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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #7

Chapter 1: A Pre-emptive Strike (cont'd)

A Preemptive Strike


Education should concern everyone as it affects us as individuals, parents, employers, and employees.

Many professionals in the field would like us to believe that education is their sole prerogative and that they and they alone have the right to comment on such weighty matters. While I appreciate the professionalism of teachers and educators, nonetheless as education affects us all, we have every right to be involved. My simple rebuttal to such professional parochialism is this: Education is not quantum physics; concepts and issues in education can easily be framed in a fashion understandable to the average citizen. Many of the significant innovations in education in Malaysia and elsewhere have been through the efforts of non-educators.

The first major reform in Malaysian education was undertaken not by a teacher or educator, rather a politician who was a former civil servant – Tun Razak. His professional training was in law. His landmark 1956 Razak Report was responsible for the massive restructuring of the system. Nearly five decades later, the framework of that revolutionary report still underpins the country’s education – a testament to his wisdom and foresight.

Further away in place and time, the greatest innovation in medical education was undertaken not by a medical doctor rather a former school principal, Abraham Flexner. Medical education in America during the early part of the last century was a haphazard affair. Medical schools were less places to train doctors but more moneymaking enterprises.

And the results showed: mediocrity. To reform the sorry and dangerous state of affairs, the Carnegie Foundation commissioned Flexner. His searing criticism of the status quo and his bold prescription put American medical education on its firm scientific foundation.

In particular, he recommended that medical schools be part of a university rather than freestanding institutions, and that would-be doctors must first have a liberal education and be well versed in the sciences prior to undertaking rigorous medical studies. He further advocated a core of dedicated medical educators, complemented by the clinical faculty, to train these students. Directly as a consequence of Flexner, American medical schools today are unanimously regarded as the best.

Like the Razak Report to Malaysian education, the Flexner Report still governs medical education in America and elsewhere.

It would be pretentious of me to consider myself to be in the same league as these two eminent gentlemen. Rather my hope is that this book will be a catalyst for a much-needed wide debate on education in Malaysia. It is only through such broad participation and from hearing the views from the whole spectrum of society will Malaysia discover the system or systems of education that would best fill her needs.

My book is not a compilation of how-to’s or a laundry list of what ails the system, rather a discussion of broad concepts and ideas. A recipe book this is not. Absent is the nitty-gritty of the how and what to teach. Nor are details of the curricula or textbooks listed. Those are clearly the prerogative of the professionals. Similarly I will not be citing figures and statistics except in so far as to demonstrate some points.

To better illustrate my approach, I will compare education to my own profession: medicine. How health care is funded, doctors paid, or whether a hospital should be built and where are clearly for society to decide. In making those decisions policymakers must consider the views of health care professionals, but once the priorities are set, then let the professionals free execute them.

In my practice I actively involve my patients in the decision. The days when doctors were aloof, placed on a pedestal, and practically deified are thankfully gone, and rightly so. When a patient comes to me for a breast lump I do not dictate what she should do, I merely recommend the necessary steps and the consequences of not doing so. Even if the lump proves to be cancerous and the best treatment is surgical, the patient is still intimately involved in the decision. There are still questions as to what type of surgery and whether it should be combined with reconstructive procedures, radiation, and chemotherapy. There is no one right or best solution. Even if there were one best solution that the doctor thinks would suit the patient, she may think otherwise.

I remember a young lady who consulted me for early breast cancer. She would have benefited from conservation breast surgery, removing only a small portion of the organ while maintaining its cosmetic integrity. That too was the consensus of the tumor board reviewing her case. When we presented her with the various options, much to the surprise of all the professionals, she opted to have total removal of her breast. When I inquired why, she replied to the effect that to her that organ no longer defined her beauty and femininity, rather her potential killer. She did not want anything more to do with it. As she aptly put it, “I would prefer it to be in a jar of formalin rather than on my chest!”

Thus even when we professionals think that we have the best solution for a particular patient or client, we can sometimes be very wrong. We have to involve our clients and consumers. Blindly accepting the doctor’s prescription is not good enough. But once the patient has chosen a course of action such as surgery, then let the surgeons operate. Decisions as where to place the incision, types of sutures, and hundreds of other technical details are properly the surgeon’s expertise. But even here surgeons have to be mindful of the patient’s special needs and wishes. For Jehovah Witness patients whose religious beliefs preclude their accepting blood transfusions, I would be extra meticulous in my dissection. Someone sensitive of the scar, I would make the incision as small and inconspicuous as possible.

Returning to education, in this book there will be no discussion of the details that are properly the purview of the professionals–teachers and educators. How and what they should teach, or how best to motivate and engage the students are clearly their expertise. I would not want to second-guess them. They are the ones who see the children every day, and who have been professionally trained. The choice of textbooks and curriculum too is their prerogative. Nor should I be telling teachers how to test their students. But what we as society should expect of teachers and our schools is that they remain accountable both to the students and their parents, as well as to society.

This accountability can be measured partly by showing that the students are indeed making progress as indicated by their periodic test results. Other measures of accountability could be the dropout rates and the discipline level. I also shy away from discussing the philosophy of education. This book will deal more with pragmatic issues like ensuring our students are able to read and write, be mathematically competent, and be an asset to the community. All Malaysians deserve the best education regardless of where they live, their parents’ political affiliations, or their socioeconomic status.

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