by Caryl Teh

The COVID-19 pandemic is a black swan event that has disrupted every aspect of our once normal lives, especially education. With close to no notice, teachers lost their main avenue to connect with students, parents became teachers, and homes became schools… indefinitely. So YTL Foundation invited three professors from the University of Birmingham and two Malaysian educators to share their insights on tackling Education in An Age of Uncertainty. This was their first ever online dialogue, broadcasted live on Facebook, and we wanted to share some of the main take-aways for those of you who missed it.

The agenda of the dialogue was as follows: 

  • Professor Julie Allan – The Challenge of Reaching All of Our Children: Inclusion, Equality and Diversity 
  • Professor Colin Diamond – Leadership in Times of Crisis 
  • Professor Kristján Kristjánson – The Importance of Character Education for Troubled Times 
  • Panel discussion moderated by Chan Soon Seng, CEO of Teach For Malaysia. He was joined by an educationist of 34 years to provide a local perspective, Puan Chee Poh Kiem, principal of St Mary’s Secondary School Kuala Lumpur.

Part 1: Assuring the concerned parents

First, we’d like to support Puan Chee’s efforts to allay any concerns that parents may have about how teaching and learning is being done now. 

Concern 1: Schools needed a new learning platform because physical classrooms are no longer an option.
Don’t worry: YTL Foundation partnered with FrogAsia and Teach for Malaysia to create Learn from Home – an interactive online learning platform where teachers add new weekly lessons from the government school syllabus from preschool all the way up to Form 5. The lessons don’t just teach kids, but also help parents guide their kids so everyone has a chance to learn.

Concern 2: Ensuring online access for students
Don’t worry: YTL Foundation provided all students (including some university students) with 40GB SIM cards. Those from B40 families were also eligible for free phones and a one year data plan.

Concern 3: Reaching students who have no internet access (eg. B40 families). Suggested offline solutions:

  • Loan out school laptops and Chromebooks
  • Keep the school library open for students to study
  • Set up a depository centre as a pick-up and drop-off point for assignments at the school guard house
  • Prof Julie: For the younger children, have TV subtitles so that even if kids can’t follow lessons, they can still learn to read (something that literary organisations have been lobbying for)
  • Prof Colin: Teachers in Lombok are taking bags of learning resources to houses and teaching in small groups. Parents are invited to the school/local library to collect bags of books.

Concern 4: Many St Mary students and school cleaners were depending on schools for food.
Don’t worry: St Mary mobilised Kechara Soup Kitchen to supply meals.

Concern 5: Students’ and teachers’ inboxes were overwhelmingly flooded with worksheets.
Don’t worry: Puan Chee started screening through to determine what was feasible before sending out.

Concern 6: Maintaining school facilities.
Example from Puan Chee: A school freezer in the culinary centre broke down from overheating and lack of continuous use.
Don’t worry: Alumni donated money to get it fixed and serviced. Now, routine check-ins are conducted to ensure that school facilities are being maintained.

Concern 7: Most kids at home felt like they were on holiday and no one attended the 7.30am classes.
Don’t worry: The regular school timetable was adjusted and the earliest classes began at 9am instead.

Part 2: Evolving the traditional teacher’s skillset

Second, we’d like to encourage teachers to adopt a more positive mindset about the current situation. Datin Kathleen Chew Wai Lin, Programme Director of YTL Foundation, said that borderless online classes and learning brings new dimensions that we must continue to explore even after MCO ends. So rather than seeing recent pedagogical changes as problems, you should view them as opportunities to learn new teaching or mentoring methods. Upskill yourself! Here are some goals that the panel highlighted you can work towards in this season:

1. IT teaching skills training
Example: Other than learning how to use the Learn from Home platform, teachers could send lessons or tutorials to their students by recording voice or video messages on Whatsapp or Telegram.

2. Emotionally-literate leadership
If being an inclusive teacher is all about the relationship built between a teacher and his or her students, then it will help to be less concerned about grades or attainment, and care much more about the student’s personal wellbeing.

3. Explore the possibility of virtual field trips
Just an option for a fun activity. Some schools in the UK are visiting museums online. Teachers asked students to reflect on and discuss the moral or emotional message that a piece of artwork is trying to convey.

4. The Jubilee Centre (UK) has made their Character Education and Personal Development (CPD) course available online
The course teaches teachers how to grow their students into others-focused individuals rather than always focusing on self – their goal in life should be to make a positive impact on society.

Part 3: Food for re-thought

1. What is the main purpose of education if there are no exams?
Prof Colin: The current school system was established a long time ago. It’s about time we re-evaluate whether it is still relevant today
Prof Kristjan: Also, there needs to be clearer communication. There is currently a misunderstanding between parents and teachers about what the main goal of education is: each group thinks that the other is only interested in grade attainment at the expense of developing a healthy emotional, moral and social life for students. But in truth, both parties value the latter as more important. Parents and teachers need to get on the same page.

2. Mental health stigma
Prof Colin: It’s ok not to be ok. Some brave school leaders admit that “this is not a good time for me” – that emotional candour and openness gives permission for colleagues to acknowledge that they’re in the same position. You don’t need to maintain a stiff upper lip. Instead, we should learn to connect emotionally much stronger for the future.

3. It doesn’t take physical presence to build strong friendships or show that you care!
Puan Chee: In school, a lot of teachers express affirmation and love by physical hugs. Social distancing means teachers must resort to other love languages to show students that they care, eg. words of affirmation/acts of service.
Prof Kristjan: I’ve always believed that good friendships require engagement in shared activities which required mutual physical presence. Lockdown has proven that good friendships can be forged and maintained online.

During this online dialogue, we were honoured to have the very talented Chan Wai, a graphic recorder, illustrate the discussions in real time! Take a look at his amazing works of art:

Puan Chee, quoting Charles Darwin, said “it’s not the strongest of species that survives, nor most intelligent – it is the one that is most adaptable to change”, and Alvin Toffler foresaw that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be the one that cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” We hope that this online dialogue has enlightened you on how you can adapt, and what you should unlearn or relearn. Wishing all teachers, parents and students all the best with adapting to our changing world.

Check out the full online dialogue here and a mum’s experience walking her children through Learn from Home here.