Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Education Beyond "A's"

Soon, students from all over Malaysia of different levels shall face yet another annual ritual of the nation: the public examinations. Primary 6 pupils shall strive to glean that 5 (or 6) A's in their UPSR; so shall the 15-years olds who drool for that clean straight 8 (or 9) A's in their PMR result sheet; more for SPM candidates as they have the privilege of taking teens (or -ty) of examination subjects in hope to ace them all; the same rhythm and melody for STPM would-be takers. As we witness, year-in year-out, with pride, the media (and the Ministry of Education) would boast about the super-achievers getting tons of A's with their behind-the-scene stories of the secrets and trials to their success. Then, we would be told, relative to last year, the performance level of our education has "improved" by a show of statistical data mentioning the increment of people getting an "A" in certain examination subjects and the decline in numbers of those getting an "F" in the other.

With all due respect to the super-achievers (those getting 17A1's, 8A's etc.), I would like to invite the reader to rethink the value of "A" we get in our examination result sheets; by getting that "A", does it really means that we have a certain degree of mastery in that particular subject that enable us to see that "A" in its actual implementation? Must we conclude then people getting a "B", a "C" or a "D" is less able to function in that particular discipline of knowledge compared to those getting an "A"? Thus, the bottom line of the issue: is getting straight "A's" equals academic success?

Sometimes, I am confounded when I think great people of the past and present, most if not all of them have never really cared about getting straight "A's" (or 4.00 CGPA or other statistical measure of "success" in institutionalized academic) in order to be recognized as "successful" in their respective area. From the Classical Era, recall Plato, Socrates, Hippocrates and their legions - they have never knew what straight A's means. Even people such Lao Tze who was born in the exam-oriented China (oh yes, the Chinese then took exams not primarily for "academic success" or "getting a deeper understanding of anything". Rather, to be employed in a decent government posts of the Emperor Dynasty) never ever dreamed about straight A's before. Therefore, why now our students are being put into so much pressure and their thoughts indoctrinated to get nothing less than straight A's as if life would be a failure if they fail to hoard A's in public examinations. This, a deeper analysis of our education system and culture is needed.

Ponder back during our days in high-school classrooms, rote learning was (and is?) the prevailing system; the more one memorizes and the more one is able to accurately recall what one has memorized, the likelier one is going to be "successful" (getting an "A") in the subject he/she "studied". No, differing answers are not accepted because they are not in line with skema jawapan (the answer scheme). To rigorously dispute a teacher about a "fact" in would be kurang ajar (rude) and it would be a taboo if one takes a different stance, beliefs, or opinions other than what the teacher had said pertaining to a subject-matter. In the end, the student has to be a yes boy/girl in order to be a good boy/girl and ultimately getting "A's" in their academic subjects and sikap (manner).

Some of the "beliefs" I have identified and willingly/forcefully made to be believed unto me based on my own experience during my tender years in school are as follow:
  1. Must get straight A's in public exams whatever it may take. Do as one must: buy ten exercise books, go to five tuition classes in the weekend, skip lunch, and even, hide textbooks in toilet (to cheat in exam) for that precious "A". Failure to do so: mom and dad would be malu (ashamed); no reward in Ringgits (yes, by getting straight A's can make one rich(!) as the school, government institutions, parents and NGOs will give one money for one's "excellent" result); kena rotan (caned); there is a good chance that teachers would not remember your name, and malu with friends who get more A's than one does.
  2. Screw all activities other than "study", "study", and "study"! (if a social/pure science subject: memorizing, memorizing and memorizing; if a math subject: practice, practice and practice)! Phew, how vigorous a task it was to memorize (better if verbatim memorization) a 700-pages Physics reference book so that one could easily recall and write exactly the same experiment, utter exactly the same definition, and recalling exactly the same "facts" mentioned in the reference book if asked in an exam. Who cares about learning to cook - it is not asked in school exam. Who cares about helping out in a charity house in the weekend - one won't get an "A" for that! Who cares about jogging and doing some light exercise - I'm young and still healthy: life is better spent with "study"!
  3. Scoring straight "A's" makes one a rock-star. In the end, it is an A-student who will be rewarded and remembered even though a C-student did all the experiments, cleaned the apparatuses, and searched for information beyond textbooks.
The Consequences

To the students

This "'A' in the paper-exam is everything" norm ultimately only creates a stereotype, intellectually lazy, uncreative, uninnovative, visionless, indifferent, and unmotivated person. Why? Because their vision has been largely narrowed down to see only straight "A's" as a measure of success in contrast to the spirit of education itself to produce Insan Al-Kamil (the complete human) or umo universal (the versatile human). This then leads to students becoming more like bio-machines - doing without thinking, following without knowing - in their daily deliberations.

To the teachers

The tendency to spoon-feed the students is very high because one's reputation and "academic credibility" is at stake here. Thus, giving tons and tons of notes and mock-exam questions would be considered as "worthy" in contrast to letting the students explore the academic discipline themselves by allowing a conducive plane for intellectual debates, experiments and researches. Moreover, the "we must follow and finish the syllabus" would echo long in their creed to avoid the blame-game later if the public exam's (SPM, PMR etc.) turnout did not meet the school's target. Thus, rooms for a deeper intellectual exploration are suppressed because of the over-commitment of following the syllabus (even if the teacher is aware then the "facts" in the syllabus are obsolete) and finishing them up (so that all the "facts" are now thrown to the students).

To the school institutions

The rat-race between schools in the same cage within the same wheels shall continue. Schools will keep on competing with each other by claiming their excellency based on how many straight A students they produce annually. Other aspects of education such as physical, social, and spiritual development (and genuine intellectual development) will be put aside as peripheries to give way to obsessive meritocracy based on A's. Motivations to leak and to find the leaking sources of public examination questions are high among the school institutions as there is a good chance, too, that they will do everything in order to maintain the school's status quo in prominence.

To Malaysia

Uncreative and unthinking people shall borne a civilization lacking of its capability for self-sustenance. Because the world is changing, new discoveries, theories and technologies are made everyday, Malaysia would ultimately lose its competitiveness if it refuses to reevaluate its education system that overemphasizes the on-paper "A's".

Because getting "A's" is the door for scholarship opportunities (and rewards of such), I fear students will mistakenly believe that getting straight A's is the only recipe for success in life, without weighing heavy enough other aspects of human development that are just as important for a balanced human being.

The current situation...

Imagine that you walk on the local streets and ask random school students these questions. How do you think they may respond?
  1. Which do you read (or at least, know), Kreko or Encyclopedia Britannica?
  2. Who do you know better, Prof. Diraja Ungku Aziz or Mawi?
  3. What is your opinion about the recent "oil-price rise"?
Hence, this is high-time for all to ponder deeply about the frenzy of getting straight A's. Ultimately, it is not A's that defines "success". Rather, it is how much positive impact one had done to oneself and others that defines "success".

Perhaps we need some revamp in our education system?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Kem Eksplorasi Minda 2008 in Borneo: A Reminiscence

Alhamdulillah, it has been a week since Kem Borneo 2008 has ended and yet its heat can still be felt even today with all the loving memories of fellow facilitators, orators, and participants - all contributed to the success of the event.

The Kem is a 10-days program for SPM candidates aimed specifically for students in Sabah and Sarawak with an emphasis on brushing up study skills for SPM, awakening the 'sleeping conscience', and sharing studying abroad opportunities as well as personal life experience overseas from the facilitators. I wish to thank and congratulate the Program Director, Azri Bohari, for his unrelenting efforts that has made this noble endeavor possible.

Kolej DPHA facilitators line-up, Kuching

The Core Business

Syafeeq (http://syafeeqridzam.wordpress.com/), a fellow facilitator of the program, deftly summarized our program activities as noted below in red:

Ust. Hasrizal with us in Kolej DPHA dormitory
  1. Ceramah daripada Ustaz Hazrizal: This prominent Saifulislam.com blogger and motivator was with us in Kuching, Sarawak for the whole duration when we were there. You can read his thoughts about the camp here: http://saifulislam.com/?p=2380
  2. Ceramah Akhi Mukhtar Suhaili: Also not foreign in the blogosphere, meet Brother Mukhtar Suhaili. He joined us in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah for the whole term there. Feel free to read his writings about the program here: http://muhtarsuhaili.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/kem-borneo-2008-jujur-kepada-diri-sendiri/#comment-5513
  3. IRP- Intensive Revision Programme (study group) cara berkesan: As can be drawn from the name, this session is about how to study effectively within the constrain of time and pressure faced by students at the corner of major examination (for this case, SPM). Also, there is an LDK (In-Group Activity) that followed for this session.
  4. Mind Mapping: Inspired by Tony Buzan, the session is aimed to utilize the usage of mind maps instead of conventional line-to-line sentences in order to write notes. It is believed that the use of mind maps are much more effective for recalling facts and organizing information and so an LDK session tailed the main session to further cement the participants' understanding of the fundamentals of mind mapping.
  5. Sharing Moments (gelintar faci-faci di oversea): To me, this is the most interesting session of all when facilitators were given time to share their experience first-hand with the participants regarding the facilitators' living and studying style overseas. Each country were given 15 minutes to share everything they could. Videos and Powerpoint Presentations were used to entice eager ears. Yea, for all schools that I presented, the acceptance level was at least egalitarian. Among the pearls shared were living and studying culture presentations in the UK, Ireland, USA, Indonesia, France, Czech Republic, Egypt, and Russia.
  6. Bee Movie: A movie-watching session and then with elaboration of lessons that can be drawn from the movie. Some never thought that watching a cartoon movie can be full of lessons in tandem with full of fun!
  7. Ini Sejarah Kita: This was a 'heavy' session intended to expound the history of the Muslim Civilization.
  8. Amal Islami: A session for Muslims. This is the only session I missed to attend.
  9. Shift your paradigm video: An excellent 20-minutes video encircling the history of the Muslim civilizations, the problems facing the world today, and a call for a spiritual awakening towards solving the maladies of the world and a conscience for the hereafter. Very good reflections of the video were also made by students from SMKA Inanam, Sabah.
  10. What to do after SPM: This session is contributed to give a rudimentary picture of how life after SPM would be (i.e. where to go next, the mission and vision in life beyond SPM etc.). An LDK session followed to clarify the topic.
  11. QnA Forum: A session dedicated to answer questions from the participants by all facilitators. Too many questions there were and many of them are still left unanswered. A blog is to be dedicated to answer the unanswered questions.
  12. Riadah Ukhwah: A friendly sport session to shatter the remnants of unbroken ice between the facilitators and the participants. For male participants, the games played were friendly volleyball matches, friendly futsal matches and traditional Cap Kelicap game of mimicry.
The program was held in five different schools in Borneo States of Malaysia namely Sabah and Sarawak. The venues were:

1. SMS Kuching, Kuching, Sarawak
2. Kolej Datu Patinggi Haji Abdillah (DPHA), Kuching, Sarawak
3. MRSM Kota Kinabalu, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
4. Sekolah Menengah Agama Inanam, Sabah
5. Sekolah Menengah Agama Kota Kinabalu, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

The Response

Our presence were cordially welcomed by the schools willing to host the event. No, even describing the manner of welcoming as cordial is an understatement. Imagine, in Kuching, we were welcomed by a contingent of Kolej DPHA students together with a teacher once the facilitators from Peninsular Malaysia arrived at Kuching International Airport. The experience in Kolej Abdillah dormitory cannot be sweeter; for six times each day we were served full-course meals (breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, dinner, and supper) with student-servers ready to refill our empty cups and plates. During the first day in Kolej Abdillah, we were tired. Thanks to the Collegians (that is what Kolej Abdillah students call themselves) who even sent the supper meals inside our sleeping quarters (and even cleaned up the mess the next morning)! Also, during a rainy time one evening, they helped to move our towels from a drying yard and saved the towels from getting soaking wet.

Not forgetting also the astounding level of enthusiasm, exuberance and participation from the students of the school that I were in: Kolej DPHA (the best!), SMS Kuching, SMA Inanam, and MRSM Kota Kinabalu. Many were not shy to ask questions, crack jokes and share opinions during the session. Oh yea, I still remember "the school song dance" (that is how I describe the verb) by the Collegians: a very interesting one. I am very confident that it is the first time in my life (and the life of other fellow facilitators as well) to witness people actually dance when singing their school song! And yea, to add up the spice, there were dancers in front of the stage who were the main dancers; when it comes to certain stanzas in the school song, people at the back 'replied' the dance with some sort of dance again together with uttered choral harmony. Such creativity!

Kolej DPHA "school dance"

Talking about creativity, I was deeply immersed with the theme song of the program, Aku Berlari (I Run). My first impression about the song was it was just another "Kau Boleh" and "Gemilang" song or some sort of melodic nasheed song with religious overtones. However, little did I expect that the song is so compelling that I keep repeating it in my song playlist! I shall refrain discussing more about the song, however, as I plan to write a post solely dedicated to it sometime in the future. But as far as the program is concerned, the song is very relevant: it is understandable to people of various background transcending races and religious beliefs; its modern-style rap-music is in-trend and is appealing to young listeners; it includes all - not only for the participants, but also the facilitators and all involved in the program!

Introducing Borneo

In the Penambang, a scary excitement

Among the memorable part of this program was introducing my place to fellow friends from Peninsular Malaysia. As I told one of my close friends from Johor who also joined as a facilitator for the program, "in Sabah and Sarawak, you will see the other face of Malaysia."

Yes, it was the stories of myth-shattering and re-defining the meaning of Malaysia. Perhaps some may believe that Sabahans and Sarawakians still live on the trees and the main transportation is the rakit, and that there are no shopping malls in Borneo states. Well, now I believe those are only assumptions of the past. Only that for Sarawak, culture, nature and modernization in goes hand-in-hand as witnessed with skyscrappers standing side by side with rivers with penambang and Kampung Melayu near Kuching-waterfront.

Also, in terms of population composition, surely it is radically different from Peninsular Malaysia. Whereas there are at least 80% Muslims and Malays of the total population in the Peninsular, in Sabah and Sarawak, there are at most 30% Muslims and only 25% Malays of the total population statewide. Not forget to mention a diversity of cultures and languages the Borneo states possess that has result a dynamics of society different from Peninsular Malaysia. These my fellow friends had (formally) witnessed in Sarawak Cultural Village and (informally witnessed) during interactions with the locals (Hard to guess who is a Muslim, who is a Malay, and who is a Bidayuh only by the face, eh?).

Of course, places of interest and state icons and special food were not left behind. We witnessed Mount Santubong with the visage of lying Puteri Santubong and heard its legend, we rode the Penambang that was and is still the main river-transport that connects the village and the city center, we took pictures at the Cat Statue, we climbed up to the hill of North Kuching City Hall etc. The food: Laksa Sarawak, Ikan Terubok Masin, Bakso, Mee Kolok, Kek Lapis, perhaps most if not all the States' main delicacies had been brought to taste. Only that we missed were the more natural setting of the island: the Orang Utans, the Rhinocerous Hornbills and the Giant Phytons, live! Another time perhaps...

Last but not least, the uniting language: the "Sarawak Language" for the Sarawakians and the "Sabah Language" for the Sabahans. I heard a lot of excitement from my fellow friends and glees and joys as they diligently learn the language totally foreign to them. In no time, they mastered the usage of "kitak-kamek", "aok-sik" and the "bah" and "o tedah" in their phrases as they speak. Such reminds me when I were in the Peninsular when I tried to learn Kelantanese and Terengganu language from my fellow coursemates. And yea, this also reminds me the blessings and beauty of Malaysia: separated by just a small South China Sea, and yet so different and so diverse but still are wiling to understand each other.

Knowing Sabah

Female Facilitators line-up in Sabah

Male facilitators line-up to Sabah

I am also blessed when I learned a lot about my nearest neighbor (yet the least-known) state of Sabah. Traversing the scenic seaside view of Kota Kinabalu, snorkeling, speed-boating, and banana boating over the coast of Manukan Island had proven to me the fabled natural beauty of Sabah. Not forgettig the warmth of the people. Before, I only get a glimpse of how Sabahans may live their life as I observe the interactions of few Sabahan friends that I have. Now, I have witnessed them in their homeland and thus have a fuller grasp of the Sabahan friendliness. And yea, I could also re-practice my rusty Sabah language that I left quite some time ago.

Learning the Virtue of Giving

The one thing I learned most from this program is the virtue of giving. I must admit, prior to the very days of the program, my heart was filled with doubts whether this program was worth an ounce of my holiday time. But certainly is not worth an ounce, it is an immeasurable lesson that I think would serve long in my mind and in my heart for a lifetime. Yes, the program was dreadfully exhaustive - but the exhaustion was compensated with the smiling face of eager participants who gave their utmost commitment to keep bearing with us despite we causing them almost fatal boredom at times.

Yes, the program was costly for our pocket since most expenses came out directly from our own pocket money - but none the money in the world could buy the great times again knowing great people such as Ustaz Hasrizal and Brother Suhaili, high-spirited facilitators with various personal and educational background and great little brothers and sisters whom their voices and dreams would echo long after the program ends.

And yes, perhaps now I understand more noble phrases such as "erti hidup pada yang memberi", "tangan yang memberi adalah lebih mulia daripada tangan yang menerima", and "the more you give, the more you get" in their fuller terms. No, mainstream capitalist method of thinking cannot measure the return. But the heart knows that the return is much more rewarding than Ringgits and Cents.


On the speed-boat. Next stop: Manukan Island

Indeed, I have learned a lot from this program with a great mix of emotions and experiences. From the excitement of introducing my homeland, the asperity of commitment, the austerity of financial reserves, the camaraderie of friendship, the charms of scenic beauty, and to the bonds of brotherhood - this program has taught me to be a person; a person worthy not by how fat his bank account or how much fame he possesses. Rather, a person worthy by his deeds and actions in his effort in serving his fellow men and God.