Is dropping out necessarily a bad thing?

I just saw these series of ads today and, as odd as it may seen, the sentiment portrayed here rather annoys me:

I completely agree that education is important, and as the ad says, it’s good for everyone. (After all, that’s what guided the formation of EducateDeviate.) However, what annoys me about campaigns like these is the false dichtomy that they set up – it’s either school, or nothing.

Not everyone thrives, or even survives, in a traditional school setting. Most schools around the world focus on mathematical and verbal intelligence, judging competence through written examinations. There isn’t as much respect or attention given to those who express their intellengences in other ways, such as through the arts or mechanics (see Howard Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligences). For instance, in Malaysia, vocational and trade schools, as well as business and humanities streams, are usually seen as being for “under-achievers” – those who could not score well in exams. Taking up vocations or trades (or indeed, anything that’s not the Pure Sciences) by choice is unheard of, as it does not carry the same prestige as being in the Science stream.

Why have we developed this pro-Science-anti-anything-else mentality? Life consists of all sorts of knowledge and experience, and education comes in different forms. Just because someone cannot cope in the cut-throat academic environment of traditional school, and has decided to drop out, does not mean they are automatically a failure in life.

It would be better if campaigns like the above didn’t just say “dropping out is EVIL” and actually gave you concrete options for those who can’t cope with normal schooling and feel the need to drop out. Sometimes students are facing immense social issues, such as bullying (see my last entry) and can’t concentrate on education when their peers or teachers are acting against them. Some want to learn something that their school system does not offer, or even learn best in a style not offered by their schools. Some are facing major personal and family issues, such as poverty or ill-health, and need to prioritize those above school work.

Some suggestions of those options would be:

  • Homeschooling or distance education, which would allow students to learn at their own pace (is it really such a terrible thing if they graduate high school at 20 instead of 17? At least they’re learning) and receive personal guidance, which is often missing from traditional schools
  • Alternative school systems such as Sudbury Valley/Summerhill or Waldorf-Steiner, which focus on students’ democratic rights to choose their own education, as well as a more holistic form of learning
  • Vocational or trade schools – Australia is really good with encouraging and supporting trades education, providing apprenticeships and other education+career pathways without the stigma
  • Schools like the Albert Park Flexi-School which are specifically formed for those who could not function in traditional school (for various reasons), letting them learn at their own pace while still providing structure and emotional support
  • Taking a break from school, and coming back to it later (also following the “at your own pace” idea)
  • Taking college/university classes while at school – some students feel like dropping out because they don’t find school challenging enough and get really bored
  • Providing real-world experiences with education, such as internships or projects, which get them engaged in their education
  • Providing support for student welfare to cover needs that are of a higher priority than school – for instance, nutritious food, health-care, and family support

In the same vein, campaigns that encourage high schoolers (especially those from at-risk backgrounds) to aim for college need to be carefully examined to make sure they don’t make college the only option. While those programs certainly mean well, and are needed to show that college is an option for anyone (not just for a select few), my concern is that they unnecessarily stigmatize those that can’t, or have made the choice not to attend college. Not having a college degree does not doom you to a life of failure.

Many of the above options apply at the college level – personal and alternative education, taking a break (one big reason some students don’t thrive at college is because they aren’t prepared enough and just need some transition time), getting involved in the real world. As I’ve mentioned earlier, while college is certainly a form of education, it isn’t the only one.

The macro-reason for campaigns like these is that the world has been set up so that one would find it hard to move forward without some level of formal education. But is that fair? Should people be denied employment, sustenance, or personal development just because their education and life experiences are uncertified? Doesn’t this create a stigma against non-academics who have opted to learn from experience (or are forced to by life circumstance)?

In some places of the world, valuable educational experience is set at a very high premium, causing elitism and class divides – people can’t afford university, so they can’t get the paper that would help them earn more money to help them get into higher education. It’s a vicious cycle. A better solution, then, is to widen the scope of education to include all forms of learning – academic, vocational, humanistic, holistic, and so on – and create pathways for people to get involved in life and their community, welcoming all forms of learning.

Everyone’s educated in their own way, and we all need each other. Telling them that if they opt out of one form of education, they won’t succeed in life at all, is misguided and unhelpful.

An open letter to my ex-primary school

I wrote a longer, more detailed version of this letter on my personal journal mainly as a form of catharsis – letting go of my anger and sorrow. Many of my friends were personally touched by the letter and asked me to publish it publicly to make Malaysians aware of the very real effects of racism and bullying in schools, especially from teachers.

The following is an edited version of the original letter. I’ve removed names and some other details. It’s currently under moderation at The Star’s Citizen Blog, and I’m considering posting it to MalaysiaKini and The Sun. I wanted to post it on The Star’s R.AGE Blog but there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to post there.

Recently I read the case of Alex Barton, a 5-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who was voted out by his classmates when urged on by their teacher. This case shocked me, not only because it happened at all, but because he is not the only one to have suffered such injustice and humiliation from people in authority – people who should have protected him, who should have known better.

When I was in your school, from December 1991 till late in 1997, I could have been that boy.

My first three years there were all right. My mother used to tell me stories of how I bawled when she tried to take me out to lunch on my first day of school because I thought I was never going to return. I made friends with people of all sorts of names, backgrounds, interests. I did quite well at school, enjoyed learning, and bonded with my English teachers. For those first three years, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my constant answer was “Teacher”.

In Std 4, we were all shifted to the morning session, and placed in classes according to our academic ability. I was placed in the “best class”. While the first year was challenging, with a whole new set of classmates, I managed fine. The next year, however, was trouble.

In 1995, the year I was in Std 5 and turned 11, there were quite a number of Bangladeshi migrants coming to Malaysia to work. It was mainly factory and construction work – hard labour that no one else wanted to do. Around this time, all the major papers would have front page stories of Bangladeshis stealing, raping, kidnapping.

It didn’t matter if they were true; it didn’t matter if they were from another race (because only Bangladeshi and Indonesian criminals would have their races mentioned in the press), it didn’t matter that the criminals were an extremely small percentage of the general Bangladeshi population in Malaysia. Because according to you, teachers of the school, all Bangladeshis were the same – including me.

Every other day, one of you teachers would come up to me and quiz me on some new front page article.

“Hey Tiara, I heard a Bangla robbed a bank this morning. What do you think about that?”
“Hey Tiara, all these Banglas are stealing our women.”
“Hey Tiara, why are you Banglas so disgusting and dirty? Get out of here!”

The students, all 12 or under, never learnt that this was wrong; they saw you do it, so they did it too. If I protested, you would tell me to “get a thicker skin” because you were “only talking”. You even bragged to my elder sister, an alumnus of your school, about what a great joke it was telling me to “go back to your country” (despite me being born & raised in Johor).

There were lots more: the bullies that physically attacked me (in a girls’ school!), the harsh comments on my art skills, the jokes about my character.

You did nothing to make things better. Instead, you encouraged the trouble. You showed the students that it was OK to make fun of someone who was different – especially someone who was different but was doing better than you. Whenever I won a school competition or scored well in exams, instead of being proud, you would ask the others “how can an outsider do better than you?”.

All the hassle and trouble affected my ability to concentrate in school. I couldn’t find the motivation to do schoolwork, and always came home angry. You demoted me two classes down – a class whose head teacher was the biggest racist of the school. I did not know how to treat my new classmates, whom I wasn’t sure I could trust, and ended up being quite messed-up and strange.

At one point I tried to kill myself in the prayer room with a blunt scissor blade on my throat. No one tried to help; all that was said was “you’d go to Hell”. I’m only alive because I chickened out.

Suicide should never be an option for a child!

I couldn’t tell anyone, not my parents, not my foreign-based sister, not my (now) nonexistent friends – who would listen? It would only make things worse.

The last straw was in my final year, when you decided to hold an award for Best English Skills. Everyone in the school knew that I was the best in English hands down. I aced every exam, every spelling test, every English competition. But I didn’t even make the Top 10 of your list, because I was not in the right class – or was that because I was not of the right race?

I am still working past the issues I faced in your hell. I am still dealing with my dysfunctional attitudes towards trust, relationships, friendships. It was not until very recently that I began to accept the idea of having friends, and now I have at least three that I would call my best friends. I am still accepting my artistic interests, trying not to be like the demonic critic you were when you coldly told me (more than once) that my art was worthless. I am trying to reconcile my childhood dreams of educating with the harsh realities, concentrating on supporting student welfare.

But I am healing. And I refuse to let a terrible situation stop me from growing.

Because I was mocked, disrespected, and harassed for my race, I now make it a point to be accepting of people from all backgrounds – standing up against racism and discrimination, advocating for diversity and multiculturalism, bringing people together.

Because I saw first-hand how student welfare went out of the window in your school in your quest to remain the “premier” primary school in the state, I work endlessly to ensure that students are respected and cared for in schools nowadays, and give them support when no one else will.

Because I saw how terrible educators can be, I am working on being a better educator, even if not directly as a teacher.

I only wish that I had learnt all of those positive things directly from your actions, instead of in spite of them.

I have long forgiven my friends, and myself, for the mistakes we made in the past. They did not have many positive role models and did not know better. For you though? I’m not sure I can ever forgive you.

I shudder to think of how your current students must be faring. My supportive teachers are no longer in your faculty list, and neither is my biggest tormentor. But many other teachers that allowed this to happen, joined in the prejudice, joined in the neglect, are still there – including the headmistress.

Have you learnt anything at all from this debacle? Do you care about your students at all? Are you more tolerant?

Have things changed? Or have they just stayed the same?

Sincerely,
Tiara Shafiq
1991/1992-1997

The Scholar Ship suspends operations

I am very sorry to hear that The Scholar Ship, a floating university that teaches undergraduate- and graduate-level subjects on a worldwide sea voyage, has shut down due to financial difficulties. I had been accepted into the program and would have travelled on it this year if I was allowed to by my university (international students in Australia are only allowed to go on exchange with their university’s partner institutions).

This reminds me of Up with People‘s shutdown in 2000, also following financial difficulties, and its rebirths in 2003 (as WorldSmart) and 2006 (back as Up with People, but with a more WorldSmart-esque structure) thanks largely in part to new leadership and the strong efforts of UWP’s alumni.

I am heartened to see both would-be students and alumni of the Scholar Ship coming together on Facebook and Ning to find solutions for reviving the program. Semester at Sea, another floating university, is also offering spaces to students that were accepted into The Scholar Ship but whose voyages were cancelled.

It disturbs me to hear that a major reason for The Scholar Ship’s financial troubles was the withdrawal of its biggest sponsor (and provider of the vessel) Royal Caribbean International. Apparently this took The Scholar Ship’s crew by surprise, and so far no explanation was given for their change of mind (they’re still promoting the program online). A program as beneficial as The Scholar Ship should not have to die due to the lack of one sponsor. However, this is a situation I’ve seen in quite a number of Australian non-profits, where one funding body makes the difference between staying up or shutting down.

How will The Scholar Ship fare in this turbulent time? With the current worldwide recessions, are other educational programs also at risk?

Question about starting schools in Malaysia

What rules and laws govern the formation of schools in Malaysia? Do those same laws affect private schools?

For instance, if you set up a private school, are you required by law to administer the KBSM/KBSR curriculum? Do your students have to take UPSR/PMR/SPM/STPM?

What if you wanted to set up an alternative school – for example, one following the Sudbury Valley model? With the Sudbury Valley model, national curricula and standardized exams would go against everything the model stands for – democratic, student-centered education.

Would you need to get approval from the Government before setting up such a school? How and where would you get funding?

USA For Students Education Fair

From Education in Malaysia, because Tony’s summarized it so well:

USA For Students , a US Education Fair would be held this Saturday, 14th June 10am to 4pm at Wisma MCA.

This event is co-organized by US Embassy, MACEE, American Universities Alumni Malaysia and Discover US Education – KL.

This is the 3rd year such a US Education fair is held in Malaysia, and this year, there will be 51 top US Universities, including Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford etc. A series of seminars would be held too, covering topics from US Education System, Visa, Applications for undergrad and postgrad, interviews, job prospect after graduation etc.

Do check it out at USA For Students !

Intel asks: What Inspires You?

Computing company Intel became truly inspired about education after their involvement in the One Laptop Per Child project. They’ve now extended that into their Inspired by Education community, which aims to collect stories about how other people were inspired by education.

On the community, you can find out about Intel’s other education initiatives (mainly related to science and maths), find ways to volunteer through education, and share your thoughts on education via text or video. Here are a couple of videos to get you started:

Severn Cullis-Suzuki: Changing the World Since Age 9

If you think young people don’t have the capacity, interest, or drive to make the world a better place, watch this speech and think again:

That powerful speech (transcript here) is by Severn Cullis-Suzuki, who started the Environmental Children’s Organization in Canada when she was nine, and at twelve delivered the above to world leaders at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Her passion for environmental awareness still lives on today, with the creation of online think-tank The Skyfish Project and her current studies in ethnobotany.

I’ve heard from quite a few adults – some who should really know better – who lament the idea that young people are too apathetic to care about the world. However, as examples like Severn show, passionate socially-conscious young people are out there making a difference every day. Indeed, the Social Citizens project has published a paper detailing the efforts and consciousness of the Millenials (the current generation of 15-to-29 year-olds) and their important social change work. Severn is on the edge of this generation, but she is a great representative of the power young people hold.

Do you know of any other young people like Severn? Share your examples here.