Saving Our Schools
The writing has been on the wall for quite a while. We need to recognise why our education system is stagnating.
At the beginning of the 1964 school year, teachers in a California primary school were told that some of their students had shown extraordinary results on an IQ test. They were also told that these students, roughly one-fifth of all pupils in the school, were expected to have academic growth spurts that year.
At the end of the year, the group of students designated as growth-spurt candidates did indeed show, on average, higher gains in IQ than their peers. Teachers also rated these students as better adjusted and more intellectually independent than their classmates..
The kicker? What the teachers did not know was that those they were told would be growth-spurt candidates had, in fact, not been picked out based on their initial IQ test results, but rather selected at random. This strongly suggested that it was the teachers’ expectations of these students which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That study, known as the Rosenthal Experiment, illustrates a crucial but oft-neglected fact about education policy: mindset and relationships matter.
Mindset and relationships may seem vague and “fluffy” amid the concrete logistics of national policy planning. Yet, no school system can function effectively without well-aligned values, a positive mindset and healthy relationships.
Public policy in any field involves moving targets, uncertain weather conditions and archers whose highest priorities might not include hitting the bulls-eye. Education policy has an extra complication: the target is student learning, and students do not automatically learn when you throw the right things in their direction. Adequate resources and cognitively appropriate methods are not enough; students must also trust their teachers, and want to learn from them.
As part of a recent research project for the Penang Institute, titled “From Drills to Skills? Cultivating Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration Through Malaysian Schools,” I looked at why many primary and secondary school students fail to develop the flexible cognitive and interpersonal skills required for both the digital economy and their individual well-being.
For example, even though our Form 2 students’ average scores in the quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were much better in 2015 than in 2011, their performance was just on par with 2007 scores, and significantly below the 1999 and 2003 scores. More worryingly, when test questions are broken down into the domains of “knowing,” “applying” and “reasoning,” Malaysian students’ 2015 reasoning scores were significantly below 2007 scores.
Why are our students struggling to develop these complex and necessary skills, despite a range of policies targeting skills cultivation having been implemented to help them? The data suggest that this failure is due to a skewed mindset and relationships among stakeholders in the education system.
A Natural Fixation
In 2014 the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) exam for Form 3 students was replaced with the Pentaksiran Tingkatan 3 (PT3). While the PMR was dominated by multiple-choice questions, the PT3 aimed to test complex cognitive skills alongside factual recall.
However, after the inaugural PT3 results were released, a student wrote: “All of the tactics, tips and tricks we were taught for answering PMR [questions] years ago must be scrapped to pave the way for PT3... We were the unfortunate lab rats in a failed experiment, and our effort and time put into studying were all in vain.” 
The student’s remarks reflect a common Malaysian mindset: we don’t study for the sake of knowledge, skills and perspectives that facilitate meaningful living. We study to get good exam results.
Test scores are accorded great importance throughout the education system. University entry, the gatekeeper of academic prestige, is determined by a “merit score,” 90% of which comes from examination grades.  Since 2010, schools have been ranked by their “composite scores,” 70% of which derive from students’ test results.
All of this creates incentives for administrators and teachers to concentrate on nudging up exam results rather than building students’ mastery of skills and ideas. This is especially problematic because Malaysian school tests are usually based on straightforward recall of syllabus material.
According to teachers surveyed in TIMSS 2011, Malaysian students were far less likely than students in other countries to face exam questions that required explanations or justifications. Only 11.1% of Malaysian Form 2 students had mathematics teachers who claimed to “always or almost always” include explanation or justification in school-level tests. The international average, for participating countries excluding Malaysia, was 36.9%.
This fixation on getting more marks in content-heavy exams also leads to lecture-style teaching and exam-based drills, as documented in numerous studies. For example, a 2011 study of 41 schools found that half of the 125 lessons observed were unsatisfactory. Many of these lessons were delivered as lectures targeting superficial, exam-friendly understanding of lesson content.
In the word of one mathematics teacher, “It seems not only our students have been made into robots to go after marks. But including me, we teachers…We feed them with answers and teach them all means to identify clues without making sense what mathematics and education mean in shaping a person’s life.”
For decades, the Ministry of Education (MoE) has been attempting to shift the school system away from such exam-oriented rote memorisation. In 1983 it introduced the Kurikulum Baru Sekolah Rendah (KBSR), which emphasised skills in communication, problem solving and creative thinking. In 1988 it adopted the Falsafah Pendidikan Kebangsaan, which focuses on holistic student development.
Still, such attempts at reform have not lessened the national preoccupation with standardised exams. For example, when the MoE introduced school-based assessment(Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah, PBS) as a continuous, customisable way of assessing primary and lower secondary students, there was widespread doubt about the reliability of PBS evaluations among parents, students and teachers.
Attempts to include a wider range of student competencies in national exams have also floundered. The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 established a target of 40% of UPSR questions and 50% of SPM questions testing higher-order thinking skills (Hots) by 2016. As of 2015 only 20% of UPSR and SPM questions met Hots criteria.
Numerous Directives, Endless Paperwork
It isn’t just the public mindset that is skewed away from the development of complex skills and understanding. Teachers’ official duties are also tilted away from teaching and learning.
Teachers are subject to numerous directives from various ministry agencies. These directives often require them to complete extensive written documentation. According to a 2011 survey of 7,853 teachers, teachers spend 15-30% of their working hours on administrative work. More ominously, teachers interviewed anonymously have estimated that administrative work constitutes 40-60% of their workload. They also complained of “[e]ndless awards, abundant competitions, and continual contest[s] introduced by the Ministry,” as well as “unnecessary compulsory seminars and courses.”
All of this takes time away from teachers’ core work, that is to ensure that students learn crucial skills and knowledge. This entails, among other things, researching and planning effective lessons, keeping up with pedagogical research, analysing student work to identify needed improvements, and collaborating with colleagues to optimise teaching strategies. All these tasks require huge investments of teachers’ time and energy – much of which is going to clerical tasks and other peripheral duties.
Some of the causes of this paperwork-and procedures burden are described in a 2012 Unesco review of the Malaysian education policy. First, schools receive orders from all three levels of the MoE – federal, state and district – to carry out scores of programmes each year. Second, poor coordination across ministry agencies leads to duplication of some tasks and neglect of others. Third, the ministry monitors the execution of directives, rather than whether particular directives actually improve student outcomes.
In addition to diverting time away from better lessons, this overload of paperwork-heavy directives also generates the mindset that it is more important for students and teachers to demonstrate their compliance with official tasks than to foster learning.
It is usually much easier for overburdened teachers to inflate reports of student learning than to make meaningful improvements to what happens in the classroom. Teachers even report being pressured by school administrators and ministry officials to “produce” good grades for student work, presumably to make both their school districts and the ministry’s curricular programmes look good.
Sadly, such self-serving inflation also appears to be common in students’ project work. While project work can challenge students to explore their interests and develop skills in non-routine situations, this is not always the case.
For example, one study found that teachers were fabricating students’ scores for science experiments and living skills projects that had not actually been carried out; providing sample answers for students to copy; or structuring assignments according to the grading scheme, thus boosting grades and easing the marking process.
Students were also culpable in the masquerade – copying work from their friends, using model answers provided by tuition teachers and, in at least one case, paying a classmate to complete a project. Such cheating has found a new tool on the internet, where blogs often post sample answers for coursework and PBS assignments.
Education Flip-flops Partly to Blame
The distortions already discussed – exam-orientedness that shifts the focus from deep learning to rote memorisation, and bureaucratic structures that cue teachers to tick administrative boxes rather than enrich student learning – would be formidable enough on their own.
Unfortunately, these problems are exacerbated by another systemic obstacle: pervasive cynicism and blame surrounding public education in Malaysia. While cynicism distorts the mindset surrounding potential change in schools, blame games strain relationships.
This atmosphere of cynicism and blame has many sources, some of which can be traced to the frequent changes in education policy, popularly called “flip-flops.” Table 1 shows education policies from the last 15 years that have been dramatically altered after large investments had been made – on planning, instructional materials, teacher training and time, and in expenditures by teachers, students, and parents.
In addition to their happening frequently, many of these policy changes were rolled out before detailed guidelines had been disseminated to parents, teachers and ministry officials, thus further compromising efficacy.
One problem with these frequent flip-flops is that they generate cynicism about policy reform: “If most of the recent education policy changes were reversed before they meaningfully improved student learning, why should we put effort into a new policy that will probably be retracted next year?”
With weak grassroots support, education ministers are likely to backpedal, especially when a new minister assumes office amid fierce opposition to his predecessors’ policies. Thus, Muhyiddin Yasin announced the retraction of the Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris (PPSMI) policy shortly after assuming office in 2009, while Mahdzir Khalid indefinitely postponed the SPM science practical testing and English compulsory pass in 2015.
Flip-flops have also triggered blame games when new policies fizzle. One of the most prominent instances of such blame-passing actually occurred on national TV. In October 2015 TV1 screened a dialogue about the new assessment system. During the dialogue, Examinations Syndicate director Nawal Salleh said the ministry had never instructed teachers to collate and file each assessment task for every student under the school-based PBS assessment system. Nawal further attributed the shortcomings of PBS to teachers who misinterpreted and misunderstood the new assessment system.
Nawal’s statement contradicted a public circular letter and the 2012 edition of the Panduan Pengurusan Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah (PBS). Both documents were issued by the Examinations Syndicate, and both state that it is indeed compulsory for teachers to file students’ PBS tasks.
Teachers were livid about the accusation that they did not understand PBS principles and operational guidelines – especially because the filing process had been onerous, with some subjects requiring over a hundred assessment tasks per student each year. One commentator in Berita Harian accused Nawal of dissembling and contradicting other ministry officials. He added that he “hoped that there would not be any comments and critiques from higher-ups based solely on what is on paper without looking at on-the-ground realities.”
It is unclear how much of all this recrimination is due to policy flip-flops, and how much stems from other factors. But it is clear that these blame games abound. In news interviews and social media posts, teachers accuse lazy students and demanding administrators of leaving them with no choice but to fabricate PBS results. Students in turn accuse teachers of laziness, with one student concluding that, when students fail exams, “it’s not entirely the teacher’s fault, but 80%, the blame is on the teacher.”
Parents, in turn, publicly shame teachers on social media for lapses in instructional quality. One teacher lamented the “constant bashing of teachers and educators in this country,” including accusations that “teachers makan gaji buta” (get paid for little work). As a temporary teacher summarised: “The teachers are giving up, the parents are hopeless, the system is troublesome, the environments are demotivating, the students lack interest.” 
This toxic atmosphere is reflected in the TIMSS and PISA survey questions about students’ perceptions of their teachers. Surveys in PISA 2012 asked 15-year-old students whether they agreed with the statement “If I had different teachers, I would try harder in school.” 69.4% of Malaysian students agreed – compared to an average of 41.6% among the other 64 participating economies.
Data from TIMSS gives further evidence of unhealthy relationships between Malaysian students and teachers. In TIMSS 2011 62.1% of Malaysian Form 2 students stated that they did not believe their teacher thought they could do well in mathematics lessons with difficult materials. For science, the figure was 65.5%. These Malaysian figures are much higher than not only the international average, but also our neighbouring countries, including Singapore with its notoriously exacting standards.
Teachers’ belief in students’ academic potential is crucial to student success. TIMSS 2011 showed that the more a student believed that their teacher thought they could do well in maths or science, the higher their scores in that subject. The influence of teacher expectations on student learning has also been demonstrated in numerous studies, such as the classic Rosenthal Experiment described above.
Healthy relationships between students and teachers are not optional froth. They are the substrate of meaningful teaching and learning.
We Can Fix This
Against a backdrop of failed policy attempts to reform our education system and entrenched problems that stymie all of these policies, it may be difficult to believe that real change is possible. In fact, such change is within reach if new policy approaches take into account the systemic constraints and patterns of behaviour among ministry officials, teachers and students.
For example, decades of overemphasis on content-heavy exams means that there will be little confidence in a new system that eliminates all standardised tests. Instead, alternative forms of assessment must be introduced gradually, and non-traditional teaching approaches must boost exam results while cultivating cognitive and interpersonal skills.
As it happens, it is not necessarily bad for students to master academic content. Research on cognitive development shows conclusively that thinking skills can only develop in the context of factual knowledge. Hence, Malaysian schools should aim to build cognitive skills through engagement with the familiar content-heavy curriculum, which would aid both student learning and public acceptance of new policies.
Another challenge comes from procedure-focused and paperwork-heavy directives that the ministry frequently issues to teachers. On one hand, endless nitpicking instructions obviously limit teachers’ time, autonomy and creativity for maximising student learning. However, it would be foolhardy to swing to the opposite pole and eliminate all forms of reporting – too much public money and too much of the nation’s future are at stake. Rather, teachers must be held accountable through mechanisms that are more flexible, more focused on learning and more difficult to inflate.
Besides better accountability mechanisms, policy approaches will have to build trust, relationships and a shared vision of excellence. As we have seen, relationships and expectations may be intangible, but they are far from inconsequential.
Successful schools often invest significantly in building shared vision, and they benefit tremendously because of the effort, efficiency and responsibility resulting from this sense of common purpose. Many vision-driven schools have helped students achieve tremendous cognitive growth despite challenging socioeconomic backgrounds.
In the research project from which this article is drawn, I propose a package of 14 policies that are designed to cultivate students’ skills within existing constraints in the education system. This package spans student assessment, instructional tools, school organisation and the teaching profession.
As shown in Table 3, I propose several compulsory, system-wide policies supported by a range of opt-in policies. Some policies work best when introduced across the board. Some should be optional, as they would only cultivate students’ skills if implemented by school leaders, teachers and students who have adequate time and resources, and who believe that the work entailed in implementing the change is worth the potential gains.
If all the proposed policies were compulsory, they would fuel the cynicism, blame games and fabricated paperwork that constrain skills cultivation in Malaysian schools. Instead, each policy is designed to achieve results despite the skewed mindset and relationships previously described. Collectively, the policies work to rectify these systemic constraints.
That said, for these skills development policies to work, leaders in the education system – whether the education minister and the director-general, or the leaders of the various state education departments and district offices – must show that they personally value and practise deep learning.
Since mindset and relationships matter, such role modelling is not an optional extra. Rather, it is crucial for building shared responsibility for student learning, and for sustaining the hope that such a vision can be achieved.
Given the stakes – our national economic future and the well-being of future generations – our leaders cannot afford to do otherwise.
The full working paper of “From Drills to Skills? Cultivating Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration Through Malaysian Schools,” along with an executive summary and presentation slides, can be downloaded from the Penang Institute website (http://penanginstitute.org/v3/files/research_papers/HwaYY_Four_ Cs_working_paper_28October2016.pdf).