Dr. Maszlee Malik
Growing up, I was struck by the opening line from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. I have always admired how the author vividly painted Paris as both a shining utopia and a bleak slum at the same time.
You can find some similarities in Malaysia. On one hand, Malaysia is rapidly accelerating its transformation into an Industrial Revolution 4.0, digitally-powered economy. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Work Report 2017, employers are demanding for employees with “hybrid skills”. They want future data scientists, nutritionists or lawyers that have soft skills, emotional intelligence and values above and beyond just technical expertise.
Following this, many schools and universities have embraced this new future head on. For instance, our new primary and secondary curricula (KSSR and KSSM) have included 21st Century elements and skills, while many public and private higher education institutions have introduced Data Analytics curriculum into non-ICT related degrees, such as Accounting, Education and Pharmacy.
While we are preparing for this future, there are however still many students who are left behind. Those in rural areas, from low-income families, those with special needs, the indigenous, the stateless and the ones who got lost in the cracks.
I was at an Orang Asli school in Cameron Highlands recently, where students were hardly learning and teachers hardly teaching. This issue of two extremes is not just in education. The Global Nutrition Report 2018 showed Malaysia as the only country in Asean with all three “burdens” of obesity, anaemia and stunting.
As the education minister, my task is to ensure policies are holistic, sustainable and take into account varying interests and perspectives, which you can imagine is quite a gargantuan task.
When I was entrusted with the honour and duty to helm this ministry, it struck me in the early days that there were a million things to focus on and fix when it comes to education. In some areas, a major revamp is needed but in most areas, the focus is on effective delivery and implementation.
And what is really challenging from Day 1 but is also an opportunity is that everyone has an opinion on our education system. Almost everyone has experienced the system differently and will have valuable perspectives on how to improve it. Hence, while the task is big, I know I am not alone in this effort.
In crafting our game plan to transform the system, we drew on this collective wisdom by forming a community of experts, in the Majlis Penasihat Pendidikan Kebangsaan (MPPK) and the Jawatankuasa Dasar Pendidikan Negara, as well as the experiences from the community.
I am very encouraged that we have received more than 25,000 public submissions with suggestions on how to improve our education system to-date, which demonstrates the public’s priority to, at last, have an education system that we can all be proud of or at least have confidence in.
Through this collective wisdom and feedback from so many parties, we have three main outcomes that we want to achieve for the education system as a whole.
VALUES-DRIVEN EDUCATION SYSTEM
FIRSTLY, if we want our education system to prepare our children for the future, we must first ensure we prepare them to be upstanding citizens who will readily integrate into the society. I have shared the three values I feel are important to be embedded, namely: love, happiness and mutual respect.
I believe ensuring our children have these humanistic values is missing in our pursuit of higher achievement.
Love — do we truly value and love every single child and try to bring out their own individual potential? I want our schools to be able to not just teach facts, but to impart in our children the love of lifelong learning.
Happiness — how do we get educators to enjoy what they do, and for our students to feel that happiness in their learning? Therefore, schools need to be the safest, most fun and happiest place for our children.
Mutual respect — we are such a diverse country, how do we not just tolerate differences but truly respect and celebrate each other too?
Our first step in achieving this is by removing exams in Years 1, 2 and 3 so our children will learn values and the joy of learning before they are expected to excel academically.
SECONDLY, we are also working on alleviating the burdens that teachers face from administrative work, so that they can then focus on integrating love, happiness and mutual respect in how they bring the curriculum to life. We are also adding in these values and civics education into our curriculum across different subjects and making sure they are practised on a consistent basis.
We have a vision that all parties, from pre-kindergarten to higher education institutions, from the public to the private sector, will make these values as a clarion call for how we are hoping to shape our society, and integrate them into how students learn on a daily basis.
INCREASING QUALITY OF SCHOOLS
Quality is often associated solely with academic excellence. Teachers and lecturers feel the brunt of these expectations and, as a former lecturer, I know this well enough. In a recent international survey about teachers, a staggering 80 per cent of our teachers, which was the highest percentage amongst all countries surveyed, measured their professional performance based on their students’ exam results. This MUST change. One of the focuses for quality here is relevance. We seek to prepare our students for the future through a focus on not just academic excellence but real world skills.
STEM education will be updated to be more than STEM, but to become STREAM, including the vital components of Arts and Reading. We will also shift the priorities of teachers and lecturers nationally to focus on teaching STEM in a fun and experiential way, thereby making STEM accessible to all. STEM is not just for those in the Science stream but needs to be a way of life. We call this paradigm shift STEM for ALL.
21st Century Learning skills will become a priority, where the skills of Communication, Collaboration, Critical thinking and Creativity, along with values and ethics (4Cs, 1V) will be a focus for teachers and lecturers alike, so that we prepare a generation of graduates that are truly “future-proof’ and can thrive in an age of rapid changes.
The way we measure student performance will shift to reflect this new priority, where examinations will eventually give way to classroom-based assessments as the mode of measuring holistic student development (this has been an ongoing effort for years, strengthened now with the removal of exams in Years 1, 2 and 3).
Research and innovation will also receive much needed attention. Focus will be placed in awarding grants to higher education institutions for high quality problem-solving research, including Private Higher Education Institutions. We have a vision of colleges and universities as important pillars of their surrounding communities, by leveraging on their expertise to support society in solving pressing challenges.
Can you imagine how powerful it would be to have our graduates and students focus their brainpower and effort to find innovative ways to tackle issues such as poverty, the environment, access to healthcare and literacy in their own backyards?
We will also be focusing on making Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) a truly viable and attractive option. We are working with industries and other TVET institutions to build a new approach to TVET that is no longer a one size fits all solution. Our ultimate aim is to have industry-led content and collaborations, to ensure that we have a demand-driven approach in producing competitive graduates in this field.
Another important aspect is the excellence of our system. We need to move our teachers, lecturers, schools, universities and students many levels ahead. One of our efforts in doing so is to have closer scrutiny of uncompleted projects involving dilapidated schools across the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak and ensuring their completion as soon as possible.
AUTONOMY AND ACCOUNTABILITY
An important enabler is increasing the autonomy and accountability of schools and institutions. The philosophy here is that schools, colleges, universities, districts and states would understand their own needs, strengths and weaknesses the best.
Previously, the system had focused on a broad-based notion of equality, where we treated almost every school or university the same. Almost similar resources were given, and in turn expected the same requirements for governance.
Now, we’re shifting towards accountability-driven equity, where schools and institutions will be empowered with the skills and tools to make the best decisions based on their context. The schools and institutions that prove they can do this will be given the freedom to decide certain matters and to innovate.
This reform will take longer than the first two because it won’t be easy to move from a centralised system to one that gives decision-making powers to the ground. Hence, we are starting from our higher education institutions and our effort in amending the Universities and University Colleges Act to allow more freedom for university students. Moving forward, the ministry’s approach will have to be facilitative, empowering and value driven. A big part of this is to engage the wider society to elevate public-private-partnerships in education to another level.
We want to create an ecosystem where schools are for the community and universities are for the society. This means that schools exist to develop students who will be contributing members of their community, and universities at a wider scale to our society. In return, the community and society itself should play a large role in contributing towards education.
For this, I welcome the role of the private sector, civil society and individuals in contributing towards our education system so that together, we can produce quality, future-proof and values-driven graduates.
The writer is Malaysia's education minister.
Published in: The New Straits Times, 24 April 2019