What should students learn in the 21st century?
The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) mentions that the curriculum and assessments must be aligned with international benchmarks to ensure that Malaysian students are acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary for their success in the 21st century and beyond. According to Charles Fadel, the founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, “education is falling behind in its mission to prepare students for the future: a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous”.
Fadel’s solution to the current global predicament of education is to develop a framework that allows policymakers, curriculum designers, teachers and parents to make effective decisions on the improvements and the path forward for the future of education. If his expert opinion is a general one that cuts across all education systems, then what of our system, which is ranked in the bottom third of the Programme for International Students Assessment test?
There is such a vast amount of information that needs to be covered, and the pressure of preparing for a standardised test, that many educators are not able to integrate new learning goals, observes Fadel.
He also raises relevant questions and issues surrounding the environment and substance of curriculum design. Is everything that is being taught to students still relevant? Are our curriculum designers, who are experts in their subjects, in touch with and involved in real-world situations? Or, are they more likely to be sentimental about their creation in the past, which makes it difficult for them to discard the parts that are outdated?
According to Fadel, 21st century learning is about developing a curriculum that will broaden and deepen understanding. Emphasis must be given to develop a holistic student, not just via knowledge but by building skills, character and the ability to learn how to learn and adapt to the learning.
His framework is in line with the objective outlined in the MEB for the new curriculum — Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Rendah (KSSR) for primary schools and Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Menengah (KSSM). KSSR was rolled out this year with the Dual Language Programme, the Highly Immersive Programme and the updated Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah assessment. Consequently, the KSSR will also see an improved version next year, along with the new rollout of KSSM.
But have we done enough to ensure that the revised KSSR and KSSM are designed for real 21st-century learning?
Serious housekeeping and a spring cleaning of the curriculum and assessments are needed. There is a pressing need to scrutinise our curriculum and ensure that each item is justified for being there because it would be of value to the student. If not, it should be removed.
We must analyse the effectiveness of the humanities subjects like History, Civics, Bahasa Malaysia, English and Agama. There seems to be too much emphasis on social engineering, nationalism, patriotism and ritualistic concepts within these subjects. They also fail to build a positive character in the way students interact and behave socially, and this is reflected in their attitudes, manners and treatment of others when they become adults.
There should be a more thought-provoking array of topics, depth of world view and areas that would generate awareness, interest and curiosity to inspire learning instead of nationalistic agendas. The irony is that the schools of yesteryear taught little to nothing about nationalism, patriotism and interfaith, yet, they were less polarised and more tolerant.
As a parent of national secondary schoolgoers, I am very concerned that the syllabus my children are subjected to does not prepare them enough for the next stages in their lives. Although the curriculum has been injected with critical thinking elements to overcome rote learning, it defeats the purpose when they rote learn to score in critical thinking questions. Answers given to critical thinking questions should not be wrong if they show the process of critical thinking. This is how students are expected to think at tertiary level and beyond, so they are able to discuss and ascertain the best way to solve a problem in seeking the best solution. One does not seek answers, one seeks solutions.
Making History a must pass subject for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) is clear evidence of the overbearing nationalistic agenda. People fail to gain the SPM qualification because they fail History. This increases the number of Malaysians who have a lower than SPM qualification. Not only that, because of the concern that History needs to be passed, more time and focus is given to this subject compared with other critical subjects like English, Science and Mathematics. The irony is that a generation before them did not even have to study History for the SPM.
And as these students take the next steps post national school, they have to unlearn, relearn and break the habits of what was imparted for 11 years of their lives. That is, if they have the capacity, knowledge and resilience to adapt to new learning.
As Fadel puts it, “At the policy level, we will need to strive for a stable consensus among political factions, and a clearly articulated vision of the kind of education students now need. At the level of disciplinary experts, there needs to be continuous involvement of real-world users of the disciplines in addition to reform-minded academics.”
The Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia supports the call of pro-moderate group G25 Malaysia for Parliament to be more assertive in performing its role in our system of government by establishing a parliamentary select committee specialising in education. This is what is being done in the UK and other democratic countries.
This is imperative to ensure that Malaysia is on track for our education goals and not counter-progressive and sidetracked by those who are skewed towards a certain egocentric agenda. This must stop.