Articles on education

Education, as a process of teaching, training, and learning to improve knowledge and develop skills, has evolved over the past decades into what is known as the ‘21st-century education’ today. It is recognized as the key building block of the knowledge economy of the 21st century and is considered an indispensable tool to transform human capabilities into social and economic outcomes. The key principles of the 21st-century education are

  • A personalized approach to learning, such as differentiated instruction, ensures that the content, mode of delivery, and assessment are tailored to the student’s personal needs.
  • Equity, diversity, and inclusivity, which means that students who have different socio-economic backgrounds and physical/mental capacities should be included in any educational endeavor while retaining their individual differences.
  • Learning through doing, such as Project-Based Learning (PBL) which emphasizes active learning through personal exploration and discovery.
  • A curriculum that emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking
  • Student-centered classrooms with the teacher in a facilitating role.
  • Engaging the community in the teaching and learning process (as per the old adage, ‘It takes a village to educate a child’)
  • The use of technology as a tool in learning, to access information and think in innovative ways.
  • Professionalization of teachers, with continuous professional development and training to address the demands of 21st-century education. (Bolstad et al, 2012)

The Case of Brunei Darussalam

The tiny (2,226 square miles) South-East Asian Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam (Arabic for ‘Abode of Peace), located on the northwestern coast of the island of Borneo, is an oil-rich country that became independent of British control in 1984. The population of Brunei is predominantly Malay, with a significant minority of Chinese, Indians, and other nationalities making up the rest. Brunei is ruled by the absolute monarch Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who has been in power since 1967. It is an Islamic country, and Malay is the official language. The ideal way of living in Brunei is captured in the concept of Malayu Islam Beraja (MIB, Malay Islamic Monarchy), which is a unification of Islamic values, Malay culture, and the role of the monarchy.

A striking feature of the educational scenario of Brunei is that the citizens here have free access to education at all levels. One of the primary aims of its education system is to provide a minimum of 12 years of education for every child, covering 7 years of primary and pre-school, 3 years of lower secondary school, and 2 years of upper secondary or vocational/technical college.

In an effort to keep abreast of the changes in the educational arena that the 21st century brought about, the Ministry of Education of Brunei introduced Sistem Pendidikan Negara Abad ke-21 (SPN-21 or National Education System for the 21st century) in 2008. Along with the basic skills of literacy, numeracy, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT), the SPN emphasizes 21st-century skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and ‘learning by doing.

Challenges faced by the Brunei Education System in the 21st century

The SPN, the latest innovation in the Brunei education scenario, is in principle a notable step towards 21st-century education here. However, Brunei Darussalam faces the dilemma of integrating tradition (religion, monarchy) and modernity (liberalization and globalization). MIB is part of the school curriculum all through school and is part of the assessment till Year 8. Islamic Religious Knowledge (IRK) is compulsory for Muslim students and optional for others. School uniforms in Government schools conform to strict Islamic tradition. Till students reach Year 8 (14 years), Brunei’s Ministry of Education conducts its own exams, but when it comes to the upper secondary years (Year 9 to Year 11), schools all over Brunei switch to Cambridge GCE O’level or IGCSE Board of exams. MIB is taught in upper secondary, but not assessed in this school-leaving examination. Thus, towards the end of school, there is a dilution of ‘Bruneian’ education, and after two years of A levels (Advanced Levels) given by the same Board of Education, which is Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) students typically look for higher education abroad.

Metassan (1979) acknowledged the existence of a ‘dual’ system of education in Brunei where there is a more ‘secular’ education on the one hand and religious education on the other hand. The secular education takes place in the morning in Brunei schools when students learn languages, science, and mathematics. Children between the age of 8 and 14 years attend religious classes in the afternoon. Integration of these two has been attempted, i.e., blending religious and secular education (Al-Ashraf, 1985), but has not been put into practice.

Values such as rigid hierarchical structures, ascribed status, and teacher-centered education are all part of the Bruneian way of life and are reflected in educational institutions. Equally important is inculcating the value of obedience in children, and transmission of standardized knowledge. Obviously, this is a far cry from the principles of 21st-century education outlined at the beginning of this article.

Obviously, Brunei desires to avail of the 21st-century education much-touted all over the world and to equip its people with the necessary skills, but its education system is very much a tug-of-war between religious education on the one hand, and secularism on the other hand; traditional values on the one hand modernity on the other hand.


Going forward, the challenge that lies ahead for Brunei Darussalam will be to develop an educational system that is imbued with its national and religious values but is able to equip its people with 21st-century skills. This is no simple task, but its accomplishment is very much of importance to its future as a progressive country ready to face the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.

About the Author-

Dr. Shanthi Thomas, Dean of Studies, Chung Ching Middle School

Dr. Shanthi Thomas is currently working in Brunei Darussalam, as Dean of Studies in a private secondary school. She has a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD) and a Post Graduate Diploma in the Teaching of English from the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India. She has a Master’s degree in English Language and Literature from Bharathiyar University, Tamil Nadu, India. Dr. Shanthi has published books on English teaching and Teacher Empowerment, and articles in education journals. She also writes blog articles for the children’s website

The views in this article are the personal views of the author. The author can be contacted at