Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Memorisation, Docility, and Death

Written by johnleemk on 1:43:06 am Apr 9, 2007.
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consequence, who originally noted that a reform at the basic levels of Malaysian public education is necessary, has a story to relate from his own experiences with education in the country. It's long, but I believe it's worth reading, because it shows how much potential we are wasting by staying with the status quo of rote memorisation and teaching to the test. As a matter of fact, apart from a couple of concluding remarks, I will let consequence's statement stand for itself:

Critical thinking is non existent at all in our education system. I know because I've been spoonfed since I can remember. I started to think on my own when I was doing my diploma in accountancy in Ungku Omar Polytechnic, where I met a friend who taught me how to THINK. Not the sort I've been accustomed to since young, though. He taught me how to really be flexible and think out of the box, not just regurgutate facts. That was what I've been doing since young...bred to THINK BY REGURGITATING FACTS.

i should mention (either proudly or shamefully, depending on your POV) that I was one of the top scorers in my SPM, having gathered an aggregate of 7. Forgotten how many A's I got, but that's unimportant. My classmates were all "smart" people in the traditional Malaysian sense, i.e. they can recall facts for the exams by memorizing them when they revise. That was it. That was all. I was a science stream student; nevertheless I found that I didn't really COMPREHEND the science subjects, I merely MEMORIZED them.

My science is now very shaky (because I changed to the so-called "Arts" stream when i went into tertiary education), but I'll attempt an example. In Physics we learnt that for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. We were taught this basic fundamental fact and taught how to calculate various things based on a plethora of formulae. We were told to memorize these formulae because they weren't going to be given in the exam.

That was it.

We didn't know WHY the fundamental fact states that "for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction". We weren't taught to question every(any?)thing. We can ask why an answer is not the same as ours, but never, EVER question the formula. Therein lies the fundamental flaw in our education system.

We aren't taught to think critically. This is true even in the tertiary education phase, where students are told to take in facts and recall them in exams, without ever questioning them.

I had a chemistry teacher in secondary school who pushed us to question "WHY". Thanks to him, I didn't actually memorize for the subject. I tried to understand (boy, was it hard!) every aspect of every chapter in chemistry, and the exam questions were a breeze. Because I really understood.

But alas, he never taught me to question everything; he only taught me to question selective areas of interest. He never taught me to question, for example, why water is H2O and why water has this chemical composition. But he was an exception in a sea of teachers who only know how to program their students.

I had no soft skills up til I entered polytechnic. I didn't know how to communicate well, didn't have much manners, didn't know what was ethical and what was not. I believed in God because I was told to. I had a fundamental idea of good and evil, and I was pretty naive about it. Now, all these skills MUST be acquired in the schooling years. Students must be taught these soft skills early in the schooling days.

Anyway, to continue my experience. After getting my diploma, I entered the workforce as an audit assistant, and I realized that, fuck!, what I was taught in theory differed considerably from real life. I had a sort of epiphany then. I realized that not everything in the real world is pure black and white, and that soft skills are very important just to SURVIVE. It's a fucking cutthroat world out there. I had been shielded from all these elements while I was "being educated by the Malaysian education system".

Hell, the system never prepared me for this!

Six months later, i got accepted into Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) to pursue my degree in Accountancy. I'm in my last semester now, too old to join the workforce but too young to die. Haha.

In UUM, I learnt that Bumiputeras have a very different standing than us non-Bumis. It's really pretty pathetically obviously double standard. It permeates the entire campus, although it has subsided throughout my years here. And there's a very fundamental fuckup in out tertiary education system as well, remnants and residuals from the school education system, no doubt.

Here in UUM, the lecturers actually encourage views of dissent and encourage debates by prompting arguments from and among the undergrads. Well, most of the lecturers anyway. The problem is, most of the undergrads prefer to stay quiet. It's like they've been programmed from young to be docile and unantagonistic (?). they don't realize that the best way to learn is through rational discourse, debates, and healthy discussions.

When someone like me always argues and gives dissenting opinions, I get the evil eye from other undergraduates. In my batch of (approx) 300 undergrads, I daresay that not more than 10 are like me, daring to disagree with lecturers.

So tell me, how to move forward? If the lecturer is wrong and undergrads accept it, I shudder to think what out future generation will be like.

Docile, unassuming, quiet. Doing everything that's been told.

I have an anecdote (bear with me, this is good). There's a lecturer here who's a very brilliant guy. He did his doctoral thesis in a university in UK in 2.5 years when the standard time is 4 years. Now this lecturer actually likes to engage in arguments with his students. In fact, he encourages it. Every time he gives his lecture, he'll give controversial opinions to bait the sudents to argue with him. Only 2 students from his entire class (of about 40) dare speak up and argue against him.

The other 38 remain docile and quiet. For the rest of these people, the lecturer calls them "idiots, monkeys, stupid, morons" and other unsavoury names. Even when called these names, these people do not budge. They keep quiet and backstab this lecturer, calling him cruel names behind his back. You see the irony here of course. The lecturer is prompting for arguments from his students for their own good, but even with all these insults, these bloody fuckers remain passive, unaware of what's really going on.

Now this lecturer has a new tactic: he calls the entire class to stand on the chairs and anyone who answers his question or engages him in an argument, can sit down. Again, ironic that he should resort to such childish tactics. But childish action deserves childish tactics. To his credit, this lecturer has not given up hope on Malaysian undergrads.

Unfortunately, lecturers who try to change undergraduates' approach to education are fighting a losing battle. As noted earlier, we can't do much about our university students when all they're doing is continuing the same things they did at primary and secondary level.

If we want to remedy the sorry state of Malaysian education and truly improve our human capital, the solution is to start from the bottom-up. Why invest so much in our universities and in "smart schools" if we can't even help students study properly in primary school, and pick up the right habits for truly understanding a subject?


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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.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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