Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Hire More Teachers

Written by johnleemk on 3:23:25 pm Apr 19, 2007.

There is a fundamental problem with Malaysian education. The public education system of the country is of course plagued by a myriad of issues, but few of them are as basic or as troubling as this simple issue.

There are many things that can be overcome on the track to good education. Lousy infrastructure is one; a determined student can get by without a proper classroom or library. A good syllabus and curriculum is one as well; if the student ignores these prescribed outlines for a better education, all hope need not be lost.

But a lack of good teachers, combined with these other surmountable issues, creates an insurmountable problem. When you do not have good educators around, you are basically torpedoing education for all but a tiny minority who are capable of self-study. (And even then, this minority will probably vanish too if there are no learning resources available.)

One of the worst subjects presently taught in Malaysian schools is moral education. Students universally agree that the subject is dull, boring, pointless, and completely meaningless.

The whole point of this subject, as defined by the syllabus, is to memorise an arbitrary number of arbitrarily-defined moral values, together with their definitions. In the examination, you do not receive marks if you cannot regurgitate the definitions given, and get your essays marked down if you do not refer to the relevant moral values by the correct name.

It's not surprising that students hate this subject. And yet, in form two, it was one of the few classes that my class actually looked forward to. Why? Because of the teacher.

The teacher was constrained by the syllabus, of course. She had no choice but to teach the rotten curriculum, and remind us of the things we had to memorise. But still, simply because of the way she taught us the subject, few of us were ever bored in her class.

Because she dared to be different, dared to present the material in an unconventional way, and dared to tackle difficult issues such as moral relativism, our class benefited. Did we actually learn much in that class? Not if you look at our exam results. But what we took away was a better understanding of moral issues, which is worth a lot more than mediocre grades.

A better grading system would of course have rewarded us and our teacher, so to that extent, we do need substantial curriculum reform. But in other subjects, simply having a good teacher can really matter even under our horrible examination system.

Our science and mathematics curricula do have a bias towards rote learning. There is no escaping that. But comparing our textbooks with those of other countries, the difference is not always clear.

So why do other countries innovate, while Malaysia stagnates? I think the answer lies in how we teach these subjects — and thus the answer lies in who our teachers are.

Right now, we have a practice of appointing unqualified teachers. A physics teacher can end up teaching biology, and vice-versa. An information technology teacher can wind up in a history classroom. Does this make any sense at all?

If we appoint people who do not have the requisite ability and skill to handle a subject, if we appoint teachers who do not care enough about a subject to be passionate about it and convey this passion to their students, it's guaranteed that any nascent interest present in the students will be stifled.

If we want to reform our education system, let's start at the most basic level and eradicate this lack of qualified instructors. Hire more teachers — whatever it takes. We can afford it. We may have to reduce expenditure in other areas — maybe we won't be able to build a new sports centre in England, or make teh tarik in space — but this is an investment that will yield immense returns.

It is simply mindboggling that such a basic problem still exists in our schools. If we get teachers who know their stuff, who are passionate about their subject, into the classroom, even if we stick with the lousy syllabus, you can bet our schools will still graduate more qualified, intelligent and inquisitive minds than they do today.

The government and opposition both talk big about how they can change things for the better in this country. But both have conspicuously ignored this problem that every student and parent in the country is well aware of. (Okay, maybe students and parents in elite public and private schools won't be aware of this, but their numbers are negligible.)

This is a powerful issue that politicians can use. They have a habit of making education a political football, but they have never dealt with this simple issue. Perhaps it's time they woke up and faced the reality that if we can't get good teachers in our schools, no amount of expenditure on infrastructure will save us from the resulting economic Armageddon.

Teaching does make a difference. A good teacher in any subject is the difference between interest and boredom. A good teacher in any subject is the difference between understanding and memorisation. If we want a brighter future for our children, we will put good teachers in our schools.

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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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