18 September 2013

The Malaysian Education Blueprint: Balancing policy and practice

By Hugh John Leong

The Malaysian Education Blueprint was launched this month, and with it, a three-wave initiative to revamp the education system over the next 12 years. One of its main focuses is to overhaul the national curriculum and examination system, widely seen as heavily content-based and un-holistic by the current education minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

It is a timely move, given our insipid results at the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. The test measures a student’s ability in reading, mathematics and science at the age of 15. More than 60 countries across the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) participated in the test. Based on the 2009 assessment, Malaysia lags far behind regional peers like Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong in every category. The statistics show that 15-year-olds in Malaysia are currently performing as though they have had three years less schooling than their counterparts from these countries. Comparing it to Shanghai (PISA was only conducted in Shanghai but not China as a whole in 2009), which ranked first in the test, Malaysia is lagging almost four years behind.

Poor performance in PISA is normally linked to students not being able to demonstrate higher order thinking. Students may lack the ability to think and draw connections in the test when provided real life situations and may have been unable to make logical connections when answering mathematical questions.

To remedy this, the Ministry of Education will implement numerous changes to the examination system. Two out of the three nationwide examinations that we currently administer to primary and secondary students will see major changes. On paper, the policies are ideal and impressive, but there are a few questions on feasibility to be raised here. Firstly, how will all of these massive changes along with many other structural reforms gel together? Are school based assessments effective in nurturing higher order thinking? Will it work in a Malaysian culture where getting top grades is very often the sole indicator of a student’s worth?

Puzzlingly, the Ministry of Education has adopted an eclectic blend of tests and assessments throughout a student’s compulsory education years. A sudden change from assessment based to examination based testing may disrupt the way in which students are accustomed to learn. Students who are supposedly required to develop critical thinking in a reflective and fun manner in their early high schooling years will be shoved into the deep end of memorization, grade based do-or-die situations at the end of Form 5. It is akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole.
Indeed there are many benefits to school based assessments. For example, it provides a stress-free assessment, promotes leisure reading, and enforces independent learning. Teachers are also able to tailor their assessments to include what has been accomplished by the students on what they have learnt and not what they are supposed to be learning. But these benefits bring with it many pitfalls if not properly implemented. Some schools may teach more while others may teach less to accommodate slower learners, and an assessment in one school may be easier than that in another. To address this issue, the moderation of assessments will be made both internally by teachers forming subject clusters and externally by the examinations syndicate. The evaluation of the efficacy of the moderation process may require some time.

Additionally, Malaysian researchers show worrying trends of teachers facing problems implementing policy to practice. Salmiah Jaba, a researcher at The Ministry of Education, reports in her research that there is a low level of belief, attitude and willingness in teachers who taught Agricultural Integrated Living Skills (ILS) to implement school-based assessments. Other researchers from public and private universities in Malaysia report similar trends of teachers not having the necessary skills and knowledge to carry out school-based assessments. Most worryingly, many teachers report heavy teaching workloads even before the SBA is fully rolled out. Retraining teachers, numbering hundreds of thousands, will also be a tough task. Norzila Yusof also a researcher at the Malaysian Examination Syndicate believes that the cascading training model used in initial training has failed to be effective enough due to a dilution of information that has led to many teachers having various interpretations of how the SBA should be implemented in schools.

From many economic and education research studies conducted recently, one thing is clear: many of these issues can be solved with significant financial investment and improved quality in human resource. As of 2008, the Malaysian government spends US$3000 on a student’s basic education, which is only a little over half of what our regional peers like Singapore and South Korea are spending on their students. Hence, there is a clear relationship between money spent on education and student performance. Successful education systems make education a priority. Skills can be learnt and all students can achieve at high levels. Successful countries value the teaching profession by investing in it, produce highly qualified teachers, train them well and retain the best teachers among them.

Hugh John Leong is a lecturer of the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable at hjleong@swinburne.edu.my.