After the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) results came out recently, everyone was talking about the impact of Higher Order Thinking Skill (HOTS) questions in the recent examinations results.
In spite of a drop in the number of candidates achieving straight As nationwide with scorers dipping from 13,970 in 2015 to 11,289 in 2016, the Education Ministry is satisfied with the overall 2016 Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination results, Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid had said.
He said there is a need to conduct an analysis on the students’ weaknesses in handling HOTS questions.
"Through the analysis, we will be able to identify the weaknesses among students in handling HOTS questions.
"Then, we will look for ways to improve students’ preparation for HOTS questions in SPM examinations," he said, Bernama reports.
However, Mahdzir stressed that HOTS questions will be retained in SPM and other general examinations, as it is part of the national education development agenda despite the mixed responses.
People may say it shows a fall in academic performance. The fact is the questions asked in the 2016 SPM subjects focused on testing understanding and critical thinking for the first time and, therefore, it’s a more 'difficult' SPM exam.
What is HOTS?
Higher order thinking means going beyond memorising facts and knowing when and where to apply the facts but instead requires one to actively use the information.
Below is an example of how a HOTS question for the English Language subject will be phrased.
Previously, students were only required to master the ‘remembering’ and ‘understanding’ level to score in SPM. However, to improve their critical thinking skills, all students would now have to confront the ‘applying’, ‘analysing’, ‘evaluating’, and ‘creating’ stages as well.
Malaysian Digest got down to the HOTS debate and asked the stakeholders to share their views and insights on the benefits of getting our students to master Higher Order Thinking Skills.
What Parents Say About HOTS
In order to get in-depth insights on how parents think of the improved examination system for their children, Malaysian Digest reached out to get their opinions on the matter.
Tan Yin Hoong, 38, who sends two of her sons to SMK Taman Tun Dr Ismail, shared her views on the subject.
“I am all for this improved system as it can prepare our youngsters towards knowledge and skills such as creative thinking, innovation, problem-solving and leadership.
“I am actually quite supportive of this move because it is beneficial to children who are not academically inclined as the new format includes more High Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) questions to help children develop their thinking skills.
“But I would suggest that these questions should not be too difficult as they may in turn discourage pupils from attempting to answer them,” said the mother of two.
On whether it can be a good improvement for students, Yin Hoong admits the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions require thinking which can be difficult. But if done often and soon enough, the practice will benefit students in the long run.
“The emphasis is more on the student's’ ability to understand and explain, for example, scientific or mathematical concepts, rather than memorising the concepts and regurgitating them in the examination.
“The questions containing HOTS elements which requires the candidates to think, analyse and answer and I hope it continues and be included in the subsequent examinations,” she concluded.
Echoing her stance, Fitri Hizam,45, whose daughter will be sitting for SPM later this year admits that with the recent SPM results where a lower number of candidates achieving straight As compared to previous years was surprising, he too worries on his daughter’s performance.
As HOT requirements is more on the student's’ ability to understand and explain, Fitri’s concerns are whether candidates are given the same amount of time to answer questions which are largely HOTS based.
“If HOTS questions are needed to improve our education standard, then by all means please implement it but at least give the students more time to answer such complex questions. I’m sure 15 minutes of extra time for each paper will not hurt the whole examination process,” said Fitri.
“More crucial is the fact that the SPM result is an extremely important assessment that will determine the student's’ next course of action. This can take the form of a prestigious and life-changing overseas scholarship on one hand or the failure to pursue tertiary education,” he emphasized further.
Reported in a local media, National Union of the Teaching Profession president Kamarozaman Abd Razak said the current education reform with the new HOTS question should stay.
“We want students to be more holistic, not just book smart or exam-oriented.”
He also said parents must understand that even if a student did not get an A for a subject, it did not mean the student was underachieving.
How An International School View HOTS
It is undeniable that the popularity of international schools in Malaysia has been on an upward spike in recent years.
One of the main advantages which draws parents who can afford the high fees is the perception of a more 'rounded education' which is more conducive to developing qualities necessary for higher order thinking skills to develop.
International schools curriculum is widely perceived to emphasise creative and critical thinking over rote learning, which is why some parents would rather send their children to international schools.
Malaysian Digest spoke to Dr Nicola Mason, Head of Secondary at Garden International School in Mont Kiara to gain some insights on the examination system in international school and the way which higher order thinking skills are incorporated into the syllabus.
“Garden International School prepares students for the International GCSE (IGCSE) examinations, with many subjects examined by the Cambridge International Examination (CIE) Board.
“These examinations are designed to test students knowledge and understanding of subjects at a high level, including extending students' understanding with questions that challenge them to use higher order thinking skills (HOTS) and a proportion of marks available on each examination paper will be dedicated to these types of question.
"The development of higher order thinking skills, however, demands refreshed thinking towards the pedagogy used in the classroom to ensure that learning is interactive and engaging,” she remarked.
Dr Nicola believes that it is essential for students to develop these higher order critical thinking skills to be prepared for life beyond school, and to prepare them for jobs that do not yet even exist.
“Any examination system that strives to incorporate questions that engage students in critical thinking will be superior to one that demands pure recall of knowledge and the move towards this with the Malaysian SPM examination system, I believe, is a positive one,” she said.
However she also pointed out that the teachers imparting HOTS approach to learning must be equally proficient in this form of teaching.
She added that teachers must also be supported in developing appropriate teaching techniques to ensure that students are successful in developing these skills in the classroom. This fact has been acknowledged by the Education Ministry when it embarked on a much needed overhaul of the system in 2013.
The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 launched in 2013 had specifically included HOTS as one of its key objectives and teachers have been attending various courses on the subject to enhance their HOTs proficiency.
The Education Ministry working together with Thinking Schools International (TSI) had begun laying the groundwork in 2011.
"In October 2011, a delegation from the Malaysian Ministry of Education and teachers from the ten pilot schools visited nine UK schools which have thinking skills embedded securely in their curriculum and teaching," TSI reported on its website about its role in training teachers in HOTS.
This was followed by pilot schools implementing the approach for three months in 2012 growing to a 100 schools by early 2013 and another five hundred schools by mid 2013.
Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris Deputy Vice Chancellor (Student Affairs and Alumni), Asso Prof Datuk Dr Junaidi Abu Bakar had highlighted that the HOTS concept was not exactly alien to teachers as they were exposed to it whilst undergoing training at their college or university in a recent Bernama interview.
"By right, they should be ready to assist in the implementation of the new system. HOTS is also not new to the more senior teachers who were trained many years ago," said Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris Deputy Vice Chancellor (Student Affairs and Alumni), Asso Prof Datuk Dr Junaidi Abu Bakar told Bernama about the readiness of teachers in national schools in imparting HOTS.
"HOTS Will Put Them On A Pedestal Above The Rest"
When contacted by Malaysian Digest, chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) Datin Noor Azimah said we have survived with memorisation and rote-learning in the past and we thought we could get by with it.
PAGE Datin Noor Azimah
“However since we got involved in the TIMSS and PISA assessments we have been found to be three years behind students in other countries of the same age group and the reason behind this setback is due to the fact that we lack critical thinking skills.
She is referring to the global education assessments which Malaysia has participated in, namely the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
“Hence now that we have decided that we want to be in the top third percentile by a certain time, significant steps have to be taken to ensure that we meet this target. For this reason more HOTS questions are being introduced into our own internal assessments,” she explained about the internationally recognized standardized assessments.
"Thinking is a difficult exercise. Therefore thinking skills have to be inculcated into children as soon as is possible similar to reading," she emphasised.
This system can improve the quality and character of a student for without the ability to think one is not provoked to test and push boundaries and therefore create new ideas. Ideas will spark new concepts, further challenging what is the norm and what is mediocre, explained Datin Azimah.
“Thinking has to be continuous and provocative always looking out for new knowledge and thereafter to find effective and efficient solutions to problems, weaknesses and challenges and which will eventually and gradually lead to an even better and more equitable quality of life for all,” she said.
From the general feedback she has been getting from PAGE members, parents are resigned to the fact that HOTS is here to stay and that their children will have to pursue it with a vengeance and that if it is not mastered there will be consequences at tertiary level where more is expected of undergraduates.
“Students are resilient and as they mature they will realise that it is the HOTS that will put them on a pedestal above the rest in any competitive industry,” she added.
As thinking outside the box will create more holistic students, the PAGE chairman advise teachers to encourage, be positive, and be an inspiration to students for the role of a teacher can either make or break a student.
In retrospect to how the new format would level the playing field between urban and rural pupils, she explained how the gap is continuously and consciously being narrowed in every aspect.
“Teachers as well as parents can play the role of engaging in conversation with their students or children to interact and provoke their minds,” she said, adding that the young require their minds to be stimulated and what better way than parents and teachers to guide them.
Education Should Not Only Produce Good Citizens But Also Good Men
Dr Sidek Baba
Some countries, they encourage students to think and this cognitive sector is very important in order to get knowledge and creativity, noted Dr. Sidek Baba, an Educational lecturer from International Islamic University Malaysia who shared with Malaysian Digest the importance of a more wholesome approach to education.
“In the West for example, they encourage creative, innovative, reflective, and futuristic thinking because they are always looking forward. In Malaysia, the problem lies when students come up with answers in exams that’s more towards memorisation rather than thinking,” he said.
As the Education Ministry has been trying to improve the student’s thinking capability by introducing HOTS in exam questions, Dr. Sidek believes this system has to stay but it needs to be carried out gradually.
“It must begin at primary school and as students graduate to secondary, they will by then be more exposed to these skills. Otherwise, this may lead to less colourful exam results.”
The Malaysia Education Blueprint defines HOTS as the ability to apply one's knowledge and skills for problem-solving and decision-making, and to be more innovative and creative.
Aimed primarily at changing the concept of learning facts by rote to one that required students to think and develop important cognitive skills to enable them to be more creative, which involves the ability to analyse and evaluate knowledge, and using those cognitive skills to solve problems.
In other words, HOTS sees a shift from textbook learning to acquiring knowledge and soft skills that can turn children into more well adjusted and all-round individuals, which is what Dr Sidek is essential in developing the quality of thinking in students.
Regarding the quality of a student, if they can think properly and rationally, it will contribute to the educational process, he explained.
“As for the character, it should relate to ethics and values because in our foundation of education, especially among the Muslim students, they must have the ontological understanding of the Creator as well as epistemological understanding so that they can take proper action.
While ontology is the study of what there is in the world, epistemology is the study of how you know it, both which can be addressed by developing higher order thinking skills.
“Men and education goes hand in hand and to produce less mechanistic men, we need to nurture and educate them to become humane, sincere and other civic qualities,” he added.
When asked how the HOTS skills can better prepare students for tertiary education or working life, Dr. Sidek replied how we would want to produce holistic men with not only knowledge and skills, but also values.
“These days, we can see how the younger generations are losing their manners even with their parents and this happens because we don’t inculcate adab which is the discipline of the mind, soul and action. And that’s the foundation in education.”
As an advisor for the government in education policy in the last few years, he had urged policy makers to consider how education should go through an integrative process, taking into consideration not only on the curriculum itself but as to how curriculum should be value-based in order to develop holistic men as this is crucial for us to not only become a good citizen but also good men.
“The difference between either is a good citizen who knows the direction to go to Penang or pay the bills, but a good man has qualities of a good citizen as well as possessing respectable values and ethics, and honestly this is what we desperately need in this world today,” he told this Penangite in conclusion.