Primary school education: Teach them how to walk before running

A well-designed curriculum must strike a balance between easy and hard materials, ensuring that it presents challenges without overwhelming students yet remains engaging and intellectually stimulating.

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Published by BusinessToday & AstroAwani, image by BusinessToday.

Education is the cornerstone and foundation of every nation, which is why we dedicate significant efforts to improving the education system, aiming to empower our children for a better future.

Yet, for a multitude of reasons, Malaysia’s education quality seems to be on a continuous decline. Multiple reports have highlighted that our students are not performing as well as their counterparts in other countries. The most recent report from the World Bank revealed that 42% of Malaysian students failed to achieve proficiency in reading by the end of Year 5.

These reports, whether from PISA, the World Bank, or our own Ministry of Education, consistently emphasise students’ literacy and numeracy. With 154,853 secondary school students still struggling to master the very fundamental skills of reading, writing, and counting, how can we expect them to develop an interest in more advanced subjects like STEM?

Furthermore, why do our secondary school students lack the fundamental skills that should have been mastered in primary schools?

The answer to this question may lie in the design of our primary school curriculum.

Our primary school curriculum has been in focus for the past few years. A significant concern revolves around the difficulty level of certain materials, which are deemed too challenging for children.

According to a 2022 report, teachers claimed that the then Ministry of Education made changes to the curriculum in response to lower PISA performance (before 2022). Hoping to improve scores, the ministry made the syllabus more challenging, resulting in more advanced materials, particularly in mathematics and science, being introduced to younger students. This shift has caused many students to struggle to adapt.

Some may think that a harder curriculum is necessary for students to become more competitive or intellectual, but especially for children, this is not the case. Learning is a step-by-step process that requires a strong foundation and cannot be rushed. As the old saying goes, “learn how to walk before you can run.”

The 2022 report that noted curriculum changes also mentioned that these changes coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which served as a double whammy for students. Unfortunately, the drastic changes did not lead to an improvement in our PISA scores. In fact, our performance in 2022 dropped further.

Overly difficult curriculum can place significant stress on young students. The combination of struggling to keep up with the syllabus and the resulting stress can seriously demotivate and further hinder the capabilities of our children.

However, the curriculum cannot be too easy either. A curriculum that is overly simplistic will bore children with greater abilities, serving as yet another demotivator to their studies.

A well-designed curriculum must strike a balance between easy and hard materials, ensuring that it presents challenges without overwhelming students yet remains engaging and intellectually stimulating. 

The Ministry of Education has initiated measures to address the issue by introducing an assessment aimed at identifying students lacking in literacy and numeracy skills to provide them with an intervention programme designed to strengthen their proficiency in these areas.

The intervention programme spans three months, with continuation beyond this period if the issues persist until the student achieves mastery in reading, writing, and counting skills.

While this is more of a temporary solution to a big problem at hand, and, perhaps, is the only possible quick remedy, while more comprehensive, proactive initiatives are being developed.

In terms of a long-term solution, Minister of Education, Fadhlina Sadek, has previously announced plans for a new curriculum to be introduced in 2027. This curriculum aims to ensure that students can master a variety of skill sets at different stages of their education.

The new curriculum is said to be structured into three different stages spanning the six years of primary education. Years 1 and 2 will focus on mastering literacy and numeracy skills, Years 3 and 4 will emphasise the application of this knowledge to problem-solving, and Years 5 and 6 will concentrate on developing analytic and creative skills.

Integral to these stages is the emphasis on character development, which is vital for nurturing our youth to become more engaged in the learning process.

The general outline of the new primary school curriculum appears to be better tailored to the developmental progress of children.

It is a well-known fact that children of young age, especially those before 12, are more adept at language acquisition compared to adults due to the developmental characteristics of their brains (United Nations, 2022). Given that Malaysians typically need to learn at least two languages, it is reasonable for children to dedicate two years to mastering reading and writing in different languages.

Once children have mastered reading, writing, and counting, which is the foundation of all knowledge, they are just about ready to take on higher-level curricula and hone their critical thinking skills.

To say that the lack of critical thinking is attributed to the underperformance of our students and graduates is an understatement. Despite claims that our education blueprint focuses on promoting critical thinking through the introduction of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS), the fact is that we still heavily rely on traditional, inefficient rote learning methods that prioritise memorisation above all else.

Even with the inclusion of HOTS-related questions in examinations, rigid marking schemes constrain teachers, rendering HOTS implementation ineffective. Students end up memorising specific answering schemes instead of thinking out of the box, thus essentially reverting to the root of rote learning.

Thus, the new curriculum should not only introduce new elements that promote HOTS, but also remove the limiting factors that hinder students from expressing their creativity. It should let them utilise what they have learned to conjure up creative solutions without fear of repercussion.

Fortunately, the new curriculum also grants greater autonomy to teachers. Although the extent of this autonomy is unclear, a logical first step would be the implementation of a flexible marking scheme that rewards creative thinking.

If a student can justify their answer using a different way to arrive at a solution or express it differently, they should be awarded the score they have earned.

In addition to a curriculum better tailored to children’s developmental process and greater teacher autonomy to enhance critical thinking skills, the allocation of time to different subjects is also crucial, especially if we aim to incorporate digital literacy-related subjects into the formal curriculum.

The ministry must reallocate the time to each subject so that those important to children’s development, such as language and mathematics, are given sufficient attention. This will enable teachers to adequately prepare students’ foundation for future STEM-related curricula.

Teacher quality is another significant concern. With a couple of bad apple cases of lazy and incompetent teachers scattered across Malaysia, along with the court case regarding a scandal involving an absentee teacher, it is understandable that people are being sceptical about the quality of our teachers.

Nevertheless, there are some truly great teachers who are attentive to their students’ needs. However, they are often burdened with too many administrative tasks, causing their attention to spread thin. The World Bank report stated that Malaysian teachers spent roughly 29% of their time on non-teaching duties, which is around 8% higher than the OECD countries’ average.

The overwhelming workload, with the majority of tasks being unrelated to teaching, has led many teachers to retire earlier, contributing to the worrying trend of teacher shortages.

Quality teachers and quality teaching should be the cornerstone of education reform. The government must ensure that teachers have sufficient time for teaching itself (including adequate preparation), allowing them to fully focus on educating our future generations.

By prioritising child development over the premature introduction of challenging syllabi before mastering basic skills like reading, writing, and counting, there is hope for improved student performance after implementation.

However, it is the implementation itself that poses the greatest challenge. As, the World Bank report highlights, despite aligning our education blueprints for 2013-2025 with global practices, our students’ performance still significantly declined, showcasing the difficulties in implementation.

Hence, the government must ensure that excessive bureaucracy and other inefficiencies do not impede the successful implementation and execution of the plan for an area as crucial as education. Only then shall we see a new generation of students progress by being better equipped to face a challenging future.

Chia Chu Hang is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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