New modes of learning for a new century

The essence of a nation-building or statebuilding model is best perceived through its education policies. This is after all the key area within which the government strategises its own survival.

For the rest of us, only by comprehending the underlying motives behind a series of political actions can we judge whether a project over time can be said to have succeeded or not. Simply put, the efficacy of an act depends on what the ambition with that act really is.

In Malaysia, ethnocentric pathos more than professional training or intellectual concerns cleared the bewildering path that generations of schoolchildren have had to traverse. If one accepts that to be the case, then the country’s education system would appear to have succeeded better than if we mistook its motives to have been educational ones.

Parents and schoolchildren may feel badly done by, of course, but that is another discussion.

The main articles in this issue of Penang Monthly are meant to stimulate new thinking about education and schooling for future generations of Malaysians, and debate about what novel options are available today. It is already 2016 after all. The Internet is here; information free flow is a fact of life no matter what the authorities tell us.

Many answers to many questions

Are schools necessary in the same way as before? Should they not become libraries first, and schools second? How effective are school days anyway? Are schoolteachers not going out of fashion the way shoemakers and tailors are now a luxury profession? Are not targeted courses more exciting and conducive to arousing the curiosity of the young than classes in school? Should online lessons not be incorporated into a child’s learning day?

The questions that 21st century parents should ask are many, and luckily it looks like the answers available today are just as numerous.

It is worth reconsidering at this point that the school systems of the 20th century were in essence developed in the 19th century to serve the industrial revolution. Not much has changed since then, and the drab school day continues to prepare innocent children for the dreary work day of their future.

Now, independence from western colonialism did not mean independence from the globalised economy that colonialism itself was instrumental in founding and within which the colonies played important roles. Some countries did try to break free even on the economic front, but a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we see how all communist countries have abandoned their attempts at constructing a hermetically sealed alternative and have instead re-embraced universal capitalism as their inescapable reality.

Fortunately, Malaysia did not try to build a self-sufficient national economy the way China, Myanmar or Vietnam did. It would have failed, as they did. Instead, it went along with the dominant economic system, with the difference that it wanted to have its cake and to eat it at the same time. It adopted most thoroughly the notion of nation-statehood and set about creating a state that would express the essence of the nation – thereupon contrived as the Malaydominated Bumiputera “ethnicity”. But this desperate fixation with ethnocentrism generated nebulous policies that were far from effective if the real game was to remain the global one.

What’s so great about standardised learning?

What the country ends up with is a school system that has schooled, more than educated, its pupils. It also ended up separating the ethnic communities more than ever.

Being schooled and being educated are different things. I don’t think there is a need to argue that with the readership of this magazine. The point I wish to make is that the relationship between learning, schooling and being educated on the one hand and individual development and wellbeing on the other needs to be properly looked at today, more than ever, simply because the options are so many and the future is so undefined where meaningful careers, survival skills and relevant knowledge are concerned.

Individual solutions will become more and more common, if you ask me. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Standardised learning has been wrongly revered for too long.

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