ON May 20, Elmarié Potgieter penned a heart-felt, open letter to Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik. Her Facebook post has since garnered over 2,800 shares on the social media platform - on top of the hundreds of personal responses received.
Since 2011, the education consultant has been working on large-scale transformation projects here including Khazanah National’s Yayasan Amir Trust Schools Programme to improve accessibility of quality education in government schools, and Genosis - a Malaysian education model to develop future-ready youngsters. She shares her views on the state of our education system.
> How did the open letter come about?
I was sitting on the couch and just thought I’d reach out to the minister. I never thought it would go viral. It wasn’t meant to criticise. I had seen so much having been in the system. I was frustrated because we have so much potential waiting to be realised.
> Teacher education is your passion. Why?
I was 20 when I started teaching in South Africa. My mother was a teacher but I never wanted to be one. Now it’s my passion. I’ve seen wonderful teachers here but training, practical strategies, empowering them to do what they’re supposed to do, and getting them to go back to the curriculum to see what’s there instead of looking at other people’s interpretation of it, are needed. The system doesn’t give teachers a sense of ownership. Amazing things happen when teachers are given the right personal development and trust by the schools. Singapore’s doing away with exams. Hooray. This is what’s needed but parents here don’t trust teachers to assess a child outside of the general exam. So we’re back to exams as the only way of evaluating a child’s success. We’ve to focus on teacher training and leadership development. Maybe our teachers need more learning assessment and formative learning practice training. The ministry tells teachers what’s expected but there’s not enough support on how to do it.
> Are parents doing enough?
Schools have to involve parents more. Parents don’t trust teachers because they don’t understand what’s happening in class. Treat them as partners. What can you contribute? Can you discuss this with your child at home? Communicate regularly with parents and they’ll understand better.
> How should teachers be trained?
The preferred approach internationally is to have generalised teachers who teach three or four subjects like English, Art, Science, and Math - at least from Years One to Three. At primary stage, subjects can be integrated and taught as themes - like seasons. Children can learn about the theme in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Science and Math lessons. This helps them develop socially, emotionally, and creatively.
One teacher doing several subjects also promotes bonding. At that age, kids need to feel secure. A generalised teacher can get to know their strengths and areas that need improvement better so knowledge can be integrated across the curriculum. Now, children go to school, and they have all these different teachers teaching them. They sit at their desks, copying from the book, memorising from the board, doing tests and studying for exams. Many go through the school and are functionally illiterate. They can recognise the ABCs but not necessarily understand the concepts and thinking skills. Also, teachers spend so much time moving from class to class that how much of the period is really spent teaching?
> Let’s talk about the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025.
The blueprint has great ideas and it’s a fantastic document but implementation is a problem. When big decisions are made, cascading them down to teachers is hard. Sometimes teacher training gets diluted. Other times, the system doesn’t allow its implementation. Content’s not the problem. It’s a system issue. Go into any school and the first thing you’ll see at the reception area is a countdown clock to the exams. If exams are still driving what happens in schools, that means teachers still feel like their performance is measured by the children’s UPSR and SPM results. But you can’t blame the teachers or the schools. High UPSR marks gets you a good place in a high-performing, or a fully residential school, so that you can score in the SPM. And, that’s how the child gets a bursary sponsorship or gains entrance into university.
So varsities could be a key driver to change things. If varsities look at interview portfolios as an avenue for students to present and show off their skills, and consider the SPM results as only one factor for admission, maybe then we can start de-prioritising exams.
> What more can we do for early education?
Not enough attention has been given. We’re not talking about colouring within the lines here, but many parents don’t prioritise early childhood education so when kids go to school, teachers are faced with two groups of students - one that’s attended pre-school and have the basic literacy skills to take up the curriculum, and a larger group who has never had any formal pre-school training. The foundation must be laid even before the primary years. There are windows of opportunity in a child’s brain when certain synapses are formed and it’s very hard to create those new connections later on.
> How’s the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) aligned curriculum working out for us?
It’s good to benchmark your English performance against international standards but the textbook is very inappropriate. Children struggle with context. They’re talking about topics and a pre-knowledge that our students do not have. There’s great confusion among the teachers too - whether they should follow the textbooks, lesson plans given by specialist coaches, or integrate the two systems. There’s a fear of doing the wrong thing. There are many contradictory instructions. Teachers feel lost. There’s much talk about 21st century learning but there’s no clear conceptualisation about what it means.
> How are we doing with technology in education?
Teachers are given smart phones so they can access the Frog Virtual Learning Environment platform. Some log on and just let the app run. Many haven’t even taken the phone out of the box because they don’t know how to use it. Children aren’t allowed to bring their mobiles to schools. There’s so much fear that they’ll do bad things but isn’t it better to educate them about what’s right and how to use this very powerful tool? You can’t have IT in the classroom if you don’t have a device and Internet connectivity. But how you integrate IT in your teaching is also important.
We can do better
Education consultant Elmarié Potgieter’s suggestions in her recent open letter to the ministry:
> Education Ministry departments
Communication and alignment between existing departments is sorely lacking. As a result, schools are inundated by different projects and data management systems that result in a huge administrative burden, miscommunication and confusion. A leaner, empowered workforce will ensure huge savings and efficiency.
> Performance management system of teachers and school staff
Create a performance development system that ensures the individualised development of teachers based on their personal learning needs. Introduce a mandatory system of teacher licensing based on annual professional development points. Recognise the fantastic teachers. Move out the ones who are clinging on to the past.
Focus on talent development and succession planning. Allow capable talents to stay on after age 60.
> Substitute teachers
It’s very disruptive when teachers are away and other teachers have to step in. Ensure that teachers are trained and that there’s a cadre of substitute teachers who can replace those on maternity leave or other long-term sick leave.
The content-laden curriculum is so full that teachers have no time for investigation, design thinking, and cross-curricular learning. Let students do fewer subjects. Allow them space and time for deeper learning and reflection. Focus on global links and themes to ensure that they have a better understanding of the world. Also consider the needs of exceptional students and how the curriculum can be differentiated to ensure their needs are met in an integrated classroom.
Students should be allowed to use devices in class. Teachers should be trained to plan for, and effectively use technology. Integrate free MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) learning.
It is not that English is more important than Bahasa Malaysia, but it isolates our children from the world if they are not able to access the learning that is available online and on apps. Make the bilingual approach mandatory. When teaching Geography or Science, at least teach students important English terminologies.
Involve and support skilled, innovative, and enthusiastic individuals, NGOs and startups.
> Physical environment
Have an ‘action force’ to sweep through schools to remove rubbish like old furniture and computers that take up space. Fix the windows. Paint the schools. Revamp the libraries in line with technology to encourage reading.
> Public-private partnerships
There are many good, affordable models, and people who want to make a difference if given the access and opportunity to do so. Ensure that the focus is on sustainability and capacity building. Solutions should bring about lasting change, and take into account the real needs of the schools.