The trouble with input-centric education system

Input-centric education decisions have been hampering the advance of Malaysian learners.

The move in September 2014 by the Malaysian Ministry of Education to disallow private higher education institutions (PHEI) to use forecast results for the national high school examination, Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) as a provisional entrance qualification for high school graduates to enter college caused a big row.

The key justification cited by the power that be was that there were abuses by PHEIs and students who did not score the required SPM grades (5 credits for Foundation Studies and 3 credits for diploma, along with specific requirements such as credit in Mathematics etc.) were found to be allowed to continue their studies by some institutions. What was never mentioned in fact was the statistics of such non compliance and what was done to these affected students and PHEIs.

In my column in the first edition of Focusweek (October 17, 2014) I highlighted the issue of Malaysia’s obsession with inputs in all education policies and neglected to evaluate learners’ output, that is, what they have learned and can applied in policy decisions.

Using input-centric policy to be the sole deciding factor on learners’ suitability to be admitted to college is just but one of the idiosyncrasies of Malaysia’s education system. In this system, there is no provision for learners who marginally missed a cutting point for admission into college to have the opportunity for a “second” chance in proving their academic ability. While I was working for Pearson plc as its Regional Quality Manager, I was exposed to the concept of the “Challenge Route” practised by UK’s university for its very popular MBA programme. Anyone, regardless of their academic credentials, if he or she wishes, is given the chance to study for the MBA. Those who did not have the prescribed academic credentials would be given the opportunity to pass three of the 9 required modules as a condition for acceptance. The “Challenge Route” measures the output of these learners. The idea is, if anyone could pass these three MBA modules demonstrate that they have acquired the core knowledge to undertake the remainder of their studies. I think this is a better way to foster a learning culture and pulling down barriers to academic attainment for many people.

Another area I covered in my column is the other grouses of the PHIEs: the insistence of the approving and accreditation authorities on strictly prescribing the input-centric policy of the teaching staff must have a qualification higher than the level of the class that they are teaching. This doctrine of education policy shows that those policy designers really could not tell the difference between academic qualifications, teaching abilities and the value of industrial experience. The policy, at one stroke disallows the great contributions of master craftsmen, artists and designers from imparting their great skills, experiences and insights to younger generations of learners.

Having a PhD does not make one a great teacher. In fact when I started my career in Malaysia’s academia after my postdoctoral stint in Singapore, I did not have any training to be a lecturer. The only teaching I had done was when I served as a demonstrator in laboratory classes and later tutor for undergraduate students. I think the same goes for many PhD holders. People like me, learned quickly on the job and observed how experienced lecturers teach and emulated them.

In 1979 when I was studying for my G.C.E “O” levels at South Shields Marine and Technical College, UK, we had a very good pure mathematics lecturer by the name of Morris Gowland. Gowland did not have a degree. He went to a teacher training school. Yet, compared to other pure mathematics lecturers with Master’s and PhDs, Gowland was far superior in his teaching skills. One look at a struggling student’s work on a pure mathematics question, Gowland would say, “There, you have miscalculated this step,”  As a results, most of us, 4 Malaysians and 5 Hong Kongers passed our mathematics with flying colours. On the other hand, when we were working on our G.C. E. “A” levels, our head of Department Dr. Croucher who holds a PhD in nuclear physics was struggling to teach us nuclear physics in our Physics class. Thus measuring a person’s teaching ability by solely judging if his/her has a degree, Master’s or PhDs is like measuring the size of one’s waist when buying shoes. Thus solely measuring the input (in this case the kind of qualification a teaching staff has) to determine a person’s suitability to teach is a very inaccurate way to reach a crucial decision. It is much better to have an evaluation of a teaching stuff “live” teaching ability rather than his/her having an academic qualification a level higher than the class he/she is teaching as the only gauge. Sadly this is what happens in practice in Malaysian PHEIs.

So why should we be alarmed every year when world university ranking by various systems are published with Malaysian institutions either languishing at the rear end or being “no shows” on the list.

We are not tapping into the vast expertise of our own people. Who would be best to teach business subjects especially entrepreneurships (even as guest lecturers for a few sessions each) than the captains of the respective industries? Yet unless these high flyers have the requisite academic credentials (at Master’s level at least!), the PHEIs would not be allowed to engage them. What a waste of talents! What a loss to the younger learners in Malaysia!

As I  said in my column, unless we as Malaysians break free from our shackles of input-centric mentality, we will always be chasing the tail wind of our competitors.

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Smart learning to conquer exam blues

I studied over eight years at university which is much longer  than most people. As a result I am often being introduced by former schoolmates and college mates as “he who likes to study” to their friends, offsprings and spouses.  Naturally, I do get lots of requests from every corner for advice on “how to study”.   Aside from having the credential of having been a “veteran university student”, I asked myself what do I have to offer about learning and conquering examination blues. It then dawn on to me that I had passed every major academic examinations so far at first sittings. I even passed my motorcycle riding test and my driving test at first attempts. There  must be some sort of a “formula” that I can share. And there is.

For working adults who have already hung up their schoolbags yonks ago, taking on any academic learning is a daunting task that can cause a great deal of anxiety and stress. Work demand and family commitments are just two of the more obvious hurdles. Balancing these and finding the time and a quiet place to study can be quite a chore.

Let us start with Steven Covey’s famous quote, “Begin with the end in mind”. In an academic setting, examinations of one form or another are inevitable. “The end” in your mind will depend on your aspiration, to pass or to ace the final examination. However the “formula” for both are the same, the difference is in the amount of effort that you would need to commit.

Sun Tzu said, “If you know yourself and know your enemy, in a hundred battles, you will never fear the result.”, so your first task is to know yourself, then your “enemy” –  the examination.

“Knowing yourself” means you must be truthful to yourself and devise a good time management habit to juggle work, family and learning. Talk to your family and agree on some form of “me time” during your rest days (Saturday and Sunday) or during the evening after work. You must have a good idea how you spend your non-working hours and “steal” some of the leisure or idle time for studying. You also need to find a place to have the peace and quiet for you to concentrate on your learning. Personally, I find early in the morning at the office a good time to learn. Although the duration is rather  short  (45 minutes or less), it is the distraction free and unwinding after a stressful rush hour traffic to the office that make this a quality learning slot for me. You will need to find your own slots and set aside sufficient time to take on your learning effectively. You need to plan your learning schedule so that you have sufficient time to complete the requirements of the learning programme that you have signed up. Do not be over ambitious and sign up more subjects that you can handle. As a rule of thumb, full-time, 18 -23 year-old undergraduates can cope with 4 or 5 subjects during a full semester. Working adults probably can cope with 2 or at most 3 subjects concurrently. In fact most part-time postgraduate programmes rarely push learners to take more than 2 subjects per semester.

The other aspect of “knowing yourself” is the learning technique that you can adopt. For many working adults resuming learning after years of working, adopting a good learning technique is important for them to regain the learning prowess of their school days. One of the first re-learning that needs to be tackled is in note taking. The Cornell Note Taking System ( is a good system to adopt . Briefly, a page for notes is divided into three sections; two columns and one row (about 5 cm) below the columns. The right column which is 75% of the page is used to record notes. The left column is for key points for the topic covered by the notes to be extracted. The bottom row is to be used to summarise the topic. Thus when revising, the learner will concentrate on the key points and the summary.

Another learning technique is to construct mind maps and concept maps to assist learners to “picturise” a topic and how key points are linked. The act of constructing these maps will itself cause the learners to ponder and think about the facts and figures of a topic and how these can be linked. The key difference between concept maps and mind maps is in the fact that mind maps have one central theme or topic while concept maps caters to the linkages of several concepts, showing the relationships between them. It was too bad for me to discover the magic of concept map a bit late in life. The technique would have helped me a great deal since I am a “pictorial” type of learner. No matter what type of learners you are, the very act of constructing a concept or mind map will involve your thinking through the topic and making sense of the facts and figures while summarising them in a map. All these count towards strengthening your knowledge and factual recall ability on that topic.

The “enemy” in the context of “knowing your enemy”refers not only to the final examination but the entire inputs that you must make and the learning outcomes that you should attain in your academic quest. Many people make the big mistake of not associating the biggest “enemy” as the syllabus of the subject that you are studying and paid dearly for it. I studied for my GCE “A” levels in the early 1980s in a technical college in England. The college was catering to vocational and technical students and academic programmes were offered as “resit” options for those who did not do well in their first attempts. The teaching staff was accustomed to preparing their “A” level students to pass their examinations but the few foreign students like my peers from Malaysia and Hong Kong wanted (and needed) to score our grades in  A or B to read engineering, medicine etc. at universities. I learnt two things very fast. Firstly the lecturers were only doing enough to ensure that we could pass the examinations, and they were not going to cover the full syllabus. Secondly, to score grade B or better, I needed to get hold of the syllabus of each subject to know the content inside-out.  I managed to beg and persuade most of my lecturers to help me to cover topics that were not included in their lectures. Due to the clash of time-table those of us who took three sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) were only allowed to take pure and applied mathematics if we were to attend the applied mathematics classes held in the evening which was a revision class and was therefore shorter in duration for each session and the number of sessions. Our lecturer was brilliant. He studied the syllabus well. He only had time to cover about 60% of the syllabus but he focussed on essential topics that would be sufficient to secure a pass for his students. With this focussed approach, we were able to not only pass but score very well in the final examination.

One of my colleagues during my GCE “A” level days was considerably more  hardworking than me. He read broadly and deeply into biology, physics and chemistry, devouring lots of magazines and books covering these subjects. He knew these subjects a lot better than me. But when the results of the final examination were announced, he was stunned that he only passed 2 of the three subjects while I did a lot better than expected. He did not know his “enemy” like I did because he ignored studying the requirements of the syllabus for each subject.

Nowadays providing detailed syllabus is the obligation of all colleges. The document spells out clearly what the students need to study and how the knowledge gained is to be applied. Teaching plans and learning outcomes  should be provided. You should, like I did, know your syllabus inside-out. Knowing what is required and what is not is key to your success in examinations. This is what I call, “smart learning”.

In the next article, I shall cover “smart examination taking”.

This article first appeared in August 31, 2013 edition of Focus Malaysia, under Dr. YN Chow’s moniker as Plantcloner.