“Doing School” In Malaysia – Part I: What’s The Problem?

Our education system is in dire need for change.

Education, especially in Malaysia, has ceased to be about learning, experiencing, engaging, and exploring what the world has to offer. Instead, it has become nothing more than an excuse for materialistic gains, stress, and heavily skewed priorities on life.

Instead of “I’m going to school because I love to learn and it enriches my life”, it’s “I’m going to school because I need straight As otherwise my life is over”. Instead of “I’m going to school to learn how to give back to my community”, it’s “I’m going to school so that I can be in the top universities and get a high-paying job and get that condo and BMW”.

Denise Clark Pope, who is a lecturer in the School of Education in Stanford University in the United States, has also done plenty of research on this issue. While on a mission to find examples of engagement in schools – where students are truly enthusiastic and focused on the learning process, perhaps due to a great teacher or interesting classes or any other factor – she found students that were, in their own words, “playing the game”.

Her book, Doing School: How We’re Creating A Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students chronicles the daily school life of 5 students in a top public school in California that she shadowed for a whole year:

  • Kevin, the son of a Berkeley-educated engineer who wants him to be the same; he carries around a calculator and obsessively checks his GPA (both normal and weighted) everytime he gets a test back
  • Eve, who takes every AP class in existence and is a member of every club – because she believes that’s the only way to get to Harvard
  • Theresa, who has to work after school in order to support her family
  • Michelle, who is more enthusiastic about her drama activities but takes easy classes as a tradeoff
  • Roberto, who aims to be the first person in his family to go to college; he differed from the rest in that he wasn’t willing to “play the game”

According to her book, as well as her recent lecture on “Doing School” (available on Stanford’s podcasts), these students risk their health, sanity, social life, and aspirations for the sole purpose of good grades. She quotes Kevin:

Look, people don’t go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which brings them to college, which brings them the high-paying job, which brings them to happiness – or so they think.

I’ve yet to read the book, but her lecture was definitely a wake-up call, and it is definitely REQUIRED LISTENING for everyone in Malaysia. I’m currently awaiting permission from her to post up the transcript and/or the MP3 file, but contact me and I’ll see what I can do.

“But that is America,” you might say. “Malaysia is different.” Perhaps so. But the similarities are shocking. It’s not just a “Western” problem; stress over achievement is hitting close to home.

TIME Magazine Asia‘s cover story on March 27 2006 was about “Asia’s Over-Scheduled Kids”, which describes the perils of pushing Asia’s youths too hard in the name of success and education. From “E-MBA” programs which teaches communications and business to children as young as 3 and as old as 6; boarding schools for kindergardens, with playtime trimmed to make more time for study; prep tests for elementary/primary school…it goes on.

Newsweek also points out what’s going on in the standardized examinations; their cover story that same week, “The Perfect Score”, asks: “Is rampant cheating undermining our schools?” Under the pressure to succeed, students feel forced to cheat, and in myriad ways – not just copying people’s papers or looking at notes during exams, but going as far as taking drugs to focus on exams.

It doesn’t help that the exams themselves are not foolproof; the US College Board, which administers the SATs, had a snafu last October when 4000 scores were miscalculated – causing much anguish amongst high school seniors whose SAT scores could make the difference between going to college or not.

Part I: What’s The Problem?

1. Cheating – as mentioned earlier, cheating has taken many forms and is getting more prevalent. Surprisingly, it’s the higher-level students that cheat more. According to Pope, almost all the students she shadowed went to all means possible to get up on their grades – using facilities open only to staff, buttering up the teacher for higher grades, copying homework, creating treaties with teachers (Michelle and her Math teacher worked out a plan: Michelle only has to come for exams.).

Many of them do not see them as cheating – only par for the course. Those that do aren’t proud of it, but they say that they are forced to do it; if they don’t cheat, they will suffer in exams, and there goes their grade (and their life).

Sadly, they may be right to an extent – Roberto didn’t cheat, he was very adamant on that; and because he didn’t cheat, he didn’t get good enough grades to get into his dream university.

We do it here too. How many of us got our parents to sew up that tissue-box cover for Kemahiran Hidup? (I admit I did.) How many of us copy homework when we haven’t finished it? How many of us go fishing for “tips” from school teachers and tuition teachers so we know what will show up in the exams?

And yet sometimes not cheating gets you in trouble; in my ex-college, 50 of the top students (myself included) were falsely accused of plagiarism, without any proof; the people that did plagiarize got away scott free. So much for originality.

2. Skewed priorities – students aren’t in school to learn. They’re in school to get ahead. For them, all that matters in life is status; lots of money, top jobs, more authority. “Naik pangkat”. Nothing about whether you actually learntor understood anything.

Even being “productive members of society” falls by the wayside. How many people getting As in Moral Studies or Islamic Students actually understand the underlying values behind the lessons – and how many just memorized by rote? The Interact club in my former secondary school did maybe one community service project a year – most of the time and money went into organizing get-togethers. Eve started volunteering at a local hospital not because she wanted to help people, but because she needed something to stand out from the rest of her friends who also want to go to Harvard. (Her main reason for Harvard? Money.)

Just look at the yearly influx of people trying to get scholarships for medicine: how many of them really want to help people by healing, and how many of them, like Eve, are just in it for the status/money?

Parents also have a part to play in this. Like Kevin’s father, many parents have certain aspirations of their children and force their children to reach their parents’ goals – regardless of what the child itself wants to do. As Dr.Aruna Broota, clinical psychologist at the University of Delhi, notes in the TIME article:

Many parents want to show off their children. They want to say, “My son is the best performer in his class” or “he will go to Harvard”. The child understands that what’s important is not his education but that he is a status symbol for his parents.

3. Too much emphasis on prestidge – people keep going on and on about getting into the best universities, the best jobs. “Go to the Ivy League!” “You must enter a prestigious school!” “College is important for your resume!”.

What people fail to realize is that not everyone is the same. A so-called “prestigious” school isn’t necessarily the best option for everyone. As Pope notes in her lecture:

College is a match, not a trophy.

Sometimes school itself isn’t the best option for everyone. Not everyone thrives in a traditional educational environment – but that doesn’t mean they’re doomed if they don’t go to school or college.

Forbes recently came out with a series of reports on whether college matters for success, and they found that it doesn’t always matter: students who were accepted into top colleges but opted for someplace else did just as well – or better – than their Ivy counterparts. Indeed, it is possible to be more succesfull without college – if you invest all that money instead!

The point Forbes, Pope, and people like them were making is that (in Pope’s words) it’s the kid, not the school. Thriving and being sucessful depends more on the individual than on their job or college degree.

4. Sacrificing of health and sanity – “burning the midnight oil” isn’t really good for anyone. In the rush to get all As/a 4.0/whatever, students would sacrifice sleep, proper diets, and exercise so that they can study, study, study. Eve didn’t have time for lunch; her only school meal was a box of cereal. Theresa fell sick so often that she kept missing school. And how many exam-year students do we know that stayed up all night cramming for tests?

It has been proven that lack of rest and an off-balance diet leads to many things – a suppressed immune system (making you more suspectible to colds, flus, and the like), lethargy, lack of focus and concentration, and so on. Some students resort to inappropiate/illegal drugs and weird concuctions just to keep themselves alert – but sometimes those cause more harm than good.

Not only their physical health suffers. Mental health conditions amongst the school-age bracket is on the rise. Panic disorders, stress disorders, hysteria, anxiety, and depression are on the rise, largely due to the increased stress and pressure on students to succeed in school.

Yet they’re not quite as acknowledged, or even respected.. In my school, quite a number of people (including myself) were going through panic disorders and hysteria, but teachers would dismiss them as “something inside your head”. A classmate ended up transferring to another school due to hysteria; my Malay Language teacher’s response? “I hope she doesn’t take her SPM here – she’d just bring down our perfect record.”.

Every year there are suicides and attempted suicides because of a missing A or a lack of scholarship (remember this girl?). Do we want this to keep happening?

5. Lack of a “life” outside school – Students are so focused on academics – so much so that they develop one-track minds about it. Friendships aren’t built on other things anymore; now it’s become a competition, “whose scores are higher”. Eve competed very strongly with her friends – she persuaded Pope not to tell anyone else about her volunteering at a local hospital so that she had something different on her record.

Jealousy stems over test results. People are ostrazied for doing poorly…or for doing better than the rest.

People aren’t going out to have fun anymore. After school, it’s tuition. Then homework. Then study. Then school again. Whatever happened to just spending time for yourself? With your family? Either that, or they indulge in a million extracurricular projects – but not for any actual interest. Like academics, they consider certain activities to be status symbols, and partake in them just for the resume filler. How focused and dedicated can you really be when you’re doing a million things at once?

And yet, if you dare suggest you watch TV for a while, or go outside for a walk, or whatever, you’re seen as “lazy”, an “underacheiver” – a “failure”.

6. Lack of acknowledgement for alternatives – Michelle and Kevin were frustrated that the activities that they were really engaged in – drama and community service – couldn’t be counted for academic credit. In her drama work, Michelle would read up other plays by the playwright, research the historial period of the play, the costumes…and yet she couldn’t get any credit for English and History because it wasn’t in the syllabus. Kevin hung a newspaper article about his collection efforts on top of his bed, reminding him that he can do good – but in his school, only the GPA matters.

Our curriculum doesn’t really makes itself open for flexibility. First of all, it’s largely outdated. When I was studying Commerce, in 2001/2001, our 1991-era textbooks had giant cordless phones as the “latest in technology”. I understand that there has been recent updates, but how recent are they? And how relevant is it to today’s world?

The curriculum also doesn’t allow for outside learning – for instance, I could do all the research possible on Egyptian history, but most of it won’t come in handy for the History paper. I can’t even use an outside text for analysis on the Literature component in Malay and English. Even subjects like Science and Art have “certain ways” of being answered – hence all the “How To Answer Such & Such A Paper” seminars.

The main form of assessments also aren’t that flexible; projects and coursework aren’t taken as seriously. Everything is about the exams.

Youths who dare to look beyond school are not being given the respect they deserve. A common refrain I heard during the SPM/scholarship season is “The only people who say grades don’t matter are underachievers”. Way to insult all the hard-working people who dedicate their passions to something different for once! Get into Cambridge or Harvard and you get front-page news; represent Malaysia in an unusual program and you don’t even get a column in the Classifieds.

7. The entitlement complex – I’ve noticed during the scholarship season the hordes of people who go “I got straight As and was the President of every club and is a poor man’s son, but I didn’t get a scholarship! This is unfair! IT’S A CONSPIRACY!” One person even had the gall to say that her hard work has “all gone to waste” and that not granting her the scholarship amounted to an insult to her father, a teacher for nearly 30 years.

This also happens post-graduation – fresh grads expect top-tier jobs, are faced with entry-level jobs, and complain that the system is unfair to them.

Firstly: 15000 people, 8000 scholarships. Obviously not everyone will get a scholarship! Did you all really learn Maths? The same goes for jobs – there’s bound to be more demand than there are jobs; not everyone can get the top jobs. And even so, is it such a big loss that you don’t get the top job or the top scholarship?

Getting straight As doesn’t entitle you to anything. Getting a degree doesn’t entitle you to anything. You still need to work for it, perhaps even more so. And it’s not the end of the world if top colleges/scholarships/jobs aren’t forthcoming; the options are endless!

8. Passion falls by the wayside – this is the result of most of the above. In superfocusing on certain subjects and habits for a certain level of grades, students (and their parents and teachers) forget about their passions; what really engages and excites them. Like Michelle and Kevin, whatever really turns them on is tossed aside for the “holy grail” of college and grades. The heart and soul suffers.

The world needs as much diversity as possible when it comes to careers, life choices, actions, interests. Yet the current education system only produces narrow-minded robots who are forced to follow a certain path without considering if it’s the right path for them. As noted in the TIME article:

In the new economies, the real spoils will go to the creatives – the quick-witted entrepeneurs and innovators, not the compliant milksops with ambitions restricted to the traditional professions. Education reform will come about only when this is more widely recognized by parents across Asia.

Not just parents – students, teachers, governments, education practictioners…everybody.

Part II will provide some suggestions on what needs to change – in the system, in the community, with the students. Please share your ideas and thoughts.

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7 Responses

  1. Well said!

    Just that some people who overachieve do actually have the passion for their activities and coursework. I’ve seen some of my classmates who absolutely love tackling the hard subjects. But overall, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s about passion, not prestige.

  2. The Asian education mindset..and how it worries me…

    This topic has come up quite a few times recently..and well it’s an interesting topic for debate. I noticed it first off myself..and discussed it with a few people which confirmed my thoughts and it was again recently re-established.
    The mindset is th…

  3. Cynical-idealist: That’s true: I am a bit of an overacheiver myself, so I know the feeling 😉

    There always needs to be balance in everything though. It’s good to challenge yourself – it helsp you grow. But no point burning yourself out – then you won’t have anymore energy to devote to what you enjoy.

  4. As a rural teacher in the states I see a different side of the same coin. I see kids who treat school as a place where they view grades as a reflection of task they have completed. They dont see the pythagorean theorem as a useful truth, that can be used to solve problems relating to right angles, and right triangles. It’s just a formula that earns them points on the next test. In my rural school few kids dream of big jobs, top marks, or Ivy Leauge schools. But, I still spend all year trying to show them that an education is not about the number of facts they know it’s about gaining experiences that help them become better problem solvers.

  5. […] Thirdly, are our Malaysian schools actually providing good, comprehensive, useful education? Livejournaller Ahmad Hafidz has doubts about the current Malaysian system, citing the need for security, well-maintained facilities (especially for the disabled), student welfare, health, and so on – things many Malaysian schools lack. Indeed, Malaysians schools and the Malaysian education system itself is in dire need of change, as noted through the two “Doing School” posts (1, 2) and the responses. […]

  6. dear sir or modam

    hi i should mention that i was born in iran but now i living in malaysia so beacuse of this i want continiu the education , as muche as i know , my diploma digree is not complit so i think that i should continue
    please oay atention to this mater and pelp me
    please answer to my meil as soon as posible

    best reagard

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