Monday, January 26, 2009

New ways to solve old problems

A few conversations I've had and events I've attended over the past week led me to this blog post. It's a post that is primarily about thinking of new ways to solve old and new problems in the education realm in Malaysia.

The first conversation I had was with a friend and we were talking about smart people whom we both knew. I came to the conclusion that many of us make the unconscious link between being smart with having a high IQ or being book smart. This is not really surprising given that our whole education system is geared towards rewarding people who are book smart. But the older I get, the more I realize that emphasizing being book smart above other kinds of 'intelligence' is not a very smart thing to do, whether one is an educationist, a corporate leader, a politician or a parent. In any project / organization that one is involved in, I think it's necessary to have people with different kinds of 'intelligence' to achieve good outcomes. This kind of intelligence may be verbal, spatial, linguistic, inter-personal, etc... You cannot hope to put a group of book smart people in the same room who are from the same background and assume that you will get good results. It probably is better to put in people with different backgrounds and different types of 'intelligence', if you want to find new ways of solving old and new problems.

The second conversation I had was in an email exchange with different people discussing the merits and demerits of a 'Harvard' type approach towards research that is highly individualistic versus a 'Wisconsin' i.e. state school type approach towards research that is more collegial in nature. Many were in favor of a more collegial approach that is more productive on a person by person measure and perhaps also gives workers a better work life balance. We also discussed the possibility that if the collegial model were to be introduced in a Malaysian university, the 'free-rider' problem would be one of the main challenges. Within the collegial model, there still needs to be some level of accountability.

The third conversation I had was really in the form of a talk given by CNN Special Investigations anchor Soledad O'Brien. It was the final event during the Martin Luther King Jr (MLK) week at Duke. Ms. O'Brien had just finished covering the Obama inauguration as part of the CNN team. CNN had also just finished showing a series called Black in America in the run up to Obama's inauguration and MLK day - Ms. O'Brien was one of the key journalists in this series.

Ms. O'Brien said a few things that struck me. She said that having people of diverse backgrounds come together to work on a project usually results in a better product. And she's not only talking about racial diversity, she's also referring to diversity in terms of backgrounds, sexual preference, previous work experience, geographical origins, etc... She referred to the findings of Michigan Professor, Scott Page, who wrote a book arguing that diversity leads to better outcomes, using, of all things, mathematical models. She also talked about the experiments which Roland Fryer, the youngest tenured black professor at Harvard, was doing in schools in Dallas, where children were financially rewarded based on how many books they read. She gave this as an example of how important is it to 'think outside the box' in terms of finding solutions to the many problems society is facing and in fact, has been facing for the past X number of years. Thirdly, she also said that having diverse voices heard is not something easy because you have to somehow find the 'best' solution among all the ideas being proposed. Diversity is not about coming together to sing 'kumbaya'. It's much more complicated than that.

These three experiences I've had in the past week led me to think of how this might translate into trying to find solutions to problems which we're having in the education realm in Malaysia. I think some of the lessons I've learned over the pass week may apply in the Malaysian context. The lessons are - don't overemphasize book learning or being book smart, working in teams with proper accountability structures, diversity is good in terms of coming up with solutions and finally, thinking outside the box.

How would this apply to one particular problem which parents complain about time and time again - the problem of too many school kids spending too much time at cyber cafes playing games such as Starcraft, Warcraft, World of Warcraft, Counterstrike etc...? This problem has existed every since the internet was invented and cyber-cafes were established in Malaysia.

There have been calls to ban all cyber cafes or to impose restrictions which makes the cyber cafe owners liable for fines if kids wearing school uniforms were found on their premises. I think that these kinds of 'solutions' for this kind of 'problem' are far too blunt and do not demonstrate an understanding of why kids go to cyber cafes in the first place. If you ban cyber cafes, these kids may find other outlets for entertainment. Some of them may get involved in drugs or gangs. If you prevent them from wearing school uniforms while being in these cyber cafes, they will use change their clothes after school.

If we take to heart some of the lessons I learned over the past week, there would be many different kinds of 'solutions' that can be tried out to try to 'solve' this problem. First of all, you cannot just depend on MOE officials or parents to tackle this problem. You need people who actually play these games to be in your 'team' so that you can understand why kids actually play these games.

I have to admit that I love playing computer games including Starcraft and Warcraft but have stopped playing them since I want to finish my PhD this year. But I know friends who are white-collar workers and company owners who play Warcraft in their office on Friday evenings as part of their 'team-building' exercise. (That's their 'official' reason) If white collar workers are playing these games, without much detriment to their own work performance, can we really say that playing these games is a 'problem' for young kids?

The problem here has more to do with the fact that some kids are spending ALL their time playing these games and not enough time on schoolwork. If this is the case, can there be more creative solutions to solve this problem?

If I were an MOE official put in charge of tackling this problem, I would first get together a group of diverse 'stakeholders' - selected teachers, parents, kids, gamers, researchers, local politicians, entrepreneurs etc... - and ask them to come up with a list of solutions. Having a diverse group of people means that all voices will be heard. The kids will let the parents know that not all gaming is bad, the researchers will tell talk of different ways to incentivize the kids for doing homework and playing computer games, the local politicians will come up with creative ways of policing, the entrepreneurs will come up with ways of making money that will benefit them as well as the kids playing the games...

I can throw out some ideas which I've thought of myself which can definitely be refined in the context of a bigger group with more experience and local knowledge than myself. Some of these ideas include:

- Allowing kids to play some of these games in the computer labs in schools with the caveat that for every hour they are allowed to play, they have to read a book or finish a piece of homework which takes 1 or 2 hours to do
- Asking parents from the same neighborhood to network their own computers so that their kids can play against one another from the safety of their own homes. This way, parents can monitor how much they play and the kids themselves can play with one another without having to go to the cybercafes.
- Giving 'prepaid' cards to kids who do well in school so that they can redeem these cards at ministry approved cyber cafes. Or give these cards to kids in exchange for reading a certain number of books or improving their grades by a certain amount.

Some of these ideas may be stupid, some of them may be problematic to implement, some of them may need buy-in from the different stakeholders to succeed. My larger point is this - we need to find creative ways to solve some of the trickier problems that affect our education system. And we cannot adopt a one size fits all approach. What may work in KL / PJ may not work in Teluk Intan or Sekinchan or in Raub or Kelantan. What you need are people at the MOE who can get together the different stakeholders to that creative ideas can be generated and then implemented. Those which succeed should be continued, those which don't should be discarded. If these are done on a localized basis, then there's more room for experimentation. Just my 2 cents.


Anonymous said...

Good post Kian Ming, between the lines and beyond the lines.

Happy CNY .

Anonymous said...

adding to above earlier written:

better to learn to " think outside the box "

... for knowledge alone is not sufficient for being efficient for the bottom-line, right ?


LordTaipan said...

xin nien kuai le! To all celebrating.

Thank you for all your posts. I certainly appreciate the appreciation of diversity as articulated in your post. Getting different stakeholders involved is indeed a good start, especially the kids themselves. For too long we do not consider the children as stakeholders. Giving them the respect and making them part of the improvement process is critical, how we engage them is equally important. We need think through it very carefully and in depth.

While we appreciate that the various stakeholders be involved in improving the education, we need to also get out of the "one size fits all" mode. As we appreciate diversity, we must also appreciate that we need multiple education SYSTEMS or approaches. This means that the whole management paradigm of
the MOE needs to be revamped to accomodate these systemS. We need to encourage systems to be developed from ground-up, including meaning input by students themselves. The MOE could move into encouraging this processes by laying broad guidelines and support processes. When this happens, it would real empowerment of stakeholders.


Anonymous said...

Education objectives and methods have to transform with a globalised world. Even in the USA it realises that many of its values have to change with a world that is no longer round but flat. As people move around faster and easier it would seem an all rounded education is more suitable. Perhaps a futuristic PhD is one whereby one is situated in far corners of the world to obtain a globalistic view rather than just a holistic one. At the same time micromanaging would be important and schools should impart knowledge on nutrition and financial planning. Also one should at least have three languages under ones belt to be competitive. The days of epistemic arrogance that Dr M had are gone and you would find that his ideas of "BMtising" the syllabus of Malaysian education since 1979 is long gone, the days when he was paranoid about the British Raj is also long gone, the days when he would elicit the advice of a Japanese instead of a Chinese is also long gone as the Japanese economy like its underworld namesake goes into a tailspin and downturn for many years to come; finally the days where Dr M's Chinese cronies are there to allay the fears of the Chinese populous when their properties are being confiscated are also slowly being questioned and one wonders why it took so long. Dr M has been and was a very combative leader with a acidic tongue that ruled with an iron fist. You would almost see that his good friend Mugabe has ruined his own country and zero valued the currency so much so citizens are down with cholera and very little to eat if they hold no US Dollars.

Dr M's policies if allowed to continue would lead to the bankruptcy of the country whilst monuments to his infamy like twin towers stand as testament to his ego. Whilst the education system takes a nose dive as millions of graduates are under and unemployed. Dr M should donate his billions to these unemployed graduates as a patriotic gesture as we all know he seemingly loves his country.

Anonymous said...

you all can talk till the cows come home, the trouble is the UNMO govt wont listen. Its not they dint know wat went wrong.

Tiara said...

YES to having the kids as stakeholders. Hardly anyone ever asks the students what they want or why they do the things they do. No wonder our "education" system leaves much to be desired.

Re: videogames - according to "Everything bad is good for you" and some other theorists/academics/etc, there's a lot of value in videogames, such as problem solving, teamwork, decision making, and so on. Investigate how games like Warcraft can be incorporated into education. What can you gain from Warcraft? How can you make the connections engaging and educational?

Kids go to cybercafes because they're tons more interesting than school. I got most of my education off the Internet and learnt tons more than my classmates - school was useless! Instead of seeing cybercafes and Internet gaming as a "problem", see how you can take the principles of those areas and make use of them. This means getting something engaging, that provides the kid with what they want/need, sensual, gives them a sense of importance and accomplishment. All those factors do not show up in traditional education - and they wonder why kids hike off!!

I have to concur with the cynicism of the Anon above me though - just getting solutions isn't going to do anything. In reality, there already ARE solutions. People have ALREADY done a lot of the brainstorming. It's not like Malaysia's the only country that's ever faced the challenges of an uninspired student bunch. The issues come from the Government actually TAKING ACTION, and/or letting other parties take action in their own way. However, since Malaysia seems to be taking the view of education as "preparing cogs for machinery", it's not likely that they'll encourage students to be innovative or creative or actually *smart* - you don't want a smart populace if you don't want to be overthrown! For all the hyping of "menara gading" and straight As and all that, the Government is really anti-intellectual - or rather, anti-alt-intellectual. It's risky to have smart people around.

Shawn Tan said...

"No government program can turn off the TV set, or put away the video games, or read to your children." - Obama.

This whole entry reminds me of the 'team building' programme that we organised at university. We even managed to convince the administration to give us funding for the activity and lend us the use of the spare computer labs. In the end, we organised a CS gaming competition.

1) Allowing kids to play games in schools is doable, if there are enough computer labs to accommodate all the 'extra' time that will be spent on these computers. However, it will be heavily 'male' dominated due to gamer demographics in Malaysia. Furthermore, it will cost a lot of money for schools to license these games, unless we are talking about only installing free games (there are quite a number of exciting ones too!)

2) Neighbourhood networks are an excellent idea. It will also encourage interaction between families. You can do more than just game with this neighbourhood network, such as security and telecomms applications. The infrastructure to set it up is also trivial if every family has their own wireless router. However, there are certainly legal restrictions in terms of sharing internet connections and opening up wireless access.

3) Prepaid cards as an incentive is akin to giving away book vouchers. The entrepreneurs will love this idea. In line with the theme of 'not just book smarts' they can be given out for doing any number of useful things, other than just reading books or improving grades. They could be given out as rewards for winning competitions or for doing community related work (for example).

PS: Wow, you know Sekinchan!

Anonymous said...

In Malaysia context, the environment is not conducive for much creative or progressive thinking. Unless we can get rid of racial politics, "ketuanan", religious bigotry and corruption promoted by UMNO.

Dont forget those little Napoleons putting a stop to practically any bright ideas if they are not one of the beneficiaries.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on how to engage the affected persons in a problem by being inclusive and understanding it from their point of view.

Current and old methods are probably of a top down approach where it is usually 'Do as I say because I know it is good for you' or worst 'because I say so'.

Fight fire with water and not with more fire.

With regards to anonymous@1/28/2009 08:01:00 PM and others of similar thinking perhaps it's time we factor in the 'racial politics, "ketuanan", religious bigotry and corruption promoted by UMNO' or any other race based parties in Malaysia for that matter, start working to solve the problem within the context, taking into account the complexities of the Malaysian educational system and life when formulating a solution rather than wait for everything to be perfect before we start doing something. Every little bit counts.

All the best in completing your doctoral dissertation KM.

Anonymous said...

A odd post.

I notice the 3 Singapore Universities posted their cutoff points.

Any comments?

shinliang said...

I totally agree that diversity is important. And I couldn't agree more when you say that diversity is more than just being different.

Diverging is good. But convergence is even more important otherwise all the diversity would be wasted.

When faced with many options and tonnes of information, how do we read between the lines and decide for ourselves what to do? How do we rationalise? Or do we act on our gut feeling? Or will we just stick back to what we would do as if there were just one person in the team?


and lastly, but most importantly... Happy CNY!

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