Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Interest Drives Learning

Written by johnleemk on 6:06:00 am Mar 19, 2007.

One problem any education system is bound to encounter is how to make a subject interesting for students. Interest drives learning, simply because it is far more easier to focus on a subject and to retain salient information when your interest is held.

This problem, I think, is particularly acute in Malaysian public schools. It is bad enough that we use the same pedagogical methods of most other countries, relying on lectures and teacher-driven "learning".

What makes matters worse, though, is that our education system:

The first problem is clear when you look at what any student has to study for their final examination. Whether the subject is history, geography or science, virtually everything in the textbook must be studied and memorised equally.

There is almost no sense of prioritisation in our education. Surely anyone would say that being able to appreciate the important "big picture" lessons of history is more crucial than learning minute details of one single temporary uprising in Pahang.

Yet, both are considered to be on par by our examination system. Indeed, one might say that an ability to memorise details without truly understanding and applying them is actually valued more by our education system. Even in the higher levels of secondary education, the "essays" are basically regurgitations of facts given in the text, and hardly ever expositions of actual opinions or interpretations.

When there are no salient points to be given greater priority, students end up getting less out of their education than they should, and they are also unable to focus their interest. It's difficult enough to get excited about academic subjects, but how much more difficult it must seem when you are not even rewarded for at least understanding the fundamental basics of the subject.

The other problem is that although our educators and bureaucrats at the Education Ministry appear to, at least on the surface, understand the need for an interest in the subject, they don't do much to encourage any such interest.

This, of course, can't exactly be held against them. It's hard to find people who can stir up a true passion and love for a particular subject. Usually we settle for people who can at least not kill that passion and nurture it, presuming that it's already there. (If you don't have the passion, too bad — the teacher in such a case will be incapable of creating something that's not there. Brilliant educators are able to create such a passion, but such people are virtual rarities.)

The trouble is, our whole education system actually appears designed to stifle interest. For example, I am very interested in moral dilemmas and to a certain extent, some philosophical questions. I enjoy geography, history, and social studies in general. All my life, whenever I was outside school, I would find a way to learn about these things and enjoy myself at it.

The one time that I've been all but unable to learn anything about these subjects, ironically, is while I was in school. In school, I utterly hated these three subjects — moral education, history and geography. They were the very bane of my existence.

As a result, even though I had the aptitude (if I do say so myself) to handle the work in these areas, because the education system stifled my interest in them, I was never a good performer in them.

Moral education, being all about memorising arbitrary definitions of moral values, became essentially worthless to me. I could see no practical or academic application of the subject, except as some sort of brainwashing exercise, and to this day, that is still my view on how we teach morals to our young.

History, on the other hand, is something I've always had a genuine interest in. Even though I was not that keen about Malaysian history (as opposed to world history) when I was young, I still managed to retain a substantial bit of information. I knew about things like residents and Frank Swettenham and Sultan Abu Bakar before I was in primary one, and these are things I remember to this day (no thanks to the school system).

It was similar for geography. Again, I took a keen interest in world geography, but also enjoyed reading my father's Malaysian geography books. I still remember a lot in them till this day — about how fishermen work in the kelong (I loved reading about that), about pineapple plantations in Johor, about how a Malaysian soap factory works, about rubber tapping...

Then I ran into that obstacle we know as school. Even though almost exactly the same things I learnt out of sheer interest when I was young came up in school, I simply could not apply what I had learnt. The way we were taught was so boring, so stifling, that as a mental revolt, my brain simply refused to work.

How were the history books organised in my father's day? They did not lecture you and hector you about the lessons we must learn from the colonisation by the "penjajah". They did not drone on about residents and evil colonialists and what have you.

Neither did my father's geography books bore you out of your head with abstract, stuffy discussions of tin mining or land reclamation or bauxite mining in the Gulf of Ramunia. (The latter is one of the few things that's somehow still stuck in my head after all those geography lessons.)

What did my father's books do? They told stories. They told you about a boy, accompanying his father to the kelong. They told you about the life of a rubber tapper from her perspective. They told you about the life of a factory worker, from his perspective.

For history, they did not shovel information down your throat either. Again, they told stories about the people who make up history. Learning about Frank Swettenham or Hugh Clifford is much more easier when you learn about them as human beings, rather than abstract objects who did X in the year Y.

Simply because of this pedagogical failure — because our texts and our teachers are wholly incapable of tolerating interest in a subject, and insist on killing it by force-feeding us with lorryloads of information, regardless of whether we actually understand them, I believe I learnt far more in the one or two years I spent reading my father's textbooks as a child, than I did in my nine years of public schooling.

You might call me an outlier whose experience cannot be generalised to the rest of society. That would be true. But that would also ignore the fundamental reason for my ability to learn and retain the information — because it was presented in a way that captures my interest. To this day, I can tell you what a kelong is and about the ways of mining tin not because I was taught them in the stuffy abstract way our textbooks today present them, but because I read about them from my father's texts, which took a more interest-focused approach.

Even today, when I go back and look at the things I "learnt" from my textbooks in school through the eyes of another source, I am amazed by the things I now understand and can place in context. For instance, in school, we learnt about the "Perjanjian Pangkor", but because of the way it was taught, I never understood its significance. All I knew is that it happened in year Z (I believe the precise number is sometime in the 1870s, but I couldn't be bothered to exactly recall it for obvious reasons) and that for some reason, if we did not know this, we would not do well in our exams. Today, I understand its significance (it was the first treaty to establish a British colonial presence in Malaya), which is a far more important thing than being able to state what year the treaty was signed in.

Until we shift away from this equal emphasis on details and the big picture, which as the Pangkor Treaty example shows, is utterly ridiculous, and move towards a pedagogical approach that emphasises a more interesting way of presenting the subject matter, many more students with passions like mine will find them doused by the cold reality of Malaysian public education. And that is a shame, for very few of them will ever be able to regain that passion once it has been lost.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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