Loyal Followers

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Please, Don’t Turn Our Children Into Guinea Pigs

Some years ago, my friend interviewed a local graduate for pupilage. The interviewee spoke flawless Bahasa Malaysia. He carried himself well and answered all my friend’s questions confidently. Until, of course, my friend started speaking English. He asked the interviewee, “Why did you read law?” The interviewee looked into my friend’s eyes for a moment and appeared to be in deep thought. Finally he said, “Because I want pass my exam.”

Let’s face it. The standard of spoken and written English among our students nowadays is abysmal. I belong to the last batch of students in government schools from the “English stream”. That means we studied Maths and Science in English and took the “Lower Certificate of Education” in Form 3; the “Malaysian Certificate of Education” in Form 5 and the “Higher School Certificate” in Form 6. Even then, as I entered the university, I realised that my level of English proficiency was inadequate. My English was nowhere as good as the standard of English of students from urban areas and well-to-do families.

As a result I struggled. I had to take the English classes which were made compulsory for students like me. By the end of my first year, I realised that my English was going nowhere and it was not taking me anywhere either. With that realisation, I began to read a lot. I would even read the Star newspaper from the sport page down to the first page everyday with a dictionary in my hand. I would converse with all my friends and lecturers in English. By the end of the 2nd year, I had managed to answer half of my exam papers in English. Thus began my “English transformation”.

The proficiency in English among our students cannot be improved simply by teaching Maths and Science in English. To think that our students would be more proficient in English by learning Maths and Science in English is wishful at best and downright silly at the other extreme.

We are accustomed to knee-jerk reactions masked as “solutions” to every problem under the sun. And the latest is of course, solving the “English problem”.

When Mahathir Mohammad decided to preach for the teaching of Maths and Science in English during his tenure as the PM, one wonders what the objective was. What was the problem which was sought to be solved by that move? I am asking because I have so many contradictory answers.

The then Education Minister seemed to suggest that that move was taken to improve the standard of English among our pupils. On 23rd June however, the Malaysian Insider reported that:
“The teaching of maths and science in English the last six years has not improved the performance of students in those subjects, the education minister admitted today.
“There have been changes but the difference is nominal,” said Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
He said there had only been a two to three per cent change since the policy was implemented in 2003.” (the full report is here).

So what was it? Was it to improve proficiency of English or to improve the students’ performance in Maths and Science? I have answered the earlier question. My opinion is that the standard of English is not going to improve just by teaching Maths and Science in English. As for the latter, if at all the DPM cum Education Minister did say that, I think he has totally missed the concept!

You don’t improve your performance in Maths and Science by changing the medium of communication in which you teach those subjects. Maths is Maths, regardless of whether it is in English, Arabic, Mongolian or Martian language. So is Science. If the Education Ministry had all these while been targeting to improve our students’ performance in Maths and Science by teaching these subjects in English, than I would say it has been a total waste of time, efforts and money.

As for the earlier objective of improving standard of English, who was the bright spark who thought that that objective could be met by teaching Maths and Science in English?
Proficiency in English is not acquired and will not ever be acquired by such method. In fact such move was more harmful to the students’ academic performance than it was helpful. The implementation of the whole policy, about 6 years ago, was to suddenly force students to take Maths and Science in English and the teachers to so teach them. Just imagine a Form 4 student. For the past 10 years, he was taught Maths in Bahasa Malaysia. He knew what “campur” and “tolak” were. Suddenly they respectively became “addition” and “subtraction”. And in science, “monoksida” and “reptilia” suddenly became “monoxide” and “reptile” respectively. Does that help him to be more proficient in English?

In July apparently the Government will announce its stand on this issue. God forbids if it decides to revert to teaching Maths and Science in Bahasa Malaysia, after about 6 years or so that Maths and Science are taught in English. Our children don’t deserve to be treated like some lab rats. They are not and should not be treated as some guinea pigs while our fickle-minded policy makers struggle even with the whole concept itself.

And the worst thing is that there is a niggly feeling that a political decision, as opposed to a diligent decision, will be made. This issue has somehow managed to become a political issue although it should not be one. This is not about the position of Bahasa Malaysia in this country. Worst still, this is not about the special “rights” or “position” of the Malays in this country.
To say that I am disappointed with the reasons given by the Pakatan Rakyat politicians and some academicians in opposing the Government’s move to teach Maths and Science in English would be an understatement. To these people I would like to appeal, please don’t turn this issue into a political one. And to the Government, please, for once, make the correct decision base on our conscience and the necessity to make our children better for their future as well as the future of this country.

To my mind, if the Government is serious at tackling this issue, it should really firstly, go to the ground and determine what the actual problem is. Then it should investigate the reasons for such problem. Only then it should consider the available solutions. When that is done, it should decide the methodology of implementing the solution(s).

There must however be room for improving the policy. The Government must be able to tweak the system every now and then if anything is found lacking or when such tweakage is necessary to yield improvements. But that doesn’t mean that the Government should be able to reverse its earlier decisions and make an about turn. Worst still, the Government should not let political pressure dictate such policy.

We, and our kids, have had too many of those. Our children should not be the sacrificial lambs, readily sacrificed for political survival or popularity. May I remind that our children’s education has been entrusted by the people to the Government. And the people expect that trust to be performed diligently, unemotionally and honestly.

PS
Encik M Bakri Musa posted a comment on my article at the Malaysian Insider. He asked me what, in my opinion, should be done.

Well, I cannot confess to have an answer to that question because I do not have sufficient facts of the problems as well as the cause for such problems. However, if we are talking about improving the standard of English, written and spoken, of the students, the first that I would do is to adopt a holistic approach towards solving that problem.

The objective must then be to improve such standard. The time within which to achieve that objective should be as soon as practicable. Then a suitable English syllabus designed to teach our students English as a business language (or as a second language, communication language – depending on the objective) should be drawn up with the help of experts. After that we would have to train the teachers. And list out and prepare all the materials which we need. Only after all these are met should we start introducing the lessons. It must begin at Standard One.
It must be holistic. We should not, with a view of a quick fix, start imposing things without much thought.

In addition, a new culture must be started. It would include inculcating our children the love for books (in English, preferably). They must be encouraged to converse and write in English. It will take time and a lot of efforts. But if that is what is needed, than we would owe it to our children to do it.

Teaching Maths and Science in English alone will not bring us anywhere.


25 comments:

Tiger said...

What it means is that concerned parents will have to take on the responsibility to educate their children well in English. But how many parents can do so?

Anonymous said...

I share your sentiment that the government should not treat our children like lab rats. It is downright cruel. I have little ones who will be effected by the dingdong decisions of the government. I am so frustrated and I am glad that you were able to articulate all of our collective frustrations. I am fearful of the announcement to be made come July. What do we do?

Anonymous said...

Hi Art,

This is my maiden response to any article written on the net. I couldn't agree with you more. The English teachers who were supposed to mark my children's work make errors which were glaring. Imagine my child learning English from someone who is not proficient. I am in the same class as you, a baby boomer and YES, I still do carry many types of dictionaries, Thesaurus and encyclopedias as I still feel my English needs improvement. I was at a zoo not long ago and this guy was trying to impress his girl, so she asked "Apa nama badak sumbu dalam Bahasa Inggeris?". He looked hard at the sign post and replied "Senang aja, Rhino-curious!!" I just shook my head in disbelief! Our politicians are just kidding themselves and perhaps many of them ARE NOT proficient in English which explains the FEAR. This has been bandied by our political masters for years with NO RESULTS! It warms my heart to see the younger generation speak good English. In the business world today, our politicians must remember that competition not among kaum Melayu, Cina atau India in Malaysia but against the global business community. We have lost our advantage decades ago.It's funny when the time comes, our Ministers have to bring along an English interpreter to trade mission overseas. People in China take great effort to learn English and if you see their newschannel, they potray to be world class. It is my fervent hope that the Education Minister makes the right decision and stop treating our future generations as guinea pigs. Like the perpatah melayu, "Hendak seribu daya, tak hendak seribu dalih."

Silently screaming!

mob1900 said...

The downfall of education had already been set into motion 2 decades ago when the quality of teacher trainees were recruited for the sake of employment and not based on meritocracy.

We can't really blame the children as they're only as good as the educators. Schools has been turned into religous/racial and political battleground instead of being just a ground for learning.

Plus, we have a Party-based Gov which uses every mechanism within the administration of this country to subvert our children with baseless lies and cultivate their own party's propaganda on them since young.

Every MoE since the 80s has their own personal agendas and kept coming out with mega dumb ideas.

Here's a thought: Why can't these idiots stop meddling with education and just leave it at what education does best:
To Educate.

Anonymous said...

Why Screw it up 1st and then correct it. Do you realise that every good happened in Malaysia is 1st screwed up and reverted to the same screw we did.

KoSong Cafe said...

Seems to me, the populist decision will prevail. But whichever decision, there will be protests from certain quarters. As a compromise:

Will the government allow the establishment of more private schools to teach in English (subject to market forces) to revert back to something similar to the old missionary schools which most people would agree had been successful before until the nationalists' view prevailed? The government can continue its own policy but allow parents the choice of schools, be it English, Chinese or Tamil, if they prefer? Just allow more private schools to be established instead of restricting by percentage, like in those international schools, which benefit only the elites.

I am sure over time, there will be some sort of equilibrium where everybody gets to decide for his children whichever medium of instruction. If only the government can give up this decision-making role, it can even reduce the costs of maintaining government schools. The general consensus seems to be the failure of government schools in maintaining standards, so please admit, and buck up or let others do a better job.

Anonymous said...

I think the best solution is to revert back to the old system, English & B.M medium schools, Let them choose for their own responsibility.

Gracie said...

I think it would be a complete waste of time if the children as taught by teachers who barely know English themselves, what a load of bad influences. A is definitely not for Alephant.

Anonymous said...

Google "calculus" in English and "kalkulus" in Bahasa. Repeat that with "monoxide" and "monoxida". Pay attention to the number of and quality of the search results. The reason for teaching Science & Maths in English will become clear. Nevertheless, the proficiency of English in both educators and students is a prerequisite.

American Guy2188 said...

Yeah! Let me share my Form 6 experience with everyone.

I was a former Form 6 student in one of the schools in Kuala Lumpur in year 2006. Maybe I have been trapped of choosing Maths and Science subjects because I thought they will help me to improve my English language. Instead, it is getting worse than ever!

One of my Maths teacher, a Universiti Malaya graduate is not a good English speaker. We had our bad time to pay attention to his one by one word pronunciations. Like Square = squeahk. How funny he is!

Currently I am pursuing my studies in one of the public university in US. In order to survive I have to speak a very good English; no mix up with Cantonese, Malay language, or Hindi's. The Americans would struggle for some time to understand our English messages or dialogues. I am facing a tough time to talk or communicate with them. As a result, I cannot get new friends there coz of my incompetence English! I am so upset and frustrated about myself. But luckily most of the Americans are friendly and willing to help me to go through my life. I wish I have a girlfriend or a best friend at least but guess i have to wait for few years more then.

k89 said...

The government is in a huge dilemma after having misled a generation or more of children and parents. This is the product of Mahathirs one-track mind – I know best what you need!

Certainly by any definition, proficiency in English cannot be improved by teaching Maths and Science alone in that language. The government has no choice but to admit to this failure.

If Government is serious about finding an acceptable solution – it should form a Commission of leading Educationists, both domestic and International, and come up with clear proposals for strengthening the proficiency in English. The Commission can take everybody’s views into account and come out with proposals and plans of action.

And a caveat needs to be made that the importance or dominance of Bahasa Malaysia should not be diminished in any way.

This process will take out some of the political heat from the problem and stop half-baked UMNO politicians from meddling into the lives of young children, the most important asset of this nation.

They have to first of all start with the teachers who teach English and in English. A simple standardized test administered objectively will show that 75% of them are not likely to achieve a pass grade. (This is a subjective guesstimate based on interaction with children in school)

Please remember, if the government is not serious in taking proper action, the people who are going to suffer most (and this will be the largest proportion) are those in the rural areas and the poorer segment of society who cannot afford private tuition. The government will only be perpetuating the divisions in society that is already stretched by so many other differences and problems.

Having private schools will only be a solution for the very rich in the urban areas.

Big M said...

1. It's should have been alright if teaching of M&S in English was started only at Year One at the time of its implementation, just like the case when the Government switched the medium of instruction of these 2 subjects from English to Malay in the 70s.

2. At that time I believe the teachers, who had been teaching these subjects in English, was also having difficulty teaching in the Malay language.

3. Over time they managed to overcome this difficulty.

4. So, for goodness sake, lets support the Government to continue the teaching of M&S in English. The teachers and students will improve over time.

5. Exposing them to more subjects in English will definitely improve their command or understanding of the language. My Indonesian maid, who doesn't speak English, can also communicate with my kids in English, albeit in a broken manner, after about one year working in my family.

6. Studying these subjects in English will definitely help the kids a lot when they go for higher education,whether locally or overseas.

7. Of course in the business world the language used will still be in English, maybe until no one speaks the language. But, do we want to reach this state?

art harun said...

Encik M Bakri Musa posted a comment on my article at the Malaysian Insider. He asked me what, in my opinion, should be done.
Well, I cannot confess to have an answer to that question because I do not have sufficient facts of the problems as well as the cause for such problems. However, if we are talking about improving the standard of English, written and spoken, of the students, the first that I would do is to adopt a holistic approach towards solving that problem.
The objective must then be to improve such standard. The time within which to achieve that objective should be as soon as practicable. Then a suitable English syllabus designed to teach our students English as a business language (or as a second language, communication language – depending on the objective) should be drawn up with the help of experts. After that we would have to train the teachers. And list out and prepare all the materials which we need. Only after all these are met should we start introducing the lessons. It must begin at Standard One.
It must be holistic. We should not, with a view of a quick fix, start imposing things without much thought.
In addition, a new culture must be started. It would include inculcating our children the love for books (in English, preferably). They must be encouraged to converse and write in English. It will take time and a lot of efforts. But if that is what is needed, than we would owe it to our children to do it.
Teaching Maths and Science in English alone will not bring us anywhere.

onthestreets said...

Art Harun,
This issue is a Goner. So much water has passed under the bridge. A result of myopia and hasty decision-making. Who would have thought the "I-know-best" prime minister in the form of Mahathir Mohammad would have succumbed to it.

I stated my piece before. See www.onthestreets.wordpress.com.

ChungYan said...

While I can relate to what is written, I am somewhat bewildered by what is actually the point here. If going to the left is water under the bridge i.e. reverting back to the old days and going to the right is wrong i.e. not sure what value is there using English in Science and Maths. Then my good sir, what is indeed your point? We are good at throwing everything in the air and highlighting all that is imperfect. The challenge I put to you is what you have observed that has gone well in the PPSMI programme. If you can't may I suggest you put a bit more effort in it before tearing it to bits. Your response is highly anticipated.

art harun said...

Chung Yan,

I'd done yet. Please see my post in the comment section just before yours.

cheerz

DontPlayGod said...

Someone wrote that more private schools be allowed. I agree with this suggestion. Privatise education and schools. Not only will the Government be saving huge funds, but I believe education of our young can be that much more better. Of course, national schools can still be allowed, so too should national-type schools. Let the people choose where to send their children to.

I believe the number of private schools are being restricted. The present national schools have failed the people as the UMNO government has misued and abused them to propagate their racist ideologies and islamic character.

Anonymous said...

There were several posts with regards to private schools.

Private schools are alive and well in both English, Mandarin as well as BM. Yes, there are even private schools usually religious taught in BM.

However it raises another issue. Whatever happen to the right to quality education? How can parents who are less economically well-off send their children to private school because they feel learning in English and gaining proficiency in English is a necessity in this rapidly changing world? Don't they have rights being taxpayers as well?

Like Art, I do not have any magic wand or answers except to ask the Government and the political parties to do what is right for our children and future.

Bob

Walski69 said...

Art, the sad reality is that the Education Ministry is one of those traditionally "required" ministries for a politician to move up in the world of Malaysian politics. I don't know when this trend started, but all our PMs since Tun Razak onwards has held that portfolio.

And because of the importance of that position as a stepping stone towards PM-hood, many who've held that portfolio have been guilty of implementing policies for the sake of politics, rather than education.

This has gone on as far as I can remember. My dad used to work in the Ministry, and I remember his frustration regarding policies that had to be implemented because "the Minister said they must". Regardless of how good, or how bad (which was more often than not) those policies were.

Populist ideas followed by rushed implementation - that's been the hallmark of our Education Ministry. I foresee the same 'ol, same 'ol come July - the decision WILL be a political one.

I hope that I can stand corrected, but I fear that I will be right.

LAT said...

Art,
What you said in these 2 paragraphs, "To my mind, if the Government is serious at tackling this issue, it should really firstly, go to the ground and determine what the actual problem is. Then it should investigate the reasons for such problem. Only then it should consider the available solutions. When that is done, it should decide the METHODOLOGY of IMPLEMENTING the SOLUTION(S).

There must however be room for improving the policy. The Government must be able to TWEAK the system EVERY NOW and THEN if anything is found lacking or when such tweakage is necessary to YIELD IMPROVEMENTS. But that doesn’t mean that the Government should be able to reverse its earlier decisions and make an about turn. WORST STILL, THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD NOT LET POLITICAL PRESSURE DICTATE SUCH POLICY."

Art, Your insightful & constructive recommendations should by now be able to inspire and enlighthen the Education Minister unless his English standard is the same like that minister at the Australia immigration " i don know talk ingelish." !

I suggest the BN gomen to appoint you as "Senator of Miscellaneous Ministry". So, in effect you are the Chief Minister for the whole Cabinet Ministers !

Cheers !

Anonymous said...

I have been working in the government department for more than 25 years. I found that the newer generation of officers can't speak a single sentence in English without making any mistakes. Worst some of them are oversea graduated. I also notice that a few of my colleague children were accepted into teacher training college to teach English, when none of them speak English. Our children can't learn or master English from such teachers when they cannot speak English fluently. Government please get the right person to teach our children but not necessarily foreigner. Politician no matter from government or opposition... please do something about it and don't make a big fuss over it. At least the government is doing something about it while you opposition will go against it no matter it is right or wrong!

Chin said...

I would disagree with you about English not being an advantage for learning maths and science.

As a lawyer and a professional, you should know better, that learning really begin after school. And a lawyer who is not proficient in English, is crippled.

Your primary and secondary education only prepares you to learn the skill you will need in your working life.

And if the only language proficiency is Malay or Chinese, I think that is a real disadvantage for someone who wish to embark on a career based on technical knowledge.

TDM made the right decision, Malaysia was losing one of the advantages that differentiated it from the rest of the region. And that is English proficiency.

Richard said...

S & M in English is not for improving language skills.

S & M in English is for easy access to information on the subjects mainly available internationally in English.

pinsysu said...

"I belong to the last batch of students in government schools from the “English stream”." hehehe, me too! i think the problem is too deep-rooted & i dun think the current gomen is sincere in doing anything abt it. during those earlier yrs the observation that we noted was that the quality of teachers were below standards. a bita like martial art kind of thing ya: u cannot expect a green belt to teach students and expect the students to become black belts! the whole system nids fundamental transformation! put more budgets to attract good graduates to become teachers and set up a reward system to retain good teachers! where hv all the petronas oil money gone to??!! the bottomline is to effect change u must 1st change the gomen. period.

Old Fart said...

On Saturday over dinner I was talking to a young Cambodian student who had arrived in New Zealand just a year before that with a rudimentary ability in spoken, written or understanding of English. Now, a year later, she speaks with a Kiwi accent, confident enough to engage in conversation with me. Her vocab would be limited but I am sure she would get away with murder in Malaysia. Of course I'd have to recommend that she uses C4!

Anyway, the point I'm making? I suppose for Malaysians the need for English is not necessarily understood or recognised by students or even in colleges.

But one truth that all those swearing by BM will never know or understand, is that while they were championing Malay all these years, the real business of government, except in Parli8ament was all conducted in English. Now how am I to say that?

Well, in the 1980s I was in the private education sector. i had to deal with the licensing officials in the Education Departments as well as the ministry. I never once spoke in Malay.

Around the same time too I attended a meeting, about 10 of us meeting Mahathir at his office. I only spoke iin English and most of us did as well. When lastly Mahathir spoke, there was not a word of Bahasa Malaysia from him.

I have spoken a few words with Anwar when he was Education minister ..in English too...and now like a typical hypocrite he is asking for everything to go back to BM.

Then in the early 1990s I attended a Budget Meeting in Labuan with a lot of financiers and industrialists and that was being chaired by Anwar when he was Finance Minister. Once again all was in English.

So now. What are we talking about???