I attended a missionary school in Klang back in the 1980’s. Its students came from a good mix of ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. I wasn’t the top-scoring kind but was fortunate enough to get placed in the top 2 classes throughout my five years at secondary school with the exception of the first year. Placements into the classes (there were seven in my batch) were determined by the examinations. My anecdotal observations on the state of schools during my time are as follows. One, there was ethnic imbalance in the composition of the classes. Two, because of the ethnic imbalance so too were religions. Three, the poorer performing classes were mostly filled by students of poor economic background.
The priority of the schools then and perhaps even now was students’ performance in academic followed by co-curricular activities. During my first year, I was placed in the fifth class in what appeared to be random placement despite my good grades in primary school. I jumped to the second class in second year before ended up in the top class in year four and five. I noticed students don’t get to move around different communities (classes) throughout the five years, they somewhat stay the same throughout. By the time I was in year five, there were only 3 of us Malays in the class. No, I didn’t feel at all of being isolated or differentiated because of my race or religion but this story isn’t about that either – I am a proud alumnus of the school. This is about the failure of the system to support the cognitive development of the students then and if continue to be the case perhaps spells doom for the nation.
I feel the education system having focused on examination performance as the basis of students placement in school was poorly thought through based on a number of reasons. Vygotsky stated that children learn at first through social learning before internalising the knowledge at individual level. By placing non-performing students together, firstly, they were unable to learn academically from among themselves, there weren’t more knowledgeable others (MKO) within their midst to help them through the zone of proximal distance. As a result, they continue to perform below par. Secondly, because the non-performing students were from poor economic background, they were easily embroiled in social issues which gets picked up by their peers in class. Thirdly there was tendency that the poorer classes were filled by certain ethnic groups, such that in created gaps between them and the top performing classes in terms of discipline, language proficiency and mannerism. There weren’t able to benefit from interaction with the better performers.
Vygotsky’s social development theory ideals warrant that students were mixed regardless of their examination performance. That way the less performing students are able to get helped by the better students as their MKOs, helping them to get through their respective ZPD. Social learning dictates that good behaviour and discipline gets infectious among the poor performers with the help of more disciplined students. A good mix of religious and ethnic background makes the students to be more accepting and adaptive to multi-cultural, multi-religious diversity, a far cry from the state of racism and bigotry we are seeing so blatantly displayed on social media nowadays. Instead of the poorer students struggling to learn language, they are subtly forced to communicate with those with better command of the language. The benefits are two ways too. Those from higher economic brackets gets street-smart lessons from the lower income group. Also, hypothetically it would relieve teachers from being the sole MKOs in class. Sadly, we did not embrace Vygotsky’s ideals. We continue to have gaping differences between students and teachers piling administrative roles takes away crucial space for them to play their roles as MKOs effectively.
The conclusion of this 2-part posting is the importance of making the students ready. As Lao Tzu said, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. The teacher will appear in the form of peers and the environment that is conducive for them to learn the multi facets of life. Schools is where we learn the critical steps of reality in life. According to Vygotsky, the right collaborative environment provides scaffolding for the students to learn. As the students leave school and the education system, they leave behind the scaffolds and ready to contribute towards a better world, a better society; in line with the second part of old master, Lao Tzu’s quote – “when the student is really ready, the teacher disappears”.