(This is a pinned “About” post. Scroll down for blog updates.)

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outside the library of the school I taught in, Nov 2015

I am a Malaysian PhD student in Education at the University of Cambridge. My thesis research looks at teacher accountability policies across countries.

Prior to starting the PhD in 2016, I spent two years teaching English in a high-need secondary school. I have also worked on a few research projects, including a guide to help Malaysian education researchers work with TIMSS and PISA microdata. For details of past and current research projects, click here.

Some of my non-academic writing is listed on this page, and my CV is available here. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email me.

The posts on this blog are a hodgepodge loosely related to educational research. But one of my goals here is to keep my Malay language skills from getting too rusty while I live in England, so you’ll probably (hopefully) see some excerpts from articles and books that I’ve translated into Malay.

If anything on this blog is useful or interesting to you, I’d love to hear from you, whether in a comment or via email.


Column: Cilisos piece on Malaysia’s PISA 2015 results

Continuing with the PISA 2015 theme, I wrote a Cilisos piece here giving an introduction to PISA and explaining the issues with Malaysia’s PISA 2015 data.

Cilisos is like for Malaysian current issues, though somewhat politer. They also have a Malay-language counterpart, Soscili, as well as a wonderful team who put up with my rambling and nitpicking about statistics. (Thanks, Uihua!)

Radio interview: on Malaysia’s exclusion from official PISA 2015 results

Last week, I spoke on BFM, a business-oriented Malaysian radio station, in a ten-minute segment about the issues with Malaysia’s PISA 2015 results. The podcast is available here.

Background: The results from PISA 2015 (i.e. the most recent cycle of the triennial Programme for International Student Assessment) were released on the 6th of December.

When the results came out, many Malaysians were surprised to find that we weren’t included in the main results list, because sampling issues meant that our data weren’t comparable to other countries, or to previous PISA cycles. (For one local commentary, see this press statement by Ong Kian Ming, an opposition MP.)

Two personal notes:

  1. As far as research goes, it’s pretty frustrating that Malaysia’s 2015 PISA data have these quality issues. As far as I know, PISA and TIMSS (whatever their shortcomings and challenges) are the only accessible individual-level data on Malaysian education, because the Ministry doesn’t release national student and exam data.
  2. Evidently, I should get more practice at speaking about technical things in complete sentences, haha.

On respect and trust for teachers

“The teaching profession needs two things in order to thrive—respect and trust. The two go together. You can say nice words and be grateful to teachers, but if you do not trust them as professionals, you are not showing them respect. Trust means giving teachers (appropriate) autonomy in their classrooms, but it also means giving them influence over policy—real influence, not a few token teachers on some committee—and it means giving them control over their own professional growth. We need to stop fixing teachers and create environments in which teachers themselves fix their own profession. We need to trust them to do so.

“Will some teachers abuse that trust? Of course. That happens in every profession. We can deal with it. Far more will not, however, and on balance education will be greatly improved for everyone, and most especially for the students.”

John Ewing, president of Math for America

Danielle Allen on education and equality

A friend recently passed me the text of political theorist Danielle Allen‘s excellent 2014 Tanner Lectures on education and equality.

In the first lecture, “Two concepts of education“, Allen argues that current U.S. debates about education lack clarity about the purpose of education, and that this ambiguity skews policy approaches to equality in education. Drawing on John Rawls’ “Two concepts of rules” (1955), she posits that this murkiness comes partly from confusion between the aims of state education systems, and the aims of particular instances of teaching. While the former, social concept of education may vary with institutional goals—for example, the U.S. Common Core standards frequently mention “college and career readiness—the aim of individual instances of education must always be the development the student’s capabilities.

Allen goes on to unpack what it means to develop individual human capabilities. Here, she uses Hannah Arendt’s The human condition  (1958), which identifies three core human activities: labour, activities undertaken to enable us to feed ourselves; work, creative activities that shape our human spaces and relationships; and action, political activities that determine our shared freedoms. Allen agrees with Arendt’s assertion that every person should participate in all three core activities, rather than different social strata undertaking different core roles. Hence, education should prepare people for: (1) “bread-winning”; (2) “civic and political engagement”; (3a) “creative self-expression and world-making”; and (3b) “rewarding relationships in spaces of intimacy and leisure”. Thus, this humanistic approach to education harmonises the individual concept of education (i.e. education to enable each student’s flourishing in labour (1), work (3a and 3b), and action (2)), and the utilitarian concept of education (i.e. education for economic activity (1) and civic participation (2)). She then discusses some implications of these dual lenses—humanistic individual and utilitarian social—for accountability policies in education.

In the second lecture, “Participatory readiness“, Allen observes that public discourse (at least in the U.S.) about education usually neglects preparation for civic engagement, despite the fact that the civic is part of both the social and individual justifications for education. Her concept of “participatory readiness”, however, encompasses preparation for effective engagement in all social spheres, whether politics, the workplace, or groups of friends. Specifically, participatory readiness comprises: “verbal empowerment [i.e. interpretive and expressive skills], democratic knowledge [i.e relational bonding and bridging skills], and a rich understanding of the strategies and tactics that undergird efficiency”.

Allen then argues that “the most effective way for us to direct our education system toward egalitarian ends could well be to focus on participatory readiness”; because this would equip people not only to flourish across all spheres of human experience, but also to exert influence in the political institutions that determine how equitably the rewards of education are distributed. (In contrast, if the education system aims primarily to enable all graduates to get high-paying jobs, there will be little impact on equality if those in power alter the sociopolitical landscape to exclude certain people from such jobs, regardless of their qualifications.) This leads to a defense of the humanities in education, because:

Education’s most fundamental egalitarian value is in its development of us as language-using creatures. Our linguistic capacities are what, fundamentally, education taps, and it is their great unfolding that empowers students. … As we cultivate verbal empowerment in our students, we build the foundation for a politically competitive social and political system.

Although Allen doesn’t seem like a fan of economistic justifications for education, her arguments here dovetail with some the work I’ve been reading for my current research project, which argue that a central component of economic competitiveness is verbal and social competence—asking good questions, presenting your views persuasively, collaborating productively—because technological advances and automations can’t replace these skills. I also see resonances of her framework in Malaysian schools and civil society, where different mother tongues and media of instruction  feed into separate sociopolitical spheres—impoverished “bridging skills”, so to speak—which have all kinds of implications for equality and corporate flourishing.

A book containing the lectures, along with commentaries on the lectures by other scholars, will be published next month.

Danielle Allen membincangkan pendidikan dan kesaksamaan

Beberapa minggu lepas, saya diberi salinan teks daripada Kuliah Tanner yang disampaikan oleh ahli teori politik Danielle Allen di Stanford University pada tahun 2014.

Dalam kuliah pertama, “Two concepts of education (Dua konsep pendidikan)”, Allen merujuk kepada dua pemikir terkemuka untuk membincangkan matlamat yang patut dikejar dalam pendidikan. Daripada “Two concepts of rules (Two concepts of rules)” karya John Rawls (1955), Allen membezakan antara alasan sosial untuk sistem dan institusi pendidikan, yang biasanya berdasarkan manfaat umum seperti kemajuan ekonomi; dan alasan individu untuk setiap kali pendidikan berlaku, yang sepatutnya berdasarkan perkembangan kebolehan setiap pelajar yang terlibat.

Kemudian, Allen merujuk kepada The human condition (Keadaan manusia) oleh Hannah Arendt (1958). Dalam buku ini, Arendt berkata bahawa kehidupan yang bermakna dan bersepadu merangkumi tiga jenis perbuatan teras: kerja buruh (labour) untuk mengisi perut; kerja ciptaan (work) untuk membina ruang kemanusiaan secara fizikal dan sosial; dan tindakan (action), iaitu usaha bersama untuk menentukan hala tuju politik masyarakat dan negara. Dengan fahaman sebegini tentang kehidupan yang terbaik, Allen berpendapat bahawa matlamat pendidikan daripada segi individu adalah untuk menyediakan pelajar untuk: (1) mencari makan; (2) mengambil bahagian dalam dunia politik dan sivik; (3a) menggunakan daya cipta dalam wacana, seni, dan masyarakat; dan (3b) menjalin hubungan yang bermakna. Menurut Allen, pendikan patut mengejar kesaksamaan dalam semua kesediaan inidividu yang menyeluruh ini, dan bukan sahaja dalam kesediaan (1) dan (2) yang memberi manfaat dari sudut pandangan umum.

Dalam kuliah kedua, “Participatory readiness (Kesediaan mengambil bahagian”, Allen menegaskan bahawa cara yang paling berkesan untuk meningkatkan kesaksamaan melalui pendidikan adalah dengan memberi tumpuan kepada kesediaan pelajar untuk mengambil bahagian dalam semua dunia sosial. Dalam takrifannya, kesediaan mengambil bahagian ini terdiri daripada: kemahiran mentafsir dan menyampaikan pendapat, kemahiran menjalin hubungan, dan kecekapan dalam tentang strategi dan pendekatan dalam perhubungan. Dengan kesediaan ini, kita mampu bersuara dan mengakibatkan perubahan dalam arena awam, demi kesaksamaan.

Sebuah buku yang mengandungi teks kuliah ini bersama ulasan daripada cendekiawan lain akan diterbitkan bulan depan.