Learning and Love

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Joe and grandmother Amarda Velly seated in on bed in one rented room

By Alvin Ung

In early 2007, when Joe, 7, showed up at the La Salle Learning Centre for the first time, he was already left behind. The Standard One boy could not read, write or speak in English or Malay. He could not recognise any letter, number or colour. But the thin, small boy was a survivor. He knew how to out-punch bullies who picked on him.

“Joe needs to put in more effort,” a teacher wrote in his Wellesley Primary School report card which had more red ink than blue ink.

But who would encourage Joe to put in more effort? He wasn’t living with his parents. He was staying with a legal guardian – his grandmother, actually – who worked at a local bank sweeping floors and washing toilets. Joe, his older brother and grandmother shared one bed in a plywood house under a mango tree near the Weld Quay area. Books and homework made no sense to Joe.

The good news is that concerted effort has been invested to ensure that children like Joe can go to school. The recent National Education Blueprint 2012-2025 reports that enrolment rates in primary school are nearly universal, while dropout rates have plunged to 0.2% in 2011.

(The names of the children have been changed to protect their identity.)

However, there are still countless thousands of boys and girls like Joe who “fall through the cracks” in Malaysia. Roughly one out of five of Malaysia’s students failed to meet the minimum proficiency levels in Mathematics and Science in 2007, according to the blueprint.

Every year the government spends the most on education; in 2012, RM37 billion, or 16% of the national budget, was allocated the ministry of education. Nevertheless, Malaysian students’ performance has dropped from above average to bottom one-third among 73 countries in less than ten years, according to an international survey. “The system may not be allocating funds towards the factors that have the highest impact on student outcomes,” wrote the authors of the blueprint.

In recent years, major efforts have been expanded to reverse the trends. The government think-tank Pemandu has spearheaded education within the Economic Transformation Plan.

For example, the first entry-point project in the ETP education plan is to build more than 4,000 pre-schools in partnership with the private sector with the aim of increasing pre-school enrolment from 67% in 2009 to 87% in 2012 and 97% by 2020.

“The government realises it cannot do all these things on its own,” said Tengku Nurul Azian Shahriman, education director at Pemandu. She added that the ETP team has also been facilitating efforts with the private sector to build more early child care centres, international schools and distance learning institutions – as well as improve teacher training.

“We need to work with the private sector. If there are churches and mission schools partnering with the government, it can only be for the common good, which is to improve student outcome,” Azian said, concurring that the biggest challenges lie in educating the bottom 40% — students who are considered the least, the lost and the left behind.

“Children belonging to the lowest income groups suffer the worst consequences of lower quality education. If neglected, they will continue to live in a vicious cycle that keeps them in their current socio-economic condition,” warned a January 2013 national study called “Giving Voice to the Poor,” published by IDEAS, a public policy think-tank (disclaimer: I sit on IDEAS’s project advisory group on this study).

How do we help the poorest and weakest students break the vicious cycle of poverty? What are some models of education which are able to create maximum impact with minimal resources?

With these questions in mind, I flew to Penang on a hot, muggy day in early March to meet Joe and his grandmother at the La Salle Learning Centre.

Joe has a fascinating story. Despite a rough start in Standard One, Joe didn’t get left behind. He obtained C’s in Standard Four. Joe passed UPSR with the following grades: A, B, C, C and D. Joe was now a Form One student at SMK Hutchings scoring mostly A’s and B’s. Instead of falling through the cracks, Joe is now running in the middle of the pack.

Noticeboard of the La Salle Learning Centre off Penang Road

What spurred Joe’s gradual but inexorable climb upward in his academic performance?

“The La Salle Learning Centre,” Joe’s grandmother, Amarda Velly, told me with conviction. “Before coming here, he was very jahat, I could not supervise him. But now Joe wants to spend two hours at this centre, everyday. He can read well. When he grows up, he’ll be more intelligent.”

It was testimonies such as these that drew me to this non-descript learning centre made up of six rooms within a double-story building (owned by the Catholic Diocese) in the heart of historic Georgetown. The La Salle Learning Centre’s approach emphasizes skills acquisition, character formation and the building of human relationships rather than the memorizing of facts.

At the centre, I stepped into a classroom with ten desks arranged individually against the wall.

“This classroom doesn’t look like a school,” I remarked to the learning centre’s coordinator, Chris Lee, 52, who has basic and advanced degrees in psychology, social work, theology, gerontology and special education. He lived in the United States for fourteen years before returning to Malaysia a few years ago.

“We’re not a school,” Lee said. “There are no students here. There are no teachers. There are no textbooks, no exams, no homework. Everyone who comes here – children and adults alike – are learners.”

Lee’s answer didn’t make sense. The more I learned about the centre, the more unusual it became.

Do you want to attend the learning centre? First of all, you have to show that you have red marks in your report card. Or you might have experienced some kind of emotional, social or psychological trauma in your childhood. You’re probably poor.

A La Salle student learning how to draw by himself at the drawing station

When you get to the La Salle Learning Centre (usually by bus or on foot), you will be greeted warmly by the coordinator or another volunteer. You will seat yourself at a desk facing a wall (You are not being punished). You are here to practise three skills for an hour.

For example, you might sit at desk called “station one” and practise how to think and talk with an adult facilitator. After twenty minutes, you move on to a different station, where you practise other skills such as reading, remembering, spelling, writing, counting, drawing or handicraft. You usually do this by yourself.

If you don’t understand a word or a math equation, you lift up your hand. A facilitator will assist you; otherwise you’re left alone to learn. In the final twenty minutes, you will practise a third learning skill.

After a 15-minute tea break, you spend an hour in group play or computer activities with other children. You have fun. Then you go home.

“How could such a deceptively simple process rewire how children learn?” I asked Brother John D’Cruz, a LaSallian brother, former principal and educationist, who set up the learning centre in 1984.

“In a school classroom, students sit in rows, and the teacher tells them what to do,” said Brother John. “Here, we want our children to understand that learning is something they give themselves by choice. The children take responsibility for their learning and apply their learning skills to their school.”

Brother John arrived at this essential insight in the late 1970s after he had quit his job as principal in a top secondary school in Taiping in order to live among the poor for five years. As he shared a home with twelve families, Brother John saw how kids like Joe grew up in families that didn’t encourage them to study. As a result, these children were usually written off as “slow learners.”

In contrast, “the Learning Centre gives the children a different learning environment at least for two hours,” said Meena, a 60-year-old university lecturer who moonlighted as a volunteer at the centre. (She requested that I use only her first name because of her work.) “We care for them. They know we care so they’re happy to come to the centre. They realise there’s a different way of living. They sense it.”

At station 4 and 6, I flipped through Joe’s exercise books. His handwriting has improved visibly over the years. But it hasn’t been easy.

In Standard Four, on his own volition, he decided to stop mixing with gangs from the neighbourhood. That’s when he showed up at the centre everyday.

Then one day in 2010, as Joe was walking home from the centre, he was grabbed from behind by two people, blindfolded and locked in a shed near the jetty area. Joe kept his wits. He saw that one of the windows was missing a bar, and he managed to squeeze himself through. Up till today, Joe and his grandmother cannot make sense of the abduction three years ago.

Joe standing outside a makeshift workshop in Weld Quay where he was abducted and detained before escaping

“Every time Joe goes out, I get worried,” Amarda told me. But Joe keeps on coming back to the centre.

One day, I decided to follow Joe home. He brought me and my photographer through a warren of wooden-and-cement houses in the Weld Quay area until we arrived at his grandmother’s house under the mango tree. It was a lovely, breezy afternoon. I noted an Astro satellite dish near the front door.

Amarda Valley, standing at the entrance of her home in Weld Quay

We went inside. Slowly it dawned on me that this wasn’t their house. Their actual home was a windowless room inside. Joe, his brother and grandmother slept together in a queen-sized bed next to a cupboard. Joe’s grandmother rented the room for RM250 a month. She used the remainder of her RM600 salary – plus RM200 in welfare – to pay for her grandchildren’s food and education.

I grew up surrounded by books. I could not imagine myself studying in this bare, dimly lit room shared by three people. Gazing in, I felt claustrophobic. But this was the reality faced by Joe and thousands of kids throughout Malaysia.

It felt good to step outside. Opposite the house was a Chinese temple – and beyond that the Straits of Penang. Joe and I walked to the water’s edge and gazed at the gorgeous skyline of Georgetown.

Together, in silence, we watched a cruise ship operated by Star Cruises leave the terminal at Swettenham Pier. When Joe lifted his finger to point to the ship, it looked as if he was touching it.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked Joe.

“An astronaut,” he said.

“I hope you’ll fly high,” I said.

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