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From time immemorial, both Eastern and Western philosophers have delved into the nature of education. They have asked questions like: What is the concept of education? What does it mean to be "educated"? What are the goals? Is education a matter of imparting only knowledge? What about worldly skills? Is being knowledgeable synonymous with being educated? These and other pertinent inquiries form the basis of the philosophy of education, which to this day have dominated the realm of inquiry.
This paper attempts to provide an insight into the extent to which the concept and precept of four philosophical traditions have permeated into the Malaysian education system. "Education system" here is taken to mean the state-developed and sponsored mainstream schooling that is part of the overall national development agenda. The main focus will be on both the commonalities and divergence in the broad philosophical ideas as well as the curriculum and the teaching-learning approaches employed vis-a-vis the four traditional philosophies.
2. The Four Philosophical Traditions
The principal ideas in educational philosophy are encapsulated in what is known as the Four philosophical traditions. The sometimes conflicting and divergent ideas of the philosophies arose over the last 70-80 years when philosophers/psychologists like John Dewey, Robert Hutchins, William Bagley, and Theodore Brameld propounded their perspectives on education and its direction in the US.
The salient ideas of the four traditions are summarised below:-
Proponents of perennialism preach that the purpose of education is to attain knowledge for its own sake. This rather dogmatic view is based on the faith perennialists have in the nature of humans, through being educated, to utilise the knowledge gained purposively. The enrichment of the intellect leads to character development; hence man can improve himself through moral and spiritual uplifting. It can be said that education based on the concept of perennialism enables man to reason, rationalise and eventually do good.
The teaching-learning approach is very much focussed on reasoning founded upon the ideas of the great philosophers of ancient times as well as the classic works of scientists, writers and ideologists of the last few hundred years. They stressed on the inculcation of religious and ethical values. In other words, the principle of perennialist education is to be good and do good, based upon universally accepted moral values.
The focal aim of essentialism was to develop "model citizens" through the imparting of traditional moral mores and basic knowledge. Similar to perennialism, it emphasizes character development, but without the total reliance on the classic works of yesteryears. It is a concept based on "going back to basics" of learning, emphasizing the natural sciences. It is purely academic in nature; the natural sciences are predominant, while vocational or living skills are secondary.
The learning approach in essentialism is quite similar to perennialism in that both are teacher-centred. The teacher is the focal point in the imparting of knowledge, with the learners being the "receivers". Exams are crucial in essentialist education, with progress measured by test scores. The knowledge gained is aimed at equipping students with a working knowledge with which they are expected to apply in the outside world.
Progressivism is pragmatic in that it not only transmits knowledge, but also emphasizes on teaching the students skills geared for the real world. It takes into account the student's interests and potential in the teaching process. It takes a more rounded, holistic approach compared to perennialism or essentialism, with the student being the active participant while the teacher plays the role of facilitator.
Unlike the essentialist, the progressivist places equal importance to both the natural and social sciences. Its curriculum is thus broader given that it is both knowledge and skills-based. The contents are also designed in real-life contexts, while the teaching-learning approach is very much student-centred. Group learning plays a prominent part. In this way students are expected to gain interaction and reasoning skills which are useful for life outside school. It could be said that progressivism nurtures "the inquiring mind".
While perennialism and essentialism see knowledge as a means for moral development, and progressivism takes cognizance of real life, reconstructivism views education as a means towards making changes in society. It's not surprising that it emphasizes the social sciences as opposed to the natural sciences. It relies on revolutionary literature that is aimed at "liberation" while inculcating understanding and global cooperation.
Like perennialism and essentialism, learning is teacher-centric. Teachers are seen as influential figures that try to raise students' consciousness of injustices or inequalities in society, thereby hoping that students would eventually act to bring about the necessary changes. In this regard, it is radically different in approach from the three other educational philosophies.
3. The Malaysian Philosophy of Education
The national educational philosophy calls for "developing the potential of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner, so as to produce individuals who are intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically balanced, as well as functionally literate". This philosophy falls under the five main principles of the national ideology (the Rukunegara), which are (1) Belief in God, (2) Loyalty to King and Country, (3) Upholding the Constitution, (4) Rule of Law, and (5) Good Behaviour and Morality.
The educational philosophy is in turn driven by the national agenda - Vision 2020 - to becoming a fully developed and industrialized country by 2020, a democratic country that is strong in religious and spiritual values, a society that is liberal and tolerant, scientific and progressive, innovative and forward looking. In the spirit of Vision 2020, the education system is supposed to inculcate and nurture national consciousness, produce skilled manpower, and instil the desired moral values in students.
3.1 The National Philosophy of Education vis-a-vis the Four Philosophical Traditions
3.1.1 General Concept
On paper, the ideals in Malaysia's educational philosophy do not conform strictly to any one of the four philosophical traditions (hereinafter referred to as "traditions"). Rather, the underlying concept, approaches, and emphasis reflect an amalgam of various elements of the traditions. It can be said that the education system in Malaysia adopts a middle-of-the-road approach. It is neither too dogmatic nor pragmatic in the progressivist sense; neither is it too radical as in the reconstructionist approach. On the other hand, it adopts elements among the traditions that are consonant with the needs of the national agenda.
In general, of course, they all share the view that education should be the principal means for "change". Where they differ, however, is in the interpretation and aims of change. Whereas the dogma of perennialism and essentialism puts great weight on the individual's moral and character development through greater intellect, progressivism emphasizes on knowledge coupled with skills to prepare students for the real world. Reconstructivism, meanwhile, sees education as a revolutionary means to bring about social change.
Malaysia's philosophy seems to contain the common goal of moral/spiritual development as an aspect of the holistic approach to education, consistent with the aims of the perennialist and essentialist. In fact, morality and spirituality is also spelled out in the Rukunegara and Vision 2020. In terms of societal change, it is not as radical as reconstructionism, but more in tack with the aims of progressivism in providing life skills. Malaysia, in essence, takes a softer stance of change in society by equipping students with the necessary skills to prosper in the modern age. In that respect, the education system in Malaysia takes on a more progressivist approach.
3.1.2 Curriculum Approach
Like in the broad concept discussed above, in terms of the curriculum approach, the Malaysian educational philosophy shows both similarities to and differences from the four traditions in various ways. "Curriculum" here, as defined by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary is: "The subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college."
Take, for instance the current Malaysian primary level curriculum. It consists of five examinable subjects, viz. Bahasa Malaysia (2), English, Maths and Science. It is clear that the emphasis here is on the basics, i.e. the elementary skills of the 3 Rs - reading, writing skills of language, and arithmetic. Rudimentary natural science is also introduced at this stage, while living skills is absent. Islamic and Moral Studies are, however, taught as non-examinable subjects to Muslims and non-Muslims respectively for spiritual and moral development. The UPSR exams are conducted as end-of-term summative assessment to gauge the efficacy of instructions throughout the school year.
The foregoing reflects the fundamental curricular elements of essentialism almost to a tee. Thus it can be said that at primary level the National Philosophy of Education is practically based on the essentialist approach, in terms of subjects taught and focus on exams. Certainly, perennialism is inapplicable at this stage where the young minds are still grasping with basic learning given their lower order cognitive skills. Neither would reconstructionist ideas find relevance in their yet-to-mature thinking. The perennialist aspect only manifests itself in the delivery of Islamic/Moral Studies.
The core basic subjects - Bahasa Malaysia, English, Maths and Science - are carried over to the Lower Secondary level. The spiritual aspect continues with Islamic and Moral Studies, though the latter is non-examinable. This again principally reflects the essentialist approach. In addition, a hint of progressivism is introduced via the social sciences of History and Geography. To reinforce the progressivist elements, Living Skills is added to familiarise students with basic real world skills. As at primary level, students have to sit for a common exam (the PMR) before they proceed to the next level.
It is at the Upper Secondary level that students are streamed into either the Science or the Arts/Accounts classes. The pure science curriculum takes on a more mixed essentialist and progressivist approach. In addition to the core pure sciences and double maths, the languages, History and Islamic/Moral Studies are still pursued at a higher level, thus maintaining essentialism. Students, however, are allowed to take examinable electives such as Accounts, IT, or native language. Here, elements of progressivism are applied.
In summary, the curriculum of eleven years of formal schooling in Malaysia revolves around mainly the essentialist ideas. At primary level, the philosophy leans towards essentialism. This is understandable as the priority is the mastering of the basics and the acquisition and nurturing of knowledge. Essentialism persists strongly at the secondary level, although elements of progressivism are introduced (via Living Skills and the social sciences). Perennialism at the primary and secondary stage is seen only insofar as Islamic/Moral Studies are concerned, while Reconstructionism is virtually non-existent in the application of its ideals.
3.1.3 The Teaching-Learning Approach
What better way to learn about the teaching-learning approach of the Malaysian education system than to know it from someone who had been in the system from primary to tertiary level. In other words, what follows here is a first hand account of the observations of the teaching-learning experience this writer had undergone over a period of about 14 years from post-Independence 1960 to 1974. The description is by no means a critique; rather it is a personal reflection (introspection/retrospection) in relation to the four philosophical traditions.
A common thread that runs through the three levels is that teaching-learning was very much teacher-centred no matter what the curriculum approach. (In any case, the current curriculum has not changed drastically from the curriculum then; the only significant difference being the language of instruction and the much greater emphasis on Islamic/Moral Studies). In this respect, the approach was synonymous to the essentialist approach.
Take primary schooling, for instance. The teacher was the focal point of the classroom. He/she was the one students looked up to in a myriad of roles - the knowledge-giver, the advisor, the discipliner, the epitome of good conduct, the surrogate father/mother, and the judge, jury and executioner of every dispute in the classroom. In short, he served as the role model for us wide-eyed kids. The students, on the other hand, were passive receivers of knowledge, taking in everything said and taught by the teacher as the word of law.
The above description encapsulates the essentialist approach in the teaching-learning process. The onus was very much on the teacher in not only developing the students' intellect, but also in moulding their moral conduct and instilling discipline. So he/she had to be someone of good intellect as well as morally upright and dedicated to the teaching profession. Not casting aspersion on teachers nowadays, but most of the teaching fraternity of yesteryears were fully committed to their vocation; hence their high social standing then. This is the essence critical in essentialism - that teachers serve as the intellectual and moral model, given the teacher-centric nature of the philosophy.
But a trace of perennialism was also evident then. In the 1960s, there were no summative exams at primary level, like the UPSR now. Students were not assessed before entry to secondary level. What they had were just the normative tests that were conducted periodically. In that sense, essentialism was mixed with a tinge of perennialism.
The same essentialist approach was transposed at lower secondary level, but with the compulsory Lower Certificate of Education exam at the end of Form 3. The exam determined the streaming into the Science or Arts classes in upper secondary, while failure meant the student having to repeat the year. This is strictly in accord with essentialist principle of "only by mastering the required material for their grade level are students promoted to the next higher grade". The rigorous prerequisite for promotion meant an equally rigorous academic study regime in preparation.
The teaching-learning approach was, however, still teacher-centred with little active participation of students in the learning process. But the classroom atmosphere was (as this writer recall) more 'liberal', given young adolescents' propensity to be more inquiring. There was also no project work of any kind. In contrast, students nowadays are given projects as part of the learning process, where they learn to interact and collaborate with each other and eventually present their work. This is a feature of progressivism which was absent back then.
In general, similar to the curriculum approach, the teaching-learning approach was compliant to the essentialist ideals in the way that the teacher played the central role as the transmitter of knowledge. The intellectual enrichment via the transmittal is aimed at providing students with a working knowledge after school with which, coupled with greater intellect, they can discern and apply appropriately in real life situations. This represents the raison d'etre of essentialism. There were very little of the progressivist features and practically none of reconstructionism.
4. Commentary and Conclusion
Malaysia's education philosophy, policy and the curriculum derived from it appear to be excellent and forward-thinking in concept. The education policy has incorporated, whether consciously or otherwise, elements from three of the four traditions, but to a large extent from essentialism. If the aims of the policy are met, the products of the national schooling system should generally exhibit the attributes as envisaged in the philosophy and Vision 2020, i.e. the learning outcomes should produce "individuals who are intellectually and spiritually balanced, skilled and innovative, in a liberal and tolerant society".
But have the ideals been achieved? Judging by the public debate in the media nowadays, there are doubts. The public are questioning the efficacy of the national schools system, which in spite of massive government investment, has apparently failed to produce school leavers, and even university graduates, with the right quality, skills, confidence and competency. The lack of public faith has manifested itself in the mushrooming of tuition centres as well as parents' preference for sending their children to vernacular schools. This will eventually defeat the national aspiration to create unity through the education system.
Perhaps what ails the education system, like what many people feel, is the over-emphasis on exam results. It's like exams are the be-all and end-all of education. Schools pride themselves in the number of 'A' students they produce. It is akin to taking the essentialist ideal to the extreme. Because of it, learning regresses into an exercise in the memorization and regurgitation of facts in exams. Creative teaching methodologies learnt in training colleges are laid to waste; instead teacher-centredness takes centre stage, with students passively absorbing everything the teacher transmits. There is little or no questioning. Ultimately, the obsession with exams fails to produce the "holistic" individual that the national education philosophy envisages. Therein lies the irony; the progressivist aspirations impressively envisioned in the national education philosophy are defeated by the manner in which the curriculum is implemented.
In addition, the shortcomings of Malaysian school leavers and university graduates include the publicly oft-mentioned lack of communication skills, poor ICT skills, low English language proficiency and the generally lackadaisical and passive attitude. There are of course many contributing factors, other than the curriculum, that need to be looked into. It could be the quality of teaching, which then begs the question of teacher trainee selection criteria, and the teacher training curriculum.
But there is apparently government recognition of the malaise in the education system. In the recent past, ninety "Smart Schools" have been set up. The aim behind them is to transform the education system from memory-based learning into simulative thinking and creativity through access to modern technology. This very idea, as progressivist as it gets, and if properly implemented, promises to place the learning initiative back to the students themselves as active participants.
Still, it is worthwhile for the powers-that-be to review the current curriculum and see where it needs strengthening. Perhaps with less emphasis on the essentialist focus on exams, aspects of perennialism such as philosophy and reasoning could be reinforced. Or the more pragmatic aspects of progressivism that promote self-discovery and critical thinking could be incorporated in the curriculum and aggressively implemented in the learning.