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The teachers our children deserve

Azly Rahman
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COMMENT | Love, respect, happiness. These are not pillars of learning, but adornments of Malaysian education.

What are the pillars? Sustainability, human rights, deep-learning. These are the pillars that we need before anything else. How? Why?

Talking about making schools happy and respectful is not enough if the pillars of schooling still rest on apartheid-styled, race-based policies in education, and the infiltration of radical Islam. 

Today, Malaysian leaders from political to the educational seem to have this love affair with preacher Zakir Naik, for god knows what reason.

There is now more talk about advanced Islamisation, of the Education Ministry's intention of bringing in the Muhammadiyah University to Johor to provide a greater ground of ideology of Islamism to grow. The Islamisation agenda of the 80s is continuing in its third phase, with new players, new leaders, new nodes and neural networks.

We don’t need more Islamic universities such as the Muhammadiyah. We need to infuse philosophy, critical thinking and moral reasoning into our public universities.

Do we need all these new forms of mass indoctrination? What is our priority in national development and the forging of a national identity?

We must first have the framework: National Core Curriculum Content and Skills Standards. This assesses what students need to know, why they need to know, and what the cognitive benchmarks of knowing are, aligned with the evolving nature of knowledge itself, across disciplines yet framed in an interdisciplinary manner.

Do we have a set produced by the Education Ministry? Teachers must be taught to understand what "teaching" means and the power they possess in "teaching". What constitutes good teaching, a good school and a good vision?

What is a good teacher?

To teach, first and foremost, means to learn and to mediate the subject-object contradiction. Even the classroom arrangement in the Malaysian school does not reflect the culture of the information age.

A good teacher is a master of the models of teaching, understands the nature of the learner, and applies this knowledge appropriately. Many a teacher goes into the classroom ill-prepared, not fuelled by the passion of making a difference in the child's life.

A headmaster is merely a coach, mentor, enabler of teacher's creativity. The District Education Office is not a channel of top-down reform. It must become the facilitator of school-based reforms.

Why are teachers burned out? Because those above them killed the spark and light of creativity and problem-solving.

 Poor kids! At a very young and creative age assigned to teachers who failed to cultivate creativity. Good teachers are rebels and subversives. They rebel against useless conventions and subvert dogma and dead knowledge.

Above all, the chief of the tribes of teachers, the education minister in this case, must also have the necessary credentials and disposition. For Malaysia - a nation of people of diverse religions, race, and culture - a good education minister is a pragmatic-transcultural philosopher of education, not a theologian interested in the Islamic state.

A master-teacher or educator-philosopher will either be liked by many or thrown into the dungeon by society. It is the "unschooled" mind that will disrupt society for the better than the ones schooled in mediocrity and wealth.

The teaching profession must be reserved for the best and the brightest in society because teaching is not for the faint-hearted. If you think teaching is easy, try staying an hour in a class of kindergarten kids or young ones in the Bronx, New York city.

A successful failure?

Although we seem to have an elegant design for our national education, glazed with bombastic language borrowed essentially from the American school system, why are Malaysian schools failing? Because we spend so much time still arguing about which race and religion is superior.

We spend time turning the gardens of learning into political football fields. Teachers must first be taught how to interrogate their own racial bias, and cure it before going into the classroom.

Our education system should teach children to use science and humanities to revolt against governments that destroy the environment. Schools in Johor and Pahang especially should teach children about the government's planned destruction of the environment!

Sustainability in education is a pillar that will decide how we will culturally flourish as a nation. Human rights in education is a broad spectrum of how we deal with diversity, identity, dignity in our schools. Deep learning in education encompasses core contents from the national level to the neural connections in the child's brain.

You can't teach about environmentalism in Pahang if you don't talk about hypocrisy in the bauxite industry. Can children in Johor be learning happily about our beautiful and pristine natural world when mangrove forests are being slaughtered and rendered bald to make way for “forest cities” and “Jack-Niklaus-branded golf course?

You can't talk either about civics and citizenship studies in Malaysia when our political culture of bulldozing elections is like an addiction. Can you talk about sustainable politics in Malaysia when a leader can be allowed to rule as long as he or she wants?

Can you have a "happy" education system when different races are treated differently according to some false sense of superiority? Our education system, properly framed and implemented, could have produced mass protesters against deforestation, bigotry, despotic rulers, big-bad corporations.

How can Malaysia have a "happy, loving, respectful" education when something as simple as the UEC certification issue cannot be solved? The race-religious foundational issue is still maintained by the ministry; therefore, we cannot see sustainability being built. Sustainability needs an inclusive policy of schooling - from the kindergarten to graduate school, from the cradle to the grave.

The one-school solution

“One School, One Vision, One Nation,” in all its diverse appreciation is what we need as a ground-beneath-our feet, in education. If ever this will become a reality, no political party should govern it. That's a challenge! 

Today's education in Malaysia is governed by Bersatu, the new Umno. What radical changes in multiculturalism can we expect?

Every time I go into a classroom, I would scan the terrain, read the students' mind, and plant the seeds of doubt, and let them grow wild before pruning and trimming them as plants. 

The best classrooms are those without walls and without teachers, and without certitude in the air. 

Global radical paradigm of teaching is needed, since 80 percent of people in the world are living under some form of totalitarianism. We need to infuse thinking skills in all subject matter and across curriculum.

Even knowledge is today a product of ideology and politics, disguised as "neutral bodies". Unmask it. Reconstruct. All talk of reform is useless if we do not turn the curricular model upside down and see the true nature of its ugly head, and next renew its promises of prosperity.

I conclude this complaint about the pillars of education we mistook, with the question: what then must we do? Perhaps we can begin with an insistence that education should address the "here and now" because we are organic beings "evolving in an ever-changing present". 

Love and happiness are smart and measurable goals we urgently need, to make our children want to come to school, to learn to become not only good workers of the Fourth Industrial Age, but also thinking and feeling citizens with a deep sense of critical sensibility.


AZLY RAHMAN is an educator, academic, international columnist, and author of seven books available here. He grew up in Johor Bahru and holds a 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 Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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