Teach­ing sys­tem needs re­vamp to en­cour­age stu­dents to think for them­selves

New Straits Times - - Opinion - arabaginda@gmail.com The writer is the ad­viser to a pri­vate think tank based in Kuala Lumpur. He re­ceived his doc­tor­ate in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions from the Univer­sity of Ox­ford

EVER won­dered why cre­ative peo­ple and com­pa­nies with great in­no­va­tions mainly come from the Western world?

Yes, cen­turies ago, the great sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies orig­i­nated from the East as well as from the Mid­dle East. Gun­pow­der traces its ori­gins to China, and the Arab world was known for its med­i­cal sci­ences. All these were brought to the West.

While much has been writ­ten about the rise and fall of knowl­edge from the Eastern world, I’d like to look at the chal­lenge of try­ing to learn and ac­quire knowl­edge in this part of the world, and specif­i­cally, in Malaysia.

While Asians and Malaysians are great achiev­ers in ob­tain­ing high grades, their in­tel­lect some­how does not trans­late into cre­ative think­ing. I be­lieve, though not ex­clu­sively, this is re­ally the re­sult of how we are taught to ac­quire knowl­edge or, to be pre­cise, how we have got it wrong.

If one ob­serves how par­ents treat or teach their chil­dren in Malaysia, for in­stance, as com­pared with oth­ers in the West, the clue could be found.

When a kid does some­thing wrong in Malaysia, the par­ents will pun­ish them. In con­trast, the par­ents in the West would ex­plain to the kid why he is wrong in the first place.

This is again re­in­forced in schools and even at ter­tiary lev­els. In other words, we do not en­cour­age our chil­dren to ask ques­tions or dis­cuss the is­sues at hand. More of­ten than not, voic­ing an opin­ion is not en­cour­aged, and, in some in­stances, frowned upon.

This men­tal­ity is nur­tured and con­sol­i­dated right through the so­cial­i­sa­tion process in Malaysia.

It is my con­tention that grad­u­ates in this coun­try are not bank­able be­cause of their in­abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late them­selves in a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment.

Right from an early age un­til adult­hood, they are not en­cour­aged to voice an opin­ion. The men­tal­ity seems to be “don’t ask too much and speak when you are spo­ken to”. Surely, the fault lies with us?

Un­for­tu­nately, the ad­vent of so­cial me­dia and the ubiq­ui­tous mo­bile phones, iPads and other gad­gets does not help the sit­u­a­tion. Peo­ple to­day hardly com­mu­ni­cate with each other any­more. When they sit at the ta­ble for a meal, each will be in their own world. This cuts across the age group — from the in­fant to the oc­to­ge­nar­ian.

I must ad­mit that I, too, am guilty of this. It is quite dis­heart­en­ing to even see par­ents quite con­tented to give their in­fants iPads, with car­toons or games (some jus­ti­fy­ing that it’s only learn­ing pro­grammes) to keep them pre-oc­cu­pied. I think such par­ents have missed the point.

When they sit at the ta­ble for a meal, that’s not the time to learn math or spell­ing. It’s time to eat and in­ter­act with each other.

The teach­ing sys­tem needs to be re-looked and re-ex­am­ined.

We need to rev­o­lu­tionise our meth­ods; we must en­cour­age peo­ple to think and not be de­pen­dent on oth­ers to think for them. Knowl­edge is to be ac­quired and not merely re­ceived.

Stu­dents at the ter­tiary level are spoon-fed by lec­tur­ers and not en­cour­aged to seek knowl­edge. I re­call years ago, when I was teach­ing at a lo­cal univer­sity, I was not a pop­u­lar lec­turer be­cause at the end of my lec­tures, I had no notes to give out.

I would start my lec­ture by writ­ing down a few ref­er­ences on the board (yes, I am quite an­cient as dur­ing my time, we still had black­boards) and in­formed my stu­dents that they were to read these books as ref­er­ences. At the end of my lec­ture, stu­dents would have the temer­ity to ask whether they could pho­to­copy my notes.

When I was a stu­dent, the idea of get­ting notes from the lec­turer did not even cross our minds. I re­mem­ber that when I first at­tended a school in Lon­don at age 13, my teach­ers would en­cour­age us to speak. There was a subject, when I turned 15, called so­cial stud­ies, and here we had dis­cus­sions about is­sues that so­ci­eties were fac­ing.

We were all en­cour­aged to voice our opin­ions. It quickly taught me that ev­ery­one can have an opin­ion and no one has the mo­nop­oly on opin­ion or knowl­edge. There is never a silly ques­tion or an­swer. It’s just silly if you don’t ask when you don’t know.

There is an even more ur­gent need for us to fun­da­men­tally change the way we teach at home, school and in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing.

The In­ter­net has made us lazy to seek knowl­edge. Be­cause it is at our fin­ger­tips, we take things for granted. Just Google and we think we have knowl­edge. What you may get is in­for­ma­tion, and this is not nec­es­sar­ily knowl­edge. In­for­ma­tion is one thing, knowl­edge is quite a dif­fer­ent thing.

I some­times de­scribe knowl­edge as pro­cessed in­for­ma­tion. At a time when fake news and fake in­for­ma­tion is get­ting ram­pant, there is an ur­gent need for us to process in­for­ma­tion. To me the rule of thumb could be “whether the in­for­ma­tion is likely to be true or not”, and this re­quires crit­i­cal think­ing and some de­gree of anal­y­sis.

This brings us back to the whole thrust of this ar­ti­cle — the abil­ity for us to ex­er­cise our brain and not to ac­cept ev­ery­thing at face value. The way we ed­u­cate our young does not en­cour­age us to use our brain and ex­er­cise crit­i­cal think­ing.

We must ac­knowl­edge and ac­cept not all we read are facts. Granted, it is im­pos­si­ble to know what is true any­more, and more of­ten than not, we will make up our minds as to what the truth is, no mat­ter how lu­di­crous they may ap­pear to be.

We re­ally need to re­vamp the way we ed­u­cate our­selves. It’s not just the stu­dents, but also the teach­ers them­selves. We all need to re­form our­selves and learn from our past and present for the fu­ture. It is time now for us to learn how to learn.

Right from an early age un­til adult­hood, they are not en­cour­aged to voice an opin­ion. The men­tal­ity seems to be “don’t ask too much and speak when you are spo­ken to”. Surely, the fault lies with us?

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