Q&A: Danial Rahman (OpenLearning) on streaming

(Untuk versi BM, klik di sini.)

What is your involvement in education?

Previously, I was an aide to the former Minister at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education. My role was quite unique: I was in charge of media and press matters. Everything from speech writing to social media.

One of the best parts of the job was to travel the country and meet education stakeholders – from students to researchers, teachers to even school security guards – and interview them about their educational experiences. For example: I met a teacher who drove 80km daily, including a nearly two-hour long ride into the jungle to teach Orang Asli children in the remote areas of Gua Musang, Kelantan. There was also a university student who became rich by selling kacang putih, an Iraqi university dean who created the first online course in Malaysia and a group of researchers who used drones to map paddy fields. Fun fact: Many of my writings can be found in my column which I write monthly in The Star newspaper here.

My current role is as Head of Communications & Strategic Initiatives (we call it the CSI Team) at an education technology company founded in Australia known as OpenLearning.com. We developed our own online learning platform. Our vision is to provide quality education around the world. Over 1.8 million students have enrolled onto our platform which can also be used by educators as an entrepreneurship tool. We have partnered with the best universities in Australia and Malaysia to deliver courses on everything – from cybersecurity engineering to water safety.

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of removing streaming in schools?

I am in support of removing streaming, and I believe that this has many advantages. For context, Finland, which has one of the best education systems, has not practised streaming students for a long time. And recently in Singapore, a top country when it comes to PISA exams, has also said that streaming has a detrimental effect on students.
So, an advantage of removing streaming is that students are likely to influence each other’s education outcomes when they are in the same class. There’s enough research to suggest this. Students have their own quirks and abilities – some excel academically, some in sports, some in problem solving and leadership. Some perform well as individuals and others in groups. By having students together, it’s more likely they’ll develop these skills collectively. And let’s not forget, in this 4th Industrial Revolution, where automation and Artificial Intelligence take over routine human tasks, working together and collaboration will be very important skills to have.
Not streaming also reinforces peer learning and exposes pupils to a more diversified environment, which is good in the long run. Students learn to support each other and use their skills and advantages to complement others’ ‘weaknesses’ and all become stronger together. Indirectly, this helps teachers – previously people used to describe a teacher as ‘a sage on the stage’. But this is changing. Now, teachers are ‘guides on the side’. By not streaming, teachers can mix students with different strengths, and facilitate the development process. This actually reduces the burden on teachers in moulding individual students and encourages peer support in the developmental process.

Conversely, by streaming them, the differences between students is magnified. Some are perceived as ‘smarter’ than others (we all remember this from our school days. Students in the top class vs students in the bottom-most class). This creates unnecessary competition; it makes students think they are ‘lesser’ and it not good for self-esteem. Streaming in this sense also concretises the exam-obsessed nature of our system. Students (and parents) want their students to ‘score’ so they are in the best class.

Some schools in Malaysia even stream their Standard 1 students as a way to ensure that their school average grade remains high. This is clearly very stressful for both parents and students themselves. Fortunately, beginning in 2019, MOE has forbidden this practice.

A disadvantage, if at all, is that academically-inclined students may be held back, especially when classes are too big or there are too many students in a form. Also, one of the often cited reasons for streaming is that students in less academically-inclined classes can be given special attention/intervention or focus on more technical and vocational skills.

I tend to disagree with the so-called disadvantages. Firstly, academically-inclined students, as mentioned above, can be inspired by the advantages of other students. Secondly, classroom size gives more justification to peer learning (empower the students to empower each other). And third, technical and vocational education should also be an encouraged option for ‘academically’ inclined students (and not be seen as any lesser). In fact, we need more technical and vocational students in this country. Also, some students blossom later than others (I was one of them) and we should not write off those who appear not too academically-inclined at first.

What do you think are possible areas of this move that haven’t been considered?

At some point, we should not stream by age. One of my education inspirations, Sir Ken Robinson, in one of the most popular TED Talks, mentioned how streaming by age was mimicking the industry-era factory assembly line. It was efficient and practical, but made no sense from a learning perspective. He argues we should allow students to progress based on their readiness and ability.

We should cater to the students’ level of development (hey, biologically we don’t all grow at the same pace! Why should education be any different?) This enables teachers to identify students who need more attention. This is important – as it is, students who complete school in Malaysia tend to lack the basic 3Rs – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. Low grades do not stop them from progressing within the system. “Just doing enough to pass” is not something we should tolerate. We owe a duty to all students to equip them with the basics.

Conversely, students who excel should be able to skip ahead and may even be able to finish school earlier. (During my parents’ time, our education system actually enabled this – but skipping by 1-2 years at most!) This means that such students are not too bored but are able to be intellectually stimulated earlier on and the potential to grow becomes greater.

Do you have any other thoughts on the matter?

Starting something like this won’t be easy. It’ll take time because we need to achieve a balance in the different strengths of the students to make peer learning work. It’ll also mean reskilling and retraining teachers to view their duties differently, and to change the mindset of parents to be more accepting of a non-exam-centric approach to education.

Policy change takes time. This was one of the key lessons I learned when I was at MOE and MOHE. And if we want the best education for our children, as members of the public, we must give our leaders and policymakers the time to see it through.


If someone asked you those questions, how would you answer? Share your thoughts below, and please remember to follow our comments policy. (It is not compulsory to include your name, email, and website in order to comment.)

For more information about streaming, see our Pengenalan post, “How should students be grouped into classes?”, and for a selection of comments from our readers, see  our Apa Kata post. For even more comments, visit our Facebook page. And look out for our final synopsis post about streaming next week. Thank you!

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