Creating Smart Schools


I spent the day today in a school here in Perak, Malaysia, interviewing a teacher about his experiences in using ICT with his senior physics class. Until just a few weeks ago this teacher had not used ICT at all with his class, and was very skeptical about whether ICT had any contribution at all to make to the subject of Physics. After a little coaxing from his in-school ICT facilitator, he decided to try using the internet to access resources to support his work with his senior physics class.

This resulted in him finding a site with short video clips of crash impact tests on cars, that he was able to use (along with some other sites) with his students. The impact of this on him and his students (I also interviewed two of them) was profound. He is now a convert to the idea that ICT may indeed have something to offer the area of physics, and is now exploring the use of computer-based simulations to bring the static images in his physics text books to life!

Quite a turnaround in just two weeks. Now his challenge will be to get enough access to the school’s two computer labs for his students, and to ensure that he doesn’t get distracted from meeting the school and department of education’s requirements in terms of curriculum coverage and examination preparation for his students.

The work I’ve been involved with in Malaysia in the past couple of weeks has made me very aware that we must be focusing on change at two levels in order to achieve a truly “Smart School”. These are:

  1. Teacher beliefs and behaviours – as exemplified by the physics teacher above. This experience has shifted both his pre-conceived ideas about ICT and his subject area, and has changed (albeit in a small way) some of his behaviours as a teacher. Because such beliefs and behaviours take a long time to develop and embed, they will also take a long time to change!
  2. System and infrastructure issues, including curriculum, assessment, ICT access, timetables, class size etc.

Just as in New Zealand we are finding here that we can work with teachers to bring about changes in their beliefs and behaviours, only to find that barriers in regard to systems and infrastructure prevent them from pursuing what they want to do. Conversely, attempting to solve the problem purely at a system level by, for instance, installing lots of computer equipment in schools, will not in itself guarantee that it will be used effectively (if at all!)

An effective professional development, and change management process must embrace and address both of these dimensions.

While I have been working here in Perak, some of my New Zealand colleagues have been attending the International Smart Schools Conference in Kuala Lumpur. In his opening address at the conference the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, addressed this very issue in a rather hard hitting speech in which he made calls for massive change to the school system in Malaysia. In particular, he emphasised the need to do better in relation to the use of ICT, saying “They are called smart schools. But, apart from computers, there is little that is smart about them.”– and calling for a massive change in the “processes and procedures” entrenched in the school system.

Of course Najib is not alone with these concerns. Around the globe education and political leaders are expressing concern at the lack of any real change in terms of how ICT is being used (or not as the case may be) in schools. Many are questioning whether the vast amounts of money being spent are worth it, while others are suggesting punitive approaches for schools and teachers who aren’t (in their opinion) moving fast enough.

I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of the Smart School reform ideas here in Malaysia, and I can imagine we must be due for some similar posturing soon in New Zealand, given that there’s a general election coming up. I do remain optimistic, however, as I reflect on the experience today with my physics teaching friend, and his two students, that change is achievable provided the two dimensions I referred to earlier are addressed equally in any professional development effort.

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