Contradictheory: The question is, 'Is the child learning?'

Malaysian students Nurul Maizatul Akma Rozi (right) and Siti Nurfarah Syuhada Zahari revising work while waiting for the TV Pendidikan (Education TV) programme for SPM students to begin. - Bernama

“It can be said that the current generation of schoolgoers is being ignored”. This was an observation made by academician Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram during a recent online forum (translated from Bahasa Malaysia).

As with many things Jomo (as he’s known) says, he’s not wrong. Yes, technology enables people to work and learn as never before, to the point that companies are now beginning to call “remote working”, just “working”.

But the state of Malaysia is such that not everybody has access to the technology. As Jomo put it, “We want to be sophisticated and modern in this digital age but more than 90% (of students) are being left behind”. He also said, instead of using the Internet to do remote teaching, why not use a technology that 90% of households already own? Why not use televisions and radios?

Indeed, why not? I observed one primary school student watching a short video during an online science lesson about classification, and, honestly, it was relatively simple, with production values far below even the most basic TV show. And although this student had no issues calling up the video, you can imagine some families struggling to maintain a good Internet connection – and, of course, some who don’t have a computer to begin with.

Since the beginning of this year, the groundswell (or perhaps, “cloudswell”, since most of the talk is online) has grown to include the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) and more than a few politicians, all saying, “Bring back TV Pendidikan!”

And so they did. Technically, it was brought back last year during the first movement control order, but recently the government extended it from nine to 11 hours a day with the inclusion of content tailored for SPM students.

Yet, all the while I’m shaking my head in disbelief.

With all due respect to Jomo, I think he should have also spent a little more time explaining that just because you have TV Pendidikan working, it still doesn’t necessarily mean education is taking place. I mean, MIT publishes all its course material online and Oxford University has put on YouTube more than two dozen lectures that they give to their students. Would reading and watching those automatically put you on par with a graduate from one of these universities?

The core question is, “How do I know that learning has taken place?” I think that when we talk about improving education, especially through the introduction of technology, sometimes we miss out or skirt around this point.

Psychologist David Ausubel talked about “meaningful learning” as recognising that the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Or, to put it in another way, if you know how to walk, then you can learn how to run.

More formally, “the construction of knowledge begins with our observation and recognition of concepts we already have”. When we add something new to ideas we already have, then we are learning. If these new concepts fit in nicely with what you already know, we are more likely to understand and remember them (like hearing something new, and then saying, “Ah, that makes sense”).

The role of a teacher is to identify what to add on and how, and because we all learn in different ways, a good teacher will choose a strategy suitable for each student’s level and progress.

If you don’t have somebody to guide you, then you are doing “discovery learning”. There’s nothing wrong with that. Discovery learning is, for example, learning how to play a video game on your own by watching others do it online. I know it happens because I’m seeing a lot of this during the MCO phase.

But discovery learning has its risks, mainly that the student can believe they understand something correctly but has actually missed the point completely. As an example, think about anti-vaxxers who have “learned” that modern medicine is dangerous from hours of YouTube videos.

I hope by this point, I have constructed an understanding of why I believe TV Pendidikan, however well it is implemented, is a long way from providing effective education. If learning over the Internet was just an issue of pushing videos through Google Meet, then I agree that TV Pendidikan is an excellent alternative. However, the NUTP itself points out that TV Pendidikan is a one-way process, and that ideally it is used with other strategies and technologies, hopefully using the Internet.

That student I talked about earlier who was learning about classification was meant to do an exercise after watching the video: Organise a list of animals into two groups, by coming up with suitable criteria. The exercise was done in such a way that there could be more than one “correct” answer.

The advantage of using the Internet is that after handing the work in online, the teacher came back later that same day with suggestions for improvement. The student amended her answer, and the teacher then commented on that as well.

In honest truth, it was more a series of short sentences, rather than a long in-depth discussion. But I hope this interaction helped the student understand better what makes good classification criteria – and that they learned some other skills besides science as well.

Educationists talk about new skills needed for the Information Age as the four Cs: creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking. I would argue that that exchange between student and teacher touched on all four of these, and hopefully was the first of many more exchanges to come.

Could you do this without the Internet? Yes, but it would be less flexible and slower. You could use phones, and teachers could do one-on-ones (as the Pendidkan Islam teacher did with this same student last year when she needed to recite some verses). Then, there is a school in Kedah that has set up physical drop boxes on its premises so parents can drop off and pick up homework to be marked and commented on. The internet – when available – makes it easier, which is why the focus should be on improving accessibility for as many as possible, as quickly as possible.

So for all those who are championing TV Pendidikan, I would say you’re not wrong, it’s a valuable resource using a widely-used technology. But it’s a very small part of the answer to the question “Is the child learning?” Also, you shouldn’t ignore the fact there’s a lot more to be done.

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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