Strengthening our education system

SINGAPORE ranks second in the world in math, science and reading, while Malaysia ranks 48th, 48th and 57th.

Although they were once united under the umbrella of the federation, the contrast between the educational standards of Singapore and Malaysia could not be more striking, as the former have skyrocketed since their split in 1965.

This is a wake-up call for Malaysia to examine the fundamentals of its education system and how it could produce high quality students and citizens.

In addition to academic performance, personality development should also be one of the ultimate goals of school education.

This is because at such a young age children are at their peak of absorbing information, not only from books but also from their social interactions and environment.

Schools are a “sandbox” where children can learn and experience a miniaturized version of the real world.

Each child’s engagement with their teacher, peer, or parent reinforces certain perspectives, predispositions, and attitudes.

When these children eventually grow up, enter society and determine the future of the next generation, the destiny of a nation literally depends on the quality of its schools.

Problems faced by Malaysian teachers

Although Malaysia has a good student-teacher ratio of 11.66, early school leaving and teacher dissatisfaction remain widespread.

A teacher’s job satisfaction directly affects the quality of their teaching and their retention at a particular school.

Multidimensional perspectives should be considered when addressing teacher dissatisfaction.

According to a study by the International Islamic University Malaysia, workload seems to be the predominant factor contributing to a teacher’s job stress.

As teachers assume the roles of educator, facilitator, curriculum planner, test markr, school administrator, and supervisor, to say they are overwhelmed is an understatement.

In addition, the lack of resources, i.e. strong social networks, increases vulnerability to negative cognitions and emotions.

Without emotional regulation and a balanced lifestyle, everyone would become very irritable and moody and perform poorly in the long run.

There is a growing body of literature supporting the link between poor emotional regulation and low job satisfaction.

Therefore, in addition to ensuring a balanced workload for teachers, there should also be better support for maintaining the mental health of staff.

Another potential factor for low job satisfaction among Malaysian teachers could be the salary issue.

For comparison, the starting salary for a government teacher is RM2,200 – just RM700 above the Malaysian minimum wage.

Only after eight years of professional experience does the salary reach 3,600 RM (225 RM increase per year). In contrast, a novice banker earns 3,400 RM straight away.

Not to mention that the internship or teaching internship (as part of the teacher training) is completely unpaid.

Increasing salary increases for Malaysian public school teachers has two benefits.

Empirically, income correlates strongly with the level of education of teachers.

Therefore, improving teachers’ salaries will attract more qualified graduates into the profession, while serving as an investment to enable existing teachers to continue their education locally or abroad.

Teachers play a crucial role in nurturing and developing the professionals and specialists of the future.

However, some students under the guidance of different teachers show significant performance differences.

Therefore, for Malaysia to have a robust education system, it must first invest in nurturing highly qualified teachers who act as exemplary mentors in schools.

Problems faced by Malaysian students

As shown above, Malaysia consistently scores well below the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average in reading, math and science with 415, 440 and 438 respectively.

The OECD averages for this are 487, 489 and 489.

The most staggering result is Malaysia’s poor performance in reading.

Up to 13% of children in late primary schools cannot read, and 50% of 15-year-old Malaysians have a reading ability below their level.

Additionally, research from Taylor’s University School of Education has shown that children who are unable to read according to their particular grade level (e.g. Standard 5 in the Malaysian context) are more likely to drop out of school due to poor reading literacy.

Since reading is fundamental, such children cannot use their reading skills to excel in other subjects.

Although there are no current statistics on the Malaysian student dropout rate that show the exact severity of this problem, it is still a critical and serious problem that exists and definitely needs to be addressed.

The most effective way to develop reading skills is to read more.

However, few children are offered a conducive learning environment to develop this interest.

The results of a study by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia suggested that motivation, interest and prior vocabulary knowledge were the key factors influencing learners’ reading comprehension.

This is where grassroots initiatives like MYReaders come in to empower teachers and parents to promote reading literacy.

MYReaders was born out of four English teachers’ concern that some of their students could not read or understand basic English.

The situation prompted her to design a structured reading program that focused on individual support, using materials adapted to personal experiences.

MYReaders empowers not only teachers, but also parents, students (as peer mentors) and external volunteers to take a proactive role in teaching reading skills.

This stakeholder engagement model includes learning in schools (through teachers and students acting as peer mentors) and at home (through parents) as comprehensive coverage to address reading literacy systemically.

If an NGO with fewer than 20 staff could reach over 34,000 students in nine years, imagine the impact of such a system if formally implemented into our education system.

The obsolescence of the classroom model was discussed intensively.

It’s time to question whether getting a child to sit and listen passively for six to eight hours a day to learn and grow is an effective way to learn and grow, or whether there are alternative classroom models to the Malaysian revitalize the education system.

Based on compiled findings by Helen F. Neville of the Public Broadcasting Service, the average attention span looks like this:

-> Two years old: four to six minutes;

-> Four years old: eight to 12 minutes;

-> Six years old: 12 to 18 minutes;

-> Eight years old: 16 to 24 minutes;

-> 10 years: 20 to 30 minutes;

-> 12 years: 24 to 36 minutes;

-> 14 years: 28 to 42 minutes; And

-> 16 years: 32 to 48 minutes

Nonetheless, in the Malaysian context, classes indiscriminately last at least an hour.

In addition to the ineffectiveness of current classroom teaching, several personal and socioeconomic factors can affect a child’s emotional state, which in turn affects their academic performance.

For example, a qualitative study of elementary school students in Kuala Lumpur found that 10 main factors led to school stress.

These factors were academic overload, difficulties in class, test anxiety, high expectations (both from themselves and from parents and teachers), poor social relationships, school bullying (verbal and physical abuse by teachers and staff), absent parents, domestic violence (between parents and also between parents and their children) and social comparisons.

However, a school can ensure that a child’s school experiences contribute holistically to their individual development.

Although it is practically impossible to completely eliminate these factors, they can be reduced.

One possible model is for schools to adopt a more self-directed approach to learning – with teachers taking on a more supportive and guiding role – where instruction aims to empower and inspire students to ask questions and find answers for themselves. Learning doesn’t have to be passive.

First-hand trial and error and techniques such as “self-explanation,” “extended questioning,” and “on-demand practice” are research-backed learning practices that have proven to be extremely effective.

Through this self-directed and collaborative approach to learning, schoolwork also becomes a way for students to develop their social, relationship and interpersonal skills.

This model would also work in the teacher’s favor to reduce the redundancy and chaos of their current remit, allowing them to focus on ensuring that no student is left behind in their learning.

A practical example of these principles would be extracurricular activities and university research projects, where the students themselves seek and disseminate information, learn skills such as teamwork, public speaking, basic technological understanding and design as they carry out their projects over time.

This leads to broad exposure to student learning while reinforcing the depth of its practical and social application.

Exemplary global role models are the Finnish education system and the International Baccalaureate from Switzerland, with both countries ranking 3rd and 6th in their education system rankings.

In conclusion, EMIR Research recommends the following guidelines:

Paid (ie paid) teaching internships;

Competitive salary increases for teachers with postgraduate qualifications;

Workload Separation and Accrual – dedicated support staff for non-teaching and administrative duties;

Extension and integration of the MYReaders program in schools for rural and remote areas; And

Strengthening the quality of the school-based assessment ecosystem with an increased focus on Project-Based Learning (PBL) combined with and complemented by supportive instruction (e.g. one-hour instruction.

To this end, the ratio between PBL and supportive teaching and traditional/conventional teaching methodology in the classroom should be between 50:50 or alternative arrangements as some practical examples.

Jason Loh And Jennifer Ley-Ho-Ying are part of the research team at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on in-depth research. Comments: Strengthening our education system

Russell Falcon

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