Rote learning a bane in tertiary education, Harvard professor warns

by: Minderjeet Kaur

Malaysia has great education policies but these could be hampered by rote learning and a lack of emphasis on critical thinking.

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SUBANG JAYA: The Malaysian government may have invested sufficient funds in education, but there is still a lot to be done to raise the quality of graduates from its tertiary institutions, according to a US academic.

Citing a recent research on literacy among Indonesian students, which among others found their level to be similar to junior high school dropouts in Denmark, Harvard professor Lant Pritchett said he feared the same could be true with Malaysia if its schools failed to prepare students for university-level education.

“The reason is because students leave primary school without mastering the subjects and the same with secondary (school students). By the time they reach the tertiary (level), they are left far behind,” he told FMT.

“There is no deep understanding of the materials. Instead, it is rote memorisation, applying theory and regurgitating it during exams,” he told FMT.

Pritchett was in Malaysia for the Asia Public Policy Forum 2017 co-hosted by Harvard Kennedy School and the Jeffrey Cheah Institute of Southeast Asia here.

He said the real measure of education should be mastery of the subject with practical application, and which was not confined to rote memorisation of the subject.

Redefine role of education

He added the system should redefine the role of education “to not just schooling that focuses on butts and seats but on ideas and hats so that children emerging out of the schooling system were adequate for the 21st century.”

Another Harvard University professor, Michael Woolcock, said the big challenge for Malaysia was making sure the system worked for everybody.

“(Take) the European system (for example). They have been doing it for 200 years and it has worked very well for them. They have developed a good traditional practice and a strong sense from the community and parents to help students learn critical thinking skills and apply what they learn.”

Gaps between the rich and poor

He said in Malaysia, the system worked well for the middle class and the rich but the bottom half of the population was unable to catch up.

“The needs of the rich, middle (class) and the poor in Malaysia are wide (ranging). The different layers and gaps need to be enriched to close the gap.”

Woolcock will return to Washington today after 18 months of researching the Malaysian education system.

He said a study showed that 51% of those from the lower classes, who work in factories, were unable to read manuals or perform basic procedures.

“They are unable to apply theory or understand English. It is not a geography issue. In Malaysia, it is a class issue. For a system to work really well, it has to work for everybody.

“The education system works fine for the top half but the big challenge is to make it work for everybody, including rural villagers and isolated communities.”

English a big barrier

One of the biggest barriers was proficiency in the English language. Woolcock said that just like in European countries, debates raged on whether using English would compromise use of the mother tongue.

“These debates always happen but they have figured out how to do both. They teach English very well. So much so Europeans are good at both (English and their native language).”

For instance, in Iceland, they take their mother tongue seriously. But they recognise that they are from a small country and if they could only speak Icelandic, their economy might not be functional and meet the needs of the world economy.

“Everyone (there) speaks Icelandic and English. They learn English to do deals with the Italians, Spaniards and others.”

He said in Malaysia, those who spoke English were from the upper and middle classes, and were the ones who attracted foreign investors into the country.

However, Woolcock said an education system should find ways to benefit all.

For instance, he said his study in Palestine showed that a school in the middle of a war zone, and located in a desert, scored high marks of international standard.

“That was a phenomenon. We later found out the community was coaching students to apply what they learnt. It worked for them.”

Better tracking system

He said Malaysia needed a system to track the reasons why a school performed better or worse than others so as to close the gap between schools.

He added Malaysia had all the right ingredients for an efficient education system but that the problem lay with policy implementation.

Woolcock added it was good that Malaysia spent large sums of money on education and on tools like the blackboard and smart boards. “All the raw materials and money are there but the implementation is not there.”

Teachers need space to work well

He pointed out that the state of education in the country was not the fault of individual teachers. “It is not that they are not smart or capable or diligent in doing their job. The problem is the system they are part of. If we want to change the system, you got to change the rules and practices.”

He said teachers needed space to try something different. This was because in some countries like India, a teacher was only considered good when he or she completed all the chapters of a textbook. They were not judged on whether the child had learnt anything.

“If a teacher has to show that all the subjects are completed to get a salary increase, then that is what the teacher will do. The prioritising is crucial.”

He praised the government for implementing higher order thinking skills as well as the dual language programmes in national schools and hoped these would be filtered down to the system.

“Because again, there may be variations with the top half class taking off well. Some schools might pull through and others might be diabolically off.”

Source: FMT (18th January 2017)

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