The right answers or the right questions?
Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Did you hear a collective groan last week, emitting from the likes of Pantai Dalam, Serdang and Bangi? It's back to the semester grind for students at Universiti Malaya, Universiti Putra, Universiti Kebangsaan, and Malaysia's public universities and their now synchronised calendars.
I'm sure there was concerted laughter, too, zesty chatter, and some sighs of anticipation for the year ahead. Academic staff for the next ten months will have to juggle research, teaching, and filling out the cancerously growing heap of paperwork. The cycle repeats. We probably groaned the most.
For me, opening week was a big question mark. The course I am teaching, for the first time, is foremost about asking questions.
Well, it's called research methodology and the textbook introduction would explain that at the end of the course students are supposed to know how to write a research proposal, do a literature review, state a hypothesis, get data, interpret findings, cite references properly and reach some conclusion.
Nothing wrong with that answer, but had I rushed to feed it to my students, I would have perpetrated our national fetish for having the "right answer".
And that answer is found in the handouts, or the downloadable Powerpoint slides, which can be memorised and recited on demand.
The more I teach, the more I am convinced that the fundamental problem with our education system is we have lost the art of asking good questions. Students are barely interested, not encouraged and often not permitted, to enquire openly and critically.
I asked my students: Which is better, to give the right answer, or to ask a good question? That's a leading question, I admit, and maybe caused all who bothered to put up their hands to rank questioning skills above answering skills. (Perhaps the others were waiting for me to give the right answer?) But some replies were illuminating.
One student put things in sequential perspective.
Questions come before answers, so to get good answers we must ask good questions. Good point.
Another student, referring to exams, said what's the point of having the right answer when it does not even answer the question? That seems nonsensical - how can the right answer essentially be wrong? But he made an astute observation about student habits and teaching modes. Having uploaded notes, pastyear questions and model answers in their brains, students offload all that stuff at the slightest trigger, whether or not it's relevant.
The fear of writing something the teacher did not say is greater than the risk of not answering the question.
Many students obviously can think for themselves and know the importance of asking questions, but are not given the chance.
Teaching the techniques of research is ultimately futile unless we also inculcate enquiring minds. I hope my class can make a small contribution.
A related and not small matter concerns the cheers resonating from Angkasapuri on the night of Sept 15. If you didn't hear it then, you've read about it or been told by now.
Yes, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak delivered his big Malaysia Day eve speech from public broadcasting headquarters, promising ISA abolition and replacement, cancellation of decades-old emergency declarations, and partial review of repressive laws like the Printing Presses and Publications Act.
He did so in the usual manner of giving all the "right answers", such that questioning these moves shows ungratefulness or an unpatriotic spirit.
The national ruling party expresses a newfound desire for our "dynamic democracy" to be "on par with other democracies in the world". Many of us have held that desire for long, and some have sacrificed enormously for the cause. We should be grateful to the patriots who have fought against the ISA and obnoxious laws and those who have been detained without trial.
Just one question then, a soft, clarifying one: What motivated this promise to repeal the ISA? Najib answered at his Aidilfitri open house on Sept 18, it is "not due to pressure from any quarter".
Excuse me, I cannot resist one more: I thought the basic thing about democracy is that government responds to (positive) pressure from the rakyat and our representatives or organisations. Now the government declares Malaysia will democratise but not in any way respond to public demands. Huh?
No wonder the flood of questions. To sample a few that are out there:
- What exactly will replace the ISA?
- So the need to annually renew PPPA licence will go, but government will retain power to revoke licences. Will such power be discretionary or restricted to very specific and extraordinary circumstances? Can revoked licences be challenged in court?
- Where is the freedom of information act?
- And let me add, what about the archaic Statistics Act, which constricts research? It looks like the Prime Minister's "right answers" are not answering the good, important and burning questions about our nation's future.