Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Exams no longer final word on assessment?

Much appreciation to Firdaus, who in the comments of Kian Ming's post on the new Deputy Education Minister pointed us to the news that the UPSR and potentially PMR and SPM too will no longer be the last word on pupils' performance. This is a dramatic change in our education system, and it seems to be new Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's attempt to make his mark.

Unfortunately, I don't think we have enough information on this policy change to draw conclusions regarding its worthiness. In the abstract, it's a good enough idea: the notion that two or three exams should forever define your school years is ridiculous, because even in our mostly dreary education system, you get so much out of school beyond just knowing how to pass exams.

But even when I was in school, it was understood that the UPSR, PMR and SPM were not the be-all and end-all: you had to do well on the tests and exams routinely meted out in school too. Of course, they weren't as important as the big three — I actually failed a couple of tests when I was in school, and it didn't ruin my life — but you were expected to do well because they were basically dry runs for whatever exam the school was prepping you for. In primary school, tests and exams were dry runs for the UPSR; in secondary school, they became preparation for the PMR and SPM.

So if the new policy is just incorporating these tests and exams into the final assessment, then not much really changes. The assessment is still fundamentally testing only one trait: how well you can take the exams designed by the Education Ministry. Unless you change how we actually design the exams, this is purely a cosmetic change. The only useful and meaningful difference will be that if you fall sick during a major exam, your grades won't be as bad as they were before. The assessment system will still tell us nothing about how well our pupils can think or analyse information — all it will tell us now is whether our pupils can consistently take exams and answer the preset questions correctly over the course of six years, instead of one or two months.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Special Birthday Dedication to Ms Liew

This post is from Gabrielle and it is dedicated to a very special teacher by the name of Ms Liew. I think after reading this, we will all agree that we need more teachers like Ms Liew.

Today (April 19) is Ms Liew’s birthday, and this note is dedicated to her. (from Gabrielle Chong)

Back in secondary school, I hated Teacher’s Day. I hated the extravagant celebrations in my humid school hall. I hated the pretentious song dedications. I hated the students’ awful, half-baked attempts at performing, err, titillating pop dances (it was an all-girls school). Most of all, I hated the fact that while the entire school of over a hundred teachers and over two thousand students would sit down comfortably inside the hall to savor the show, the one teacher that I loved most happened to be the discipline teacher, and she would spend every Teacher’s Day (and Report Card Day, and Graduation Day, and ABC Teacher’s Retirement Day, and…) breaking out in sweat, manning the school compound, singling out troublemakers and catching truants. The hardest working teacher in school, working even harder on Teacher’s Day.

The first thing you will notice about Ms Liew is her tall, slim figure, partly due to God-given slim genes, and partly due to fact she has little time to eat. The second thing you will notice about her is her gauntness (sorry lah if you are reading this, Ms Liew!), the accumulated consequence of over two decades of labour from the heart. The third thing you will notice about her, if she opens her mouth, is her crisp, clear, ferocious yet comical voice, which can either reduce even the most defiant delinquent in school to tears, or drive a whole hall of students roaring in laughter.

Witty, sporting and outgoing, Ms Liew was one of the most popular teachers in school. But the students who claimed a special place in her heart were the outcasts: troubled teens, antisocial youths, school rebels and failing students. As much she came down hard on school hooligans, she worked even harder to bring them back within the embrace of the school community. She gave her care to the students who least deserved it, because they needed it most.

Ms Liew was stern, for sure. When the school received complaints from the public that truants were patronising various restaurants in school uniforms, she drove around the school, alone, early in the mornings to round the truants up. And when she scolds you in her trademark crisp, clear, ferocious tone, you would feel your hair standing on it edges. But she also had sneakier ways of changing people’s lives. If she decided that you looked troubled, she would take painstaking efforts to chat you up after school to get to know you better as a person. If she thought that you were isolated and defiant, she would rope you in for cheerleading and other activities so that you would feel involved as a part of the school community. There was also an occasion when she convinced a group of problematic students to take part in a Teacher’s Day performance and give roses to the teachers with whom they usually were on bad terms. The experience transformed everyone a little bit, both the teachers and the students.

In 2007, I successfully nominated Ms Liew for Teacher Idol, a Teacher’s Day tribute organised by The Star. When reporters and photographers from The Star came to take a photo of her, Ms Liew went to the ‘weak’ Arts classes to gather students for the photo shoot. The thrilled students rushed out and carried Ms Liew in the air. The photo was never published, but I understood what Ms Liew wanted to do. She wanted the ‘weak’ students, who never get to enjoy five minutes of fame as straight A students, have their chance in getting the slightest bit of recognition.

A friend of mine, from another school, once told me the tragic story of two girls in her alma mater who were constantly abused by their father. They finally snapped one day, and engaged their boyfriends to murder him. The two boys were sent to prison, while the girls were sent to a rehabilitation center. I sometimes think that if they had a Ms Liew in their school, tragedies like that would never happen - observant Ms Liew would have singled the solemn-looking girls out for counselling and discover their problems. Or rather, if there were Ms Liews in every school, the world would improve by leaps and bounds.

There were, of course, times when Ms Liew had her fair share of hardcore delinquents who did not budge at kindness. There were vengeful students who tried to intimidate her with mockery and vandalizing her car. But after stern disciplinary action was taken in each of those incidents, there was always, always room for forgiving and reconciliation. Today, countless ex-students return to my alma mater year after year to visit the teacher who had made such a profound impact on their lives.

Ms Liew was my school discipline teacher for many years (she has since been promoted to other positions), but her stint at my alma mater covered many other roles which she performed simultaneously. Among other things, she was the legendary teacher-advisor of the prefectorial board, the English team debate coach, the choral speaking coach (she wrote the script for the team every year), and the default co-ordinator for every major school event. In a nutshell, she was the backbone of an entire school.

I first interacted with her when I was in Form One, but only began seeing her regularly in when I was in Form Three as one of her prefects. At that time, I was still an angry, highly aggressive, defiant teen who had quarrelled with probably half the school’s teacher and student body.

One day, I yelled at a teacher right in front of a whole class so badly that I reduced her to tears (it was sparked by a petty quarrel over her insisting that I make my personal notes in pencil and not pens). I thought that that marked the end of my stint in the prefectorial board and the start of even greater contempt by the school towards me. I expected a heavy lashing by Ms Liew. She did see me eventually, but she never raised her voice at me, nor did she strip me of my position. I later apologized to the teacher that I had scolded. If there was one thing I learned from Ms Liew, it was redemption.

In Form Four, I conjured the courage to write her a 9-page letter one day, with a full list of questions on religion, existentialism, ethics and morality. These were the questions that had brought me a decade of weird stares, isolation and reputation as a weirdo in a conservative, Chinese school environment. Ms Liew met me for a chat in the office one day to reply my questions in that letter. From that day onwards, I no longer felt like an outcast.

Ms Liew had her quirky ways of teaching her students. Once, she told the debaters to research a topic over the weekend in preparation for a practice debate in front of a class. When that day arrived, she gave us our motion an hour before we were due to hold our debate. The motion was entirely different from the topic she had asked us to research, and we suddenly found ourselves with impromptu public speaking skills that we never knew we had.

Another memorable incident occurred during one of the prefectorial board outdoor camps. While going on a night hike one day on Pangkor Island, Ms Liew sneaked up behind us, grabbed the last prefect in the single file and brought her back to the base camp. Amazingly, no one realized that she was missing. When head counts were made back at the base, everyone was traumatized by the knowledge that one of our fellow friends was missing. Ms Liew brought out the ‘missing girl’ a few hours later, and we had a good lesson on accountability and responsibility for others.

My six years of friendship with Ms Liew was never a smooth one. We had our vast ideological differences, and we constantly feuded over disagreements on religious, sexuality and various social issues as well as personal matters, but none of these disagreements were ever severe enough to destroy our bond.

Like all cool teachers, Ms Liew was renowned for her raunchy sense of humour as much as for her intellect. She used to brag that she gave sizzling lessons on reproduction while serving as a biology teacher at an all-boys school. “We even discussed whether cats have orgasms”, she smirked. Another time, when she introduced a new, male teacher trainee into the school, she remarked to an entire hall of students, “We have a new teacher today, and he’s a guy…I can already hear your hormones raging.” In addition, Ms Liew was the first liberal intellect that I knew in my life. After entering the debate team in Form Four, she lent me her stack of socioeconomics, history and political books - the first time I had access to a huge pile of advanced reading material (that was how I felt back then), and which later spurred my interest in those fields.

As an undergraduate student, Ms Liew studied biochemistry. But after some soul-searching, she decided that teaching was her true calling instead. She was, as a Sixth Form student at St Michael’s Institution, inspired by a missionary named Brother Paul who left home at a young age to serve as a teacher in a strange tropical land half the globe away from his country. My mother, who used to loiter around St Michael’s Institution as a child, remembered Brother Paul as a kind man who gave sweets to the poor children in that area and gathered them for Biblical story-telling sessions. To this day, Ms Liew still visits the grave of the man who taught her a life of service every year.

Ms Liew’s life outside the school is no less remarkable. She brought up two lovable Dennis the Menace-lookalikes as if they were her own children. She was friends with the school janitors, the laboratory assistants and the canteen aunties. When one of her Liew’s colleagues and best friend started having difficulties walking, she volunteered to drive her to and back from work every single day. By the time I graduated, she had been doing that continuously for six years. There are so many other heart achingly beautiful anecdotes about Ms Liew that I would love to share, but it would be impossible to do so without intruding into the personal life of a highly private and humble person. Hence, I will just conclude by testifying that she was so much more than a dedicated teacher; she was also a filial daughter, a caring foster mother, a steadfast friend, a humble intellectual, a perpetual optimist and a faithful Christian. Some people excel at ping pong. Others excel at making cheesecakes. Ms Liew excels at living.

Ironically, Ms Liew never taught me for a single minute in class - I never had the fortune of having her as a subject teacher. And yet, she has taught me more about life than I could ever learn.

Friday, April 17, 2009

New Deputy Minister reaches out via FB

Read this story on the Star about how the new Deputy Higher Education Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, is using facebook to reach out to his 'constituents'.

The Star reported that:

"University students who wish to bring up grievances regarding their tertiary institutions can do so by directly contacting Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah through Facebook. Datuk Saifuddin said that he will be live on the social networking website on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, from 10 to 11 pm."

I applaud the new Deputy Minister for Higher Education for using the internet and social networking sites such as facebook to reach out to students at the tertiary level. I'm a little bit more skeptical as to how effective going 'live' on facebook will be since the chat function on FB isn't really very good.

I think the new Deputy Minister deserves close attention. I've been aware of him ever since M Bakri Musa wrote a review about a book Saifuddin had written entitled: Politik Baru: Mematangkan Demokrasi Malaysia. English version: New Politics: Towards A Mature Malaysian Democracy.

Back then, Saifuddin was the Deputy Minister for Entrepreneur and Cooperative Development, a ministry which no longer exists after the announcement of Najib's new cabinet.

A cursory google search reveals that Saifuddin has been an active blogger since August 2008 and also maintains a website. His profile page mentions that he is a UM graduate and an MCKK boy.

Not many ministers or cabinet ministers in Malaysia would know or heard of C K Prahalad but Saifuddin not only mentions Pralahad in one of his blog entries but seems to also have read one of his books. (He mentions Prahalad in the context of promoting entrepreneurialism among university students)

While the Minister of Higher Education is still Khaled Nordin, whom I've not been terribly impressed by, it gives me some hope that he has an able deputy in someone like Saifuddin. He's off to a good start. Let's see if his position as Deputy Minister for Higher Education will translate into any substantive changes in terms of policy in our public and private universities.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A New Education Minister: More of the Same?

So our Prime Minister has reshuffled his Cabinet, and our new Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is now also our new Education Minister. Unfortunately, my sense of things is that this probably will not mark a significant change in direction for Malaysian education.

Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein didn't really turn things around, if you ask me; Kian Ming is impressed by his administrative competency and I would agree that he probably kept things from getting worse. But I think it is very hard to say that things improved under Hisham. The government took some very tentative steps towards tinkering with the school system, but nearly every complaint that held water five years ago is still valid today.

I am not optimistic about Muhyiddin because the Education Ministry seems to have become a political football; you often become Education Minister because you're expected to eventually become Prime Minister, and this certainly seems to be true in this case. There is still little sign that the government recognises what's wrong with our school system, let alone how to fix these problems.

The number one issue which Muhyiddin must address is that of teachers: they are overworked, underpaid, poorly trained, and mostly powerless. There is no incentive for bright people to enter the teaching profession, and even those who are selfless enough to serve barely earn enough to cope, especially in urban areas. Teachers are often expected to not only teach, but handle paperwork and take on administrative duties. Yet, they barely get much training, and they are so shackled by the system that they are assigned to posts that make no sense; it is unusually common for a science teacher to wind up teaching history, for example. Fortunately, this is beside the point, because teachers have no power to determine the curriculum; what they teach has already been decided by a handful of bureaucrats and Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka textbook authors, and they are just responsible for vomiting up whatever these people want them to say, so their pupils can dutifully do the same on their exams.

There are a lot of other wrong things with our education system, but all my experiences in the school system point to teaching as the main problem: we aren't treating our teachers right. And when we don't properly treat these mature adults who we actually pay to be in school, is it really surprising that we often treat our students and youth even worse? We have good teachers, but we don't trust them to teach. We have good students, but we don't trust them to learn. Is it then surprising that so few people in our schools want to teach or learn?

When you empower the good teachers, you also empower the good students. I just finished watching this fantastic lecture on molecular biology which illustrates this perfectly; the speaker is a Princeton University biologist who not only loves her field, but lectures clearly and explains obscure concepts in a simple way. And if you watch the whole way through, she gives credit to all the students who work in her lab, because everything she presented was first discovered by one of them: "when you learn things like about how the natural world works ... it was done by a child. Science is done by that demographic."

It is hard to imagine a Malaysian academic saying something like that, and that says a lot about the way we think about education. We have trouble with giving academics freedom, and we have trouble with giving students freedom. This is unquestionably true in primary and secondary school, where the curriculum is completely dictated by the state and federal governments, but almost as true in our universities, where faculty and students are less free to speak their minds than any ordinary member of the public.

When you get to the heart of it, the problem with Malaysian education is that we are afraid of setting our people free, to explore our world. The attitude of our modern education system and our modern education policymakers is that minds are something to be controlled, not freed. And for all the talk of reform on the part of our new Prime Minister — and even his two predecessors, both of whom promised scores of reforms in their own times — none have dared address this problem which cuts to the core of the rotten apple that is our education system. Certainly, the new Education Minister is no exception to this rule. Until someone in government recognises this, I will have a very tough time believing there will be any kind of meaningful change in our school system.