Reforms must have substance

A FEW weeks ago, I attended a public event where a representative from the Education Ministry gave a powerful and passionate speech about the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025.

One statement really caught my attention: the fact that globally, 70% of countries embarking on education reform, fail miserably.

What I personally find interesting about the recent wave of global reforms is that the strategies being used by the majority of the reforming countries (both successful and unsuccessful reformers alike) are remarkably similar.

They involve rolling out a standardised set of education policies related to teacher training; curriculum reform; uniform and regular student assessment; teacher accountability measures; and decentralisation. Malaysia’s education blueprint has drawn heavily from this playbook.

At first sight, it seems like many countries are adopting the same education policies and that some are achieving a lift-off while others are crashing.

We obviously need to look at this carefully to ensure that ours is a success story.

Back in 1974, the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman told the story of Tanna Island in the Pacific, during World War II. A small population of indigenous islanders witnessed thousands of US troops land en-mass with vast amounts of military equipment and supplies.

When the war ended, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping the cargo. The islanders were utterly distraught and longed for the now missing supplies.

They undertook their own in-house strategies and concluded that if they could replicate the conditions that existed when the Americans were on the island, the cargo would be air-dropped again.

They set about creating runways, picked their strongest men to march up and down the “airbases”’ and fashioned radio headphones from coconuts.

One islander donned the “headphones” and played the role of air traffic controller, guiding the planes in.

The Tanna islanders successfully replicated most of the features of island life during the American occupation, but unsurprisingly the planes still didn’t come back!

Feynman called the phenomenon Cargo Cult Science which has become a widely-used term to describe situations where organisations try to make improvements by copying the features of another successful reference group but they get it spectacularly wrong — by focusing only on the irrelevant features.

New policies

I think there are some education reforms that have gone down the path of the cargo cult phenomenon.

It would explain why so many countries adopt similar reform policies but with varying degrees of success — because there is some other hidden “wiring” in the strategies of successful reformers that seriously gets lost in translation. It’s really important that Malaysia avoids this.

In CfBT, a not-for-profit organisation that I work for, one of the common reasons for failure in cargo cult education is that the reforms stop at the classroom door.

Everything gets reformed, except the micro interactions between the student and teacher inside the classroom. But it’s easy to understand why policy-makers focus their reform efforts outside the classroom.

Things like changing class sizes, the content of exams, the written curriculum, school facilities or the terms and conditions of teachers are a lot easier to achieve than the mindset shift of a single teacher.

Unless policy-makers focus on the hidden wiring or interaction of the teacher-student relationship and identify the smallest number of high impact initiatives to improve this, reform is unlikely to be successful.

Granted, the school buildings will look presentable, the curriculum will stand up to international scrutiny and the exam system would have been overhauled but the hidden wiring will remain completely untouched.

All that would have happened is that like the islanders, the education reformers would have built something that looks a bit like a high performing school system but that has none of the really essential features.

So how do we avoid the cargo cult approach to access the hidden wiring of Malaysia’s education system and reform it?

CfBT Education Malaysia has undertaken a major research project and has uncovered five areas for Malaysia’s reform agenda.

First, telling teachers what to do usually does not work. Improvements will require them to change their habits and their engrained repertoire of teaching strategies, which is hard. It is not so hard to get new ideas into teachers’ heads about effective approaches to teaching and learning.

Breaking old habits

The problem is that old habits are hard to break and it takes time for new ideas to crowd out the existing repertoire. It can be done but it certainly does not happen “naturally”.

Second, the key to improving teacher quality is to improve the quality of Continuous Professional Development (CPD). This means moving away from traditional in-service training models where teachers attend workshops and then return to school.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve tells us that just 20 minutes after a traditional training programme has concluded, a teacher would have forgotten 42% of what the trainer said.

After 31 days, they will only remember 21% and they are only likely to put 10% into practice. This is not a strong return on investment.

Third, the best way to improve the quality of CPD is to base it in the classroom through a mixture of coaching and teacher learning communities.

The cycle involves teachers undertaking training in a new pedagogical approach, making the commitment to test it in their class and being observed by pedagogy coaches, who provide feedback. It also allows educators to share their experiences in overcoming challenges

This cycle of reinforcement will gradually result in the new approaches crowding out the old.

Fourth, it also requires teachers to make a commitment to reflect, improve and only focus on what makes a difference to student learning.

The focus of school leaders must be on making a difference to students and in providing the time, trust and moral and practical support to enable teachers to experiment and innovate without fear.

Finally, policy-makers must acknowledge that interaction or the hidden wiring is vital. Changing this alone will transform the quality of education, even if all the other areas are left untouched — because they are just education cargo cults, like the Tanna Island runways, which have the style of fundamental reform but none of the substance.

  • n The writer is director of CfBT Education Malaysia, a not-for-profit organisation founded in 1979. The organisation is part of CfBT Education Trust, a not-for-profit education consultancy.
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