Teacher education, the missing link

“Our education system needs to be overhauled”, said Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad last month. A majority of us agree, but our education reform discourse needs a revamp as well.

We have to start emphasising teacher training. Up till now, too much attention has been on revamping the curriculum, employable graduates, English proficiency, science and mathematics.

Don’t get me wrong, these are extremely crucial for a first class education. What I noticed, though, is that the most important aspect of our education system, i.e. the educators, has been omitted in our on-going dialogue. The system is useless without this link.

The government has to take teacher training VERY seriously. Mahathir also made a comment about arts education, saying that it was not desirable for the era of IR 4.0.

Even during the previous administration, so-called education experts perpetually showcased technology and technological innovation in education. These experts think that digital and data literacy narrow the “gap” with the humanities and the social sciences. Some 99% of Malaysians, including I, agree. I strongly object, though, to what is understood as “the gap”.

There is no disconnect between the arts and sciences. The missing link is the pedagogue. A pedagogue is a teacher, especially a strict or pedantic one. To raise the standards of our secondary and tertiary graduates, we need pedagogues who can deliver.

Since so much has been reported, written and spoken about science and technology innovation, let me emphasise the importance of the humanities and social sciences.

St. Augustine and Ibn Sina

We cannot (and should not) ignore the writings of the genre of St. Augustine and Ibn Sina in our teacher training curriculum. Who are these thinkers and why should we incorporate their philosophies? Read on.

Aurelius Augustinus (354–430) is often referred to as St. Augustine or Augustine Bishop of Hippo (the ancient name of the modern city of Annaba in Algeria). He was the preeminent Doctor of the Church according to Roman Catholicism.

No, this expose of mine is not an attempt to proselytize (if anyone thinks that, it is evidence of the pathetic teachers they had). St. Augustine’s massive contribution to education is his masterpiece “The Teacher”.

It was written in the form of a dialogue between Augustine and his son Adeodatus. It discusses linguistic philosophies, such as the association of words and their corresponding signs and the nature of that arrangement.

This exposes the natural miscommunication that occurs between two conversing humans, establishing his concluding point: “we are all called to listen, as God is the source of all true and substantial knowledge.” Very similar to the Muslim tradition.

In Augustine’s view, the teacher was key to effective, formative education. He argued that the teacher’s attitude would determine the student’s enthusiasm for learning, and that good teaching skills were critical. In fact, he argued that it was better not to teach than to teach ineffectively and with a poor attitude. This is why I think a majority of our teachers and professors should resign.

Another philosopher of the past is Sheikh al-Ra’is Sharaf al-Mulk Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn b. ‘Abd Allah b. al-Hasan b. ‘Ali Ibn Sina (known in Europe as Avicenna).

Ibn Sina was born in the village of Afshana in the vicinity of Bukhara (in what is now Uzbekistan), in 980 CE. In my opinion his views on education should be incorporated into all discourses on education, Western and Eastern.

Although Ibn Sina’s writings on this subject are considered to be very scarce, he deals with the same problems that confront educators in Malaysia today. He writes about humanity, society, knowledge and ethics.

His contribution to education is a treatise entitled “Politics”. Also, he writes at some length in “The Canon” about the upbringing of infants. Ibn Sina represents a lively illustration of the meeting between philosophy and education. Both the educator and the philosopher are faced with the same problems: truth, goodness, the nature of the world, the meaning of knowledge and human nature, and so on.

Ibn Sina the philosopher, had his own views on education. We have here a thinker whose philosophy was transformed into an educational theory that he himself practiced.

On teacher training Ibn Sina perceived how important it is to make a good choice of teacher. He emphasised that the educator must have good theoretical and moral training.

Indeed, the teacher’s role in educating young people goes beyond presenting them with facts, because students acquire from their teachers a great many habits, ideas and values.
Therefore, Ibn Sina requires that the teacher should be an excellent person, discerning the values of society and moral virtues so that the students will follow him as a guide and model.

This is exactly what the Finnish and Japanese education systems uphold; not in Malaysia though. I seriously doubt our students “look up” to our teachers and professors.

Ibn Sina says: “The educator must be intelligent, skilful at instructing children, dignified, calm, far removed from foolishness or pleasantries, not given to levity or slackness in the youth’s presence; neither rigid nor dull; on the contrary, he should be kind and understanding, virtuous, clean and correct. He is one who has served the leaders of the nation, knows the kingly virtues in which they take pride and the correct manners used in society”.

Ibn Sina noticed that the teacher not only conveys knowledge and facts to his students. The teacher brings them into contact with those values and ideas in which he believes, and those manners and virtues with which he is endowed.

If he transmits knowledge with care and feeling, then the students will copy his manners and his virtues, effortlessly and without realising it, in the process of “learning by imitation”.

Here are just two examples of why the arts and humanities are equally as important as the sciences. I would expect our leaders to realise this very fundamental value.

New narrative

The time is ripe for our society to direct the education narrative to include teacher training. Education Minister Maszlee Malik wants teachers to “play a pivotal role in inculcating good values in students in addition to teaching them the 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic)”.

Mahathir’s focus is on graduates getting jobs. He strongly believes that studying the arts would reduce their chances of being gainfully-employed. Whenever there is an articulation of grievances about our education system, by our leadership and the society, words such as moral values, character-building, sense of shame, commitment and diligence surface. Within the context of what students should learn, these are definitely crucial for life.

What needs to be done is to adopt the same narrative for teacher training. To be effective in reforming our education policy, equal weight has to be given to how we recruit teachers and the quality of their education.

This applies to the tertiary level as well. Lecturers who apply to our universities should be meticulously screened. Once employed, these lecturers have to be closely monitored, not for which political party they sympathise with or whether they have published two or 130 journal articles.

It is more important that they are trained to be disciplined, to value the concept of promotion based on merit rather than cronyism, and to do research that has a positive impact on society.

Presently we are obsessed with ISO, the Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA) and the Code of Practice for Programme Accreditation (COPPA) requirements. These are important of course, but it is akin to putting the cart before the ox. Instead, more time and less paper should be spent on overhauling the dismal attitude and quality of our educators.

We Malaysians are good at setting up committees and preparing graphically-sophisticated powerpoint presentations.

On Oct 18, the education ministry set up a 13-member committee to “study the nation’s education policies”. The members are expected to study the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025, and the 2015-2025 Malaysian Education Development Plan (Higher Education).

If these two documents are anything like the recently-released National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) blueprint, I forsee a dismal outcome to the study. All said and done though, I have great faith in Professor Emeritus Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid’s expertise as head of the team. Let’s wait and see.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.