• 2021
  • 'Fitting in' approach to education should not be the way

'Fitting in' approach to education should not be the way

Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Opinion - New Straits Times
February 8, 2021


To say that schooling is thrown into chaos during the pandemic is an understatement.

Reportedly some 1.6 billion students are affected, according to the World Economic Forum, and many of them "may never return". Of those who do, more than half are not expected to receive the education required for basic numeracy and literacy.

Still some said that this is still an approximation as the pandemic insidiously creeps into our lives. If the well-off are not spared, imagine what can happen to the disenfranchised. Even before the pandemic, much concern has been expressed about the latter with respect to their schooling, let alone education.

Now there are more reasons to worry about the future. But, this is not new, to say the least, going by the case of Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future movement worldwide. They chose to stay away from school because allegedly it does not guarantee their future any more.

Thunberg was clear about this when it came to the climate crisis that is looming. They took to the streets several times all over the world to express themselves, involving millions of youngsters. The indictment is obvious: schooling is no longer deemed relevant to this group of future-minded youth.

Their issues are not about resources and opportunities, but purpose and context. Thunberg herself comes from a region where schools are generally held in high regard. They truly function as the leveller of society — the real purpose of education since time immemorial.

For the others, most have been hijacked by various actors and events that distort education to what it is today. It is marked by disparities, inaccessibility and even unavailability in more distant places. What the pandemic has done is to further highlight the reality that has been staring at us for so long, but left unattended for some reason until lives were wasted, which instantly act as the push factor.

As a result, schools were closed almost worldwide at varying rates and discord. Some, mainly in the West, despite far superior amenities, were not exempted.

It adds to the notion that something is not quite right about the so-called schooling as presented in the current ecosystem operating from home. Sadly, we are still trying to fit in, forgetting that the socially unjust state of affairs education-wise has long divided the community right down the middle globally.

So, as we advocate the use of online learning as an alternative, if not a panacea, news of students having to climb trees to gain access online suddenly reared its head as a grim reminder of the forgotten reality. It takes a number of such embarrassing episodes before the reality really sinks in.

But, it is still about fitting in, with various approaches in an instant virtual space housed in a makeshift classroom at home. In some cases, it resembles a shared classroom accommodating school-going siblings of different levels. All in the name of fitting in when the ecosystem is nowhere suited for it!

Therefore, it takes little to imagine the quality of learning that actually takes place under such circumstances. Foremost is the absence of conducive ambience needed to support the process of effective learning in the best possible way. Concurrently are other in-house activities like cleaning, cooking and having meals, TV viewing or just plain leisure. All competing for attention, enough to distract the learning to be fitted in for the day.

Ordinarily, most Malaysian students will have to cope with some form of homework or self-study after school hours, following dinner. In other words, they are back to the makeshift shared classroom for yet a couple of hours more.

This cycle (and thus pressure) is perpetual for as long as school remains closed. No wonder there is growing evidence of a heightened level of anxiety and stress when students are struggling to fit in — this approach is not only less productive but could also be harmful. It further distorts the true meaning and purpose of education as a leveller of society.

Perhaps it is time to rethink how to better learn, given the asymmetrical environment and ecosystem persisting, especially among the vulnerable. The pandemic has presented an opportunity to repurpose the entire ecosystem, instead of just fitting in, in preparing for the post-pandemic period, before it worsens.

The writer, an NST columnist for more than 20 years, is International Islamic University Malaysia rector

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times