An Open Letter to the Minister of Education
By Dr. Arran Hamilton
Dr. Arran Hamilton joined Cognition Education in 2017 as Vice President of Innovation. Arran is permanently based in our Malaysia office.
Firstly, my hearty congratulations to you on your appointment.
Churchill once said that “Where there is great power there is great responsibility”. This proclamation perhaps applies to ministers of education more than most. For education is an essential nutrient to the lifeblood of the Rakyat.
It is education that nurtures and transmits those core enlightenment values of reason; scientific inquiry; liberty; progress; tolerance; constitutional government; and inter-state cooperation. It is also education that prepares Malaysia’s children to thrive in a future world we can’t yet fully imagine.
As Education Minister, I am sure that you will be proffered advice from all manner of folk on what needs to be done to improve the education system. The funny thing about education is that, unlike rocket science or basket weaving, almost everyone has an opinion on what works best. We all feel qualified to opine because we have all been longtime consumers of the product.
Some will argue that more funding is the answer. Others will suggest that teaching assistants, reduced class sizes or a curriculum overhaul is the panacea to cure all ills. Yet others will argue that we need more autonomies for schools or even public-private partnerships. Unfortunately, all too often, these proclamations are based on anecdote, folklore and intuition – rather than robust evidence of impact.
My hope is that the Ministry draws on those core enlightenment values of reason and scientific inquiry in divining what works best for Malaysia’s education system. In this regard, I have two pieces of good news.
The first is that educational researchers have been busy. In the last 50 years they have conducted more than 80,000 high quality studies involving more than 300 million students, to answer that illusive question of what works. This means we have access to a fairly strong global dataset. There is no need to fumble in the dark or to step into painful bear traps: the path is ever-so-slightly illuminated.
The second piece of good news is that almost everything the Ministry could do has some evidence of impact. According to the global data, the only things that directly harm learning are to suspend students; hold them back a year; inflict corporal punishment; lengthen school holidays; bore them; or make them feel disliked. Everything else sorta works. A classroom with a living, breathing teacher is the minimum viable product and Malaysia has these in abundance.
Given that everything sorta works, the more pertinent question is what works best? And now for some counter-intuitive news:
It’s not about the money. The correlation between increasing school budgets and education outcomes is extremely low. Once a system has covered the basic costs of its teachers, buildings and teaching resources it quickly hits the law of diminishing returns. Each additional Ringgit injected buys less and less improvement. And in purchasing power parity terms, Malaysia already has one of the better funded basic education systems.
It’s not about reducing class size. Many systems have experimented with smaller class sizes and whilst it has led to some improvement, this has been much less than expected. To take advantage of smaller groups, teachers need a lot of additional training and support. It’s more effective to simply provide that extra training without the additional expense of hiring extra teachers or building extra classrooms. And it’s worth noting that Malaysia already has one of the better student-teacher ratios in the world.
It’s not about hiring teaching assistants. To be sure, recruiting an army of teaching assistants will not harm learning. But the global data tells us that the massive additional staffing cost results in a below average gain in student achievement [or at least it did most of the other times it was tried]. Where teaching assistants are deployed, teachers need significant training on how to work with them effectively. This training rarely happens: it’s expensive. And that additional high-quality teacher training on its own [i.e. minus the teaching assistants] is generally a more cost-effective way to improve student outcomes.
It’s not about the buildings. Turning each SMK into a clone of an international school campus will also have negligible return. We just need to ensure that the existing buildings have appropriate levels of lighting, temperature and acoustics and that they are free from health and safety risks. The rest is merely window dressing to learning.
It’s also not so much about the curriculum; school governance model; performance-related pay; or external accountability systems. These are all structural things that are perhaps easier for Ministry officers to implement and to explain. But they have remarkably little impact on what happens inside classrooms when the doors are shut – because learning happens entirely in students’ heads.
So what is it about?
Largely it’s about teachers and what they believe. In the trade we call this Collective Teacher Efficacy. It basically means that where teachers believe, with every fibre of their being, that through their collective action they make a profound difference to student learning outcomes – they do.
It’s about the teacher’s ideology, their world view, their belief system, their theory of change. Belief is the key. Teachers that believe that the success or failure of their students is down to what they as teachers do in the classroom – are more effective. Teachers that believe their central task is to evaluate the impact that they have on learning – are far more effective. Teachers that collaborate, form positive relationships and that enjoy the challenge of continually improving are…[drumroll]…far more effective.
The research tells us that reframing teachers’ beliefs is eight times more powerful than reducing class sizes or increasing school funding; five times more powerful than hiring teaching assistants or implementing new school governance models; and 15 times more powerful than charter schools or performance-related pay.
Teachers with high levels of collective efficacy are more successful because they are more evidence-informed about the actions they take and the strategies they use. Evidence-informed teachers engage in inquiry cycles where they experiment with pedagogies (interactions) that the research suggests are more effective. These include: building on students prior learning; using formative assessment; co-construction (setting clear learning intentions, success criteria and exemplars); and sharing power in the classroom (students working co-operatively and teachers and students learning with and from each other).
I suspect we won’t have to travel far to see examples of teachers and leaders with the right stuff. Although Malaysia has not scored as high as it might have wished in various international student assessment exercises – there are pockets of schools that are up there with the best that Hong Kong, Japan and Finland have to offer. And I suspect they are achieving this within the existing structures, funding and governance arrangements – because of their collective teacher beliefs.
To be sure, scaling this up is hard. But it’s not impossible. It takes time because it requires educators to question and re-question their ingrained and sacred assumptions about what works best; and for the Ministry to provide a structured framework, support and permission for educators to engage in that mental acrobatics and classroom experimentation.
If the Ministry invests unwaveringly in building that attitudinal cult of excellence, it is far more likely to unleash the latent talent that already resides in the system. This means all educators systematically questioning, trialing, evaluating and iterating based on the probabilities in the existing evidence-base, so that we collectively privilege evidence of impact above all else.
So, it’s more about the software [or mindware] than the hardware. And we enhance that mindware by nurturing relationships of trust and collaboration, and by coaxing educators to never stop evaluating the impact of what they do.
Godspeed, Dr Maszlee.