An education system that emphasises rote learning rather than understanding has no place in a world that demands students to be equipped with reasoning, analytical and problem-solving skills.
Are education systems across the world still relevant to the needs of our society and future? One expert from the United States (US) is not afraid to say that the system – in the US, at least – is obsolete.
According to Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap, there is a huge chasm that divides what Americans are teaching and testing in their schools versus the actual skills students need to further their studies and pursue their careers.
Wagner is co-director of Change Leadership Group (CLG) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which is a research and development centre charged with helping teams to be effective leaders in schools and districts throughout the US.
To keep up with the pace of information and technology, students must be taught how to process and analyse the information. — File photo
“Wagner points out that the relevant skills needed for the 21st century is no longer taught in classrooms and lecture halls,” said Victoria University vice-chancellor Prof Peter Dawkins.
In his lecture, a part of the Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah Distinguished Speakers series held at Sunway University, Prof Dawkins uses Wagner’s book to discuss the skills required for employment in the new workforce.
“Today, employers are not just looking for ‘domain skills’ and knowledge relevant to their field in a potential employee.
“They are also looking for ‘generic skills’ like problem-solving and teamwork. Focus on these skills is lacking in our education systems,” said Prof Dawkins.
Even when the study is transposed onto the Australian education system, it points to many areas where changes can be made to better prepare students for transitions – from school to college, then to work, said Prof Dawkins.
In the book, Wagner noted that there was no curricula or teaching method in place to teach students how to reason, analyse and write well.
He explained how the American education system was on the verge of crisis as most of the tests it uses for accountability comprise multiple choice assessments, which require more memorising than thinking.
A teacher playing a board game with her students to give them a practical understanding of accounting. —File photo
The concern that an overwhelming emphasis on exam grades, which in turn encourages students and teachers alike to get through the syllabus and memorise key points – rather than taking the time to understand concepts – is all too familiar in Malaysia.
So what can be done to narrow the gap between what is taught and and what is needed?
In his lecture, Prof Dawkins drew upon Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future to identify what students need to learn and how to teach them those essential skills.
“Gardner identifies the types of intelligences we should develop, and points to the various different faculties of the mind,” he said.
The “five minds” include the disciplined mind, which is the ability to focus and develop a deep knowledge of at least one subject matter; the synthesising mind, which allows one to process information from various sources to combine it in a way that makes sense; and the creating mind, which puts forth new ideas and fresh ways of thinking.
The other faculties of the mind are respectful and ethical thinking, which are critical in developing students who not only welcome and respect different people and opinions, but understand them and work to benefit society at large beyond their own self-interests.
“By developing these faculties, we can produce students that can think creatively, bridge knowledge from different fields and act ethically,” said Prof Dawkins.
Although he conceded that not everything can be taught in classrooms, the classroom should take efforts to adapt to the needs of society.
Prof Dawkins shared that when he was a member of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority board, he chaired a committee tasked with writing out a declaration of educational goals for Australian children.
“I was part of the committee that produced the Melbourne declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians.
“One of the goals was developing successful learners by teaching them how to think and draw upon a wide range of different learning to solve problems,” he said.
Meanwhile, trainee teacher Nur Hidayah Shukor was of the opinion that there was nothing lacking with Malaysian students.
“Malaysian students have abundant potential and given the opportunity, they can be as expressive, creative and critical as any student out there.
“They only need to be given a platform to do so — something which could be better incorporated in our schools,” said Nur Hidayah, who is studying at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).
During her three months of practical training at SMK Taman Mutiara Rini, Johor, Nur Hidayah said she saw what teaching in non-conventional methods could do to boost the students’ interest and morale.
“You should see how even the weakest students who refused to speak a word of English became confident speakers with the correct methods.
“I used drama to get them to speak and detective work to get them to write reports. Eventually they spoke and wrote English comfortably,” she said.
However, she admitted that as a trainee teacher, she could teach students in creative and interesting ways without worrying about finishing the syllabus in time.
“On the other hand, full-time teachers are often worried about completing the syllabus in time, whereas my only concern was impressing my lecturers,” she said.
Some lessons need not even be taught in the classroom. Here, students are learning the history of kites. — File photo
According to veteran educationist and Kirkby College Alumni president Tan Sri Dr Yahaya Ibrahim, it is precisely the teachers’ burden of finishing the syllabus in time that needs to change.
“The concept of finishing the syllabus must change — in fact, the syllabus must be malleable and robust enough that it can fit the needs of any situation.
“Teachers should not succumb to tunnel vision when teaching. If they are looking at the syllabus, they are not looking at their students growth or decline,” said Dr Yahaya.
He added that teachers go through four stages of teaching — they start off “telling” as a new teacher, then they progress to “explaining” as they gain experience.
“After that point they educate – a good teacher educates. And the final transformation is the inspirational teacher who inspires,” he said.
On a different front, UTM vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Zaini Ujang says that students learn more outside the classroom.
“That is why we encourage students to partake in summer school programmes, conferences, summits and other events held outside the classroom.
“While out of campus, they are expected to learn not just from the programmes they attend but also through mingling with peers and professors abroad,” he said.
In his 2011 new year address, Prof Zaini highlighted what he expects new academia to look like after changes to conventional academia.
“We want to move from the traditional paradigm of having only professors filling up teaching positions to having policy makers, practitioners and entrepreneurs fill some of those spots.
“We also need to change our outlook on what we use as teaching materials — we cannot narrow it down to just academic journals and books,” said Prof Zaini.
Prof Zaini points out that it is important to learn through experience and that failure is a great teacher.
“We need our students to be versatile enough to be able to gain as much as possible through experience,” he said.
As information and technology moves faster and faster, it becomes ever more important to teach students how to think critically and synthesize information.
“We need to develop inquisitive minds. We can’t have students just jotting down notes from their teachers without pondering over what they have written.
“We are transitioning from traditional learning to e-learning at a fast pace, and we must teach our students how to think,” said Dr Yahaya.
As the adage goes, knowledge is power — but this is assuming the person with knowledge knows how to use it.
This is why how we teach is as important as what we teach. Students must know how to relate to what they learn and implementation of the knowledge learned is as important as understanding it, said Dr Yahaya.
A respectful and ethical mind is developed when students are exposed to various people and opinions from a young age. These children are participating in a play to learn about and showcase Scottish culture. — File photo
A shared view
Many policy makers, education planners, deans of faculty, principals, lecturers and teachers have pointed towards a tectonic shift in pedagogy – the art of teaching – to fit global trends.
During the launch of EzLearn2u at SMK Bandar Utama Damansara 3, Deputy Education Minister Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong said the “chalk and talk” method of teaching used by teachers in the past no longer fits the students of this generation.
Taylor’s University School of Communication dean Josephine Tan said the advent of new channels of information makes Gen-Y students less likely to be receptive to one-way learning.
“With so many avenues open for them to obtain information, classrooms must adapt,” she said, adding that students must be allowed to use their smartphones, iPads and laptops to access information relevant to their class.
She also said the short period of three to five years in tertiary education was not enough to fully develop the thinking skills of student.
“These thinking skills must be developed from early education,” she added.
Even with all these little initiatives by various education institutions, the question remains, is it enough? Or is nothing short of an overhaul of they way we teach necessary for pedagogy to catch up with the needs of our times?
Dr Yahaya, who has served under various Education Ministers and Prime Ministers, said he has always posed one question to them: “What kind of Malaysian do you want to produce?”
Perhaps it is only after we answer that question can we choose a path to walk down.