Academic performance versus creative and critical thinking

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"7,987 straight As in SPM" screamed the headlines of major newspapers when the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia results were announced on the 10th of March 2010. The fixation with academic achievements among Malaysians knew no bounds. Every year, excitement and joy, anxiety and disappointment, pervade among students, parents and teachers when the Ministry of Education and Malaysian Examination Board releases the results of public examinations, be it UPSR, PMR, SPM and STPM. The obsession with academic achievement is overshadowing all other aspects of a holistic education system in Malaysia.

The Malaysian Education Philosophy clearly states that the role of the school curriculum is to ensure the holistic development of the individual mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally by imparting general knowledge and skills; cultivating, instilling and fostering healthy attitudes and accepted moral values. The curriculum aims to bring forth the Malaysian citizen who is a balanced and well-rounded individual, trained, skilful, and cherishes the national aspiration for unity.

Why all the hype with students' academic achievements? According to Professor Dr. Ray Wilks, Head of the School of Psychology, International Medical University, there is no evidence to show a positive correlation between academic achievement in examination and learning. Learning should not be about passing examinations. "We should instead create more curiosity in children's learning to nurture creativity and innovativeness," says Professor Dr. Ray Wilks.

Indeed, the education systems in Malaysia aims to mould individuals to become better Malaysians with the right attitudes, and to equip them with the knowledge and skills necessary in the twenty-first century to make Malaysia a developed nation by the year 2020. To meet the challenges of the twenty first-century and Vision 2020, teaching and learning practices and school management are constantly reviewed to develop individuals who are technologically literate and can contribute to a creative and innovative workforce. This transformation will entail changing the school culture, from one that is predominantly memory-based to one that stimulates thinking, creativity, and innovativeness.

Yet the importance placed on academic achievement has seriously impacted on the ability and efficiency of the Malaysian education system in developing holistic individuals that are able to handle the challenges of life after formal schooling. In fact many a times, newspapers highlighted employers complaints that school leavers and even university's graduates have problems conversing and communicating effectively, let alone to think critically and creatively. In addition the lack of critical and creative thinking abilities among Malaysians school leavers and university graduates has been pinpointed by the Minister of Human Resource, Datuk Dr. S Subramaniam, as one of the main problems contributing to their low marketability in the job market. The lack of thinking skills among the present and future workforce of the nation will hamper the nation's efforts toward achieving a developed nation status by 2020.

What are critical and creative thinking? Critical thinking is a type of thinking that converges on a single thought or entity. One must organize, analyze or evaluate information, which might also be broken into parts and taught explicitly. A cognitive process complimentary to, but different than critical thinking, is creative thinking. This thinking diverges from a single thought or entity. One must generate, synthesize, find alternatives, adapt, substitute, or elaborate. Critical and creative thinking are the building blocks that will make certain our students will have the required thinking skills to succeed in life and at work and ensure the attainment of Vision 2020.

Detractors of efforts to emphasize critical and creative thinking in the curriculum have point to the possibility of poorer academic achievements as a consequence. However, research has shown that when students develop their thinking skills by looking beyond the obvious, making creative connections, developing strategies, making decisions, planning ahead and reflecting, they also improved their academic performance. Thus, emphasizing critical and creative thinking will augment academic achievement.

How to encourage critical and creative thinking? One way is to reduce the emphasis on the use summative assessments such as UPSR, PMR and SPM. Summative assessments are used for categorizing students and stress the use of written examinations. The UPSR and PMR summative assessment have deviated from its original purpose of diagnosing learning problems with the intention of preparing remedial actions to improve students learning. They are now used to stream children into classes. In psychological terms, it is bad to label children. It is positive reinforcement for smart children, as defined by our assessment system, but not for the children who do not do well. The tools used in our public examinations are picking up all the rote learners. Professor Dr Ray Wilks says, "From a psychological point of view, to label a child of 12 is a kind of life sentence." He further states that experiments have shown that if we tell teachers that a child is of certain achievement level, they will teach to that point. The teachers will not raise their teaching to the next level for that child.

Instead we should encourage more formative assessment in the learning environments. Formative assessment also called continuous assessment is a more reliable way to look at the learning process. School-based continuous assessment looks at broader education skills, such as communication, critical and creative thinking, and teamwork, rather than just textbook skills. These skills are assessed by teachers through activities like debates, dramas, analysing issues and project work. Formative assessments also provide diagnostic information to enable teachers to assist students with learning difficulties.

Furthermore, when there are less public examinations, children can have more time to explore other interests such as music and arts that would help instil creativity in them. "I've always wanted my children to learn to play the piano, but they are always tired after schools and tuition," says one parent. With less examination, teachers will also have more time to organize field trips and excursions, which will allow students to be in contact with nature and discover new learning opportunities for critical and creative thinking that may not be present in the classroom.

Given appropriate opportunities, children can engage in sophisticated cognitive processes. Research suggests that either too much or too little structure can prevent development of critical and creative thinking and in the process children are not equipped with active and strategic approaches to learning tasks. Thus, appropriate instructional approaches could results in students enhancing their critical and creative thinking skills. Three approaches are commonly used in the teaching of thinking skills: stand-alone approach, immersion approach and embedded approach.

Stand-alone approach consists of teaching thinking skills separate from subject matter content. In this case a general set of thinking skills are identified and taught as a separate course or subject. Students are taught how to transfer the skills to various subjects and situations. However, thinking skills taught in isolation tend to results in students having problems transferring thinking skills to academic or real world problems.

The immersion approach does not involve teaching thinking skills. Rather it allows good thinking to develop naturally as a result of students being fully engaged or immersed in content-related activities which calls for higher levels of thinking. Students are provided with repeated practices in complex cognitive activities with the assumption that they will eventually develop the necessary cognitive skills to successfully engage in high-level thinking. However, research has shown that simply immersing students in thinking activities is not an effective instructional approach.

The embedded approach involves teaching thinking skills within a subject-matter context. Thinking skills are taught in science, social studies, language, arts, and some other subjects. Students than apply these skills directly to the particular subject being studied. This allows students to use the skills in a meaningful context and helps them learn the subject matter more deeply. An embedded approach is an effective way to teach thinking skills. Rather than an additional subject, thinking skills are used to enhance whatever curriculum currently being taught.

Training teachers in specific instructional approaches means that schools must invest in teachers' professional development. Instructional approaches that help teachers integrate a "learning to think" component into their curriculum empower students to take responsibility for improving their thinking and learning. Although cognitive development is only one part of a child's overall development, it is essential that teachers respond to the community demand for and the child's right to cognitive competence. Teacher training providers need to become aware of the benefits of certain instructional approaches on pupil performance and incorporate training in such approaches in their courses.

Thus, in conclusion, Malaysia needs to ensure that its future generation does not only perform well academically but should possess the ability to think critically and creatively. All Malaysians should support the integration of critical and creative thinking in its educational curriculum. It should not only merely be stated in printed documents. Affirmative actions should be put in place to ensure that the teaching and learning of critical and creative thinking is actualized in the classroom context. Lest, Vision 2020 remains a dream and Malaysia will stutter in its ability to achieve the New Economic Model towards achieving 1Malaysia, "People First, Performance Now".

(1497 words)

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