Broader perspective on education system

Parents no doubt want the best for their children. Education wise, they question which is the best teaching method and are often faced with the dilemma of selecting a good school with the best curriculum. The reality is, there is no best method; however, there are best practices but it boils down to the context of each country’s education framework.

The success of South Korea’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) can hardly be attributed to just their teaching methods, as what worked there involved a combination of several factors and may not work in a different context.

“Everyone talks about Finland being the pride of education; but if you understand the history of their education system, it was not an overnight success. Finland’s success came from many years of education reform and work from all parties,” said Liew Suet Li.

“Education in Nordic countries is largely seen as a socialisation tool with less priority on testing, hence they’ve adopted more school-based assessments. We cannot take that as the ‘best method’ and employ here, as it really depends on what we perceive as the purpose of education,” she added.

Liew was previously with Teach for Malaysia and has recently completed her Masters in Comparative Education at the University College London, under the Chevening scholarship by the UK government. Her thesis titled “A comparative study of the implication of privatisation on quality and equity of education in four countries: the US, Chile, India and Malaysia” looked at education policies, social-political landscapes, historical landscapes and how all these influence policies.

“I opted to do my Masters as I wanted to learn what would be the best education practices or methods, but I’ve come to learn that it’s not possible to separate policies and practices from the underlying political, sociocultural and historical contexts of the countries,” she shared.

The Malaysian context
Liew believes that the “best” education system is highly dependent on various factors, hence would be cautious about presenting the right solutions to the idea of one size fits all.

“If you take the example of Finland again, we should be careful about taking bits and pieces of what we think work there and assume those practices would work here as well. Taking away national exams (for example) may be a step towards the right direction, but it’s hardly the only step to improving education.
“Moreover, we’re culturally very rooted on achievements on paper.

“Parents and employers alike are still relying on grades to assess students’ performance.

“If that expectation is still there, it’ll be difficult for schools to take that away completely. Hence, alongside taking away national exams and introducing school-based assessments, perhaps we should also look at ways that students can demonstrate their learning, knowledge and skills beyond paper-based exams and assessments,” Liew said.

While she thinks a lot more can be done to improve the quality of education in this country, we have to also be mindful at looking at what has already been done. For example, the new KSSR and KSSM curricula introduced very important and necessary changes to the education system that Liew feels many may not have realised.

“It shows great effort on the Ministry of Education’s side to incorporate what they deem as best practices globally, from elements such as 21st century skills to an inquiry-based approach to project-based learning.

“However, how we need to support it now is to ensure the implementation of this curricula will be successful, and that teachers have the necessary development and tools to succeed in the classrooms.

“Most importantly, we need to see through policies to ensure we don’t experiment and reverse changes, as this will be detrimental to our students,” she said.

Course of action
As the current Teach for Malaysia’s Alumni Board president, Liew’s vision is for everyone to have equitable access to excellent education.

“Equity has to do with providing every child the opportunity to succeed despite where they came from, whether it’s their socio-economic background or ability.”

From her research thesis, she found that countries that are most equitable have a very strong public school system which most students in the country go to.
“One of the main reasons why I’ve decided to study the private schooling phenomena globally is because of the current trend of sending our children to private schools as many parents here deem the public schooling system is inadequate.

“My research points to very interesting conclusions: Firstly, that private schools only perform marginally better than public schools if you take the whole sector in totality. There are definitely some very good private schools, but there are also equally high-performing public schools. My second point – that countries with higher private school enrolment are often less equitable, simply because only kids from richer families can afford private schools. Over time, if the exodus from public to private continues, it will only increase the socio-economic divide in the country. What needs to improve here is the quality of public schools if we want to have equity,” she shared.

Still, the future doesn’t look as bleak. As an education consultant, Liew is currently working on a project to improve learning outcomes in government schools.
“We are looking at supporting the implementation of the new curriculum by developing tools and providing support to teachers directly. There is a lot of great intention in the system, and perhaps what is needed is more faith and support,” she said.

Liew also believes that parents are pivotal in any education reform or progress. While schools are an important platform for students to acquire knowledge and skills, we also cannot expect our children to learn everything from knowing how to read, count, science facts, moral values, life skills, financial literacy and work ethics in school.

“It is a competitive world out there and it’s natural to want the best for our children, but a holistic education exists beyond the realm of schools as well.

“How do we continue to harness our children’s creativity and curiosity?

“How do we talk about life lessons and values?

“How do we motivate and support our children’s growth mindset?

“All that matters just as much as which school we send our children to and what grades they receive,” Liew stressed.