Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Science and Math in English - Alternative Views

Two additional letters advocating for the reversal of the policy of teaching Science and Math in English. The first, written by Khairy Jamaluddin, is very well argued. The point he raised in regard to phasing in the teaching of Science and Math in English at the secondary level is particularly intriguing. This is a glimpse of a Khairy who is fully capable of making sound and cogent arguments when he is not playing up to his 'base'. The second is written by a Malaysian PhD student in Australia. He makes a similar point that it is the standard of English among English teachers in Malaysia which needs to be improved. On a related note, I wonder how many politicians who advocate for a return to teaching Science and Math in BM will actually send their kids to a public school or choose the route of a private school where English is much more widely spoken and taught.

Khairy's letter first.

IT has been almost a year since I called for a review of the teaching of Maths and Science in English while debating the motion on education at the Umno general assembly. I did so based on feedback from grassroots members and also a consistent opposition to the policy since it was announced by the previous prime minister.
I had felt then, as I still do now, that the policy was half-baked, lacking in any rigorous analysis and another attempt at putting a quick-fix band aid on a serious problem requiring structural reforms.

The report "Study reveals policy's flaws" (NST, Sept 7) sheds new light to justify my reservations about the policy. I feel the research conducted by Professor Emeritus Datuk Isahak Haron of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris and other surveys of secondary school students pointing to similar problems must be perused exhaustively and could prove to be crucial in tilting the debate on the issue ahead of the government's promise to review its implementation next year.

For the sake of clarity and lest I be accused of being retrogressive in my thinking, I would like to reiterate that I believe most Malaysians are in agreement that a strong command of the English language is an essential prerequisite for any school-leaver who wants to understand and absorb the massive corpus of knowledge available in reference books written in English at the tertiary level, or any graduate who wants to compete in the marketplace.

The English language has become a basic requirement for students and job-seekers in this increasingly globalised world where it is, for now, the undisputed lingua franca.
The issue here is not the importance of English. That is self-evident and the education system must commit itself to making our students fluent in English. In fact, in my Umno debate I urged Malays to emulate other communities in Malaysia by becoming bilingual, even trilingual. The real issue here is how we improve our children's command of English. I believe strongly that it most definitely is not through a poorly conceived policy like the teaching of Maths and Science in English.

UPSI's findings proved my fears were real and it uncovered the harsh realities our students face in schools due to this flawed policy. In particular, the impact of the policy on Malay students in national schools especially in the rural areas and from lower socio-economic backgrounds has been catastrophic. Not only has it not improved the students' command of English, it has managed to hamper their understanding of mathematical and scientific concepts.

Furthermore, the problems and weaknesses of this policy are not confined to one ethnic group. The study revealed that the ones who gained from the policy were a small percentage of Malay students from upper middle-class families who went to good, urban schools. The paper further showed that even Chinese students struggled with learning Maths and Science when taught in English, demonstrating that this is a problem that cuts across ethnic lines.

In our effort to bridge the urban and rural divide, the gap between rich and poor, it is sad to see that in reality students in national schools, mostly in rural areas and from lower socio-economic backgrounds, have lost out the most as a result of the decision to teach Maths and Science in English.

The full report of the study also confirmed the often-heard anecdotal evidence that one of the key problems is that teachers are finding it difficult to teach in English and consequently students are having a hard time understanding these lessons that are conducted by teachers who themselves are not proficient in the language. As a result, almost 85 per cent of the teachers end up teaching Maths and Science in a mixture of English and Bahasa Malaysia, exposing a fundamental flaw in the implementation of the policy. How do you expect to answer exam questions in English when it is not entirely taught in English in the first place?

I also find myself concurring with the study leader's suggestion that it would be better to allocate more time, staff and money to the teaching of English at the primary school level rather than pursuing the teaching of Maths and Science in English. I have made this point repeatedly, that English is best learnt by the teaching of the English language and not by conflating it with subjects such as Maths and Science.

And to answer the point made by Samuel Yesuiah in his letter "Let's continue with the policy" (NST, Sept 8), if our students are given a sound foundation in the English language itself with proper instruction given to grammar, vocabulary and syntax, they will have few problems understanding "science reference books and journals in English at universities". They don't need to be taught Maths and Science in English to read reference books in English later on. They just need to be proficient in English, which clearly this policy has failed to achieve.

I wrote to this newspaper in November last year calling for immediate improvements to the teaching and learning of English in our schools. But that objective must not be pursued through a policy that not only falls short of its aim to improve English among our students but also seriously hampers their ability to learn Maths and Science.

It is high time we ditched this policy for the failure that it is and learnt from an episode of a flawed and ill-conceived policy defeating what were, I presume, noble intentions.

The second letter is written by Yap Soo Huey.

I WRITE to add to the current debate on the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English.

I graduated in 1999 from a small school in Penang where Science and Mathematics were taught in Bahasa Malaysia. Now, I am a scientist in a leading medical research institute in Australia and will be completing my PhD at the end of this year.

Since starting my PhD candidature in 2005, I have won five awards, including two awards at national conferences for Best Speaker (most other speakers were native English speakers) and one young investigator award at a prestigious international conference.

I am also an author in a major scientific publication and have more publications in the pipeline.

I am not alone in such success. There are two other Malaysians in the institute where I work, as well as senior scientists from Albania, Argentina, Armenia, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Iran, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Sweden.

All of them are successful despite schooling in their respective national language!

Hence, my main points are:

1. It is not important for English to be the medium of instruction for Science and Mathematics. Stop wasting money and resources trying to implement this.

2. The standard of English in our schools has been deteriorating for so long that many of the teachers we have in schools are themselves not proficient in English.

3. The problem is the teaching of the English language itself. Don’t send Science and Mathematics teachers for English courses when some English teachers themselves need English courses, and English teachers who don’t need English courses need a useful syllabus from which to teach!

5. Don’t make the use of Bahasa Malaysia the scapegoat. It is important for Bahasa Malaysia to remain the medium of instruction in schools for the sake of national identity, which is vital for genuine national unity.

Finally, please identify and address the real problems in our school system.

A student competent in English and Science/Mathematics separately can communicate Science/Mathematics in English even if he/she learnt it in Bahasa Malaysia.

I have had no formal Chinese education, and both my parents barely speak Mandarin. The extent of my Chinese education is weekly tuition classes when I was in primary school.

Yet, with my minimal proficiency in Mandarin, I’ve engaged in lengthy scientific discussions, mainly in Mandarin, with scientists from China and Taiwan on many occasions with good outcomes.

Make sure Science and Mathematics are taught properly, and don’t discriminate against students who are poor in English but may have the aptitude for Science or Mathematics.

Communication can come after understanding has been established.

George Town.


AJ7 said...

If there is a choice, most would want their kids to master English. If there are English medium schools, most middle class parents would send their children there because they understand the advantage of English. If a child is taught well from young, while he may not turn out to be a linguist, his mastery of the language would be sufficient to put him at an advantageous position. The problem is not the medium of instruction. A lot of it lies in the quality of instruction which points directly to the teachers. Get it right at the basic level i.e. train competent teachers) and probably the rest of the problems will slowly ease away. It will take time but it can work.

Anonymous said...

Is this the best argument you can bring? It is flawed & so English education is still best for Malaysia.


wei said...

i agree part of the arguments that it's has been hard for rural students or most of the students to adapt to the teaching medium of english. but for me as a student, i think it's AT LEAST the english exposure to students can be greatly increased throughout their study life.

one possible solution would be starting the english medium from secondary school. I admit that kids can best learn their maths and science in mother tongue.

for what the second letter say, we can communicate well after we gain the understanding, and i believe this scientist sees that way because he/she only meets elite counterparts.

from most of my coursemates who are chinese educated in primary sch, then continued in national sec sch, now in university life of english medium, i can say MOST of them could not use proper english in both writing, and speaking especially.

Speaking is the worst,including myself.. for i have not exposed myself to an english speaking environment during my earlier study life.

english speaking disabled person, what can i do?

Anonymous said...

When the British left us, they left us with one of the most greatest asset. The ability to communicate in English! Then along came the politicians who in the name of independence and national solidarity chucked away this ability and reengineered in many more ways what the British lefy us. Now we cant talk English and worst still we cant even speak Bahasa properly!
It is high time and for a very long we go ALL OUT to learn English at all levels of population and all over the country to learn English.
In the fifties and sixties even the uneducated population are English speaking!

Andrew Loh said...

I ultimately agree with the letters -- what is needed to improve English in Malaysia is not Science and Math in English but rather a better English syllabus.

Currently we focus too much on reading and writing and not enough on speaking (this for all languages) -- virtually handicapping ourselves. I always find it interesting (and yet embarrassing) that I can converse in Arabic (albeit haltingly) after only two years of study, whereas my spoken Malay, even after 11 years of Malaysian education, leaves much to be desired.

ben choo said...

Kian Ming, after reading KJ's letter, it now makes sense to me how it has been orchestrated to make him good. From NUTP changing its tune from Do the math, keep it in English on 3/8/08 to Teaching Science and Mathematics in English: ‘Wrong to learn language this way’ on 4/9/08 followed by the UPSI report [lecturer daring to condemn TDM publicly] and now his letter. UMNO election is around the corner!

So he knows the weaknesses ie the teachers' [Teachers' College] but yet he didn't go deep into it because the bulk of the teachers are ...

As for Yap's view, she belongs to the minority exceptional group. But one thing we all agree is that it boils down the standard of teaching.

We need to draw more talents into the education system and pay them better so that they don't have to moonlight to survive and neglect on school teaching, which is highly recommended by the gomen.

Our education system is too policised and so, we need to give parents/students a choice to English Medium School, SJK, SJKC, SJKT should co-exist like before 1970 and at the same time improve standard of teaching. Let it be based on demand and supply instead of shoving it to the parents/students. Let's decide on our own future instead of relying on flawed policymaker.

To carry on business as usual is detrimental to the nation. The middle and upper middle class can fend out for themselves by sending their children to tuition and later local private university/overseas studies but what about the people in the heartland ? Also, there'll be more and more of talents like Yap Soo Huey who will not come back. Then what ?

There is nothing wrong with the policy. The problem lies with the IMPLEMENTATION. Improve the teaching standard and everything will fall into place.

Shawn Tan said...

Our education policy should not be at the mercy of the electorate. Due to the nature of the country, nobody will be 100% satisfied with the way things are done. However, changing educational policies because the parents are not able to brag about their child's primary school results is a bit silly. That is the reason why we end up changing our education system every 5 years or so, before it has been even given a chance to bear fruit. None of us can say if teaching Sci/Math in English is a bad thing because the current crop of students are still undergoing the change. The results may only be evident when they graduate university, 10 years later.

While "content" is more important than the language it is delivered in, there is no denying that for science based courses, English is the "lingua franca" and the students will have to face this fact sooner or later. If the students are not taught these things at the primary level, they are going to either face it at the secondary or tertiery level, at the latest.

If we wait till they reach university to expose them to it, they will all end up like the current crop of graduates, who are forced to study their textbooks with a dictionary at their side, graduate without a useful command of the language, resulting in difficulty securing jobs inside and outside the country.

If we decide to expose them to it at the secondary level, it may be even more difficult than the primary level. By this time, all the basics are already formed. In secondary school, the students also need to deal with a much heavier load and are exposed to a larger number of subjects. I don't see how it will actually help to switch them over at the secondary level in English, instead of the primary level.

At the primary level, yes, the child will suffer initially and may not do very well at school. So, the parents are unable to brag about their child's accomplishments and may need to coax the child a bit more. But kids at that age are very resilient and quick learners. They will be able to adapt and learn things faster at this level. They also have less of a work load to deal with at this level.

So, I say this: Let the kids suffer a little when they are small. Which employer actually asks you for your primary school results anyway. Build up a solid foundation at this level and then things will be much easier for them at a later stage. It would also give them 6 extra years of "usage", which may help in communication.

However, I do agree with a lot of the opinions on the lack of quality teaching. The teachers that we complain about, are the very products of a system that taught things in the mother tongue. So, we are suffering the after affects of the switch away from English. We would be wise to avoid making the same mistake again.

Wingless_Angel31 said...

if i just may, i'd probably argue that one main stumbling block in helping us achieve anything significant in this area of teaching science and math (note: it's not mathS) is our tendency to not be pro-change and to settle for second-best.

we find no need to improve and better ourselves most of the time because our pace of life is still one of a big village. people are content with what they already have, because they can already get by, so why do something unnecessary?

also, racial lines are drawn and people are not motivated to engage in life-long learning because (i) those protected by racial glass ceilings don't feel a need to improve themselves (ii) those hampered by racial glass ceilings don't find any worth in doing so themselves.

effectively those who are different: those who are pro-change, who seek to actively renew their learning and keep up with the times are frustrated with the status quo and most decide to leave the nation. and it so happens that such people are likely to be the people who are proficient in english, so the nation loses the best teachers due to a brain drain caused by the regressive nature of the kampung lifestyle.

in all neutrality.

Anonymous said...

So we go back to teaching Science and maths in BM and teaching lousy English language with half qualified speakers? We go back and not forward? Dr Yap is smart fellow and has managed to reach the top -- but don't we want more students like him? If we don't, then go back to using BM. If we want to be a center of education excellence it has to be English in Science and maths. All this Apex bullshit is nothing -- you throw money at students and professors who cannot communicate with their peers in English you get nothing back. Look at Singapore. English all the way and they are in the top 100 uni. What does this tell us -- the lessons are all around --no English = lousy scientists. Forget about Apex. Malaysia will NEVER have a top 100 uni.

Anonymous said...

are the policymakers taking note?

when pakatan rakyat takes over, will they do a total revamp of the education system and make it merit-based, limiting affirmative action to raising the educational level of those still behind to be on par with others, rather than lowering the bar for them to move up?


Anonymous said...

The whole original problem began because English was bad among students. If you remove the teaching of Math & Science in English, can they improve the teaching of English? Not if there is no need for it i.e, the students don't feel the need.

Yes you can and should remove the teaching of Math & Science in English but you also make sure that there is a need to teach better English i.e., make it rewarding and a punishment if they dont learn English. To implement such a system would have some complexity, unprecedented and not within the skills of the administrators.

For example, a system where students who are good in English are rewarded with say access to trips, books, awards, events etc. An entire pro-English organization within each and every school to support it.

Its expensive, complex. Not within reach of current administration...

Anonymous said...

Remember teaching Math & Science without English would also not improve teaching of Math & Science automatically. What else need to be done? Its a highly complex issue with no simple answer.

The use of English in Math & Science was a simpleton idea of fixing a complex problem. The problem is the critics against it does not have offer a simple alternate solution and no one is accountable for a complex solution...

Anonymous said...

I am a Chinese Malaysian who studied in a Sekolah Kebangsaan and many years later obtained a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the US.

Up until SPM, I learned all my Sciences and Math in Bahasa. After completing my SPM, I went to Inti College and had to learn physics, chemistry and calculus in English. Because I have a good background in English and the sciences, switching from “tabung uji” to “test tube” etc was only an annoyance and not an obstacle to me.

However, other students who had a poorer foundation in English (but with a good background in Chemistry) had trouble with the subject, as taught in English. This became obvious in the lab, where they were sometimes unable to follow instructions to execute an experiment, and too embarassed to ask the teacher. The complexity of the experiments only add to the difficulties.

As one delves deeper into Science/Math in tertiary education or in professional life, the use of English becomes unavoidable. There is no escape from this, and I hope Ms Yap Soo Huey and the professionals reading this agree with me.

There is a classic joke on translating technical terms from English to Malay (or most other language). How would one translate, say, joystick? Would it be Batang Ria or Batang Gembira? And what about motherboard: papan ibu?

I don’t have any experience in implementing challenging educational policies, and if the public wants to debate about this, I’m sure YB Khairy and YB Tony Pua are well-informed to take on the task.


WY Kam 甘永元 said...

Hi KM,

I am in the opinion that you (like the rest of us) tend to look favourably over colourful languages and rhetorical arguments. KJ's letter is nothing more than a very well written, but feeble argument to win support (and reputation) amongst Malay constituents.

Seems like in Malaysia, all policies are benevolent in spirit, but often fail horrendously in implementation. NEP being one, and this teaching Mathematics and Science in English will soon to be another of Mr KJ's associated government.

Before we all jump the bandwagon, and argued for another episode of flip-flopping, i beg readers and Malaysians in general to consider:

1) Why are Maths and Science taught in English in the first place? After all the investments and structural reforms (training up the teachers, materials etc), is backpedalling one step helps us achieving the original goal?

2) If the issue is better English lessons are primary level, why is this not tackled by itself, without sacrifying the lessons of Maths and Science in english? Obviously the issue of better primary level English lessons are nothing more than a rhetorical arguments to ditch this unpopular (amongst umno voters) policy.

3) If there's anything to change, it would be the implemnetation of the system. It is ridiculous and absurb for this (BN) government to push forth few years ago, the policy, without thoroughly considering the implementaitn. A whole army of specialised teachers should be trained in 3-4 years (the time to complete a degree in English)advance, before the implementation of the policy.

Ultimately, our educators and students need to work harder in order to play catch up, no thanks to the flip-flop nationalistic education policies in the 1970s-1990s.

Please don't mess with the education system anymore, just to win a few more votes at the Umno election. blah!

robynhood said...

I agree with KJ that the quality of English teaching at primary school level must be improved. We need to dedicate more time and resources to the teaching of English.

However, the teaching of the English language AND the teaching of Math and Science in English need not be mutually exclusive.

In fact, I would argue that they would complement each other. By increasing the students' exposure to English, their learning of the language would be fast-tracked.

The current problem arises because there is not enough will to make sure that the policy succeeds. We cannot afford to continue to be wishy-washy in our education policies. The world is moving very fast and our competitive advantage is very quickly getting eroded. There needs to be some urgency on these things.

Anonymous said...

As for me,parents should play vital role. we cannot just depend to goverment and teachers.

Malay's main problem is they cannot speak well in English. this is not about learning math and science in english.

children should be exposed to communicate well in english start from the home. in this way, they will have no problems in understanding any subject teached in english.

Wingless_Angel31 said...

to anonymous above:

there is truth in your statement but WE MUST FINALLY WAKE UP AND REALISE that kids go to school for a reason! they don't just go there to waste time and then the have to spend time in tuition and at home LEARNING WHAT THEY SHOULD LEARN IN SCHOOL.

the excessive tuitioning is causing harm to the already bad education system because it relieves the teachers and the system from pressure.

TODMAG said...

Having read the letters and the comments, i feel that we cannot see the woods for the trees.

The very reason for the switch in the language of instruction is that our leaders have FINALLY realised that our students are getting nowhere when they go overseas to continue higher education. the failure rate is so high that it can no longer be ignored.

We must not forget that after 40 years of maths and science being taught in Bahasa it would be absurd to expect good results so soon after the switch back to english as the medium of instruction.

Our teachers themselves are incompetent in teaching in English and it mean that for the next few years, we can expect similar bad results from our students until our teachers learn to be proficient enough in the english language,

young children can adapt to any language of instruction as long as the teacher is proficient, but as the student gets older, it becomes harder. So it is best to maintain the teaching of maths and science in English and intensify the training for teachers to become proficient in english to shorten the transitional period

this is the pain that Malaysia must bear for the short term to benefit from in long term

Anonymous said...

Malaysia educational system has many flaws. Mainly it lacks direction and vision to educate our kids.Example bahasaMalaysia has gone th'ru so much changes a victim to every new EM's fanciful ideas (like bahasaMalaysia evolved from bahasaBakul to bahasaMelayu and then adapation to English ( eg effektif/effective ).
Almost every elected new EM has a better new idea then its predecessor.

Our schooling going kids are led by the nose like kerbau with every policies change.

All this changes sadly bring no added value to our kids knowledge. Like an educationsit quoted,the adaptation has even eroded bahasaMalaysia of its identity.

Worse, the national school are slowly islamised.Hence chinese are runnign of to chinese school.

I agreee with the PHD holder's letter. Leave language to language teachers eg Chinese to Chinese teacher English to Englishteacher Bahasa to Bahasateacher. Seek excellence hire the best teacher in respective language not tengah masak ones(so that next generation won't be tengah masak either).

Let's have a open suggestion to improve rather than criticise.

I feel there should only be 2 streams either English or Bahasa .All other subjects in respective stream language.Chinese and Tamil language as secondary language.

But the side effects is, this schooling system would create divides in the community.

Ruzhi said...

The fact that many Malaysians aren't happy with the implementation of the English for Science and Maths policy shows our refusal to embrace the language and would rather stick to our own comfort zone.

I am an "English-educated" Chinese. English education, per se, doesn't exist in Malaysia but me and my fellow English-speaking Chinese are branded so because of our proficiency in the language and familiarity with the mentality that comes with the language. I have seen many of my Chinese-educated counterparts who struggle on a daily basis because of their lack of skill in the language and they often complain to me that they would never go far. It was my encounters with the Chinese-educated community that made me realize how important English is. Of course, there are very successful Chinese-educated people too but the majority, as I observe, are still held back. This is a waste because Chinese-educated students are generally very hardworking and disciplined.

Thus I would argue that the policy be continued. I understand the concerns of the Chinese-educated community that by teaching the subjects in English, their students will be at a disadvantage. To counter this problem, I suggest the government implement preparatory English courses from kindergarten level, and maths and science be taught in English starting from Primary 3. This will give more time to communities not adept in the language to become familiar with and fluent in it.

On another note, the benefits of mastering the English language don't just come in the form of money or numbers. Mastering English opens one to a whole new world of knowledge previously researched by people from all around the world. This is so because English is the lingua franca of the world; many publications, discoveries and ideas from various countries will certainly be published in English. Hence the language opens the user to a wider world of thought, if compared to, say, a language only used in one country (no offence to user of such a language, but let's be frank).

As a Malaysian, I'd like to hear the grievances of the Malay, Indian, Sabahan and Sarawakian communities (if there are any). Let's put aside our differences and discuss objectively how we can implement this policy so that it will bear fruit for all Malaysians.

Ruzhi said...

(Continued from my first comment)

In the last paragraph, I meant grievances when it comes to the implementation of this English language policy. Sorry for the goof :P

Anonymous said...

well what shud i said?
i am the 1st scapegoat'kambing korban' of the government,im in form1 when the science and maths in engglish was implanted in 2002.
My 1cent comments suggested that science and math are supposed to be maintain in english,i sucks in english since im in primary school,i do blame the governemtn when they changed the education system,but now i will say 100x thanks to the government if possible,cause i dint face any difficulties when im in U.

Peter Tan said...

Yap Soo Hoey writes of his own position. I think he is the exception. If there isn't extensive use of a language in a school, the majority are not likely to gain mastery in the language. There are examples of various immersion programmes (eg English-speaking children placed in French-medium schools in Canada). I say give it more time. I went to an English-medium school in Standard 1 in 1969. Because of the policy change, history and geography in Standard 3 was in Malay. As a result of that I can cope with both.

Anonymous said...

Don’t blame the government. Blame ourselves.

The 'education department' can change the syllabus in any way that they want. It may have a slight effect on students but in order to improve our command of the English language, it all comes down to the individual.

Unlike some countries, we do not have restrictions on English books. We can easily obtain English magazines and books nationwide. Our English speaking movies are not dubbed in another language. We do not have any restrictions on the Internet; we have access to all the websites which are dedicated to improving one’s English.

I have not had the luxury to go abroad, to any English speaking nation but yet I can confidently say that my English is better than an average Malaysian. I have also met people who have never been abroad as well and their English is way better than mine. The best part about all this is that we all went through the same type of education in which only ONE subject is taught in English, English itself.

I have also met some people who came back after studying at some University in US, Australia or UK and they still spoke bad English with a fake accent.

The problem is not with our education system but with our drive towards self improvement.

Anonymous said...

Form 4 Science and Maths book in BM is already distribted to the schools.

Why subject the Form 3 student a change in language for these two subjects.

Better off to let those who started in English to continue until completing all their secondary school education.