Signaling is Important

One day, I scheduled a meeting with a lady. It was a casual business meeting so we decided to meet in a cafe, instead of an office. I have never met her before, but we talked on the phone once.

She arrived at the cafe 15 minutes late, with Starbucks cup in hand (the cafe we’re in was not Starbucks), and immediately offered an apology: “Sorry I’m late Suhaimi, I had to drop my daughter off at piano class in TTDI, a bit of traffic on the way here.”

I met her for 10 seconds, and already I picked up several signals:

  • That she is at least middle class (Starbucks takeaway even though we were meeting at another cafe);
  • That she lives in a middle-class neighborhood (the kind of neighborhood where parents send their kids to music class. Perhaps one of the neighborhoods in or around TTDI);
  • That her family is well-off (dropping her daughter in the afternoon means she does not have to keep a 9 to 5 job). Perhaps a high-income spouse, or inheritance, or both;

These are signals. Signals are not perfect. It could be the case, for example, that she used an empty Starbucks cup to fill in Ribena, her favorite beverage; or that she lives in a PPR flat; or that the piano class is free of charge, or really cheap; or that she actually worked desk office job, but that was her day off. But then again, probably not.

The signals were too strong, and Occam’s razor presumes that my initial assumptions were all right on the spot.

(Not to mention the signals I picked up from her middle-class demeanor. I recognize a certain poise common to well-to-do middle-class ladies, even when they dress casually, that cannot be faked by the working class.)

The signals being what they were, it made my job easy. I dealt with her accordingly as I would a middle-class person (even made a correct guess on where she went to school), and the meeting went well, and we both got what we wanted from the meeting.

She did not go out of her way to tell me she’s middle class, but everything around her gave that signal. Signals I was too ready to pick up.

We deal with signals every day. We give out signals, and picked them up, in our daily lives. Signals can be subtle or not so subtle. Signals galore on Instagram and other social media. People can be coy about it, but by sharing their lives online they are really signaling their lifestyle to you, along with their expectation of how you should respond to their show of lifestyle.

Some ways we intentionally or unintentionally signal:

  • Namedropping. The name of VVIP you know or have met, the events you attended, the school you went to, the companies you worked at. If you mention these in a conversation with the intention of impressing the others, even slightly, then it is a form of signaling.
  • Using “otherness” as a proxy for good. “This supplement is imported from France and approved by the European Homeopathy Association” (not everything that came out of Europe is a Peugeot or a Volvo. Europe is a huge landmass — some parts are shitholes, even in the developed countries). “Our international school has 80% expatriate teachers” (some of the worst teachers I’ve ever met are these “expats”). Another similar trick is to show oldness. “Established since 1833” — the signal being that the business is good, otherwise it won’t be open this long.
  • Stereotypes. All stereotypes — racial, class, profession, religious — are forms of signaling. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and though it feels good to be “woke” and judge every human as unique individuals, our biological instinct causes us to treat people as stereotypical members of their groups. Our brains have evolved to be able to make statistical calculations whether bad things are likely to happen, based on the existing information, i.e., the stereotypes.

I am perhaps guilty of using signaling more than most people, seeing that I made a living on a hustle, or, in a more respectable term, on pitching businesses to my clients. I know some of the psychological sales tricks, to appear humble and shy and subdued, and to project signals to clients, rather than saying things outright. Talking straight is sometimes a virtue, but at other times, the situation calls for the opposite: niceties, beating around the bush, unspoken innuendos. In that situation, don’t just say it, signal it.

Where is my flying car?

Wow, so today is really 2020.

I cannot believe this. My sense of time is warped up. I still remember clearly what I did on 1st January 2000. I was painting the side door of my parents house. I was 18 at the time, the paint was brown and I can still remember the smell of the fresh paintjob.

That was two decades ago.

2020 is supposed to be the year when we arrive at some sort of techno-utopia, or at least in the Malaysian version of futurology, the year of us joining the ranks of developed countries. We are not there yet. But, to be frank, I couldn’t care less.

We don’t need flying cars. Spare me the smart refrigerators, robot maids and instant delivery drones. We don’t need more automation. Is life all about maximizing efficiency? What’s next? A robo-AI data-driven smart machine to decide how much Vitamin D that I should ingest a day to the nearest 0.1 micrograms, and nanorobots to deliver them into my esophagus? Where does it all stop? Do we really need 10 thousand TV shows and films and 100 million songs at our fingertips? Can we do without being bombarded by commercials every 5 minutes of our waking hours? No, can’t do. It would be boring.

While we’re at it, why not play advertisement to fetuses? People already play Mozart to babies in the womb, why not go a step ahead and play ads instead to prep them to be future little consumers? Teach the unborn that Coke will “Refresh your Spirit” and make them “Feel the Moment”. That’s a startup idea.

Repeat after me:

  • the more technology the better,
  • the internet is supposed to be in all things,
  • everything needs to be upgraded,
  • everything around us is a startup idea,
  • and to be a consumer is the ultimate purpose of life.

Let Big Tech run the world, they will make it paradise on Earth.

For 2020, my wishes are for the world to be less ridiculous, for people to stop optimizing things that do not need to be optimized, for people to just sit down and take a breath and unplug and relax, for people to love others more and judge others less, for people to not have fear of missing out, and for people to discover, once again, how to be damn human beings.

Happy new year.

A look back at 2019

2019 was an interesting year.

Too many things happened, no need to bore you with the details of my personal and professional life.

But one event I cannot but recall.

My personal 9/11.

My mother passed away on 11 September 2019, after a very brief illness. It was the worst day of my life. Losing your mother at any age is not something you get over easily.

I took solace in the fact that all her family members were present at her deathbed (including my wife who got leave from her overseas military mission), that her illness was brief (she did not suffer for long — she collapsed one evening, and passed on the next day) and that nothing but good things were said about her after her death.

I still miss her every single day, but life goes on.

If your mother is still alive: call her, tell her you love her, ask her what she wants (and get it for her) and ask for her forgiveness. Do these regularly.

There will come a day when you won’t be able to.

The Pandai App Story: Part III

I’m in the mood for nostalgia.

Let me take a break from the story of the Pandai idea (which will resume in Part IV) with a personal reminiscence.

Warning: This is a lengthy write-up. There is a point to all this, which I will mention at the end. This is written exclusively from my point of view. This is my own personal answer to “Why Pandai?”. This write-up does not represent the perspectives of my co-founders, who have interesting stories of their own.


The evolution of an idea: A personal story

Let me take you back 22 years ago.

In 1998, I was a student at MRSM Jasin, Melaka (now known as MRSM Tun Ghafar Baba, after the former Deputy Prime Minister who passed away in 2006).

Khairul and Akmal, my future business partners at Aidan and Pandai, were my batchmates at MRSM Jasin.

MRSM Jasin back then was (and still is) one of the top schools in Malaysia in terms of academic performance. Back then, the school had perhaps the finest collection of high school teachers than could be assembled this part of the world, and I only exaggerate slightly. I love my teachers at MRSM Jasin. The teachers during my time showed such compassion and force of character. My two years in the school molded me all the way to adulthood. Until today I regularly visit my teachers (I make it a point to visit MRSM Jasin once a year) and I try to make them understand how grateful I am for my experience there.

The only issue I might have had was that it was a single-race school, so I did not have much interaction with non-Malay students.

In 1998, while in Form 4, I was selected to represent MRSM Jasin in a national mathematics contest, called the Olimpiad Matematik Kebangsaan, or OMK. OMK is the oldest and most prestigious math contest in Malaysia, and I wasn’t prepared for it when my name was submitted by my teacher. I believed that I have a slightly above average proficiency in school mathematics, but OMK was a totally new ballgame. Since this was a national-level contest, the OMK problems were designed to be beyond the normal curriculum, and solving them requires a healthy dose of creativity, rigor, and problem-solving ability.

Let me make a long story short, and fast forward from here so I can get to the point.

A few weeks later, I was announced as a winner of the OMK. I placed 2nd nationally, although I got a perfect score (the first place was won by Ong Shien Jin, who also got a perfect score, and who later went on to study at MIT and Harvard, and who remains a good friend until today).

After I won the OMK, I was invited to train with the national math team — who knew such a thing existed? — for a shot at representing Malaysia internationally. That was when I first heard about the International Mathematical Olympiad, or IMO, the prestigious annual math contest that was founded in 1959, and is the de facto “Olympics” of competitive mathematics. The IMO is a contest for pre-university students, and each country can only send 6 participants to the contest that takes place every summer in different cities.

I made the IMO team in 1999, 2000, and 2001. If I remember correctly — memory a bit hazy nowadays — I went to Bucharest (Romania), Taejon (Korea), and Washington DC (USA) for these IMOs. I was coached by Prof. Abu Osman, a brilliant mathematician who is a demanding taskmaster yet, at times, a kindly father figure to me.

My involvement in IMO eased my transition somewhat into tertiary education. I received scholarship offers as well as offers from various universities in the US. I decided on MIT and to major in mathematics. I enrolled in the fall of 2001 and received my scroll four years later.

After I graduated from MIT, I decided to reject all job interview calls and promptly returned to KL, so I can spend time with my parents from whom I have been away for four years. I spent my days at home writing a manuscript, a kind of problem-solving guide for students who are into competitive mathematics. After being jobless for 6 months and feeling kinda bored working on my personal project and playing GTA: Vice City every single day, I decided to take a job at Khazanah. But my real passion was still mathematics education.

I left Khazanah after a year to focus on mathematics education. I started off small, conducting math programs here and there under the ArdentEdu brand. I taught tuition classes. I took up any invitation to give a talk or conduct a workshop on mathematics. Basically, anything to keep afloat (I didn’t have any savings at this point).

However, the big break came soon. In 2007, ArdentEdu was approached by a state government to conduct a statewide STEM development program, focusing on top schools and top students in the state. We quickly assembled a team and closed a deal worth half a million RM with the state government. This was a princely sum of money back then. I was 25 years old, just started a new company, with a tiny office (more like broom closet), with no savings at all. To close a deal this size was nothing short of divine intervention. I stopped double-guessing my decision to resign from my corporate job and jumped headlong to pursue my true calling.

At the same time, I was heavily involved with the IMO. Since I was one of the few former IMO participants from Malaysia with a math degree, I was appointed by the Ministry of Education to be the head coach of the Malaysian IMO team, the position I held until very recently. I went to all IMOs from 2007 to 2015, and that brought me close to the international competitive mathematics community.

There are two major math competitions in the world: IMO and Kangaroo Math. Both are different in focus. IMO is the “Olympics”, meant for the elite math kids, who are going to study at the top math departments in the world and become future beautiful minds. IMO is extremely competitive; only 6 students from each country are allowed to participate in it. On the other hand, if IMO is the Olympics, then the Kangaroo is more like “Hari Sukan Negara.” It is an open-for-all, come-in-the-gate-is-open type of mathematics event. The objective is not really to find champion mathletes but to encourage students at all levels to love mathematics more. IMO involves about 600 students a year, but Kangaroo participants number about 6 million a year. IMO for the geniuses, Kangaroo for the masses.

I was (and still is) deeply involved in both IMO and Kangaroo, in IMO as a national team coach and in Kangaroo as the national director. Through my participation in both contests, I became active in the international mathematics education community. From my interactions with mathematical educators from around the world, I got to learn about mathematics curricula and standards in other countries.

I also became active in other international organizations that deal with math education such as the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a US-based organization serving US math teachers, but whose annual conference is a huge event attracting 10,000 participants), ICMI (International Commission on Mathematical Instruction), WFNMC (World Federation of National Mathematics Competitions, of which I am the current rep for Asia), and others.


What is the point of telling you all this?

The point is: I do not dabble.

I don’t do dabble.

Whatever my professional activity is, it is not dabbling. I only dabble in hobbies, like collecting postcards and doing NYT crossword puzzles (both of which are my actual hobbies, by the way). But not in my work. Work is destiny. You only live once — so work is a serious matter.

Pandai is an idea whose root was planted 22 years ago. It is more than an interest of mine. It is my lifelong passion and my professional destiny. I have spent almost my whole adult life thinking and contemplating and working on mathematics education. In this field, I consider myself a lifelong learner and a perpetual rank amateur.

The Pandai idea is a natural progression of the lifelong passion I have of mathematics education. Simply put, my whole professional schtick is all about making people love mathematics more. And to make learning mathematics sucks less.

(By extension, my interest in mathematics education also coincides with that of science education, both of which can be thought of to be under the umbrella of STEM education, which, in turn, is under the bigger and more inclusive umbrella of school-level education.)

So, that is why we decided to work on education technology with Pandai. It comes from a lifelong passion.

When I say, “I am passionate about education,” I genuinely mean it, and I am not merely engaging in cliché.

I did not just decide one day to resign from my day job to write an app. Anyone can write an app. Pandai is not an accidental idea. It is a logical culmination of my work at ArdentEdu for the past 13 years, as well as my work in the mathematical education community, which I consider my professional raison d’etre.

I am going to work hard on Pandai.


Today I celebrated my 37th birthday. I specifically asked friends and family for no gift or cake. If you want to give something, a birthday wish on Whatsapp suffices.

My professor once remarked in class that major milestones in life happen during the “square years”, which means the years which are perfect squares. For those who couldn’t recall school math, perfect squares are the numbers that can be written as N x N, where N is an integer. For example:

1 x 1 = 1,

2 x 2 = 4,

3 x 3 = 9,

4 x 4 = 16,

so 1, 4, 9, 16, and so on, are perfect squares.

Life can be divided into stages based on the perfect squares.

0 to 1: Baby.

1 to 4: Kids develop intelligence. They absorb learning data from their environment, just like an AI machine (except they don’t need billions of data sets). At this stage, kids develop a “picture” of the world via their senses.

4 to 9: The end of toddlerhood. Kids this age start to develop their own internal logic and constantly ask questions. Often rambunctious creatures with their own unique personalities.

9 to 16: Reign of Hormones. Puberty, sexual discovery, and development of sexual reproduction ability.

16 to 25: Early adulthood. Basically, impostors who have no idea what they are doing. Some get married.

25 to 36: Finally, they have some ideas.

36 to 49: By now, people are supposed to have adulting all figured out. Some indications of aging will appear but still considered young.

49 to 64: The new young.

64 to 81: The new middle-aged.

81 to 100: The new golden years.

100 to 121: Old.

Note: This is not a scientific theory. I made all of these up.

Hooray, I completed an EdX course

Three months ago, I signed up for a class on EdX. This is an MIT statistics class called 18.6501x: Fundamentals of Statistics. Despite the name, this is not an intro class, but rather intermediate-level.

I have never been a competent stats guy; I knew a bit about the topic from an intro to stats class that I took (at the actual ‘Tute campus) many years ago, and from dealing with Mickey Mouse-level statistics problems in my line of work.

The class is part of the MIT Micromasters Program in Statistics and Data Science, which comprises a sequence of classes in statistics, programming and data analytics, and if you can finish them all, you’ll get a “micromaster” degree, whatever that means. I want to get on the big data bandwagon too!

The class is challenging but well-designed. The prerequisites are linear algebra, basic statistics and general competency with calculus-level mathematics. I’ve forgotten more mathematics than I remember (a function of disuse and aging) but fortunately, I still find the prerequisites familiar ground. I aced the first few sections (parametric models, confidence level, hypothesis testing) until I got to the challenging parts toward the end (Bayesian, linear regression, generalized linear model) which kept me up during late hours on some days.

The workload is quite substantial; I spent about 6 hours a week on the course videos, exercises, and homework problems. The homework problems can be quite tricky.

Alhamdulillah, after a grueling final exam which I took last week, I finally completed the course.

Perhaps the actual MIT kids taking the real-life version of the course would find the final paper really easy, but I am not as sharp as I once was, so I am a bit proud of my achievement. I admit that I don’t care so much about finding the right answers as I do about understanding how to get the answers (the hallmark of non-college-aged students), so any problem that requires a full-page of mathematical calculations, I skipped.

I got my final results today. Either I am not an old dog yet, or you can actually teach this old dog new tricks, I do not know which, but I actually learnt something from the class, and I am happy to kind of aced it in the process!


Please excuse my slight brag — I haven’t taken any college class proper since I graduated 15 years ago and I felt slightly giddy when I got the final results in my email.

Some may ask, how do I keep my motivation to finish the class while working full-time and raising a family? The answer is quite simple. I have weak internal motivation. But, EdX has an option where you can get an online official certificate. This costs US$300 per course, and although I am not poor, that is still a lot of money for me. Once I signed up for the certificate and paid, there is no way for me to not finish.

Kangaroo Math Competition

The Kangaroo Math Competition is an international mathematics competition that was founded by Andre Deledicq in 1991. It is one of the largest academic competitions in the world, with more than 6 million participants annually. Currently, it is organized under the aegis of Association Kangourou sans Frontières (AKSF) which is based in Paris.

From the official website

Kangourou sans Frontières is an international association founded in France, which is formed by maths lovers from all over the world. Motivated by the importance of mathematics in the modern world, their passion is to spread the joy of mathematics, support mathematical education in school and promote a positive perception of mathematics in society. The main activity of Kangourou sans Frontières is designing the annual Kangaroo Mathematics Competition. Mathematical problems in multiple-choice form are offered to children of all school levels. The questions are not standard textbook problems and come from a large variety of topics. Besides inspiring ideas, perseverance and creativity, they require imagination, basic computational skills, logical thinking and other problem solving strategies. Often there are small stories, surprising questions and results, which encourage discussions with friends and family. The organisation of the competition in the individual countries is up to the members of Kangourou sans Frontières.

Malaysia started joining AKSF in 2012 when I was invited to the AGM that took place in Cyprus. I heard about AKSF for the first time through a good friend, the late Dr. Buras Boljiev, who was already a member. I then applied to the AKSF Board and got promptly approved and invited to attend the AGM (the fact that I’ve been involved in the mathematics competition scene for many years through the IMO seems to help). After the Cyprus meeting, Malaysia was accepted as a provisional member, and 3 years later, after running three successful Kangaroo contests, Malaysia was awarded full membership in the AKSF.

The AKSF logo

Currently, I am the national representative to the AKSF, but I have not been attending the annual meeting since 2017 due to various work and personal commitments. My team members Faiz Ismail and Aidel Salleh attended the two most recent meetings on my behalf.

The Kangaroo competition takes place simultaneously among all participating countries, on the third Thursday of March every year. As the date usually coincides with the Malaysian mid-term school holidays, we normally schedule the Kangaroo to take place one week after the global Kangaroo dates.


The Kangaroo contest is decentralized, meaning that there is no venue where all the students take it at the same time. Instead, the contests are organized separately at all participating schools in Malaysia, each invigilated by a teacher.

The Kangaroo contest has been growing rapidly in Malaysia; from 10,000 participants in the first edition in 2013 to more than 40,000 participants in 2019, representing more than 1600 schools around the country. All types of schools participate — national / national-type schools, private schools, international schools, matriculation colleges, even tuition centers, and individual candidates.

The philosophy of Kangaroo is to create a fun and engaging way for students to develop their problem-solving abilities in mathematics, as well as popularizing the subject among schoolchildren in Malaysia. The contest is designed to emphasize the fun and educational aspect of mathematical problem solving, not the competitive aspect (though we award medals to the winners). It is not similar to “math olympiad” type contests where the goal is to outperform other students to get to the next level.

There is no “second round” in the global Kangaroo contest — students are supposed to be awarded based on their performance and are to be congratulated for their efforts through mathematical activities and conferences that bring together students and teachers for the sake of their love of mathematics. However, Malaysian students being competitive as they are, there were lots of demands for a further level of competition among the Kangaroo winners. We experimented with the concept for the first time in 2019, to a positive response.

The Kangaroo Malaysia paper is quite special in that it is the only quadrilingual mathematics paper in the country. It is provided in Bahasa Melayu, English, Mandarin, and Tamil (for Tamil primary school students only).

The competition is divided into 6 categories:

  • Pre-Ecolier (Year 1-2)
  • Ecolier (Year 3-4)
  • Benjamin (Year 5-6)
  • Cadet (Form 1-2)
  • Junior (Form 3-4)
  • Student (Form 5-6, or equivalent).

The names of the categories follow the original categories from the French competition. The Malaysian Kangaroo paper doesn’t differ much from the original papers provided by AKSF; only the languages are different. Even the names in the paper (mostly European names, since the problems were proposed by European composers) are left intact and did not get changed into Malaysianized names.

What makes the Kangaroo contest special is that it is part of something bigger, not merely an academic quiz or contest with no overarching objective. Kangaroo is a global grassroots movement to promote mathematics education, with the contest being the flagship program (it attracts close to 7 million participants every year). There are many mathematics programs such as summer camps, conferences, and exchange programs that are organized by member countries, as a follow up to the contest. The main idea of Kangaroo is to make children around the world love mathematics.

The Kangaroo is endorsed by the Ministry of Education, and participants are eligible for PAJSK marks, which are awarded to national school students for co-curricular activities. We are glad that the Ministry has collaborated with Kangaroo Malaysia to bring the Kangaroo objectives closer to being realized.

The next Kangaroo Malaysia contest will take place on 26 March 2020. To get more info, and to participate, visit our official website

My visit to the French Kangourou HQ in 2015. This is where it all started. At the left side is Andre Deledicq, the founder of Kangaroo Math and to the right is Jean-Philippe Deledicq, Andre’s son and AKSF board member


The Pandai App Story: Part II

In Part I, I told the story of how the four of us (the founders of Aidan, our first startup which we founded in 2007), came to venture into the edutech space.


Business Ideas in Edutech

Edutech is a large area. There are various business ideas that one can pursue in edutech, such as:

  • Innovation in education administration — e.g., solution for school management using a centralized database, which integrates several school functions such as taking attendance, recording grades, accepting payments (cashless system), loaning books in the school library, etc. Some products cater to a specific type of educational institution, such as tuition centers, universities, and kindergartens.
  • Innovation in education delivery — e.g., online classroom, online tutoring (1 to 1, or 1 to many), multimedia (videos, interactive applets, games), and various types of assessment tools;
  • Content — products that deliver educational content such as exam prep, learning app, questions bank, or niche education content like e.g., calligraphy or music lessons, that takes place via various platforms (web or mobile);
  • General technologies that are adapted for used in education — artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality, adaptive systems, etc.;
  • Hardware solutions — smartboards, tablets, interactive classroom systems and other devices.

So how do we decide what to do with Pandai?

The founders had a vigorous debate about this, but the decision boiled down to these two factors: our advantages, and the market demand.


Looking at our advantages

What are our advantages? Among others,

  • ArdentEdu had 12 years of experience, organizing more than 500 programs covering every state and territories in Malaysia, so it can be said that we know the education market (at primary and secondary level) in Malaysia quite well;
  • We have a solid tech background, with experience developing large scale systems for government agencies as well as some mobile development cred;
  • We have a good working relationship with the Ministry of Education through various projects we have undertaken in the last decade. The public education sector in Malaysia is highly regulated and centralized, so if we want to penetrate this market, being on a first-name basis with the gatekeeper (so to speak) is a plus;
  • We already had 70,000 annual paying customers for our existing educational offerings under ArdentEdu.

As for the market demands, we found out through our market research that:

  • The majority of the students in Malaysia are students at public schools (5+ million of them, with a steady growth each year reflecting the general population growth).
  • Although there is an increasing trend towards middle-class parents sending children to private schools, the number is negligible compared to the huge majority in the public school system. For one, private schools are very expensive and way beyond the ability of the median income household in Malaysia;
  • Assuming a Gaussian / bell-curve distribution of academic performance, most students belong to the slightly below average, average and slightly above average group (whatever the average and standard deviation might be). So a product catered to the masses cannot take into account only the top students. We have to bear in mind the average ones;
  • Ditto for household income. We should avoid building a product only rich kids can afford. The size of the market is too small. To reach the mass market, pricing has to be right (or better, undercut all competitors severely, which is the classic start-up game);
  • Parents, teachers, students are easily spooked by new things introduced in the education system. Whether it be educational initiatives such as 21st century skills, higher order thinking skills, future-ready education, computational thinking, and school-based assessment, no exams for Year 1 to 3, or a new subject / content / format in the curriculum standard, the introduction of any new thing to schools almost always ends up in confusion, misunderstanding, and distrust towards the educational higher-ups who introduced what they deem as highfalutin ideas with little regard to the reality on the ground;
  • Teachers would like to be left alone to do their teaching jobs, and to complete the never-ending tasks given to them due to previously-introduced educational initiatives (see above). Teachers simply want to teach, and would like less time doing work outside of teaching;
  • Teachers design their teaching to follow the curriculum standards very closely. In the Malaysian education system, the standards are spelled out in the Dokumen Standard Kurikulum dan Pentaksiran (DSKP). Teachers tend to not veer their classroom engagement too far from the content of the standards. They place high importance on following the schedule closely, so they can complete each chapter on time;
  • Students are getting more and more confused with the changes taking place in the education system, with the recent revision of the curriculum, with new topics (e.g., financial mathematics in Form 3), with new subjects (e.g., Asas Sains Komputer for Form 1-3), and with various new educational initiatives and buzzwords being thrown around liberally. Every introduction of a new thing seems to make them even more confused. While change by itself can be good and sometimes necessary, a competent change management process seems to be lacking most of the time;
  • Students are still expected to score well in exams, and yet at the same time be a mini-adult capable to do high-level thinking and have all of these: grit, creativity, flexibility, responsibility, problem-solving skills, 21st century skills, computational thinking, design thinking, IT-savviness, leadership skills, collaborative skills, communication skills, and so on. What happened to let kids be kids? Students feel the pressure to be future-ready graduates in the future in order to work in the future digital economy that is so futuristic that the only way to make themselves future-proof is to subject themselves to impossible standards in school set by those who already left school 25 years ago, back when schools were fun places to learn, play, and generally monkey around with peers.
  • Such are the expectations toward students nowadays, and given the impossible task ahead, teachers and students normally respond by throwing their hands in the air, saying screw all this, and reverting to what they think as the usual way of how a school should be. This means that teachers teaching the students in the traditional way — chalk and talk (with which there is nothing wrong, in my opinion) — and students just wanting to get their exams over with.

That is our finding. The methodology is confidential, but the research involved many teachers. I only share the qualitative part, but we have numbers too. Others might disagree with these findings but that is the situation on the ground that our data tell us.

Bottom line, teachers just want to be left alone to teach whatever is asked of them to teach, and students just want to do well in exams, which is what is expected of them anyway.

Teachers generally think of educational initiatives, including the introduction of technology in the classroom, as unnecessary extra burdens, despite the best intentions of their purveyors (e.g., the Frog VLE system had less than 8% utilization rate by teachers and it was a nationwide project rolled out by the Ministry themselves).

Most teachers revert to the traditional way of education delivery — chalk and talk, one-way communication, homework, buku latihan, worksheets, mid-semester/final exams, and awarding of letter grades — despite the call for more varied assessment and teaching methods.

(Of course, there are exceptional teachers who are really innovative and revolutionary in their approach, but these are not the majority, and it is not practical to expect most teachers to follow in their footsteps.)

And as for the students, generally, they want what students have been wanting since forever, which are good grades. No amount of techno-futuristic talk in school can convince the average student to change their priority. Students live in the here and now. They do not have the lengthy life experience behind them that they can project ahead to see where they will be in the future. They care about surviving school. At the end of the day, what matters are their academic performance in school, of which the most important indicators are their final grades. These are what their parents and other adults will judge them on. With tertiary placement decisions made through SPM results (can a C-average student apply for an overseas scholarship?), like it or not their future paths ARE determined by letter grades.

It was from these findings and assumptions that we decided on the direction of Pandai.

This will revolutionize education (not!)

Education is a complex subject.

Even defining what education is seems intractable.

We agree that schools, and people who are in them — students, teachers, and school admins — and the activities that take place in the classroom during the times when the classroom operates are essential parts of “education”. To this, we can include everything that has to do with schools and schooling: co-curricular / extracurricular activities, after-school programs, sports, and physical education, soft skills, sahsiah, discipline, civic-mindedness, and so on.

Beyond that, defining what education is is a bit dicey.

We can sprawl the definition into all directions until “education” covers everything under the sun. But it helps no one to talk in generalities. To avoid the banal, we have to be specific. When I refer to education, what I mean the education process as practiced in schools (the other types, while important, should be discussed separately).

Education is simple: impart knowledge, passion, skills, hopes, dreams, life lessons, and everything you deem good to your students, so they can be complete human beings. Simple, but not easy.

Everything in education should be geared towards achieving this objective. Insofar as anything helps reach this goal, it is useful. Otherwise, it is just a distraction. And that includes technology.

Do watch this video on the past technologies that were supposed to “revolutionize” education:

(Spoiler alert: All of them failed.)

The takeaway from the video is: do not buy the hype.

The current top comment for the video on Youtube:

I have been teaching for 48 years & what past students have always said about me was: Thank you for caring about me, for making me feel important, for making me feel special, getting me excited, motivated & inspired, about what you were teaching. How I was always enthusiastic & excited about what I was teaching, & how I took an INTEREST in them. One student I taught thanked me for giving him a condolence card when his dog got run over it made him want to do the best he could do in my class because I gave him my personal time to buy the card and then to write words that helped ease the pain of his loss. It’s because of all of the above that I believe technology will never take over from teachers. However, technology used in conjunction with the good teacher’s (as outlined above) teaching a big fat YES. At 73 I am continually developing my expertise with technology so I can, where appropriate, incorporate with my teaching. I am so excited about teaching next year in my 74th year & 49th year of teaching in this wonderful and rewarding profession.

– Neil Hammond