Promoting Critical and Creative Thinking in Schools

Almost daily I am inundated by questions from school leaders and teachers in Malaysia on how to implement 21st century pedagogy and skills in their schools. There are so many myths, and a lack of congruence between what teachers are told to do, versus what students are still be required to do in national exams. Teachers have to abide by so many different and often changing programmes that as cascaded down from various sections of the Education Ministry and very often no-one stops to really ask the opinion of the most important persons in this entire equation: the pupils themselves. What is important to know is that these future (or 21st century) skills are not to be found merely in technology, or traffic light cards and other resources that are so often misunderstood or misrepresented. No, it requires a complete change of the entire school culture. Instead of “telling” teachers what to do, MOE trainers and coaches should be working alongside teachers, who, in turn, should be working in collaborative school, district and regional teams to ensure that the best possible solutions can be found for the increasing problems in our schools. 

Education has become so out of touch with reality, and very often it is fear of making mistakes, fear of the unknown and a lack of confidence that is holding teachers back from embarking on this great adventure that teaching really could be. A journey of discovery where everyone (including the parents), are continuously discovering, connecting, exploring and creating new knowledge. It doesn’t help when we keep our kids isolated from the world through a narrow curriculum that only focuses on local content. Our Malaysian kids should be working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They should be learning world and regional history. They should be learning online and discussing, evaluating and comparing data. At the core of this is the fact that the entire society rests upon those SPM and UPSR results. Enter any Malaysian school and you will see a big sign that counts down the days till the next exam. Exam years mean endless hours of extra classes and tutoring for both teachers and students. Why? Because this is how success is measured. You need those A’s to get into the better secondary schools. 

 You need to be in the better schools to get better SPM results (or so everyone believes). You need those SPM A’s to get the sponsorships and entry to the local universities. Universities use those grades to select the creme de la creme… BUT those students arrive at universities with a long list of A’s, yet often are completely ignorant of the world and its deeper connections and complexities. They struggle to manage in a much less controlled environment. They struggle to communicate, research, collaborate, hypothesize, design, ideate. They might even manage to get a degree, but then encounter the reality: They are unemployable! So many employers express the same sentiments. 

 These kids come with hopes of high salaries, lack resilience and simply do not have the necessary 21st century skills to deal with a complex environment, let alone all the other demands that adult life bring. So, being a teacher is a calling (because the salaries in Malaysia are extremely low and therefore do not attract the talent that is required). Compare that to a country like Finland, where being a teacher is regarded as one of the most revered occupations. Where teachers say with pride that they are professionals who are contributing to the future of the nation. They research, reflect, and continuously improve their approaches and practices. They are not afraid of exam results (since they don’t have many exams) and yet their kids outperform most countries in the world. Change has to be accelerated. The only way to do this is through partnerships with professional bodies. The engineering, architectural, actuarial, legal, design advertising, creative arts etc. associations should get involved. Roll up your sleeves and donate a few hours a week of your time to supporting schools and scholars. It is not all a loss…a lot is being done in the STEM and maker education field in Malaysia with competitions and seed funding for young entrepreneurs. Organisations like MAGIC and Petrosains are doing amazing work to bring better education to schools. The PINTAR Foundation and MCII are another two examples of great Private Public Partnerships, but this is merely scratching the surface. 

 If you could even just “adopt” one class, and help them through real life examples of how learning should be applied outside the fences of the school, it will make a huge difference. Show teachers you care and don’t just criticise – they are in a terrible situation and they do appreciate the help. Just my 2cents… Elmarie Potgieter