Contradictheory: It's the people, stupid, not the technology

  • Living
  • Monday, 22 Jul 2019

How many parents are willing to pay RM600 a year to improve their child’s education?

Truth is, I think most parents who could afford it would do it. But not every parent can afford it, and I know that because that’s what I discussed with LeapEd Services the other week.

If that name seems familiar, it’s because the company was featured in a recent edition of StarEducate (“Leap-ing ahead with quality”).

Owned by Khazanah Nasional, LeapEd improves Malaysian schools by “realising the individual potential of each and every learner”. How they put this grandiose statement into practice is through several programmes. One example is the Trust Schools Programme that, to date, has impacted 90 schools in Malaysia.

Working with CSR programmes from the private sector, LeapEd taps sponsors who will guarantee the annual funding of RM600 per child for at least three years, although there is some leeway in which school the sponsors choose to help.

And they’re reporting some degree of success. One interesting statistic is that 88% of secondary school students and 91% of primary school students in the trust schools perceive the quality of teaching and learning in their school is “high”. The remaining believe the quality is “moderate”, with only 1% of secondary school students saying that it is “low”.

Now, just because a student believes the quality of education is high doesn’t necessarily mean that it is so. But research has shown that these results can carry weight if questions are asked in the right way.

On top of that, students who say the quality of teaching is high actually have greater learning gains (improvements in knowledge, skills and personal development). It’s like in these schools, students want to learn....

My interest in this stems from having worked on something called the Malaysian Smart School project. It was meant to drag the Malaysian education system kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but, long story short, there was a huge gap between what was in the Smart School Conceptual Blueprint and what eventually happened in reality. (This is the 1997 version of the blueprint I’m referring to, and not to be confused with the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025.)

Without going too deeply into it, basically, what should have been an education reform project to produce a “thinking and technology-literate workforce” turned into an exercise of building computer labs, which really was a different kind of project.

It’s not quite fair to leave it as such, since there were also teaching-learning materials being developed, as well as an effort to computerise school management. But I think computer labs are sexy and easy to understand, so that’s where the money went.

What we really wanted was better teaching from the teachers, to overhaul the curriculum to make it relevant to 21st century needs, and to relook at assessment so that it was no longer about memorisation, and that even if you took all your notes into the exam, it still wouldn’t guarantee you an A because you would have to actually apply what you've learnt.

At one point, the question that kept floating around the team was this: Could a school without technology still be a Smart School? If we just armed teachers with skills, and picked the best headmasters, and gave them support from the Federal level, what could happen?

Our conclusion at the time was: “Not as much as we would like”. We felt that technology was really needed to do the heavy lifting, to alleviate teachers’ workloads so they would have time to treat students as individuals, for example. Or to provide quality learning materials online so students could study on their own and do what we call “self-directed, self-paced, self-accessed” learning (basically, students will learn how to learn).

Why did the project not work? I want to say “politics”, but honestly, politics is also what would have made the Smart School project work. If we were all on board with the idea, education in Malaysia would benefit from an overhaul, and not just by adding one tiny computer lab – so, yes, I believe we could have made a bigger impact.

So, some 20 over years later, I’m now listening to what LeapEd Services is doing, and thinking, well, “It looks like they’re being smart about improving schools without having to rely too much on technology”.

This team made a decision early on that teachers were the best place to invest the sponsorship money. Not technology, but people.

They encourage teachers to be facilitative, to have two-way communication in classrooms, where the students participate in class activities instead of just sitting back and listening to a lecture.

You know those films where inspiring teachers lead students in interesting classes, and there’s singing, and passionate discussion, and even standing on desks? Usually the teachers are railing against an outdated school system. With LeapEd, it’s behaviour that the principal demands from his teachers.

A team member recounted that one day, instead of seeing a teacher standing in front of a class discussing a book with the children, he saw two students do it with their fellow classmates.

He had decided to drop by the class and see how they were doing. To his surprise, the teacher wasn’t even in the class at the time. She had stepped out and the students decided to carry on with the lesson by themselves. That is what a 88% to 92% satisfaction with teaching in the school gets you. That’s what RM600 per child per year gets you.

Now, with about five million children in government schools, you’re looking at RM3bil per year. Assuming the private sector will no longer foot the bill, it’s still not vastly out of proportion when compared to the current Education Ministry’s budget of about RM60bil.

But it really isn’t about the money. Because you could buy every child a tablet AND upgrade it every two years for less money. Guess which move would make more headlines?

At the end of the day, it’s about what we really want. As with most things in this country, I believe if it’s something we are all serious enough about, there’s no reason we can’t get it.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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