Why The Malaysian Education System Doesn’t Work (Part 1): School As Factory

LoyarBurok occasionally republishes interesting stuff such as must-read articles and essays not originally written exclusively for the blawg, and which have come to our attention. This article was originally published on Rickard’s blog.

Education is something that is very close to Lord Bobo’s furry heart, and honest, open discussions about ways of improving the Malaysian education system are desperately needed. Do share your views in the comments section below.

See links for context, and enjoy the show!

In my previous blog post I described my frustration in seeing that St John’s Institution is doing pretty much everything wrong, from an educational point of view. The principal was cheating with his grade average scheme, the merit-demerit system in use is inherently pathological, and what is being taught is frequently wrong and irrelevant.

Based on the feedback from that post, primarily from concerned citizens and past Johannians, my idea with this series of posts is to outline and explain, in excruciating detail, why the Malaysian education system doesn’t work, and why it cannot be improved, only replaced.

This first part focus on the structural problems of how it is setup, and the inherent folly in believing that the outcomes it generates, have any value. The second part will focus on how education is conducted, and the psychological pathology that is involved in its delivery. The third part will focus on the relative uselessness of the content that is being delivered, and which in many cases is blatantly wrong.

Let me also be clear about one thing before we get started: the purpose of this set of posts is to get you, the reader, to lose any faith, confidence or belief you might have that the current education system has any value whatsoever. I am going to apply critical thinking only, and offer no solutions, suggestions or alternatives. This is an intellectual and emotional forest fire, which will hopefully burn down to the ground any illusions you might have about the usefulness of what is. Attempting to fill a glass that is full of dirty water with clear water is a futile task, so I won’t try.

Let me furthermore be clear that at the end of this discussion you will hopefully understand that there is no single person, or even group of people, to blame. This is a problem with the system, and there is no one person in charge of that system. Even the top ministers of education are stuck in this system, and are essentially helpless. Everyone is trapped in the same nightmare, and noone knows how to wake up, and most don’t even realize that it is a dream they are all dreaming together, with very little to do with actual objective reality.

Therefore, any examples of misdoings that I will be quoting here is merely as examples. I fully expect other principals to do the same cheating, that other teachers other than those at St John’s behave the same, and that students all over the place are equally mistreated and lied to. The system dictates it.

This is, of course, no excuse for criminal behaviour, only an explanation as to why it arises and is allowed to continue. There is still some element of choice within this system. Those, like the BM teacher described in the comments section of the previous post, who have stepped over the line, must be dealt with by the legal system and taken far far away from any children.

With that out of the way, let’s get started.

Why do we have school?

The very first question to be answered is why we have school as an institution in the first place. In the olden days, before school was invented, there were many other forms of education in place, such as master-apprenticeship setups, monasteries of contemplation, and simply being educated at home about how life works, and how one should lead it.

With a slightly more modern approach most thinkers in this field would summarize the purposes of institutionalized school, and education, to fall into the following genres:

  1. Individual. A citizen needs to understand the history and context in which he or she exist, and be able to take rational decisions in response to everyday problems.
  2. Cultural cohesion. It is of tremendous value if members of the community share an understanding of the community and the various rituals and customs that exist within it.
  3. Academic. In order to further our understanding of the universe in which we find ourselves, having educated individuals that can apply the scientific principles to create new knowledge is valuable.
  4. Getting a job. This is probably the most obvious one. We need to be educated so that we can get a job and be productive and valuable to a company in particular and society in general.

That’s basically it. So when we judge a system which supposedly is an answer to these general needs, we have to see how well it fits these requirements, and whether it is a healthy and humane way of producing the wanted results.

As it is, the current Malaysian education system fulfills neither of these needs.

Much of what is to be said here can be applied to any education system, so there is certainly a more general problem, but because I live in Malaysia, interact with Malaysians, and have a Malaysian family, I’m going to limit the discussion to Malaysia. Feel free to extrapolate these conclusions to any other country, where applicable.

Where does school come from?

To understand the current education system it is essential to understand its beginning, and the rationale that existed then for creating it. Since human civilization is a long string of causal events there is no starting point, because there was always something before any particular event. But the shortest flashback in history we can make that will give us a reasonable understanding of what we see today is to go back to the industrial revolution, and the context in which public school was invented, as a solution to a very specific societal need.

Seth Godin writes about this like so:

The common school (now called a public school) was a brand new concept, created shortly after the Civil War. “Common” because it was for everyone, for the kids of the farmer, the kids of the potter, and the kids of the local shopkeeper. Horace Mann is generally regarded as the father of the institution, but he didn’t have to fight nearly as hard as you would imagine—because industrialists were on his side. The two biggest challenges of a newly industrial economy were finding enough compliant workers and finding enough eager customers. The common school solved both problems.

The normal school (now called a teacher’s college) was developed to indoctrinate teachers into the system of the common school, ensuring that there would be a coherent approach to the processing of students. If this sounds parallel to the notion of factories producing items in bulk, of interchangeable parts, of the notion of measurement and quality, it’s not an accident.

In the context of the industrial revolution, and the need to find compliant workers for factories, the invention of the public school system makes perfect sense. One of the main thinkers of the time, Frederick Winslow Taylor, published in 1911 his book “Principles of Scientific Management”, in which he outlines the assumptions upon which his method is based. They are, roughly, that workers are uneducated, don’t speak the native language (such as English), and are intellectually challenged and should therefore not be trusted with anything having to do with managing themselves.

These principles for management, which have survived largely intact until this day, are widely practiced in contemporary Malaysian society, whether it be government, corporations or NGO’s. The basic ideas are to separate workers from managers, create highly standardized specifications which workers must follow, have managers inspect said work based on targets and KPI’s, and use sticks and carrots as motivational tools.

I just described pretty much any Malaysian corporate management strategy. The question these companies must ask themselves is: do we have uneducated and intellectually challenged workers who don’t speak the language? If not, why the hell are you applying a method that was designed with these assumptions in mind?

Taylor’s work was revolutionary in the sense that it described a method for management. This, the idea that we should apply methods to our work, we have him to thank for. Pretty much everything else is irrelevant in today’s context. It should also be said that even Taylor himself is probably crying in his grave right now, as an essential principle of his is to apply scientific measurement and analysis to the work being performed. That part is pretty much forgotten today, as targets and KPI’s are based more on guesswork and wishful thinking than anything else.

But I digress. The key insight is that school was an answer to the problem of industrial mass-manufacturing more than anything else. As such, the grades were not so much interpreted with regard to “how much do you know?”, but rather, “how compliant and able to follow instructions are you?”. As workers are specifically designated to take and follow instruction, the concept of rote memorization and regurgitation is not a design flaw, as many contemporary education thinkers would say, but rather it’s a direct consequence of the need to produce compliant workers. And it worked.

Seth Godin in his Stop Stealing Dreams manifesto elaborates further on this point:

Frederick Taylor is responsible for much of what you see when you look around. As the father of Scientific Management, he put the fine points on Henry Ford’s model of mass production and was the articulate voice behind the staffing of the assembly line and the growth of the industrial age.

Armed with a stopwatch, Taylor measured everything. He came to two conclusions:

Interchangeable workers were essential to efficient manufacturing. You can’t shut down the line just because one person doesn’t show up for work. The bigger the pool of qualified labor, the easier it is to find cheap, compliant workers who will follow your instructions.

People working alone (in parallel) are far more efficient than teams. Break every industrial process down into the smallest number of parts and give an individual the same thing to do again and again, alone, and measure his output.

One outgrowth of this analysis is that hourly workers are fundamentally different from salaried ones. If you are paid by the hour, the organization is saying to you, “I can buy your time an hour at a time, and replace you at any time.” Hourly workers were segregated, covered by different labor laws, and rarely if ever moved over to management.

School, no surprise, is focused on creating hourly workers, because that’s what the creators of school needed, in large numbers.

This basic idea also influences how schools were constructed and managed, on a physical level. A school building imitates that of a factory, with classes of students each doing the same task in parallel without interaction, following the bell to switch from one task to another, and where we even call a years worth of production “batches” (geez, how much more obvious can it get?).

In other words, school is producing exactly what it was designed for. But do we have the same needs in our current society? In a highly connected knowledge-worker society, where most mechanical and work-intensive tasks have been delegated to machines, and even factory work now requires problem solving skills to keep production running at high speed and quality, why are we using an education system that does not cater to these needs? ’tis silly.

Why should I care about school anyway?

The next level of serious misunderstanding has to do with how motivation works, which is a crucial component to any form of learning. The following applies equally to the education system and companies trying to motivate their employees.

Dan Pink describes in his book Drive how there are basically three types of motivation, each having to do with a particular level of needs and context. The first level of motivation are about our most basic needs, such as access to food, shelter and social company. This is why you go to work at all, so that you can continue to function and have a house to live in and food on the table.

The second level of motivation is what is colloquially called “sticks and carrots”. The basic idea is that by incentivising certain behaviour and punishing other behaviour, you can control a person’s willingness and ability to perform a task. In the business world these are “bonuses” in various forms, and punishments if you do not perform well as measured by the yearly performance review, which typically is based on targets, arbitrarily defined and set.

In school, the carrot is “if you perform well you will get good grades”. Or “if you perform well your parents will be happy”. Or “if you perform well you will be successful in life”. And the stick is, at least in Malaysia, quite literally a rotan being applied to various body parts if you fail to comply. With the merit-demerit system now in use there are also demerits you can receive for such horrific misdoings such as “too long hair”, “too long nails”, “bringing a nail clipper to school”, or similar stupid things, none of which relate to education, or even “discipline”.

All else failing, the teacher can always use the ubiquitous “if you do not perform your parents will be unhappy”. The pathology of all this will be outlined in the next post, but suffice to say at this point that motivation is primarily thought of as following this general idea of “sticks and carrots”, and that this is a good way to motivate students to perform well.

There’s just one tiny little problem.

As Pink has shown, through a serious scientific study of how this type of motivation influences work, it mainly applies to strictly mechanical work that involves no cognitive skills, no creative thinking, and no communication with other people. So if these types of motivational tools are applied to situations involving any of that, performance goes down rather than up. The more intensive the “motivational tools” are used, the lower the performance goes. It actively shuts down creative thinking.

Predictably.

Pink describes the situation as follows:

Too many organizations – not just companies, but governments and nonprofits as well – still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science. They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don’t work and often do harm. Worse, these practices have infiltrated our schools, where we ply our future workforce with iPods, cash, and pizza coupons to “incentivize” them to learn. Something has gone wrong.

Given this, the question becomes: is school work a case of non-cognitive, unthinking, mechanical and repetitive work? No? Then why are motivational tools that only work for that applied? Just asking.

Now would be a good time to pause for reflection, considering that this type of motivation and target/KPI-mania is used to guide pretty much all of Malaysian organizations, governmental and otherwise. The loss of quality of service and increase in costs due to this practice on a national level is immense. Staggering even.

Think about it.

So how should students be motivated instead? As stated in the opening, this is a destructive-only post, so I’m not going to elaborate on that. The curious reader is instead encouraged to read Drive, or watch any of Dan Pink’s excellent presentations that are available on the web. Me, I’m going to continue with our lovely intellectual forest fire. If you’re not depressed yet, just wait, the worst is still to come!

You get what you measure

Since the purpose of school, as defined and rationalized when it was created, is to create obedient and compliant workers for factory work, there should be no surprise that we train students for the kind of measurements that are applied in such a setting, even though that setting barely exist anymore.

Therefore, the grades that our students get, which is largely based on their ability to memorize facts and follow strict instructions on how to answer particular types of questions in tests, do not measure so much their ability and mastery of a subject, but rather just this ability to do as they are told. As a factory manager of the industrial revolution era I do not care so much about your grade in history as much as I care about that you have a high average grade, indicating that you are a good worker able of taking and executing instructions.

So if you are an all-A-student, please stay away from my company, because, honestly, I don’t need any employees like you. Nor do any other company I know of that are not involved in strictly mechanical work.

“Congratulations, you got all A’s as you were told to, but I’m afraid you’re unemployable. We need people who can think for themselves, be self-directed, and solve problems. Sorry.”

If my kids get too many A’s I might have to sit down with them and have a serious chat, to find out what’s wrong.

What Malaysians say

At this point I want to turn your attention to some of the feedback that I got from the previous blogpost, and which highlight many of the issues discussed above. Jon says:

Since the 80s the education ministry has been turned into a “factory” to attempt and shape the young into unquestioning drones. The Education Minister’s portfolio is regarded more as a waiting room for the Prime Ministership, and a lucrative money/contract making opportunity. With such noncommitted politicians heading the education ministry, its no surprise the system has been, and still is, on a decline…

Johann Goethe says:

If there was anything that I learned about the education system in general (be it 1st-world or 2nd-world), is that the the ones who conform most to whatever the rubric is are the ones who are considered ‘successful’ or ‘smart’. When it comes to Malaysian schools (SJI is not spared), the exam-based rubric itself is in such a state of disrepair (and ill-enforced to boot) that cheating was a feasible alternative to the mental regurgitation that would be actually studying for it.

It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to such a profoundly sick society.

Mindblowed says:

I must say, there is always a huge gap between our brilliant minds created under formal education, and those brilliant mind outside of the system. It’s not of quantity of A’s they may or may not grab throughout their academia life, but rather quality of overall understanding of life they achieved. They seem to be kinda dull at dealing with real life problems, lack of creativity, no empathy, like a void, ya know?

bakh says:

first time i really realised that my education in st johns havent done me justice was during my first year in a british university. turorial sessions!!! where the tutor would expect the student to proactively discuss in a group. i found that a difficult task while the british students had no problems at all. it is because i was not encouraged (or rather almost discouraged) to speak, question, discuss ideas and engage in dialogue during my high school years in st johns. to me if there was something that had to change in the school system, that would be it!!!

Unlayerme says:

I am so glad my last child is leaving the system soon as he is in his final year. They are making him wrong for having knowlege beyond his textbook which is such a nightmare for him and they give zero points eventhough he is actually right. e.g What is the function of bank? Text book answer is “deposit savings” my son answer “to lend out money to earn interest as income” which in reality that is what is so. No no no. Zero points for him.

Peter says:

I’m a Malaysian, 26 now, and I’ve been telling people since 8 years ago, that the Malaysian education system’s aim is to create drones, not intellectuals. I don’t think I need to point out the differences between ‘worker’ and ‘intellectual’. I use the term ‘drone’ because I drew the comparison with Malaysian society, and….. ants (watching too many wildlife documentaries as a child). See with ants, their workforce is made out of highly skilled drones (workers). However, these drones only do something when they receive chemical signals given from their Queen. They won’t do anything until they receive a signal to do something, and they won’t stop doing it, as ridiculous as it may be, until they receive a chemical signal telling them otherwise. I found the comparison uncanny.

And so on. The key thing to realize is that the current education system is producing exactly what it is supposed to produce, as originally defined. The main question is: is that still relevant? For whom?

Gaming the system

One of the insights from systems thinking theory and research is that when you use targets as a way of measurement, and grades are a form of targets, participants in the system are incentivized to game it. To cheat. Those who cheat win, those who do not cheat, loses.

Let me describe loosely the supposed purpose of taking a test: it is to measure your ability in the topic of the test. If you are coached in how to take this type of test, rather than spending time learning and understanding the topic more fully, you are therefore subverting the purpose of the test. You are cheating. If you copy papers from friends or past students, you are cheating. If you as teacher gives the questions to the students, verbatim or close to it, ahead of time, you are cheating.

But I get it. You have to. You are forced to do this, and besides, everyone else cheats as well. You are just playing the game as much as everyone else is, because seriously, being honest gets you nowhere. Right?

In organizational management John Seddon has studied this, and has the following to say about targets and how it impacts the original purpose of the work:

There is a systemic relationship between purpose (what we are here to do), measures (how we know how we are doing) and method (how we do it). In the example of the service centre, command-and-control managers typically measure ‘service level’ – calls answered in so many seconds and agent activity. These measures not only obscure the means for improvement, they create de facto purposes that get in the way of the real ones:’pick up the calls’, and ‘make your activity targets’. At a stroke both agents’ and managers’ ingenuity is focused on how to survive; how to avoid being paid attention to. In the broadest sense, the purpose becomes ‘make the plan’. It is dysfunctional but managers do not know it. While these ideas appear to work at one level, they hide the better alternative.

Make the plan. Get those A’s. How doesn’t matter, just that you get them, because that is how we market our school. GET ME THOSE NUMBERS, DAMNIT!

And so you cheat. And our poor students have no choice but to cheat with you. And in the end, we have a whole generation of unemployable ignorants that have to spend tons of time and money on getting some real skills, which will get them a job.

To summarize, grades today, with the systemic cheating by everyone, means little, if anything at all. And you want to use these grades to make exactly what decision?

What is school for again?

Who wants this junk?

Students? They hate it.

Parents? Probably not, but this is what they’re getting.

Employers? Evidently not, since graduating students have such a hard time finding a job.

Academia? Pfffft. They always whine how math understanding of applying students is constantly dropping.

So who is this system for? If you like the system, as it is, I’m gonna put a label on you:

Evil Industrial Globalist

That’s the hat you wear. You want to have obedient and compliant workers that can take orders without question. If you know that you wear this hat, then I commend you for at least being honest with yourself. If you don’t self-describe yourself as an Evil Industrial Globalist, and yet still support the current education system, well, bad news, these are your buddies whether you want to or not. These are who you work for, and who you are preparing your children to work for.

And it’s a race to the bottom, as other countries try to compete with you by creating ever dumber, ever more obedient workers that can be put into factories to create iPhones and other goodies. This is the race Malaysia is currently trying to “win”, but the prize is not exactly desirable.

There are four purposes that school and education in a healthy society should fulfill. As I hope is clear from the above, none of these purposes are met by the current education system. It is failing on all points, and there is no way to fix it, because it doesn’t need to be improved, only abolished and replaced with something that works. It doesn’t have to be great, really, just, you know, something that works. And then it can be improved.

But the structural issues, as outlined above, are only part of the problem. Please join me in the next segment where I outline how the Malaysian education system is promoting what could objectively be described as evil, and how this influences society at large. Until next time!

This is the first in a three-part series.


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Internationally renowned Swedish software developer with a passion for Systems Thinking and understanding the many facets of the human condition, and how we can move forward by understanding the past.

Posted on 26 November 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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6 Responses to Why The Malaysian Education System Doesn’t Work (Part 1): School As Factory

  1. Dawkins

    Due to striking increase in inflation it is proving to be very difficult for a family to depend and on one bread earner. You have to work for self-sufficiency and education guides you to gain job opportunities for financial independence.explore more

  2. The key thing to realize is that the current education system is producing exactly what it is supposed to produce, as originally defined.

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  4. Joachim

    Damn straight!