“Doing School” In Malaysia – Part II: What Can We Do?

In the first part, “”Doing School” In Malaysia – Part I: What’s The Problem?”, I talked about some factors that represent the dire need for a change in attitude towards the Malaysian education system.

This change of attitude needs to come from all places – students, teachers, parents, schools, the government, communities, media, the general public. Everyone can do something to bring back education in Malaysia back to what it should be about: learning, giving back to the community, and being engaged – not trying to play games.

Part II: What Can We Do?

1. Expect the unexpected – Not everything is really going to go according to plan. Perhaps you won’t get the grades you were hoping, or the course you want is unavailable, or an unexpected family event happens that takes up your time.

It’s not necessarily a matter of “I’m a good person, he’s a bad person”. As the saying goes, bad things happen to good people. (And besides, in some viewpoints good & bad are rather subjective.) Anything can happen to anyone.

Life seems to have a funny way of acting up when we don’t want it to. But that’s just how life is sometimes. The trick is to not let this get you down. Accept that things happen. Sure, there’s no harm in appealing your position or asking for a second opinion or whatever…but don’t let that paralyze you from moving on!

Often – at least in my experience – such things end up being blessings in disguise; a better offer might come up, or your lost chance might end up being not all that. Look for that blessing, appreciate it, and take is as it comes.

2. Lose the “special little snowflake” mentality – What do I mean by that? It’s described rather succinctly (if very crudely) by Mr T in this Ask Metafilter post about things you wish you knew at age 20:

YOU ARE NOT A SPECIAL LITTLE SNOWFLAKE! WORK HARDER! YOU DO NOT GET REWARDED IN THE REAL WORLD FOR BEING GOOD AT TAKING TESTS, DO YOUR GOD DAMNED HOMEWORK!

The “special little snowflake” mentality is basically an entitlement complex – the idea that certain things should fall into your lap due to certain other factors. “I got straight As! I must get into Harvard!” “I got a top degree! I must have the best job in the world!” “I got a million degrees! I must be richer than Bill Gates!”

Straight As don’t guarantee you anything. Having a top degree doesn’t guarantee you anything. Nothing is a guarantee. Jobs or degrees or prestidge or whatever aren’t going to fall on your lap – you still need to work, to have passion, to show dedication, to actually learn and understand.

Heck, we have real-life examples now – how many of the complaints coming through about lost uni places and lost scholarships are on the lines of “Well he got less As than me, how come he got it when I didn’t?!” And hey, Bill Gates was a dropout. So were many others.

If you really want something, be prepared to really work hard for it. Especially when you don’t get it the first time -it’s situations like those that really test your dedication and passion. If you’re willing to spend years mourning over the loss of a scholarship, instead of actually looking for other opportunities for funding…did you really want that scholarship?

3. Make education more like the real world – right now there is quite a gap between how school works and how the real world works. Education here has often been referred to as the menara gading – “ivory tower”. While it’s seen as a model of achievement here, the “ivory tower” term isn’t actually meant as a compliment. Rather, it’s a reflection of how academics become a barrier between someone and the real world; while they’re all caught up in books, they can’t survive outside the tower.

The curriculum could use some updates – if not in the actual content, at least in its presentation. It’s been shown that people learn better when there is a personal connection to the material – so use that to your advantage. Connect Maths formulas to real-life problems. Talk about Science in relation to current affairs (the designer baby debate is a good one). Examine Literature and its messages with the state of the world. The possibilities are endless!

You could even connect different subjects to one another. Do some scientific research that involves mathematics and logic, connect the implications of such research with historical precedents, learn about societies that would benefit from such research, write an essay on the research – and perhaps an illustrative story. You don’t even need to wait for the schools or teachers to do this; while studying, see how each subject interrelates to each other (or make the connections yourself!).

Exams could use a makeover. Denise Pope describes perfectly, in her Stanford lecture, what the problem is:

How many of us at our own workplaces are told, “you are in a very high-stakes situation – in fact a promotion, or your job, depends on it. We’re gonna give you something that you fill out with a paper and pencil. You are NOT allowed to use ANY of the resources that you normally have available to you. Guess what? It’s gonna be timed. Guess what? I’m the one that makes the decision and you have NO recourse over this. You have to do it ALONE – and it’s all gonna happen on Tuesday.”

Make use of more practical assessments (not just exams, but homework too) – project work, group work, long-term projects, field studies. Create assessments that reflect how the knowledge can be used in the real world (even if somewhat indirectly).

And if the exams still happen – design better questions. Create situational questions. Encourage use of creativity and critical thinking. Don’t get stuck into dogmatic marking schemes – allow for different points of view, and look for people who understand why their answers are what they are. This would make a big difference already.

Note: there isn’t anything inherently wrong with academics. However, it can be dangerous to be completely immersed in one world while ignoring how to survive and thrive in other situations. Living requires skills of all kinds.

4. Be adaptable – adaptability is the one skill most needed but least acquired by Malaysian students. When changes happen, or the unexpected becomes reality, students feel trapped; they think “Oh no! My life is over!” and act like it is so. For them, everything hinges on that grade or uni spot or scholarship: one misstep, and it’s all gone.

It need not be that way. As mentioned earlier, things happen; sometimes not the way we like it to. But there’s really no point in waiting for others to change while we bemoan our fate. We create our destiny.

Plan A doesn’t work? Go for Plan B. No Plan B? Make one. There’s no need to lock yourself in so early anyway – there’s plenty of time, and people & situations do change. If you have to take a break because you can’t get into uni now…accept that, and make the best use of that break (you most likely need it!). If you need to work to earn money, then do honest work. Don’t let sudden changes block you, paralyze you.

And if you do decide to change your mind – different course, academic life not for you, whatever – then make the change. You are allowed to change your mind.

5. Work for it – If you really want something, go all out for it – and prepare to sacrifice.

Oprah Winfrey once mentioned an anecdote on her show about how her acting coach told her that she (Oprah) didn’t actually want to be an actor, but that she wanted to be a star. She said that if Oprah really wanted to be an actor, she would be willing to quit everything and wait tables while waiting for those acting jobs. She’d put in the hard work – because acting jobs aren’t going to fall on her lap just like that.

It’s still true, even outside showbiz. Some people are lucky in that things happen without much effort. If that’s the case for you, great! However, you still need the dedication and motivation to keep at it. There’s no point being lazy about it.

There will be times when it’s hard and you’re feeling unmotivated. That’s fine; perfectly normal. But again, don’t let it paralyze you. Seek help, take a break, do something else…let yourself recharge. Then go back with a new sense of perspective and see if it helps. And if it really feels like a dead end…well, there is no shame in change.

6. Lose all illusions of prestidge – people here tend to be really hung up on prestidge. Go to the “top schools” – premier schools, Ivies, Oxbridge, whatever. Get prestidgious degrees. Earn top money in top jobs. Nothing but the top.

There is a difference between what is prestidgious and what is the best. Prestidge is a matter of opinion, of hype and the status quo. It’s what people say is best. What’s really th e best is a highly individual matter – what’s best for someone is different from what is best for someone else.

Harvard has this reputation for being the “best university ever” but for many people it’s a bad choice – it’s not the place to go if you’re really artsy, for example. Science subjects are touted as the “smart student’s subjects”, and Arts and Humanities are left for the “backwards students” – but what makes a Science student any smarter than an Arts student? And do you really want to be a doctor to help people – or because it apparently has more glamour?

As Denise Pope constantly mentions, college should be a match, not a trophy. Basing decisions based on how prestidgious it is is living on someone else’s terms; the only terms you should live by is your own. What’s right for you may be a completely unknown name in the middle of nowhere. What you excel in may not be a well-known job. That’s fine. If it fits you best, that’s the way to go.

10 universities do not hold a monopoly on providing the world’s best education. 3 career paths do not hold a monopoly on being the best jobs. What makes a place good or not is how you make of the experience; prestidge is largely useless if you can’t make the best out of it. In the end, it’s you that matters, not some silly ranking system.

7. Be open to possibilities – and make them – Education does not only consist of school, tuition, and exams. There are SO MANY options out there! They can be taken anytime, in any order, and any pace.

You don’t have to rush to enter uni before the SPM results are out; feel free to take a year off. You can work for a while between studies. You can take more esoteric subjects. You can drop the issue entirely. It’s all up to you.

This goes in well with expecting the unexpecting and being adaptable – we have plenty of opportunities out there. Not all are conventional, but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s up t us to find those opportunities, recognize them, and take advantage of it.

Hey, we could even make our own opportunities! Companies can sponsor students on study-abroad trips. More programs can be developed. Charter schools, as suggested by M. Bakri Musa, can be set up to make primary and secondary education more flexible. Some of these ideas can even be synthesized – Kathy Sierra suggests “learning designers” in her post “College Matters…Sometimes” (a followup to her equally amazing post, “Does College Matter?”:

Maybe there should be third-party “learning designers” who you pay to plan and choose the best options and put together a perfectly tailored custom program from a variety of learning vendors (instead of throwing all your learning eggs into one school basket) that still includes some general education, but in the way that makes the most sense for that particular student, and uses both online, distance, and *some* face-to-face learning. If a parent (and more importantly, the student) thinks that leaving home is important, that can be a component as well (although I’m still voting for the crash-course with a backpack and a rail pass thing). The students could go to a kind of “advanced learning camp” that could be anything from an off-campus dorm (complete with cafeteria), or something more primitive.

The possibilities are all out there! Make use of it! Don’t get stuck in a narrow-track minded; open it up a little.

8. Take care of yourself – students are harming themselves by not eating or resting in the name of studying. Schools aren’t helping; many ignore health issues (especially mental health) just for the sake of perfect records or attendence (how many of us were told that we still had to come to school despite being sick?). Pressure mounts, and many students blow up – their health plumments, their emotions go haywire, they get exhausted and fall into anxiety and depression. All sadly too common.

Our body, mind, and soul has boundaries; let’s respect them. Have some proper rest – don’t burn the midnight oil out too long. Eat a balanced diet. Stay away from “superdrugs”; they just really mess you up. See a doctor if things go back (or even for a checkup – really handy). Don’t just sit there reading books; take a walk or two.

Also, don’t pile on the pressure. There’s already so much going on in life as it is. Allow students to breathe and be themselves. They will not be a failure if they aren’t perfect; no one is! The suicide rate for youths in this region is already too high; let’s not make it higher.

9. Get a life – It’s not meant to be rude. Rather, students nowadays tend to focus so much on textbooks that they forget who they are. This doesn’t mean “drop everything and go shopping” (though if that helps you, great) – it means exploring other facets of yourself and letting that show through.

Perhaps you have a creative side. Perhaps you like performing. Perhaps you’re curious and want to see how things work. Perhaps you have an idea for something never before seen. Perhaps you have a strong passion in something they don’t teach in school. Pursue those! Even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. It provides a welcome mental break, and it helps the person holistically – instead of being super-concentrated on one aspect, they are balanced on almost all aspects of themselves.

Don’t let the fear of failure stop you – you don’t have to be Ian Thorpe to enjoy swimming, and you don’t have to be Harry Potter to cast a little magic here and there.

10. Honour youths with unusual interests – the youths we glorify here tend to have conventional attributes. Straight As, Ivy acceptance, Nicole David. There isn’t much room for flexibility.

However, there are so many young people out there doing amazing things that are out of the ordinary. Photography, writing, presenting, science, performance, crafts, manufacturing, management…so much! They could use a lot more encouragement and support.

Feature these youths in the media. Provide assistant and sponsorships for their projects. Provide an ability for these youths to network and collaborate on projects. (TakingITGlobal is a great international resource for this, but we need a more Malaysian-specific one.)

When youths see that there are young people who are happy and content and sucsessful at doing various other things besides studies and sports, they’d be motivated to pursue their own passion. Not having straight As won’t bother them or hinder them; they’ll know that they can make it no matter what. And that’s a valuable lesson we can impart on them; that they are capable of doing anything they set their mind to.

11. Rely on yourself – every year the Blame Game is played: “the Government is conspiring to keep worthy people out of scholarships or university! There is something wrong with them! They hate us!”

Sure, the system needs a LOT of work. But we should already know by then that we can’t rely 100% on them – or any outside person. In the end, we can only rely on ourselves; we need to be responsible for our own achievement, for our own goals, for our own wishes. We can’t afford to be needy, begging for handouts.

Playing the Blame Game and continuously whining year after year about how “life is unfair” gets us nowhere. Yes it’s unfair. And while they fix themselves up, let’s be resillient and adaptable and look for our own options. This is our life; we need to take it into our own hands.

There are plenty of ideas about how to bring positive change to the Malaysian educational system – much more than the 11 I have here. What other ideas do you have? Are they being implemented now? How can we implement them? Even the smallest idea helps.

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6 Responses

  1. The gap between education and the passion of the people, I think is a matter of marketing. People think education is all about how many facts you know. But it’s not. The reason we want everyone “to get an education” is becasue we want them to be better problem solvers. We want them to be able to identify a problem and then compose an elegant solution. Knowing a body of facts is useful to that end, but ultimately we want problem solver.

  2. Even the “problem-solving” doesn’t happen here. Students are more often spoonfed; they expect everything to be handed down to them. Ask them to solve a problem on their own that’s not a clearcut “What is 2 + 2?” and they get puzzled.

  3. College is supposed to the time when people discover themselves and the education system should refect this goal. We should aspire to create people who can think for themselves and not just follow orders all the time. ;)

  4. the reason i think that the education system is so shabby is because it fits society’s need for hierarchy; society demands warm bodies to maintain its infrastructure – would a PhD drive a bus? we have not yet assumed the courage to stand up and fight for human decency…..

  5. Wow, you really hit the nail on the head here. I’d like to add one more: Don’t attach your entire self-worth to your grades.

    Or for the matter, whether you get that scholarship or that coveted place in medicine, or the honours class, or that coveted job with top pay. Society isn’t kind to failures; that’s when we need to be kind to ourselves.

  6. this is comprehensive…

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