Science’s solution to a broken school system?

Encik Hafiz, my science teacher at SRK La Salle Brickfields, was a man of few words.

Dark and brooding, Encik Hafiz was an intimidating figure, especially so for a 12-year-old who was busy preparing for the UPSR examination.

I was a promising student, but was woefully underperforming in science, even though it was easily my favourite subject in school besides English.

I could regurgitate random facts about faraway galaxies and prehistoric dinosaurs but somehow had difficulty mastering UPSR science.

The uncommonly perceptive Encik Hafiz realised I could do considerably better, if only I was nudged in the right direction. He got hold of me and a few other students whom he realised were not A students but had the potential to be.

So he instructed us to stay back after school for a special class over several weeks.

This proved pivotal. This little bit of intensive coaching at the end of the school day propelled my rise to A student status in a few months.

I never said thanks. Nor do I remember what compelled him to go beyond to help me and the other boys. But he did. And I’m grateful to him for that.

I’m sure you have a similar story – one where a teacher had transformed your life for the better. At least, I hope you do.

Throughout my school life, I’ve had dozens of teachers but if I had to recount the ones who made a lasting impact, I can’t think of more than three. That is a painfully pathetic number.

If any other industry had churned out that few high performers, we’d be up in arms, shouting at the top of our lungs for the need for immediate reforms.

Teaching is a noble profession, indeed the most noble. Teachers shape the thinking and worldview of future movers and shakers. But how can an industry that shapes our nation’s future produce so few star teachers?

One could lay the blame at the feet of our teacher training institutions that some say churn out sub-par educators, causing mass disenfranchisement in our national school system which has in turn led to the proliferation of private schools.

But an argument could also be made that teachers are overburdened by administrative and clerical duties, impeding their ability to do their primary job of teaching.

No matter where we point our finger, the million dollar question is this: is there a way to remedy it?

Definitely! And looking for clues on how to do so in an unrelated field might just do the trick.

In the 1960s, more than 40% of all childbirths in America were performed using obstetrical forceps, which required considerable dexterity and skill to handle well. In contrast, C-sections only accounted for a mere 5% of all deliveries.

Skilled and experienced obstetricians performed forceps deliveries with stellar results.

But in order to become skilled, one had to be trained in it for two to three years. And it was a notoriously difficult skill to learn as a lot of it involved having a feel for it and identifying the right forcep for the job, as there were many to choose from. It was tricky.

This resulted in many deaths and botched deliveries. While a few star obstetricians excelled at it, a sizable number often performed poorly.

The field demanded consistency. And it found a savior in the C-section.

Today, around 30% of all deliveries are performed using C-sections. It is remarkably consistent and is often the safest option.

That’s exactly what our national school system demands today. Consistency. We need to be able to consistently provide a top-class education for all our children.

The select few star teachers like Encik Hafiz can’t make up for the overwhelming majority who provide sub-par education.

And thankfully today, more than ever before, we are equipped with the technological tools to provide this much-needed consistency.

Our system currently expects teachers to become specialists in their respective fields; and then to be able to near-perfectly convey this knowledge to students.

But this is a highly inefficient system. We now have leading thinkers available at our fingertips. What we need to do is fashion a syllabus that leverages on the formidable strengths of both our teachers and the treasure trove of technology that’s at our disposal.

This is where Artificial Intelligence can prove pivotal.

There are currently two schools of thought that dominate the newly-emerging field of Artificial Intelligence in education. They are AI-Assisted Teachers and AI-Led Classrooms.

Both have their own pros and cons. We’ll delve deep into their wondrous worlds in my next column. Stay tuned.

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