Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Education Reforms: Forwards or Back?

It's actually interesting that the New Straits Times (NST) seems to be able to get better access to the Ministries of Education and Higher Education with regards to policy issues. For example, there was no noticeable reports of the changing of guard at the various universities recently in the Star. Now, it was reported a week ago by NST that there appears to be some significant education reforms under way as part of the 9th Malaysia Plan which is in the midst of being finalised.

Some of the important but incremental piecemeal actions to be taken which was announced by the Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein are:
  • Building and upgrading more schools, as well as repairing those which need a facelift and are in dangerous condition due to termite attacks or floods;

  • Major inventory-taking and consolidation of the ICT initiatives in schools;

  • Remedial and intervention programmes to ensure students mastered Reading, Writing and Arithmetic skills;

  • Expanding Special Education programmes; and,

  • Strengthening the national language.
However, it is in the context of making significant reforms in the education system which I found interesting reading. The Minister of Education emphasised the need for Malaysia to adapt to the various education policy changes and developments around the world.

"The way we assess our children’s achievements in learning must be in response to developments and changes in the world... We can also assess our students’ achievements through examinations conducted by bodies such as TIMSS (The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study)."

TIMSS is an organisation which provides "reliable and timely data on the mathematics and science achievement of American students". While I'm lauding the effort of the Minister to look at global trends and learning from their successes and failures, I'm a little concerned with regards to the fact that we may be looking at the wrong country for the education of mathematics and science policies.

While the United States (US) may be a developed country and a global leader in technology, it has been apparent in many studies conducted in recent years that the quality of Mathematics and Science education received by the average student receives has been on steep decline. In a study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2003 on 15 year olds, the United States was ranked a poor 25th-28th out of 41 countries surveyed for Mathematics. For Science, US was ranked 20th-27th. The countries which topped the rankings were Hong Kong, Finland, South Korea and Japan. (For those who are curious, Singapore was not included in this study.)

To quote the American Institutes for Research (AIR) which conducted a studyin 2005 funded by the US Department of Education:
Despite a widely held belief that U.S. students do well in mathematics in grade school but decline precipitously in high school, a new study comparing the math skills of students in industrialized nations finds that U.S. students in 4th and 8th grade perform consistently below most of their peers around the world and continue that trend into high school.

U.S. students consistently performed below average, ranking 8th or 9th out of twelve at all three grade levels. These findings suggest that U.S. reform proposals to strengthen mathematics instruction in the upper grades should be expanded to include improving U.S. mathematics instruction beginning in the primary grades.
In fact, in another study by AIR, we actually do not have to look far to seek help and assistance in advancing our teaching in Mathematics and Science. The AIR report entitled "What United States Can Learn from Singapore's World Class Mathematics System" (available in full PDF here, and a summary here). This study, also financed by the US Department of Education, was released in January 2005. The AIR has found that
...comparing the teaching of elementary school mathematics in the United States and Singapore has found that Singapore’s textbooks and assessment examinations are more demanding and their teachers more skilled mathematically but that U.S. approaches often put more emphasis on certain important 21 st century math skills.
Singapore is a recognized leader in mathematics achievement. Singaporean students ranked first in the world on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study-2003, while U.S. students ranked 16th out of the 46 participating nations. Scores for U.S. students were among the lowest of all industrialized countries.

“It is unreasonable to assume that Singaporean students have mathematical abilities inherently superior to those of U.S. students; rather, there must be something about the system that Singapore has developed to teach mathematics that is better than the system we use in the United States. That’s why it’s important to take a closer look, and see how the U.S can learn and how the U.S can improve,” says Steven Leinwand, the lead AIR author.
As part of the detailed study, AIR conducted four pilot programs that using Singapore's mathematics textbook involving students in Baltimore, Md., Montgomery County, Md., North Middlesex, Mass., and Paterson, N.J.
The study found two pilot sites produced sizeable improvements in student outcomes, but overall the study observed mixed results because “the pilot sites, to varying degrees, encountered problems with teachers who lacked the educational preparation needed.”
In fact a detailed study must be conducted of the Singapore system which was evaluated by TIMSS as part of the 15-year old survey conducted on a 4 yearly basis in 28 countries. Back in 1995, Singapore was ranked joint 1st with South Korea for Mathematics, and 9th for Science. In 1999, it improved its rankings to 1st and 2nd respective. And for the most recent study conducted in 2003, Singapore topped both the Mathematics and Science categories.

More controversially, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein may be stamping his mark on the education system by commenting that:
...the ministry would study calls to reduce the number of subjects in public examinations and only test pupils on certain subjects.

"The 9th Malaysia Plan period can be used to see if we can change the emphasis in public exams from being too content-based to a more skill-based one, or from achievement tests to tests on general ability".
Contrary to many educated opinion that I know exists out there - I'm of the opinion that the issue with our education system is not so much with the examinations system, but with the way the subjects are taught, which in turn is a function of the textbook, the quality of the teachers and the quality of the assessors.

I'm personally a product of the "examination system" from primary to tertiary education. I've sat for exams which are overly content oriented as well as exams which test the candidates analytical and critical thinking skills of the contents learnt during the specific course. I find that the problem is not with an examination system (which I regard as critical) and tweaking with experiments like taking fewer subjects, but in changing the approach to examinations - beginning with the teachers and the examination questions. Let me give an example of comparative question from the much maligned subject of history. Compare the following three questions:
  1. What are the events leading to the fall of the Melaka Sultanate?

  2. What are the factors which caused the fall of the Melaka Sultanate?

  3. Was the fall of the Melaka Sultanate inevitable?
The questions to me, represents different degrees of thinking and analytical skills despite dealing with the same subject as well as probably comprising the very same content in the answers. The approach to the first question probably involves a semi-chrological listing of the events leading to the fall of the sultanate with cursory linkages to the reasons behind the fall of the sultanate. The approach to the 2nd question will be slightly more analytical as the student will have to discern and derive the factors behind the fall, from the actual historical events. However, the 3rd question is probably the hardest as it requires the student to think and analyse hardest as to the inevitability of the fall of the sultanate given the events and factors. However, you would note that the students, irrespective of the question are required to learn and know in hand, the facts with regards to the fall of the sultanate.

Hence, my brief argument in an issue which can spawn volumes of theses, is that there is nothing wrong with examinations per se, as well as learning facts and figures as part of the curriculum. However, what is important is for the educators to take the next step and inculcate analytical and critical thinking skills for application on the facts and figures learnt. This is in order for students to cope with a movement of the examination system which tests analytical and critical thinking skills on top of knowing ones' facts. Changing our examination system from a more "content-based to a more skill-based one" is not the answer.


Anonymous said...

hey what happened to the prior post.. :/ .. i was commenting halfway when it somehow disappeared..

so anyway heres my comment on the previous post.

"Hm.. I rememeber telling Tony via email about the supposed MoE plans a special education system for the gifted.

Basically what happened was, representatives from the MoE came to my school and met the bunch of The Gifted Group from my school. So they gave us some surveys and stuffs, asked some questions and requested for some input.

I myself raised the scenario of a maths whizkid who is only super good at maths and not anything else. He would not do well at other exams, and ultimately screw up his SPM - the main yardstick for "excellence" here. Hence, there goes his talent. * this was before this guy popped up*

I raised the possibility of emulating the US education system, where people who are profficient in certain subjects can take advanced / honor classes for it.

Put it this way. There's an 18 year old professor at MIT. He's super good at maths. He was HOMESCHOOLED. He probably wont do well in other subjects, and if he were in Malaysia... its bye bye.

I remember there are specialized schools for certain subjects at other countries. Certain european countries have maths school America has Maths & Engineering high schools...

So what are we going to come up with?"

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Look at your questions again, Tony. How many students with the same amount of effort and the same amount of studying would be able to answer them? Especially the last two? Few are gifted with the ability to answer the last two questions commendably, the rest would struggle. Those who do well for that question probably won't be able to answer subsidiary questions like, "Draw a detailed map of the Malaccan sultanate just before it fell to the Portugese" or "Assume that for the first six hours, Malaccan soldiers increased by 25% hourly while a constant death rate was 45% through out the battle, assuming the battle lasted for 26 hours and 60% of remaining soldiers fled with the Sultan immediately, how many soldiers stayed back in Malacca the Portugese won?" or "What are the prominent literary components used in Sejarah Melayu regarding to its passage related to this incident. Furthermore, compare the prose and style of the passage with the passage regarding the founding of Malacca".

You see Tony, Albert Einstein would have failed the test you set (indeed, he did fail the humanities portion of the ETH, Zurich university entrance test). Eash student have different abilities and aptitudes as well as different interests. Making them learn the same thing would be repeating the mistake - more often than not, students that fail in school can't apply themselves to required subjects - not won't.

Another point you're missing is how do you mark the answer script? To make marks less reflective of the personal biases of the examiners, marking schemes are employed. Hong Kong's A-Level tried the method you suggest to spectacular failure; critical thinking became a farce and students wrote what they felt the examiners wanted to read. Therein lies the problem with the examination system - especially standardized, nationalized ones.

Certainly, there is a role for standardized examinations but it shouldn't be as prominent as it is today. Instead, examinations for the most part should be replaced with non-examination assessments like group and individual projects, reports and presentations at school level. Of course, there would be disreptancy between the standards employed by different schools and even different teachers - there's where examinations ought to come in: to moderate school achievement results, rather than replace it.

In other words, standardized examinations should be employed only so that universities and employers can approximate the aptitude of the student. After all, an A from one school would most definitely be different from another school. And because such examinations would be contrasted with internal assessments, there is far less opportunity for any party to inflate grades - at least not to the level many countries are experiencing now.

Just my two sen.

Anonymous said...

Another point I would like to make is that examinations does not emulate real life and thus cannot predict real life achievement. For one, rarely in real life do individuals forced to do something individually within a very short amount of time without researching or using references (most tests are close-book ones). Real-life skills like the ability to cooperate and collaborate with other team members, for example, cannot be measured by examinations.

And there are many aspects of many examinations that simply don't correlate in real life. Take for example, language tests - when was the last time you are forced to write an essay of a certain length within a certain time period on a topic you are not allowed to research beforehand? Having took STPM, I must ask, where in real life do critical information needed to solve a problem are hidden in deceivious statements? Or how often are you required to find answers or solutions to questions or problems that are delibrately worded to confuse you?

I'm going to venture a guess that you would answer rarely, if not never, for all those situations.

Examinations essentially tests a candidates ability to sit for an examination. Little more.