Some of the important but incremental piecemeal actions to be taken which was announced by the Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein are:
- Building and upgrading more schools, as well as repairing those which need a facelift and are in dangerous condition due to termite attacks or floods;
- Major inventory-taking and consolidation of the ICT initiatives in schools;
- Remedial and intervention programmes to ensure students mastered Reading, Writing and Arithmetic skills;
- Expanding Special Education programmes; and,
- Strengthening the national language.
"The way we assess our children’s achievements in learning must be in response to developments and changes in the world... We can also assess our students’ achievements through examinations conducted by bodies such as TIMSS (The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study)."
TIMSS is an organisation which provides "reliable and timely data on the mathematics and science achievement of American students". While I'm lauding the effort of the Minister to look at global trends and learning from their successes and failures, I'm a little concerned with regards to the fact that we may be looking at the wrong country for the education of mathematics and science policies.
While the United States (US) may be a developed country and a global leader in technology, it has been apparent in many studies conducted in recent years that the quality of Mathematics and Science education received by the average student receives has been on steep decline. In a study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2003 on 15 year olds, the United States was ranked a poor 25th-28th out of 41 countries surveyed for Mathematics. For Science, US was ranked 20th-27th. The countries which topped the rankings were Hong Kong, Finland, South Korea and Japan. (For those who are curious, Singapore was not included in this study.)
To quote the American Institutes for Research (AIR) which conducted a studyin 2005 funded by the US Department of Education:
Despite a widely held belief that U.S. students do well in mathematics in grade school but decline precipitously in high school, a new study comparing the math skills of students in industrialized nations finds that U.S. students in 4th and 8th grade perform consistently below most of their peers around the world and continue that trend into high school.In fact, in another study by AIR, we actually do not have to look far to seek help and assistance in advancing our teaching in Mathematics and Science. The AIR report entitled "What United States Can Learn from Singapore's World Class Mathematics System" (available in full PDF here, and a summary here). This study, also financed by the US Department of Education, was released in January 2005. The AIR has found that
U.S. students consistently performed below average, ranking 8th or 9th out of twelve at all three grade levels. These findings suggest that U.S. reform proposals to strengthen mathematics instruction in the upper grades should be expanded to include improving U.S. mathematics instruction beginning in the primary grades.
...comparing the teaching of elementary school mathematics in the United States and Singapore has found that Singapore’s textbooks and assessment examinations are more demanding and their teachers more skilled mathematically but that U.S. approaches often put more emphasis on certain important 21 st century math skills.
Singapore is a recognized leader in mathematics achievement. Singaporean students ranked first in the world on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study-2003, while U.S. students ranked 16th out of the 46 participating nations. Scores for U.S. students were among the lowest of all industrialized countries.As part of the detailed study, AIR conducted four pilot programs that using Singapore's mathematics textbook involving students in Baltimore, Md., Montgomery County, Md., North Middlesex, Mass., and Paterson, N.J.
“It is unreasonable to assume that Singaporean students have mathematical abilities inherently superior to those of U.S. students; rather, there must be something about the system that Singapore has developed to teach mathematics that is better than the system we use in the United States. That’s why it’s important to take a closer look, and see how the U.S can learn and how the U.S can improve,” says Steven Leinwand, the lead AIR author.
The study found two pilot sites produced sizeable improvements in student outcomes, but overall the study observed mixed results because “the pilot sites, to varying degrees, encountered problems with teachers who lacked the educational preparation needed.”In fact a detailed study must be conducted of the Singapore system which was evaluated by TIMSS as part of the 15-year old survey conducted on a 4 yearly basis in 28 countries. Back in 1995, Singapore was ranked joint 1st with South Korea for Mathematics, and 9th for Science. In 1999, it improved its rankings to 1st and 2nd respective. And for the most recent study conducted in 2003, Singapore topped both the Mathematics and Science categories.
More controversially, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein may be stamping his mark on the education system by commenting that:
...the ministry would study calls to reduce the number of subjects in public examinations and only test pupils on certain subjects.Contrary to many educated opinion that I know exists out there - I'm of the opinion that the issue with our education system is not so much with the examinations system, but with the way the subjects are taught, which in turn is a function of the textbook, the quality of the teachers and the quality of the assessors.
"The 9th Malaysia Plan period can be used to see if we can change the emphasis in public exams from being too content-based to a more skill-based one, or from achievement tests to tests on general ability".
I'm personally a product of the "examination system" from primary to tertiary education. I've sat for exams which are overly content oriented as well as exams which test the candidates analytical and critical thinking skills of the contents learnt during the specific course. I find that the problem is not with an examination system (which I regard as critical) and tweaking with experiments like taking fewer subjects, but in changing the approach to examinations - beginning with the teachers and the examination questions. Let me give an example of comparative question from the much maligned subject of history. Compare the following three questions:
- What are the events leading to the fall of the Melaka Sultanate?
- What are the factors which caused the fall of the Melaka Sultanate?
- Was the fall of the Melaka Sultanate inevitable?
Hence, my brief argument in an issue which can spawn volumes of theses, is that there is nothing wrong with examinations per se, as well as learning facts and figures as part of the curriculum. However, what is important is for the educators to take the next step and inculcate analytical and critical thinking skills for application on the facts and figures learnt. This is in order for students to cope with a movement of the examination system which tests analytical and critical thinking skills on top of knowing ones' facts. Changing our examination system from a more "content-based to a more skill-based one" is not the answer.