a good success rate.
Modernisation in teaching and learning involves engaging the students and sparking their interest. This generation is accustomed to immersive plug and play. To keep titillating their curiosity, the learning needs to be fun. Gone are the days of the Socratic method, which seems a hard habit to break free from in our system.
We would like to see this modernisation take root in schools with more serious action and dynamism. But going by the sluggish pace that we are taking, this nation is truly at risk.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is the honorary secretary of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) Malaysia
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