Seeing me wandering aimlessly around the kitchen during my first cooking class, Mrs Loke asked me, ‘Girl, what are you doing?’
‘I’m looking for an egg beater,’ I replied – we were making French Toast (not very Malaysian).
When she heard this, she smiled so sweetly that I relaxed, thinking that her reputation was unwarranted. She might also be in charge of the police cadets, but she was obviously human.
‘Do you think,’ she began, speaking very softly, before erupting in fury, ‘that the egg-beater is on my head?’
I buried my head in the utensil drawer and searched desperately, like an asthmatic looking for an inhaler.
Mrs Loke ran her kitchen with ruthless efficiency. When we sat for our Form 3 exams, however, everyone hoped that Mrs Loke would invigilate. Her scream rivalled any drill sergeant but we knew that she was on our side. We knew that good teachers sometimes gave you hell, just to get the best out of you, and we respected them for it.
The Form 3 exams were all-important. You needed a certain mark to have the option of studying Science. If you failed to obtain that mark, you automatically went to the Arts stream. This detail sometimes gave the wrong impression that Science was for clever people and Arts for the rest.
At Melbourne University, about five years later, I must have looked as if I was wandering aimlessly about, again, because my lab partner asked me, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Looking for a wire stripper,’ I said.
He took the wire from me, bit off a bit of insulation at the end, spat it out and handed it back to me. When I looked at him and my other course mates, I felt that I would never be as good as them. They obviously loved their electronics and their tools and their computers, while I loved words and language. I had thought of becoming a journalist but a family friend, a doctor, had said, ‘What would a clever girl like you want to do journalism?’ Being Asian, I put a lot of weight on the advice of authority figures, and didn’t have the life experience, independence of thought, and spunk to say, ‘Why not?’
In New Zealand, about ten years later, when I dropped my son off at kindergarten, I watched a teacher setting up paint pots on the easel. She told me that they do not instruct children how to paint. Rather, they want to encourage the child to observe the world around them, and then to represent their observations in their own way on paper.
As a young mother, I embraced Western education that fostered creativity, recognizing its ability to produce independent thinkers. I wrote articles such as ‘Learning or the love of learning?’ basically stating that we must imbue our children with the love of learning, and learning will automatically follow. Teach them to be curious, to love the natural world, ask questions, read books, and the rest will follow. Then you won’t have to hothouse them in tuition centres.
By the time my children were nearing the end of their primary school years in Australia, however, some exasperation had crept in. Homework ranged from ten minutes to half-an hour a night, four days a week. There was no serious expectation of student revision at home. They didn’t even have text books. They didn’t have exams except for bi-annual government administered Naplan, which has no consequences for the student.
Worried about Australia’s falling Maths standards, I would say to my kids, ‘Do some extra math exercises.’ ‘It’s the WEEKEND,’ they would reply. ‘Teacher said no homework on WEEKENDS.’ Where there are two different standards, one at home, one at school, any normal kid will adopt the standard that requires the least effort, unless there is a compelling reason otherwise.
In the East, the teacher is like a pitcher, ready to pour knowledge into empty vessels, their students. To be successful, the student needs a good teacher and needs to be willing to work hard and to obey the teacher. Eastern education systems tend to produce workers who are highly disciplined, diligent, respectful and compliant before authority.
In the West, students learn by asking questions, and seeking answers to their questions. A successful student then is one who asks good questions; the key to knowledge lies within the student, latent. The role of the teacher is just to facilitate the process of discovery. Western education systems and societies places a premium on creativity, critical-thinking, individuality and independence.
After graduating, I had a brief stint in broadcasting. In a small news studio that we were setting up, before we had the right equipment, we used to use a white piece of A4 paper in front of the camera to ‘white balance’ it. The camera calibrates all other colours against this white.
I used to think that an education system is only for equipping a person with knowledge and skills for employment. Now I realise it is much more. Underpinning all education systems are a set of values. The system is designed to produce what the society values.
The skills we learn at school are like the complex circuitry in the video camera to capture moving images. But the more basic question is what are our values? What is the ‘white’ against which we calibrating all subsequent action and aspiration?
So when school-related conflicts arise, I try to take the long view and ask myself, what value is at stake? What value do I want to inculcate in this child? Education is not what it used to be, with the Internet now a repository of knowledge, and people expected to re-skill multiple times throughout their working life. People’s values, however, still inform their decisions, guide their aspiration and shape their achievements.
This is a huge topic and I know I haven’t done it justice in 900 words. I would love to hear from you in the comments below – what were your school days like? What values underpinned your education? Do you see any differences between how it used to be and how it is now? How do you negotiate differences in parent-child expectations over schooling?