Q&A: Elmarié Potgieter (RITE Education) discusses big issues in education

Elmarié Potgieter, managing director of the RITE Group of Companies, is known for her work in education transformation and has led the design and implementation of large scale projects across several countries including Malaysia. She is a well-known speaker at local and international conferences and also runs sponsored leadership projects in Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Tanzania and Lebanon.

In this post, she shares some reflections about this month’s Dialog Pendidikan topic: “Which big educational issues should we be discussing?

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your involvement in education.

My mother was a teacher, so I started “attending school” even before I was born, and I was infused by her ideas day and night. I first stepped into a classroom to teach Grade 12 History when I had just turned 20. That is where it all started. I realised that a different approach was necessary! I wanted to give my students more than just factual knowledge but rather a passion for lifelong learning and thinking.

My search for solutions intensified as Head of Department at a private school during the end of the Apartheid years in South Africa. This is when I first encountered alternative education approaches such as CogNet (Cognitive Education Network) and brain-based education. As an education advisor for Nord Anglia Education in the UAE, I won a scholarship to attend training with the Kagan Institute in the US, and immediately realised the potential of cooperative learning – which immediately transformed learning experiences for students across the 24 schools in Abu Dhabi.

From working as Professional Development Manager in the UAE, I then came to Malaysia as General Manager of LeapEd, a Khazanah Owned Company, where I led the design of the Trust Schools Project, the PreStasi Programme for the MOE and collaboration with Teach For Malaysia in Penang, to name a few.

In 2016, I decided that I needed more freedom to do things the way I wanted and started my own company. At the same time I also acted as CEO for MCII, the Malaysian Collective Impact Initiative, but due to the rapid expansion and creation of a second company, I stepped into my current role in a full-time capacity at the end of 2017. My current focus in Malaysia is on the Genosis Project, which is spearheaded by Agensi Innovasi Malaysia; EngagED – a teacher training project in Klang and Sabah; as well as the upcoming launch of ThinkWise: Little People Big Ideas, which is a curriculum for the development of thinking skills in young children. Working in education must be one of the hardest and at the same time one of the most rewarding jobs ever!

Beyond the newspaper headlines, what are the educational issues or questions that Malaysians should be talking about?

Malaysians will only be able to talk about things that matter when they embrace global ideas and discard archaic ideas about learning. You simply can’t move forward when you have a foot firmly planted in the past and you cannot prevent the change that’s going to impact you or your children.

So, we need to focus on understanding the changing world and the implications it has for our children. A very common saying in Malaysian education circles is “It takes a long time for our teachers to change.” My thoughts about this are that while the change in education is so slow, generations of children lose out on the opportunity to learn about Artificial Intelligence, The UN Sustainable Development Goals and what we can do to help achieve those targets.

Parents are still pushing their children to take on the “Big Five” most popular careers – doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer, businessman – without realising that these jobs are going to be extinct in the not-too-distant future! What is the use of an accountant or a banker if people will be dealing in cryptocurrency? What use is the doctor when AI can diagnose diseases via tests you can submit online?

But for sure, the future is bleak if we don’t focus on developing technology alongside morality and ethics. Character building. Empathy and compassion. Resilience. It is a fact that our kids need to be more resilient and that Gen Zs are more interested in meaning and social issues – and therefore we should really think about our approach, not only in schools but also universities!

Can you tell us about one conversation you’ve had about Malaysian education that has stuck with you? Why was it meaningful?

I had a conversation with a group of parents from a Chinese-medium school who attended a presentation in which I showcased some videos of one of the schools where RITE Education has been working. In the videos, we showed children participating in Cooperative Learning strategies – sharing ideas, presenting, moving around and meeting up with partners – while looking incredibly happy!

The parents who approached me were overwhelmed and literally begged me to help. They lamented the state of their own kids’ school where they are being forced to attend after school and weekend tuition classes. Where traditional chalk and talk methods with an extreme focus on student exam marks ruled, and stress levels of the children started affecting the families as well.

The desperation of the parents and the feeling of being excluded as partners in their children’s education is what stuck with me. In many schools, parents are not really given a voice, or the opinions of only a handful of influential people are being heard. This is part of the culture that has to change because, as the well-known African proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” A child’s primary educators are his or her parents. Education starts in the womb, and the family plays an extremely important role in ensuring that learning is applied and extended to real life. It is the absolute responsibility of schools to find mechanisms to communicate effectively to parents and to engage them in this partnership.

What resources do you rely on to learn about education in Malaysia?

My first resource is the first-hand experience gained from observing teaching and learning in classrooms. This is where you really learn about the state of education: by seeing what the learning experiences of our children are.

Secondly, from interviewing teachers and school leaders in school and also during the workshops we present, as well as hearing their views and feedback during activities. I also attend conferences and follow many teaching-related Facebook pages.

Then of course, discussions with PPD officers, JPN officials, and officers from different divisions at a federal level. I’ve also delivered training to these officers, which helped me develop a more holistic view.

Furthermore, in preparation for the Genosis Programme, we’ve studied the KSSM and KSSR curriculums extensively and looked at textbooks and schemes of work. I’ve also had discussions with the Director General and the Minister of Education. Data is not always that accessible, but we also do look at the EPRD releases on the state of education.

What are some barriers to improving the Malaysian education system?

I think the system should be streamlined. There are simply too many divisions and layers, which means that messages do not cascade correctly from Federal to District level. I’ve experienced this countless times – to the extent that I’ve asked Federal Directors if I could video them when they shared certain pieces of information so that I could show this to the officers in PPD and teachers. For example, the misunderstanding about the interpretation of the curriculum and planning as well as what exactly 21st century teaching is!

Furthermore, there are the barriers that people create for themselves, believing that they always need an official stamped letter before they could take action. This is a barrier created by fear of being wrong! Or a fear of taking ownership of the classroom without worrying about consequences – which results in what I call a state of “learned helplessness” that exist with many teachers. One only has to listen to “Little Chucky”, the winner of the 21st century teacher award, when he says: “Barriers are self-imposed. I have decided to bring the world to my children and I know what is best for them.”

Those hierarchical barriers that are often not system-related, but rather an inherited attitude of “the principal is king” or “the PPD officers are masters to be followed closely”. Am I advocating rebellion? No. I am advocating choice, and for schools to use the autonomy that is inherent in the system. This is why some schools can do it so well and others … well, visit and judge for yourself.

What do you hope for the future of education in Malaysia?

I’ve just returned from a fantastic conference in Finland where I also met the Director of Finnish Education. I left the Nordic Business Forum with the strong intention to write a book about applying modern business principles to schools. Leaders need to be brave and in Brené Brown’s words, should “Dare to Lead”. School principals and teachers should restore the public’s trust in education through really personifying professional pride through research, teacher leadership in the classroom, through reflection and innovation.

I wish that teachers can passionately and proudly advocate the teaching profession as the best job in the world – which I firmly believe it is!

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 the chance to vote on which issues we should be discussing at Dialog Pendidikan, see our Pengenalan post from the beginning of this month. And for a list of other resources on education in Malaysia, see our Apa Kata post. You can also find our posts on our Facebook page. 🙂

And look out for our synopsis post next week. Thank you!

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