ISSN 2330-717X

Urgent Memo To Malaysia’s New Minister Of Education – OpEd


Now that we have a new government serious in implementing change, with an inclusionist policy, I’d like to share my view of what the children of all Malaysians deserve.

We saw, especially in the era of the previous regime, our educational system plagued with themes of racial discrimination, student indiscipline, gangs in schools and the growing numbers of young people more interested in bike-racing past midnight in cities such as Johor Bahru.

Why this malaise in the most important sector of society: education? How do we bring back the joy of learning and the importance of education to the young? Herein lies the need to reconceptualise the way we build our schools in our hope to prepare the younger members of our society to participate in Malaysia’s democratic lives.

Each child has the right to be intelligent. This is a view of education the new regime needs to work on. I begin with talking about what an “ideal school” should look like as we keep afloat in this predatory “Blue Ocean” of globalisation, as we try to sustain ourselves economically, culturally, and cognitively.

The future is here. A long time ago, in fact. Schools need to change, the way they are defined and built. What kind of school would best fit the needs of Malaysia’s intelligent child?

It would be a “Transhumanistic -Renaissance school” Deweyian-Freirian-Monstessorian-Gandhian in nature, in which the child is a living, thinking, breathing and artefact-creating being growing up not only useful for himself/herself in society but also a culturally-responsive global citizen able to use technology for peaceful purposes. The school, therefore, must be created, philosophically, artistically, architecturally, and responsively to nurture this new human being.

The principle of singularity-multiplicity will be applied, thinking without borders and knowledge framed constructively, and artefacts created for social use be produced altruistically. The students will be in a space of knowledge production, construction, and deconstruction without walls, with Nature or a simulacrum of it adorning the surrounding with the technology used purposefully and sustainably and the “teachers”, are merely guides on the side and not sages on stage.

It’s a “Google Scholar-meets-Facebook-meets Elon Musk-meets-a Summerhill-tribal-green” type of school. Here are my thoughts on education, an excerpt from an article I once wrote in an online journal called Eurasia Review, based in Oregon, USA:

” … what is our problem with this gentle profession and enterprise called “education”? How must we act and feel as teachers — those “transmitters of culture and Grand Narratives” and at the same time “subverts of the human mind and promoters of Constructivism in thinking? How do we mediate these two roles; of the managers of virtue and cultivators of critical thinking?

Having been immersed in this “passion” called the “teaching profession” for more than 25 years now, teaching in the two cultures “East and West”. i.e. in Malaysia and in the US in both the secondary and at the tertiary levels both ways, I have this to say about what teachers ought to become and how the “Socratic ethos” need to be in synchrony with the mind of the millennial child that resides in the 21st Century.

The noble profession of teaching should only be reserved for the best and the brightest in society: the Socrates amongst us. It should be reserved for those who have the passion, dedication, and discipline to turn children into radical thinkers who will question everything and anything and who will create useful artefacts for society and dedicate one’s life to the improvements of the mind, body, and soul of fellow beings.

This is necessary so that society can constantly be renewed, refreshed and be brought to reach the height of periods of evolving renaissance. This will be our Socratic process of bringing humanity from darkness to light as in the Sanskrit term “guru”.

Having said this, many of those teaching in our classrooms today ought to leave the profession for many are there whose unintended goal is to destroy the minds of an entire generation.

A good teacher is one who is skilled in the art and science of planting doubts in the curious young minds and good at training minds to be scientists and philosophers. A Socratic teacher as such will leave each lesson with more questions than answers, to respect each and every child as if each one of them is a teacher one can learn from, and to shower each child with questions that will make him/her shake the foundation of the self, invigorate the critical sensibility in the self. This is done so that the child will grow up thinking as freely as how he/she ought to live and die and free as Nature wishes human beings to be.

Such notion of freedom is the creed of a free society, one that is free from the dictates of dogma and dictatorship of the few; those powerful few who themselves were trained to think as free as how oppressors and immoral aristocrats ought to be. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains, as the enlightenment thinker Jean Jacques-Rousseau said and we do not have anything to lose except of chains, the economic historian Karl Marx concluded.

Dare we build this new school order?

In the next part of this memo, I shall speak of how technology is changing schooling and how our educational system, in need of major overhaul, can best respond to the needs of our global village’s major and rapidised technological shifts.

Our children deserve better schools. Re-imagine education. Make radical changes. The world is changing fast. Very fast.

Part 2

Today’s schools need to be cognitively architectured and grown anew, and made to start at year zero of a new education revolution. This revolution should rest on of the idea of singularity and complexity, and the multiplicity of knowledge that is fluid and evolving organically.

This philosophy of education is yet to be conceived and crafted, even as the nature of the human self and the mind is being reconstructed, leaving behind the legacy of the paradigms of industrialism, post-industrialism, and quantum physics.

Schools will one day respond to these mega changes and cease to exist in its current shape, form and purpose.

They will one day replace institutions of power and knowledge controlled form above, such as ashrams, madrasah, abbots, convents, and kibbutzim. These are prison-houses of mass indoctrination, of monocultural cognitive linearism for the state to mould children into citizens obedient enough to be slaves to the power elite, new global imperialists and newer mandarins.

Essentially, in this post-industrial social design called ‘instrumental education’, today’s schools are mere factories producing an unthinking citizenry living in a matrix of absurdities.

But what would be among the most compelling transformational uses of technology seen in schools of today, given that we are living in a deeply mediated technological world?

It would be an entire school using the philosophy of project-based learning – students beginning their day with ‘playlists’ as learning objectives, going to their collaborative stations; teachers as tech-gurus and chief researchers, utilising only primary sources; in a research-driven and stress-free school which is aimed at using technologies of the future purposefully, and to nurture scientific, artistic, philosophical, and global thinking.

It is a redesign of instruction that Socrates would have insisted upon and Elon Musk has shown, but informed by the wisdom of Howard Gardner. That would be my idea of a democratic academy, one that Henry David Thoreau would approve of.

Using technology to transform

I saw this idea of a digitally-driven, project-based learning concept in schools in New Jersey and in New York, through the School of One initiative.

National education leaders and ministers – once they become skilled in conceiving the relationship between human beings, technology, culture, and schooling – should explore cutting-edge ideas for using technology in more transformational ways.

This includes writing, reading, thinking, and creating. Virtual reality, big data historicising tools, GPS-type systems, and 3D printing technologies are emerging as potentially transformational tools of collaborative learning.

I grew up in a village in Johor Bahru, like Mowgli in The Jungle Book. I saw the first computer – perhaps an IBM 036 – in an office which 12 human beings had to share. That was in the early 1970s.

I have used technologies of learning such as the ‘tablet’ (a green alphabet and numbers writing pad used with chalk), learned to use the ancient typewriter, then the need-to-boot floppy-disc computer, and other tools to work and learn with the progress of technology.

Today, I am fortunate to be able to even design an entire Master’s curriculum using collaborative technologies and smart tools. I know I will continue to evolve carefully with technologies, without the fear of being turned into a robot and thinking like one.

Technological advances

There are advances in technology I foresee in the near future. I see virtual and augmented reality as technologies of the future that will redesign schooling altogether, only if these are to be used purposefully and democratically, and made available to children in impoverished countries.

The underlying principle of learning is not to showcase gadgets and turn children into techno-zombies, but to develop minds to be more humane and emphatic – more human – and to understand and manage an increasingly complex world in which information has become a commodity, and where knowledge and understanding, let alone wisdom is absent.

We are at a critical juncture of perhaps a third digital revolution, after the computer and the internet. We are moving into a phase of transhumanism, with its attendant dangers and inherent contradictions.

I see global education, learning, and cross-cultural perspectives in urban-international education as the new frontiers for any education consulting company to be venturing into.

‘Summerhill’ of love

My passion about education could be traced as early as I started thinking what my ‘existence in school’ means. I wanted to know more about how my teachers and my principles thought. I read book on educational philosophy, at quite an early age.

One book that had a profound effect on the way I think about the world and my place in it was AS Neil’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, published in the ‘hippie’ 1960s.

I read the entire book in 1975 when I was 14, in an ‘experimental American high school’ in Kuantan. I was chosen to be sent to the school based on my academic achievements and my parent’s poverty level.

Its model was based partly on the Bronx High School of Science in New York, as I found out while preparing my PhD proposal for the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

The Bronx High School of Science produced eight Nobel laureates in science and six Pulitzer Prize winners, two of the world’s most prestigious awards in those fields.

So, in that boarding school, I was bored. I read many things. Neil’s book was in my school library – meant for my teachers, I suppose.

I love the way the children were treated in the titular boarding school, Summerhill, in Neil’s book. They could come to school whenever they liked. Learning in that one-house school happened as democratically as it should be in the ‘Summer of Love’ sixties.

The best thing is that, according to Neill, the school’s founder, the children did not turn out to be criminals.

Maybe deep inside I was trying to understand why I was put in that boarding school in Kuantan, sent there at 13, hundreds of miles away from my village, and missing my mother every day.

It was an experimental American high school, and I was there as the government’s guinea pig, as we were constantly told, happily, by our teachers. I am writing my memoir on those days of schooling.

But back to my memo.

I want to suggest the new education minister read up on essential works by major authors on school reform, so that he/she could do the best job producing the best and brightest of our nation.

I recommend works both of the traditional and modern authors: Socrates, Gardner, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Peter McLaren, Carl Perkins, and even sci-fi writers talking about scenarios in education.

Let us help the Education Ministry conduct a total revamp: from philosophy to paradigm to practice and people, as well as products.

We have a set of pillars of a major shift to erect. It is a new beginning requiring careful and intelligent steps, in a world of alienation, unemployment, technological determinism, underrepresentation, and increasingly violent racism and religious intolerance – the excesses of predatory local, national and global capitalism.

But most of all, we must move forward gracefully, for the future of all the Malaysian children, hungry for knowledge, understanding and wisdom, to function as good and thinking citizens in a truly multicultural society.

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Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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