Rounded Learning for the Future


International schools were originally established to educate children of foreign diplomats and overseas corporate personnel. However, increasing demand for Western-style learning and English-medium education – either through the International Baccalaureate (IB), or British or American curricula – have popularized these once-elitist institutions as alternatives to Malaysia’s national, vernacular, religious and even private schools.

In Penang, the International School of Penang was one of the oldest to be established in 1955 – at Penang Hill, which was what inspired its colloquial name, Uplands. Many world-class international schools have since emerged in the state, offering an option in youth education.

Best of Both Worlds

The Prince of Wales Island International School (POWIIS) prides itself on integrating the British education system into the Malaysian context. The school teaches the UK curriculum leading to the IGCSE and A-Level qualifications.

A-Level qualifications may offer in-depth subject expertise to students, but findings from the University Admissions Officers Report 2017 have shown that it lacks the fostering of a global outlook and the development of workplace, self-management, communication and intercultural skills which are often found in the IB curriculum.1

Prince of Wales Island International School.

“Each has strengths. A-Levels and IB, at the senior level, contrast in a number of ways, and choosing between the two is a matter of personal priorities,” says Simon Leese, the principal of POWIIS. “It is quite untrue that the best universities place either above the other; in my extensive experience of direct communication with students, none has expressed a preference. POWIIS offers a broad and balanced curriculum in the junior years with some limited choice of options in the middle of the school, before more specialisation for A-Levels.”

On the topic of skill set cultivation, he explains that there are no “model” students; instead, the school encourages its students to explore their capabilities to the fullest. “‘Critical thinking’ is a contemporary cliché – intelligent people have always looked for original solutions; they always seek new ways of doing things. Much of this springs naturally from the culture in a school – if the students feel confident enough to test their relationships, push the boundaries and question prevailing wisdom, they will develop healthily, both intellectually and emotionally.

POWIIS encourages its students to extend themselves in exploring their capabilities to the full.

“Schools are not factories, and our students are not our products,” stresses Leese. “Our product is the best educational offering we can construct to nurture our less conventional thinkers. They are the change agents for the future.”

Creative Classrooms

Located at Simpang Ampat, GEMS International School Pearl City opened its doors to the public in September 2015 and has since attracted a good mix of international and local students. The furthest commute daily from Taiping, Perak! “A student hostel will be established by a third party provider; and if all goes well, it will be up and running by the next academic year,” says Jonson Chong, the parent engagement director.

GEMS International School Pearl City.

Effective pedagogy and teacher-student interactions are key at the school. The rote learning method, typical of most Malaysian schools, is determinedly avoided. Instead, students imbibe knowledge through actual understanding of the lessons taught and critically apply them to exam questions. “Our teachers assign students hands-on activities to make everyday lessons interesting. A lesson on gravitational force, for example, engages students to exercise their creativity when attempting to parachute an egg, using only strings and plastic bags, and without it breaking, from the first floor of the school building.

“Likewise, collaboration and participation between students and teachers are strongly encouraged; this is reflected in the arrangement of our classrooms where students sit in clusters to better facilitate discussions. The software, more than the hardware, is vital in moulding students’ scientific thinking with a healthy dose of creativity. People tend to think that creativity is exclusively confined to the artistic realm, but it cuts across all realms, including Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. I believe this is where we have an edge over schools that focus solely on ensuring the students make good grades.”

The Penang Japanese School syllabus is taught by native Japanese teachers.

The advent of artificial intelligence will soon cause major disruptions to the job market, resulting in the rise of global youth unemployment. Despite this, Chong says Malaysian parents are still very much focused on their children’s academic performances – the hard facts, so to speak. “We’re living in the twenty-first century; employers will only look at your qualifications once when considering you for the job. Beyond that, they will be assessing your skill sets, and rote learning can only take one so far. To quote Jack Ma, ‘Why are children being educated to do something that computers can do better and much faster?’ Through our education and teaching, GEMS tries to counteract this by equipping students with skill sets to handle whatever curveballs life throws at them.”

GEMS also provides an enhanced British international curriculum which includes the Little GEMS (Early Years Foundation Stage) programme; the IGCSE programme, which incorporates Ministry of Education-directed studies such as Malay and Mandarin languages and Malaysian and Islamic studies; as well as A-Level, which will only be introduced in September 2019.

Exposure to a Multicultural Setting

Established in 1974 by the Penang Japanese Association, the Penang Japanese School along Jalan Sungai Pinang is the state’s only foreign-language school to date. Conditions for enrolment, however, are strict: prospective students must be fluent in Japanese; have Japanese parent or parents residing permanently in the country or have working visas; and must be members of the Penang Japanese Association.

The school currently has 172 students between the ages of six and 15. “The students are taught the Japanese school syllabus by native-speaking teachers. The curriculum is very compact, but as far as possible we try to incorporate elements of Malaysian culture into our lessons. You’ll be surprised to find how similar Malaysian moral value stories are to Japanese ones,” says Principal Ono Shizuo.

“We also teach English as a Second Language. Our students will visit local schools to practice their English and immerse themselves in a typical Malaysian school setting, and we will have Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Japanese language course students over to teach our students Malay.”

Upon graduation, students return to Japan to continue high school or pursue it at one of the local international schools. “Penang is an ideal place for an internationalized education owing to the easy intermingling of races and cultures. The students are able to experience the best of both Japanese and Malaysian educations just by living here.”

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.


Related Articles

Jul 2010

We are the led-ing light

Penang has a sizeable advantage in the booming led market.

Jan 2016

Private schooling getting popular

International schools have doubled in number over the past five years. We explore why.

Aug 2017

Time to Respect the Original Peoples

Too often are they neglected – and exploited for their lands.

Apr 2013

The Sabah-Sulu Crisis Threatens The Palm Oil Supply Chain

Will the recent crisis in the coastal zone in the eastern part of Sabah affect our oil palm development?