Saturday, January 31, 2009

'Gaming' university rankings

Read this from the Duke alumnus magazine. I think it's a good reminder for our VCs - don't try to 'game' the ranking system, concentrate on improving your university in ways you see fit.

Under the GargoyleThe Rankings Game: Who's Playing Whom?
By John F. Burness

U.S. News & World Report published its first annual ranking of the nation's best colleges in 1983. In the years since, the publication has spawned a cottage industry, transformed how the public thinks about higher education, and in the process made a lot of money.

Over the past three decades, I've had ample opportunity to dissect the various rankings or discuss the validity of their methodologies in an effort to explain to a wide range of university constituencies, including the news media, why the universities where I worked—the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cornell, and for the last seventeen years, Duke—were rated where they were. It's fun as I retire from university administration to ruminate on the absurdity of it all.

Ours is a competitive culture, and it should be no surprise that many people are interested in such external assessments of the quality of American higher education. After all, students and families spend as much as $50,000 a year to go to college, and it is reasonable for them to want a credible, independent assessment to help guide their thinking about where to make that significant investment.

That said, I don't know anyone in higher education whom I've talked to since the ratings game began who believes that the magazine rankings can capture what makes the experience offered by an individual institution unique or effective. The precision that U.S. News purports its methodologies reveal is, on the face of it, rather silly. If you look at the top ten institutions, you will see that some of them are separated by small fractions of a percent. In the Olympics, those fractions make a difference, but it's hard to understand how, in the real-life breadth of activities of a university, they make any difference at all to a student.

The rankings give considerable weight to perception and tend to be based on annual assessments, as if undergraduate-program innovations or tweakings manifest significant change in two semesters. U.S. News has artfully—in the guise of improving the veracity of its rankings—made one or more changes in its methodology every few years, which enables it to argue that there is some shift in the quality of institutions that the new methodology has captured. The cynic in me says that the changing of the methodology is more a strategy for getting different results in the rankings, which helps the publication sell more copies.

During my years at Duke, the university ranked as high as tied for third and as low as tied for eighth. The year we tied for third was my favorite. Folks at Duke were understandably elated. I recall telling university leaders, including our trustees, not to crow too much about this jump to our position of three because inevitably the methodology would change, and we would drop a few places—which, of course, is what happened.

My favorite magazine ranking experience wasn't with U.S. News but with Money magazine, which, in the 1990s, had a "Best Buys in Higher Education" issue. In that one, the public universities, almost by definition, ended up having a built-in advantage, although fifteen private institutions were listed among the top 100. Duke was not among the fifteen, much to the consternation of some of our trustees and others. So I met with the editors of Money and asked how we could be ranked in the top ten in the country in other ratings (as skeptical as I was about them) and not make the top-ten private institutions in Money's listing. They mumbled something about our library resources, and I was able to document that their numbers were wrong. The next year, Money came out with a new category: "Costly Schools That Are Worth the Price." Duke was ranked highly in that, and people at Duke were pleased. Alas, I didn't keep the pressure on the magazine, and one year later, it dropped the category.

I remember well a wonderful speech by a distinguished faculty member at my son's freshman convocation several years ago. The scholar compared the founding of that institution to Odysseus' journey, noting that both had decided not to let others define who they were. He urged the freshmen to create their own identity through the choices they made during their college years. Within a moment or two of the faculty member taking his seat, the chancellor of the university—a person I admire enormously—told the assembled freshmen and their parents that while the information was embargoed publicly until 11:59 that night, he felt comfortable telling them in confidence that the university for the first time had cracked the top ten of U.S. News rankings. The response was predictable, with students jumping up and down, and parents smiling at the thought that their investment clearly was going to be worth it. The faculty member sat there, his head bowed.

 I always said when reporters and others sought my reaction to Duke's being ranked somewhere in the top ten: "It's nice to have confirmed what we know about the quality of our students and faculty. But magazine ratings are really designed to help sell magazines. Students should visit a campus, spend real time learning about the academic programs, and determine whether or not they have the right fit with a particular institution." I still think that's very sound advice.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New ways to solve old problems

A few conversations I've had and events I've attended over the past week led me to this blog post. It's a post that is primarily about thinking of new ways to solve old and new problems in the education realm in Malaysia.

The first conversation I had was with a friend and we were talking about smart people whom we both knew. I came to the conclusion that many of us make the unconscious link between being smart with having a high IQ or being book smart. This is not really surprising given that our whole education system is geared towards rewarding people who are book smart. But the older I get, the more I realize that emphasizing being book smart above other kinds of 'intelligence' is not a very smart thing to do, whether one is an educationist, a corporate leader, a politician or a parent. In any project / organization that one is involved in, I think it's necessary to have people with different kinds of 'intelligence' to achieve good outcomes. This kind of intelligence may be verbal, spatial, linguistic, inter-personal, etc... You cannot hope to put a group of book smart people in the same room who are from the same background and assume that you will get good results. It probably is better to put in people with different backgrounds and different types of 'intelligence', if you want to find new ways of solving old and new problems.

The second conversation I had was in an email exchange with different people discussing the merits and demerits of a 'Harvard' type approach towards research that is highly individualistic versus a 'Wisconsin' i.e. state school type approach towards research that is more collegial in nature. Many were in favor of a more collegial approach that is more productive on a person by person measure and perhaps also gives workers a better work life balance. We also discussed the possibility that if the collegial model were to be introduced in a Malaysian university, the 'free-rider' problem would be one of the main challenges. Within the collegial model, there still needs to be some level of accountability.

The third conversation I had was really in the form of a talk given by CNN Special Investigations anchor Soledad O'Brien. It was the final event during the Martin Luther King Jr (MLK) week at Duke. Ms. O'Brien had just finished covering the Obama inauguration as part of the CNN team. CNN had also just finished showing a series called Black in America in the run up to Obama's inauguration and MLK day - Ms. O'Brien was one of the key journalists in this series.

Ms. O'Brien said a few things that struck me. She said that having people of diverse backgrounds come together to work on a project usually results in a better product. And she's not only talking about racial diversity, she's also referring to diversity in terms of backgrounds, sexual preference, previous work experience, geographical origins, etc... She referred to the findings of Michigan Professor, Scott Page, who wrote a book arguing that diversity leads to better outcomes, using, of all things, mathematical models. She also talked about the experiments which Roland Fryer, the youngest tenured black professor at Harvard, was doing in schools in Dallas, where children were financially rewarded based on how many books they read. She gave this as an example of how important is it to 'think outside the box' in terms of finding solutions to the many problems society is facing and in fact, has been facing for the past X number of years. Thirdly, she also said that having diverse voices heard is not something easy because you have to somehow find the 'best' solution among all the ideas being proposed. Diversity is not about coming together to sing 'kumbaya'. It's much more complicated than that.

These three experiences I've had in the past week led me to think of how this might translate into trying to find solutions to problems which we're having in the education realm in Malaysia. I think some of the lessons I've learned over the pass week may apply in the Malaysian context. The lessons are - don't overemphasize book learning or being book smart, working in teams with proper accountability structures, diversity is good in terms of coming up with solutions and finally, thinking outside the box.

How would this apply to one particular problem which parents complain about time and time again - the problem of too many school kids spending too much time at cyber cafes playing games such as Starcraft, Warcraft, World of Warcraft, Counterstrike etc...? This problem has existed every since the internet was invented and cyber-cafes were established in Malaysia.

There have been calls to ban all cyber cafes or to impose restrictions which makes the cyber cafe owners liable for fines if kids wearing school uniforms were found on their premises. I think that these kinds of 'solutions' for this kind of 'problem' are far too blunt and do not demonstrate an understanding of why kids go to cyber cafes in the first place. If you ban cyber cafes, these kids may find other outlets for entertainment. Some of them may get involved in drugs or gangs. If you prevent them from wearing school uniforms while being in these cyber cafes, they will use change their clothes after school.

If we take to heart some of the lessons I learned over the past week, there would be many different kinds of 'solutions' that can be tried out to try to 'solve' this problem. First of all, you cannot just depend on MOE officials or parents to tackle this problem. You need people who actually play these games to be in your 'team' so that you can understand why kids actually play these games.

I have to admit that I love playing computer games including Starcraft and Warcraft but have stopped playing them since I want to finish my PhD this year. But I know friends who are white-collar workers and company owners who play Warcraft in their office on Friday evenings as part of their 'team-building' exercise. (That's their 'official' reason) If white collar workers are playing these games, without much detriment to their own work performance, can we really say that playing these games is a 'problem' for young kids?

The problem here has more to do with the fact that some kids are spending ALL their time playing these games and not enough time on schoolwork. If this is the case, can there be more creative solutions to solve this problem?

If I were an MOE official put in charge of tackling this problem, I would first get together a group of diverse 'stakeholders' - selected teachers, parents, kids, gamers, researchers, local politicians, entrepreneurs etc... - and ask them to come up with a list of solutions. Having a diverse group of people means that all voices will be heard. The kids will let the parents know that not all gaming is bad, the researchers will tell talk of different ways to incentivize the kids for doing homework and playing computer games, the local politicians will come up with creative ways of policing, the entrepreneurs will come up with ways of making money that will benefit them as well as the kids playing the games...

I can throw out some ideas which I've thought of myself which can definitely be refined in the context of a bigger group with more experience and local knowledge than myself. Some of these ideas include:

- Allowing kids to play some of these games in the computer labs in schools with the caveat that for every hour they are allowed to play, they have to read a book or finish a piece of homework which takes 1 or 2 hours to do
- Asking parents from the same neighborhood to network their own computers so that their kids can play against one another from the safety of their own homes. This way, parents can monitor how much they play and the kids themselves can play with one another without having to go to the cybercafes.
- Giving 'prepaid' cards to kids who do well in school so that they can redeem these cards at ministry approved cyber cafes. Or give these cards to kids in exchange for reading a certain number of books or improving their grades by a certain amount.

Some of these ideas may be stupid, some of them may be problematic to implement, some of them may need buy-in from the different stakeholders to succeed. My larger point is this - we need to find creative ways to solve some of the trickier problems that affect our education system. And we cannot adopt a one size fits all approach. What may work in KL / PJ may not work in Teluk Intan or Sekinchan or in Raub or Kelantan. What you need are people at the MOE who can get together the different stakeholders to that creative ideas can be generated and then implemented. Those which succeed should be continued, those which don't should be discarded. If these are done on a localized basis, then there's more room for experimentation. Just my 2 cents.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A*Star Suicide

Read this bit of sad news. Got the link from a friend. A* scholar kills himself over a relationship gone bad. No angle on this. Just sad that someone so young would kill himself over a relationship.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Learning Malaysian History: A Lopsided Formula

A major problem with our school system has to be the way we teach history. Our textbooks are profoundly boring, and our syllabus wholly propagandistic. Because both these attributes of Malaysian history as taught in our public schools are so blatant and obvious, it is hard to respect or pay attention to our history - something which I think is a very serious problem with our education system.

I am presently working on a research proposal about our colonial history for my university's history department, and in the process I've been reading up a lot on Malaysian history. I've really been struck by how interesting and fascinating our history actually is, compared to the dull portraits of our past which we were all served back in school. After looking over some university-level textbooks about Malaysian history, I have reached the conclusion that there are two problems with the way we teach history.

The first problem is that we push a particular political and ideological angle far too hard. While no book can be free of bias, it is just difficult for anyone to pay serious attention to a book which so clearly takes sides in discussions of historical events. The result is that students don't really trust the lessons they learn in history classes.

To take an extreme example, several of my secondary school classmates decided that the right lesson to take away from our history classes was that Malay leaders were in general very stupid, because our history books portrayed an onslaught of evil, conniving British colonialists who kept taking advantage of Malay infighting to seize control of the states. The book obviously meant to push the view that the British were bad, and that national unity was important, but by overlooking nuances and subtleties in the facts, it wound up presenting an obviously lopsided view that few of us could take seriously.

In reality, the British were often devilishly smart in manipulating local leaders (sometimes even rejecting overtures from Malay chieftains because they preferred to wait for a new, more British-friendly chieftain to take over from the present one), and often thought they were doing the Malays a favour by introducing more systematic government and abolishing unjust taxes and traditions like slavery. Many Malay leaders were misled by confusing translations of treaties and cultural differences, but there were also many who were not - the rulers of the Thai-influenced states were keenly aware of what was going on and complained mightily when the Siamese chose to hand them over to the British. Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor was a very effective diplomat and administrator, and there very well might have been an independent Johor if his successor had been more able. But we gloss over these nuances and exceptions, opting to emphasise only the facts which fit the story we prefer.

While our books pay lip service to these things, their effort to demonise colonialism as a total wrong and idolise all anti-colonial efforts as a great right has had the effect of devaluing the accomplishments of actual effective Malay leaders and also the development which the British brought. Because the political angle of J.W.W. Birch's murder plays so much to what our biased historians would like to think, we wind up focusing too much on the ostensible tyranny of the British, and not enough on the corrupt and inhuman practices of some of his assassins. By praising Birch's murderers unequivocally as Malay heroes, we devalue and deemphasise the accomplishments of other heroes like Sultan Abu Bakar, even though he clearly did much more for us than the slave traders who fought Birch's rule.

The second problem is that we take far too much for granted. Our books assume that our history could only have worked out the way it did, and suggestions of other inclinations are largely ignored. Only a few hypotheticals are given attention, and quickly brushed aside (most teachers and textbooks might briefly discuss what Malaysia would be like if each state were a different country, and quickly dismiss it as untenable). When we overlook the different ways history can turn out, we miss a great chance to explain why history turned out the way it did.

There are few better ways to explain the formation of modern Malaysia than to consider why alternative structures, like a Malaysia including Singapore, or a Malaysia minus Johor, or a Malaysia plus Patani, did not happen. After all, a great way to reflect on the impact of British colonialism is to consider why Patani and Riau - traditionally considered Malay states - did not end up as part of modern Malaysia. The impact of British-Dutch and British-Siamese treaties in this regard becomes much clearer when you think about the relation of historical events to our present day, instead of just looking at them in isolation as boring musty old documents.

Both of these biases against historical information which does not easily fit into our preconceptions in turn purge history of what makes it fun and challenging to study. If you can get by just through parroting the political propaganda you're fed, why would you bother thinking harder about our history? If you're never really shown other potential histories we could have had, why would you ever think about how you can change the future history of our country?

It's easy to just dismiss history as presently taught by just labeling it as a pointless memorisation of facts. That is, of course, true. But it does not capture the more fundamental problem with the way we teach history.

In my father's day, history was a pretty boring subject too, focusing heavily on memorisation. But the textbooks of his time actually tried to present a challenging way to look at and think about history. My father passed his textbooks on to me as a child, and before I began my schooling, I actually looked forward to history because I found reading and thinking about it to be so exciting and fascinating.

These problems with teaching history are not by any means unique to us. Even Western countries like the US struggle heavily with them; American history as taught in its schools is purged of politically unpalatable facts and alternative views of history. But these are nevertheless important problems which we ought to grapple with.

A Dartmouth academic once described the citizen as a person who, if he or she found themselves to be the last person on earth, could refound their civilisation. And you can't really say you understand our civilisation if all you know how to do is parrot whitewashed facts about our historic past. There is a lot more to say about us than the cut-and-dried tale our history textbooks have to tell, and we would all be better for it if we had a history curriculum which reflected all the nuances of historical fact, instead of just the bits which we like best.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Selangor State government to offer education scholarships?

Read this in the Star today. The Selangor state government is giving out 10 scholarships to Malays and Indians who are fluent in Chinese to pursue degrees in China. The cost of the scholarship is about RM100,000 per person. Didn't say for how long but I presume that it's for 3 or 4 years. I was ambivalent about this move initially but I think as long as the state government BONDS these students to come back to work for the state government, it is a worthwhile policy to pursue. The state government, with far more limited resources compared to the federal government cannot afford to let these students off 'for free', like the JPA scholars who are sponsored by the federal government.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Malaysia losing ground in maths and science

The Malaysian Insider, which I write a weekly column for, has just published an op-ed by former Leader of the Opposition Lim Kit Siang, blasting Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein for Malaysia's atrocious performance in the 2007 edition of the quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

This is the first I'd heard of this, and Lim is quite right that the mainstream media and the government have been conspicuously silent about our poor showing, despite their trumpeting of our success in the 2003 TIMSS. We have fallen ten spots in the maths rankings, from #10 to #20, and fallen one spot in the science rankings, from #20 to #21.

The most worrying thing about this is that when you look at our performance in absolute terms, we're falling ever further behind. We've gone from 519 points for 8th grade maths in 1999 to 474 in 2007; for science, from 492 in 1999 to 471 in 2007. The average score is supposed to be 500, so we have been consistently underperforming, which is terrible news for a middle- to upper-middle-income country such as ours.

I encourage you to read the whole op-ed by Lim Kit Siang, and maybe write to your MP asking them to debate this in Parliament. We need to have a public dialogue about what is wrong with our school system, and hold our government accountable for its stagnation.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

USM Autonomy

This is pretty significant news for Higher Education in Malaysia. USM will soon introduce its own entrance exams. I'll post the full article below (for posterity) and then comment on the other side.

PENANG: USM will begin direct open intake beginning May this year instead of going through the UPU (Unit Pusat Universiti).

USM vice chancellor Tan Sri Professor Dato' Dr Dzulkifli Abdul Razak said the measure would be implemented beginning the new intake for this year and next year. Students can apply through the university's website at

He said so far 13,000 applications had been received while the university would take in only about 3,500 students.

Dzulkifli pointed out that USM would select only students that meet the requirements, one of which would be the "admission tests."

The direct intake policy will be a departure from the conventional UPU allocation system, and this should bring about far-fetching effects on tertiary institutions in this country.

Dzulkifli said students used to be admitted into USM through UPU allocation, but after receiving the APEX (Accelerated Programme for Excellence) status, the university had the privilege of conducting direct intake of students.

He said the university would use the admission tests to determine the allocation of courses for students, adding that the tests would be independently carried out by a professsional team with the Examinations Board, and USM would not have a hand in the tests.

He said such tests had never been carried out elsewhere in the country before, and USM would be the first to conduct the tests. The list of students failing the admission tests would be handed back to UPU for allocation to other universities.

USM's intake procedures are expected to be completed by early May.

USM would not have been able to do this without being given the status of an Apex University (the only one in Malaysia so far). It has been given a lot of autonomy by MOHE as a result. And the progressive VC at USM, Dr. Dzulkifli Abdul Razak is making full use of it to make sure that only really good students get into USM. There will also be a smaller intake commensurate with the decision to be more selective. Hopefully there will be little political fallout from this decision. (I can imagine that some quarters may be tempted to protest) I'm hoping that these people will see USM as an 'experiment' and basically leave it alone. And if USM succeeds, other universities may want to follow. Then, the protest voices may get louder.

I wish VC Dr. Dzul and his team at USM all the best. I hope that they will succeed in their endeavor to raise the bar at USM. For all our sakes.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

UM's comparative advantage

Lest I be accused of always bashing UM, here's a bit of good news concerning the oldest university in our young country. "Singapore’s youngest private university, SIM University (UniSIM), is cooperating with Universiti Malaya (UM) to expand the use of Bahasa Malaysia at the international level through sharing of expertise, syllabus and training. UniSIM president Prof Cheong Hee Kiat said the two institutions hoped to realise the objective through such cooperation forged for UniSIM’s Bachelor in Malay Language and Literature programme." Good to see UM's comparative advantage put to good use abroad. Perhaps this can be replicated in other places e.g. Thailand or China?

Not enough classrooms

This looks like a bad joke at first. "Insufficient classrooms has left 553 Form One students here in a limbo." Apparently due to bad planning. So these 553 Form One students don't have a school to go to. Maybe they should head to the nearest cybercafe instead. Sabah really gets the short end of the stick. I remember reading somewhere that a school near KK had a 100% failure rate for the UPSR or PMR exams. Now kids in Sabah don't have classrooms to go to!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

MB's kid in a Chinese primary school

Apparently, the MB of Perlis sends his children to a Chinese primary school. This is the 4th child in his family to attend a Chinese primary school. Does he know something which others don't know or maybe don't want to admit that they know? You guys be the judge.

Class size or teaching?

I've found that one of the most controversial debates when it comes to education, especially in developed countries, is what is the best way to spend the scarce money we have on education. The debate often boils down to a choice between two things: smaller classes, or better teachers.

Personally, I've always felt it's obvious that we should pay teachers better, especially in Malaysia. There is no reason to hold teachers to a rigid pay scale based on seniority, let alone the pay scale of the civil service. Teachers perform a much more important job than civil servants, and I daresay deal with a lot more stress. It only makes sense to pay them more, and especially to pay the outstanding teachers more.

The argument for smaller class sizes seems rather vague to me, and it's predicated essentially on the notion that it's hard for good teachers to pay attention to more than 20 pupils at a time. While I think there is probably room to rethink the traditional classroom dynamics of one teacher lecturing/supervising a classroom of pupils, I think that diminishing marginal returns kick in pretty quickly past the point of 30 pupils. While I don't have much data, from my personal experiences, the rowdiest classrooms have been those of 35 or more, with not much difference below that, especially not below 30 students.

Recently my attention was drawn to a University of Auckland study, which claims to have brought together 50,000 different studies and looks at a total of 83 million pupils around the world. The study's conclusion is that class size is not very important, and that the quality of teaching easily outstrips class size in terms of importance. The professor who authored the study is John Hattie, who I have not heard of before. He seems to have published quite a bit on this subject, but I was unable to turn up much about this latest study of his, so it is worth taking with a grain of salt.

Nevertheless, I think it's still a question worth asking: what matters more, teaching quality or class size? Obviously Malaysians have some other things to worry about, such as our horrible exam system, but there already seems to be a general consensus that we need to raise the standards of our exams, and try to orient them away from general memorisation of facts. There is, however, nothing close to a consensus on the question I'm raising.

What do you think? Should we spend more money on hiring good teachers to teach to classrooms of 30 or 40, or should we spend more money to hire the same quality of teachers but with smaller classrooms of 20 to 30?

Monday, January 05, 2009

University of Texas at Dallas

UT Dallas is not a household name in Malaysia. Indeed, it's not even a household name in the United States. Most people would associate UT (University of Texas) with its flagship campus in Austin, Texas. (One of my favorite cities in the US, I may add) I recently met an Indian student from UT Dallas who enlightened me about how important a research university UT Dallas actually is. I think UT Dallas holds interesting lessons for our own public universities in Malaysia.

According to Wikipedia, UT Dallas is actually the largest research university within the UT system, even larger than UT at Austin. But it's not that surprising given that UT Dallas started out as a research arm of Texas Instruments (TI), probably one of the most innovative large corporations in the US. UT Dallas started giving out graduate degrees before conferring undergrad degrees which might explain why the academic standards there are relatively high, especially for a state school that is not named Michigan or Berkeley.

There are strong collaborative roots between TI and UTD. This is best exemplified by the 3 billion dollar fab plant built by TI in 2004 on the campus grounds of UTD accompanied by a $85-million Natural Science and Engineering Research Building that was also built on the UTD campus by UTD. It seems that UTD has a number of serious looking research centers. And I'm guessing that these centers are not just website 'for show', unlike some of the research centers associated with certain public universities in Malaysia which also have websites associated with them but with far less research activity (not all of course, but a fair number).

I'm sure that there is good research being done in parts of our public university system which many of us are not aware of. But this kind of research environment takes years to create and requires a lot of funding, especially when it comes to the sciences and engineering. And it's not just about throwing money at a certain venture, which the Malaysian government and some VCs may be keen to 'promote'. It's got a lot to do with putting in the right people and also inculcating the right mentality and research culture.

For example, I was told by a friend that it is very risky to share your uncompleted research with colleagues in our public universities because it is very likely that your ideas or work in progress may be 'stolen' by others. Not the kind of culture that promotes research, to say the least.

The UTD example shows that you need a combination of factors to create an up and coming research university - a combination of private and public funding, a combination of public and private know-how, high intellectual standards, a long gestation in creating a culture of research, progressive leadership at the management level, just to name a few.

I think that among all of our public universities, USM actually has the best shot of making a jump into the league of respectable universities in Asia. They have a very progressive VC who has reached out to create some of the things discussed in this blog and in this post - a good research culture, encouraging public-private cooperation, high intellectual standards that is exemplified partly by transparent promotion exercises (by Malaysian standards anyways) and so on. It was no mistake that it was USM rather than UKM or UM that was awarded with the status of the 'Apex' university. I would encourage our VCs to try to get some of these basics right first rather than to aim for the more 'shallow' goal of getting back among the top 200 universities in the THES rankings or to produce the first Nobel prize winner by 2050. Just look at UTD. Nobody outside the US has heard of it. But the people who are involved in certain research areas most certainly are aware of this up and coming research university.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A trip to the bookstore

A little departure from the regular post. It is inspired by a trip I recently took to the bookstore with 4 refugee kids who recently migrated to the US from a Southeast Asian country (Not Malaysia!) because their tribe was being persecuted by the central government in their country. My wife and I were giving some of them Math tuition for about a year before we had to stop because of my thesis commitments. We bought each of the eight kids in the family a Barnes and Nobles gift card and I brought 4 of them (space constraints in the car) to a Barnes bookstore on Monday so that they could use their giftcards to buy some books. It was a learning experience, for them as well as for me.

The oldest kid in the car was a boy, 15. The girls were aged 8, 10 and 13. I thought I could just leave them to roam about the bookstore by themselves to pick and choose the books which they would like to purchase. But I thought wrong.

When I was young, my parents used to dump me in a bookstore and let me wander around there for hours while they did their shopping. I would pick and choose the books I liked. These would include Enid Blyton books (moving from Brier Rabbit to Famous Five as I got older), Time Machine, Choose your own Adventure, Lone Wolf, Dragonlance, etc... You get the picture. I never needed anyone to help me choose books.

I was wrong in making the same assumption with regard to the kids I brought to Barnes (temporarily my adopted children, I like to think). They had never been in a bookstore of this size before though they had been in libraries. More importantly, they had never bought a book for themselves. Not only did they have to pick and choose a book (or two) for themselves, they also had to figure out how much they were willing to spend on each book.

(Aside note: Gift cards are a great thing to teach kids how to budget. Instead of buying books for your kids and friend's kids, get them gift cards instead)

In the end I had to help 3 of the 4 kids pick out a book each. One picked a book on anatomy (I'm convinced that she will be a doctor when she grows up), another picked a book on dogs and another a book about fairy tales.

They had some money left over on their cards which I'm hoping they will use either on their own or when I bring them there next. Maybe the other 4 kids.

The larger lesson I learned which I think may apply to Malaysia is that their situation may not be so different from that of some Malaysian kids from some of the rural and semi-rural areas who are also from financially disadvantaged backgrounds (high correlation there). I think if you were to bring some of them (not all of course, I'm generalizing) to a place like Borders or Books Kino, they may find it to be an equally intimidating experience. I'm just guessing.

I'm not sure that it would be necessarily helpful to expose some of the rural kids to these kinds of bookstores. Perhaps a better way would be to bring mobile libraries to some of these rural areas. And have reading programs in these schools which will perk up their interest in reading books, in whatever language. For this, you really need good teachers who are skillful enough to excite kids about reading. Not something easy to do. Getting the books to the kids is only part of the step. Having a nurturing home and school environment are equally if not more important.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Learning English: Serious Business

I just read an interesting article in The New Yorker about English instruction in China which I thought I'd share with you. The article's focus is on Li Yang (李阳), who claims to have taught 20 million people how to speak English, and holds English classes in stadiums. It's a fascinating read.

The part I personally found most interesting, though, was this paragraph, which I think really gives us an insight into how big a deal learning English has become for Chinese:

China has been in the grip of "English fever," as the phenomenon is known in Chinese, for more than a decade. A vast national appetite has elevated English to something more than a language: it is not simply a tool but a defining measure of life’s potential. China today is divided by class, opportunity, and power, but one of its few unifying beliefs—something shared by waiters, politicians, intellectuals, tycoons—is the power of English. Every college freshman must meet a minimal level of English comprehension, and it’s the only foreign language tested. English has become an ideology, a force strong enough to remake your résumé, attract a spouse, or catapult you out of a village. Linguists estimate the number of Chinese now studying or speaking English at between two hundred million and three hundred and fifty million, a figure that’s on the order of the population of the United States. English private schools, study gadgets, and high-priced tutors vie for pieces of that market. The largest English school system, New Oriental, is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
It's hard to say whether Li Yang himself is a quack or a pedagogical genius, so I won't pass judgement on his methods. I do think it's rather strange and extremely interesting how excited (though obsessed might be a better word) the Chinese seem about learning English.

One thing I have pointed out before in the comments of another post on this blog is that it seems to me we in Malaysia have a bimodal distribution of English proficiency. We have one huge population of Malaysians whose English skills are poor to non-existent, and a smaller but sizable population whose English skills are very good. (I help answer questions from international students for my university's admissions office, and the quality of English in most emails - yes, even those from China - is abysmal compared to the English in emails we get from Malaysian applicants.)

To confirm if my initial impressions were right, I looked up the number of English speakers in Malaysia (Wikipedia makes it easy by compiling international figures from a number of sources). Apparently, Malaysia is 14th in the world when it comes to the number of people who speak English as a first language (such as myself), with about 380,000 native English speakers. We are 19th overall when it comes to total population of English speakers, with another 7 million Malaysians who can speak English as a second language. There are about 27.5 million Malaysians, so only about 25% of us can speak English, with the rest largely cut off from the world of opportunities English can open.

Our educational policy should try to cater to these vast differences instead of covering them up and adopting a one-size-fits-all philosophy. To me, it makes no sense to assume a level of English that most Malaysians clearly don't have, and neither does it make sense to hold back those Malaysians who speak English well just because most cannot speak English.

The main reason teaching English in science and maths was a foolish idea in the first place is that most of our schools fail at preparing students to use English properly, and that most of our teaching institutions fail at preparing teachers to use English properly. Many students probably cannot understand enough English to follow science and maths lessons given in English, and most teachers probably don't have good enough English to give those lessons. It is crazy to argue that the policy of teaching science and maths in English can bring up the overall quality of English when you have teachers with poor English often teaching pupils with poor English.

At the same time, it is hard to argue that we should permanently confine English to English classes; especially at the higher levels, it is probably more useful for students to familiarise themselves with English terminology at an early stage. The proper thing to do is neither to permanently roll back the policy nor to pretend that it is working; the right thing is to improve the quality of our English instruction, and give schools a choice about using English and other languages in the classroom so that the schools can adapt to changing circumstances.

Chinese educationists (the ones in China, not here) take English seriously enough to require a strict minimum standard of English for university entrance. How seriously do we take English? We're so lackadaisical about it that we let the standards for SPM English fall to the point that on our SPM certificates, we give a separate grade for papers marked according to GCE O-Level standards, because we all know an A for SPM English is mostly meaningless. How can we hope to introduce let alone expand the use of English in our school system when we are so complacent about learning English?

For the vast majority of Malaysians, the focus must be on improving the quality of English instruction, and allowing schools to opt to use the mother tongue in the classroom. This way, as the schools and parents become more confident in the conditions required for a successful transition to English instruction, schools will naturally switch over. On the other hand, if the government fails in fixing the core problem of learning English, the schools can just keep doing their own thing.

For the minority, we should likewise allow more extensive use of English if the schools find it desirable or necessary. There is no reason to hamper the promotion of advanced English skills amongst those who have already learned some English. We should encourage them to find schools where they can practice their English and improve it, instead of forcing all schools to conform to a uniform policy of either all-English or all-mother tongue.

Some proponents of teaching in English might object because they believe parents and schools will be too short-sighted to recognise the benefits of English. I think that just calls for improving awareness about the importance of English; I don't see the need to force a decision on anyone. There's no use forcing students to learn in English when they barely understand the language; the important thing is to help them learn English first.

If the schools or parents want to block English learning, that's a different story; the government should impose rigorous standards for English instruction. English, like Malay, should be a mandatory subject which all SPM, PMR and UPSR candidates must pass; the grading standards should also be tightened. That's the very least the government could do if it wants to improve the standard of English.

Ultimately, we need to take English seriously. It's an important language to learn, and one few people can do without. China has looked to English as a source of empowerment; we look at English and become complacent. There is no quick fix to the problem of English in Malaysia, but neither can we ignore the problem and hope it goes away. The government needs to recognise that most schools are not ready to teach science and maths in English, and implement a system which will facilitate a gradual transition based on improving standards of English.

Letting schools decide for themselves will ultimately be the best compromise. We cannot ignore the 80% of the country which can hardly speak English, nor can we ignore the 20% which speak it very well; the only solution must be to let both sides decide for themselves which language to use in their local communities. The ultimate objective should be to improve the quality of English among those 80% so that eventually they will be ready to use English in subjects like science and maths.

We have to treat the problem as a serious matter, instead of airily dismissing it, as both the Education Ministry and mother tongue education proponents often seem to do. We can neither keep the status quo by forcing the use of English in science and maths, which assumes we know more English than we really do, nor can we permanently return to the old status quo ante of mother tongue education, which assumes we don't really need to know much English. The situation calls for new and bold measures to uplift the quality of English across the board.