One Good Question with Noelle Lim: What STEAM could mean for Malaysia

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Eisenhower Fellowship / International Education / One Good Question / Uncategorized

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.


In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?
In Malaysia, education takes the lion share in the government budget, so it’s clear the government is fairly serious about it. One reason is cultural, our society prizes good education, and another is that Malaysia relies on foreign investments, so it’s an open economy that needs to have a globally competent workforce.

Parents are serious about education too. For example, in Malaysia and developed countries of Asia, it’s a norm for parents with the means to pay for their child to attend supplementary classes conducted by private tutors. However, I think parents pay for these classes, not in hope their child will become the next Nobel Prize winners, but to pass the national exams with straight As. It’s assumed that if you do this, you can perhaps win a scholarship or get a place in a good university, and you’ll be set for life.

During your Eisenhower Fellowship, you came to the States to learn more about education entrepreneurship.  How will your school design reflect learning and innovation from both countries?
The PISA rankings show that Malaysia’s education system is in the bottom one third (yet neighbor Singapore is number one), and TIMSS show that Malaysia is below average international standards (it was above average in the 1990s).  It appears to be an uphill task for Malaysia to catch up. I don’t think we need to aspire to be number one, but aim to be in the top quartile. And I think we’re capable of doing that because our society values education.

Malaysian schools needs to upgrade the content of what they are teaching.  For instance, an online, centralized database of teaching notes with suggested pedagogy and updates could help the schools.

Secondly, the current method of teaching in Malaysia, and indeed still in many countries, is done in silo. We don’t help students connect dots, and there’s a push for STEM in Malaysia.  I believe the focus has to shift to STEAM instead and subjects to be taught in an interdisciplinary way.  Finding solutions to complex problems in the world requires a more comprehensive way of thinking, and a combination of science and arts/humanities. Innovations too, for example the iPad is a marriage of tech prowess and design.

In the States, I visited two schools that are shifting from STEM to STEAM and incorporating more holistic offerings such as entrepreneurship and liberal arts : North Carolina Math & Science and Illinois Mathematics & Science Academy.  I chose those schools because the Ministry of Education from Singapore and Chinese frequently visit them.  These public schools have strong academic performance, particularly in STEM, and selective admissions.  At the North Carolina campus, the chancellor Todd Roberts, has a degree in English and believes in a well-rounded education.  Illinois Math & Science is developing an entrepreneurship thread.  They are mobilizing their alumni base and drawing them in to mentor students and provide internships in start-ups in Chicago.  These are gradual processes, to move towards STEAM instructional expectations.

Two questions that I asked almost all schools I visited were « What is the purpose of a school? What is the purpose of education? »  Apart from ensuring children are literate and know their sums, I believe it’s about helping the student discover a range of possible interests and to help the child choose which path to pursue and to arm him with the relevant information. This means schools have to give the child opportunities to work on projects of personal interests like capstone projects.  Once the child finds his interest, there is no looking back. Many successful people I’ve interviewed, say that what they do is their passion and luck of course helps. Either they found their passion by accident or were drawn to it by a mentor. I think schools can play a bigger role in helping children find their passion.

I also believe schools should produce people who will develop the agency, aptitude and desire to want to solve complex problems. It’s not just to pass exams, but to create the next generation of scientists, artists, makers, entrepreneurs, and leaders. 

Noëlle Lim

Noelle Lim

Noëlle’s One Good Question :  How well does our education system engage students? Ideally, I would specify “boys” rather than just “students” because boys are falling behind in Malaysia. Girls outperform boys in Maths and Science unlike international norms. And in public universities, girls account for 70% of the intake. Our education blueprint has highlighted the risk of “lost boys”. It appears our education system isn’t really working out for boys. Given the patriarchal expectations within conservative communities, I wonder what impact this achievement gap will have on the next generation.

Noelle Lim is a presenter and producer with BFM 89.9, Malaysia’s only business radio station, and heads its education division, BFM Business School. She is interested in the intersection of media, education, and technology.  During her Eisenhower Fellowship, she investigated innovations in high school curriculum and pedagogy to inform her plan to start a school and to launch a project that prepares and connects low-income students in Malaysia and Southeast Asia to the best schools in the US, UK and Australia.

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The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Year in Review: 10 Good Questions | One Good Question

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