Saturday, June 27, 2009

Please, Don’t Turn Our Children Into Guinea Pigs

Taken from

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.

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.

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