Reversing the Psychology of Classroom Learning in Public Schools

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This article was featured at Page 10 of Learning Curve on The New Sunday Times, Nov 29th 2015.

One may say that having an 11-year old gap with your siblings is nothing to shout of, but I have had a rather unique opportunity to observe how similar yet different my twin brothers are when it comes to their personalities. They might share the same values from the almost-always simultaneous exposure to different things, but their differing perspectives are always interesting to explore.

Their reactions to the recent Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) results were an eye-opener. While Aliff leaped to his joy in his celebration for the straight A’s, Ariff wept quietly in disbelief over his couple of As.

They had studied together from the same materials, enjoyed the same attention and care from our parents, and had even gone to the same school. But relatives and friends alike had the same reaction to it: why the stark difference?

Amidst other parents slowly walking out of the school compound, Ariff whispered to my mom:

“I am sure I could have done better had I benefited from a similar, positive studying environment”.

She quickly put her arms around Ariff’s shoulders while reminding him for the umpteenth time to come out stronger from this experience than crying over spilt milk.

But we all understood what Ariff had meant.

I have always found examinations to be an unnecessary bane for primary school pupils. It is too early for them to confine themselves to a stack of exercises for a centralised examination which adds little values and practical experiences towards their appreciation of knowledge.

Aliffdespite the straight A’shad most probably set aside his English essay-practice books and Science textbooks from the rather dull syllabus after his final UPSR exam paper.

Unlike Aliff’s year in school prior to UPSR, Ariff had fallen short of his Year 5 End-of-Year examinations and in the name of ‘meritocracy’, he had been demoted to the category of “middle to lower-end” classes, while Aliff remained in the top class. This categorisation of performance means that students are pooled from top to bottom based on academic results.

As much as I am for meritocracy in education, the right question to ask is more of whether this categorisation is a better system to educate our young students in public schools, especially for primary school students when going to school is supposed to be invigorating.

While the top-down grouping motivates some to study harder, the reality is that only a minority do so for they are still so young to cope with the arduous process of competing to the top.

When I was in Year Six, some 30 students from my class scored straight As in UPSR. We were celebrated and lavished with money for our achievements, but nobody then bothered to ask on the students who had actually dropped out before sitting for UPSR, or those who had failed their Mathematics and languages.

How will these students face secondary years of schooling?

From my observation, while Aliff and his high-performance friends were occupied with extra classes and test drills, Ariff was always at ease, without similar load of tasks to worry about.

Ariff’s “mediocre” class was often noisy, uncontrollable and left to mind their own business. Meanwhile for students in the ‘back-end‘ classes, there are still students who couldn’t even read, write and count, what more for them to take additional initiatives to revise for any tests and exams.

More worrisome, some of them showed early signs of vulgarity, rudeness and rash behavior in which led to the eventual loss of interest in classroom learning and team-work activities. Revamping the system aside, there is a need to find out if they have personal problems blighting their focus in class.

Psychologically speaking, how would you feel if you are pitted against a group of people who had been labelled as ‘academically inferior‘ and ‘incompetent‘ for one academic year?

Would the students be able to inspire each other when it’s already planted in their mind at schoolwhere positive characters are supposed to be mouldedthat they belong to a group of academically-inferior students?

We arrived home with a weak smile on our faces over Aliff’s achievements, and a heavy heart over Ariff’s unbecoming future in secondary school; which is due to start in four weeks.

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New opportunity on the pipeline for Aliff after being selected to attend a try-out for Form 1 intake at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar

While Aliff’s opportunities are wide open for him to continue his education alongside the select few who excelled in UPSR, the question remains: how long more will Ariff be in this unhealthy learning environment?

Obviously for the next one year or so, he will again be pooled among the group of students who are as “mediocre”, if not less competent. Together with his new classmates, he will continue being sidelined from the extra-attention reserved for high-performance students.

There has to be a change of mindset from our over-idolising of academic achievers in schools in order to create a sustained and collective healthy environments for students, parents and teachers to learn better from each other.

And the change has to start now.

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