Sunday, June 05, 2005

"Second upper, and unemployed"

The Lost Sheep from Kuala Lumpur wrote a letter to the Star on the 29th June 2005 to share his observations about being unemployed. He shares his frustration about his university education and his employment difficulties despite having achieved a 2nd class upper honours degree. He has also made certain criticisms and recommendations with regards to how the education system should be improved. One of the key argument threads throughout his letter is the apparent emphasis on "theory" in our education system from primary to university:

The primary and secondary school syllabi emphasise theory and not character development. Students engage in rote learning and memorisation of unimportant facts which have little relevance to the real world.

The government should consider course structures with only one year of theoretical learning in university and two years of industrial training. Even if you study in a university for 30 years, you would still have insufficient knowledge if you do not have industry-based training.
The Lost Sheep is clearly not alone in his opinion with regards to our Malaysian education system. I've read plenty of articles and reports by students, some academicians, politician and education bureaucrats with similar opinions. In fact, I personally think that the number of people as well as stakeholders who are getting more convinced with regards to the above arguments is getting a little too pervasive for comfort.

I agree with the Lost Sheep that over emphasis on rote learning and memorisation will not produce the necessary all-rounded individuals. The concern is when the relevant authorities become "taken" by some of the remedies offered by the various "experts", which are well-meaning in their intent, but flawed in their rationale and application. Some of the typical remedies are mentioned in the same letter from the Lost Sheep:

Perhaps the government should adopt a more flexible and less exam-oriented school system which emphasises creativity.

... the one-year programme in university should not include irrelevant subjects like Bahasa Malaysia, English, English for Communication, Tamadun Islam etc as these should have been taught in secondary school, not at tertiary level.

The various arguments for or against, as well as the benefits or disadvantages of any proposed solutions are probably sufficient to complete several volumes of books. Hence, I'll just list below certain key arguments and considerations to be taken into account when attempting to reform our education system:

  1. "Rote learning" and "memorisation" are practically "bad words" in discussions with regards to education policies today. I've actually not heard or read a single article in recent times espousing its benefits, no matter how small. It must however be corrected that "memorisation" and to a certain extent "rote learning" are actually critical in a person's growth and education. It is when we stop "memorising" and "remembering" that we will stop growing in terms of our knowledge and very often skills. Our language skills begins first with vocabulary (a function of memory) and subsequently with communication (analysis and critical thinking). Without first "memorising" various scientific facts, we will not be able to understand as well as advance new scientific discoveries and apply these knowledge. Without "memorising", one can never become a doctor, and without further "memorising" to a certain extent, he or she will never qualify to be a "specialist". Hence it must be emphasied that memory plays a very critical component in education and our individual growth. And to strengthen memory, "rote learning" will be necessary to varying extents. I will venture to suggest that the reason many of the students "complain" about "memorising" are often due to "mental laziness" by using the memorisation of unimportant facts which have little relevance to the real world" as a convenient excuse.

  2. While I clearly disagree to the extent which "memorisation" has been demonised, I do agree that there needs to be more opportunities to develop "creativity" or what I prefer to term as "critical thinking and analytical skills". Memorisation of facts and the ability to think and analyse critically the relevant facts must go hand in hand. However, the key mechanism to impart critical thinking and analytical skills will not be through any textbooks or by reducing examinations. It will really be through better trained, and better qualified teachers. Instead many (note: not all) teachers today are satisfied in going through the motions of "reading texts" instead of focusing on helping students apply thinking skills to the facts in textbooks.

  3. Examinations (in one form or another) are a very critical component of our education system, and rightly so. Many educationists (and for obvious reasons, students) argue against the merits of examinations, such as placing unnecessary stress on the students, stifling creativity etc. To me, if there's anything that will help a student face the "real world" after he graduates, it's his or her ability to cope with the pressures of examination. Overall, by "softening" our education system through reduced or simpler examinations will only lead to weaker graduates from our education system. A very simple and widely accepted example - one of the key reasons why the quality of English among the graduates today are much weaker than the cohorts of yesteryears is the substantial reduction in rigour as well as difficulty level in the English syllabus from primary to tertiary education in Malaysia. The key rationale behind the reduction in rigour (e.g., emphasis on grammar = rote learning?) was to encourage easier learning paths and lighter pressures to "hopefully" produce better quality English (as a 2nd language) speakers.

  4. Subjects such as History are often treated with disdain and irrelevance, particularly by the students who view the "facts" and knowledge picked up from the subject are "useless". I actually intend to put up a separate post specifically dealing with the merits of these subjects later. However, in brief, my contention is that these subjects are critical in helping students enhance their critical thinking and analytical skills. The weakness in our education system with regards to these subjects is the angle from which these subjects are taught and examined, as well as the ability of the teachers to teach these subjects from an analytical perspective. To illustrate, History should be a subject about "Why's" instead of "What's". The examination questions should be asking "Why did Japan launch an invasion on Southeast Asia? Was the invasion inevitable?" instead of "When did Japan invade Malaysia and how many bicycles did they use?" Both answers will still require elements of memorising (remembering facts), but the former will actually require the student to think and apply the relevant facts.

  5. The university is NOT meant to teach us everything we need to know for a graduates employment. Hence, I strongly believe that all the calls by various parties to incorporate lengthy industrial training periods as well as special skills training are misguided. The university is instead meant to further enhance the students' critical thinking and analytical skills while providing a certain level of knowledge foundation for his or her future employment. Hence the "theory" is extremely important, as it helps with critical thinking and analytical skills. And while "theory" is not 100% practical, particularly in real world employment scenarios, it serves as a foundation for the graduate to pick up new "real world" knowledge in his or her new employment.

There are of course many other areas for improvement in our education system. However, this post seeks to highlight some of the concerns I have with regards to the constant calls to revise our education system to be less academically rigorous and performance driven. These calls often lead to impractical and misguided "reforms" which if implemented leads to a further deterioration of our education system standards. A simple example was when the Lost Sheep concluded from his argument that to encourage creativity, the solution was to get rid of subjects such as Bahasa Malaysia and English for Communications in universities. I'd hazard a guess that these were the subjects which the Lost Sheep was struggling with, and may actually well be one of the reasons he is in his current predicament.

I sympathise with the Lost Sheep and hope that he will be gainfully employed the soonest possible. However, it is also important for him to reflect that many of what he has espoused today, for e.g., "developing communication and interpersonal skills" are exactly those he ignored during college - "I studied for hours, did not lepak, socialise or waste time and even isolated myself from classmates for fear they would be a "bad influence" on me. " Some of his complaints such as lecturers focusing "on the final product rather than the process" are not actually weaknesses in the education syllabus but with the quality of teachers and lecturers.

It is also important for him to realise that a "second upper" degree is no guarantee of employment today. As clearly highlighted in my post on "World Class Universities?", many degrees today are of poor or no value if the are not from the more reputable universities. The Lost Sheep has freely admitted that "I passed because, like most of my classmates, I copied dissertations by previous students." which actually don't speak well for both his college as well as himself. I've interviewed over 600 candidates to date, and I had to regretfully conclude that even 1st class honours candidates from certain colleges or universities (both local and overseas) go straight to the "Reject" folder.


Anonymous said...

What Lost Sheep is advocating for is a polytechnic, not a uni. 2 years of industrial training and only 1 year of course work, where will there be the time to learn the theory as well as other skills like critical thinking etc. We will end up with lots of technicians who will not be able to adapt to chaning technology.

I heard a story once that in Germany, unis there has 2 streams of training for their engineers. One of them is more theoretical while the other has greater emphasis on practical training. Those in the theoretical stream are expected to continue into research.

In any case, the purpose of an uni education is to train the graduate in the logical thinking process (engineers get trained in analytical logical thinking). The actual discipline should not matter too much because the uni will never be able to teach the student everything that might conceivably need to know for their work. Of course, it would help very much if the graduates are from the relevant discipline as they should have the foundation knowledge to build upon. Some employers would hire graduates from any discipline for some types of positions. The assumption is that someone who has a solid grounding in the logical thinking process and has the knowledge of the first principles will be superior in the long run to the technician.


Anonymous said...

"Examinations (in one form or another) are a very critical component of our education system, and rightly so. Many educationists (and for obvious reasons, students) argue against the merits of examinations, such as placing unnecessary stress on the students, stifling creativity etc. To me, if there's anything that will help a student face the "real world" after he graduates, it's his or her ability to cope with the pressures of examination."

Tony’s contention is that the “pressures of examination would help students face the real world.” In other words, what he is saying is the “real world” is a “pressure cooker,” and the way to prepare students for such an environment is to put them through exams. Now, if the purpose of examinations are to let students undergo “great amount of pressure,” then are there any other type of activity that students could undergo, which would be even more demanding than exams and is more educative?

Or the question is not about exposing students to pressure alone. (And especially not the way “pressure” is use in this case as motivation for doing exams. Rather, the question that need asking is what kind of curriculum would best serve in helping students in learning and applying knowledge in today’s business environment? Incidentally, the same question applies in a corporate curriculum (what kind of “organizational curriculum” would best serve to facilitate people in learning and applying knowledge in today’s business environment?)

The structure and purpose of most examination (education) systems places demand on students to reproduce the knowledge they have been told to study in class. In fact, the examination system is design to evaluate knowledge learned/taught according to what is considered “legitimate knowledge,” and require its predictable transmission. Students who learned to follow instructions given in class and have perfected the strategy in taking exams will perform better. Students who do not believe in how the teaching is conducted for the purpose of "reproductive evaluation through exams," and finds it all uninteresting or do not believe in the knowledge espouse will surely fail or drop out college. A doctor friend I know (15 years ago) and a younger doctor (I met last year) remarked the same sentiment “to do medicine you must memorize, the hard part is getting in, [perfect scores], once you are in anyone can pass.” So, memorization is important in passing these exams. A child between the age of 2 to 3 would have a memory of 200-300 words, enough to composed poetry, but few do with the words alone. What makes a great doctor and one that merely regurgitate back the facts lies elsewhere.

In a dynamically changing environment, learning how to learn is more important than relying on knowledge set in stone. Core principles are important, but every once in a while there will be a paradigm shift in the knowledge system and that would require relearning. The individual, who has the ability to learn in a dynamically changing environment (whereby the shelf-life of knowledge is constantly undergoing transformation), who understands how knowledge is “socially constructed” and is able to work well with others to produce new forms of knowledge would be much sought after in an environment where the pace of industry change is discontinuous and not easily predictable.

Finally, the “examination system” is only one means of evaluating achievement motivation driven by performance goals, so when performance goals deter performance, we should learn why.

Old Man

Lim Wing Hooi said...

Dear all,

This is a great place to hang out! I am currently a final year journalism student at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR). I am doing a study on journalism studies in Malaysia. I was wondering if any of you education conscious people have any history or background information on journalism studies in Malaysia. I can be reached at

Thanks in advance.

DeePo said...

im quite agree with writer..history should be helping students in critical thinking...not memorize it....i like history....bcoz what happened today so much related with the history...

but the problem is, we are only LEARN about ISLAMIC history..what about french revolution? the hitler? US independence? europe history? queen victoria history? asean? japan? korea?

in msia unis, we learn so much islamization..everywhere is about islamnization...tamadun islam...tamadun's bored bcoz u learn the same thing during sejarah in high school? high school we never learn about iran revolution or french revolution.....

our student become so stupid about the world history....