Quality Teaching, Quality Learning: The Symbiosis of Education

The rise or fall of a nation is intricately linked to the quality of its education system.


Published by BusinessToday, AstroAwani & theSun, image by theSun.

Concerns about the employability of young graduates in Malaysia stem from inadequate English proficiency and essential soft skills. Frequently, tertiary education institutions bear the blame for student shortcomings. However, higher education institutions are not tasked with initiating learning but serve to enhance the knowledge acquired during students’ formative schooling years — skills, values, and proficiency are qualities that should be cultivated from a very early age.

Education access is universal, but achieving universal quality education (educational equity) is the primary responsibility of the national education system. This encompasses more than physical access, involving curriculum design, teacher training, infrastructure, and policies that collectively ensure high-quality education to all (See “Teaching quality as students’ course experience determinant: evidence from Malaysian higher education institutions”, MOJEM, 2023).

Malaysians expressed satisfaction with our 25th position out of 113 countries in the latest Education First (EF) English Proficiency Index (EPI), ranking us as the third-highest English proficiency country in Asia after Singapore and the Philippines.

At first glance, our continental performance seems impressive.  However, a closer examination of the data (Figure 1) reveals a declining trend in our English proficiency, especially among the youngest population cohorts compared to young adults and senior citizens. 

While declining English proficiency among the youngest cohort is common in other nations, our youths consistently demonstrated lower performance levels compared to other participating Asian countries (Figure 2).

It is crucial to emphasise that the subpar performance of our youth in this assessment indirectly reflects Malaysia’s current education quality.

In addition, the recent 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results show our students not just performed poorly but also scored below the average.

Our 15-year-olds scored 388 in reading compared to OECD countries’ average of 476 points. Notably, performance by our students on other tested dimensions was relatively better than their reading proficiency, yet fell way below the corresponding OECD averages: science – 416 points (OECD average is 485) and mathematics – 409 points (OECD average is 472).

Another significant indicator reveals that Malaysian students  in the top 25% socio-economic bracket outperformed those in the bottom 25% by 82 score points in mathematics. This mirrors the average 93-point difference observed across OECD countries between these two groups.

This highlights a stark socioeconomic disparity in Malaysia, as emphasised in the earlier publication by EMIR Research (refer to “Urgent Need to Reform Malaysian Education System”).

Qualifications of educators and the art of quality teaching

Malaysia tries to emulate successful education policies from high-performing countries judged by their exceptional education performance and sensible national outcomes. However, these efforts lack comprehensiveness.

For instance, Malaysia moves toward decentralising the education system, offering educators more autonomy in student assessments.

Decentralisation IS a prevalent trend in successful national education systems worldwide, as detailed in “Urgent Need to Reform Malaysian Education System”.

However, in successful education systems, decentralisation is paired with rigorous performance indicators for schools and educators. Furthermore, teachers often hold dual PhDs, one in education and one in their respective teaching fields, allowing them to adeptly experiment with best-suited methods while addressing local idiosyncrasies. This setup, seen in countries like Finland, Japan, Netherlands, and Singapore, gives them a winning edge and makes decentralisation highly effective.

Therefore, a notable gap between Malaysia and these countries lies in the crucial area of training and hiring highly trained and highly qualified teachers.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to overemphasise how educators’ professional competence and credentials profoundly impact both their efficacy and students’ academic and non-academic achievements.

Rafiah et.al’s research on teaching quality among 1,366 experienced Malaysian teachers revealed that only 0.1% of them were PhD holders, followed by Masters (3.7%), degree holders (887 or 64.9%) and Diploma of Education (24.9%).

EMIR Research’s article “Urgent Need to Reform Malaysian Education System” stresses the necessity of teachers at all schools levels holding at least a Master’s degree, aligning with the practice in many developed nations to integrate scientific principles into pedagogy.

Consistently, Kruegar et al.’s (1999) study involving 11,600 American elementary students found smaller class sizes and highly qualified, experienced teachers led to higher assessment scores.

Curriculum and assessment: A paradigm shift towards quality

The removal of UPSR and PT3 shifted focus to holistic and continuous in-class assessment, aligning with the global trend adopted by many nations, including Malaysia. However, our system has a flaw.

The government faces challenges assessing school children’s performance due to an incomplete framework marked by transparency issues and a decentralised database system.

Despite the almost decade-long implementation of a comparable school-based assessment system, previously referred to as school-based assessments (PBS) and now known as class-based assessments (PBD), recent PISA test outcomes raise questions about its effectiveness due to our students’ subpar performance.

What is required is not a more challenging syllabus or stricter curriculum. Instead, we need a “fewer topics, deeper understanding” approach prioritising strong foundations, mastery of subjects, critical thinking and ensuring a comprehensive grasp of vital topics beyond mere memorization.

For instance, Singapore’s Curriculum Planning and Development Division emphasises “Teach Less, Learn More” (TLLM) to enhance teaching quality and student learning by promoting in-depth learning.

The secrecy surrounding the passing mark for the SPM subjects is another critical issue. Despite the Ministry’s denial of this fact over the years, as reported by local media, Free Malaysia Today(FMT), according to teachers who have graded answer sheets in the past, the passing score for topics like physics and maths might be as low as 20% right now.

If indeed true, lowering these standards compromises students’ depth of knowledge and critical thinking skills developed throughout their academic journey. An overwhelming focus on adjusting passing criteria instead of addressing fundamental teaching and learning issues is self-deceptive.

A homogenous, precise, transparent, and up-to-date curriculum and assessment are paramount for equipping students with reliable knowledge.

While reinstating public examination is not the sole solution, EMIR Research proposes the following policy recommendations to improve Malaysia’s education system:

1. More accessible early childhood education through expansion of preschool programs

Preschool education is a critical foundation for a child’s overall development and lays the groundwork for future academic success, fostering early cognitive, social, emotional, and physical growth.

Financial support programmes aid accessibility by removing financial barriers hindering families from enrolling children in preschool.

As per the OECD report, students who attended one year or more of pre-primary or preschool education scored higher in mathematics at age 15 compared to those with no attendance or less than a year, even when socio-economic factors were considered.

2. Enhanced teacher evaluation system

Teacher evaluations are pivotal for an effective education system, but concerns about their integrity persist. Ideally, these assessments must occur without prior notification to prevent altered practices merely during evaluations.

Surprise assessments reflect a teacher’s typical teaching methods, ensuring consistent high-quality education and discouraging temporary adjustments. Additionally, including peer evaluations, student feedback, classroom observations and student outcomes provides a more holistic view of a teacher’s abilities.

3. Transforming teaching into a respected and competitive career

The Ministry of Education (MoE) should engage foreign experts to train or facilitate knowledge exchange at the Institute of Teacher Education (IPG), enriching education with diverse perspectives. This training would enhance pedagogical skills, classroom management, and subject understanding.

Moreover, the MoE should raise standards for becoming a teacher, implementing more stringent rules, qualifications, and training to elevate teaching as an esteemed profession and not just a backup job for young unemployed graduates or contract teachers. This should be aligned with increased salaries, currently inadequate for the significant responsibilities the teaching profession bears.

4. Institutionalise Input-Output-Outcome-Impact model

The MoE should consider infusing the current education framework with the organising framework by OECD (Figure 3) that focuses on how to address the loopholes and enhance the effectiveness of policymaking within the education system.

The framework aims to provide insights into the right educational inputs and outputs (in the form of operational dynamics, human and financial resources etc.) that are robustly linked (through data and science) to sensible returns on education via high-quality graduates and intergenerational impacts for the nation. EMIR Research has long emphasised the importance of institutionalising this Input-Output-Outcome-Impact framework throughout our public sector (refer to “Transforming Malaysia from third- to first-world country” and “Recalibrating National Budget – Eradicating Leakages and Corruption”).

In summary, education represents a sustained investment in the present and future benefits. It is imperative to avoid politicising education and steer clear of a system reliant on “rote learning”.

The rise or fall of a nation is intricately linked to the quality of its education system — as Nelson Mandela succinctly put it: “From the poorest of countries to the richest of nations, education is key to moving forward in any society”.

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

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