Saturday, September 30, 2006

Different perspective on Chinese education

I came across this interesting story in SinChew (星洲日报)yesterday and I thought that it offers an alternative perspective on Chinese medium education in Malaysia. It all starts with Sabriah(?)(莎比娜) who wanted to study and learn Chinese.

She lives in a Malay area that is next to the Subang New Village and when she was young, she had many Chinese friends and wanted to study in a Chinese medium primary school. But because of family reasons, she was not able to do so. Instead, she put her hopes on her daughter who was, in fact, quite willing to fulfil her mom's wishes by enrolling in a Chinese medium primary school in Subang (SRJK(C)Subang). Sabriah's daughter didn't have any problems fitting into the Chinese speaking environment as she has always had Chinese friends from a very young age.

Sabriah was particularly pleased when her daughter obtained an A for Math for her UPSR exams, an area, she frankly admitted, where many bumiputra students (巫裔学生)are weak in. Her daughter also obtained As in Malay (comprehension and writing) showing that studying in a Chinese medium primary school was not detrimental to her Malay language ability. Overall, she obtained 4As, 1B and 2Cs (for Chinese comprehension and writing). A commendable effort on her part given that she's from a non-Chinese speaking background.

But her primary reason for going to Sin Chew was because she had failed in her many attempts to get her daughter enrolled in a Chinese independent secondary school! While there a small minority of non-Chinese students in Chinese medium primary schools (more than 20,000 if I remember the latest numbers correctly), there number and % of non-Chinese students in Chinese independent secondary schools is much smaller. Sabriah wanted her daughter (Nur Fairuz) to continue her Chinese language studies and be exposed to Chinese cultural activities, which her daughter likes, hence the decision to enroll her in a Chinese independent secondary school. When she went to such a school in Klang, her daughter's application was rejected because all the spaces had been filled. After many futile attempts, she felt discouraged and hopeless and visiting Sin Chew to highlight her situation was something akin to a last desparate resort. Currently, her daughter is attending a national secondary school, where she feels that there is insufficient Chinese cultural activities even though there are many Chinese students there.

Her story has many interesting discussion points. Firstly, what are the entry requirements into Chinese independent secondary schools? There are not that many of them in the country (numbering less than 100) and the demand is usually quite high. My sister went to one of them in KL - Kuen Cheng (坤成女中)- and from what I hear, it's a very popular school among many Chinese parents. But was it a case of an insufficient number of places or was it because of Sabriah's daughter's race? From what little I know of Chinese independent secondary schools, there's a huge one in Klang with about 3000 students. The newspaper report didn't say which school in Klang she went to but if it's a school of 3000 students, I'm sure that one more can't hurt especially when it increases the diversity in the school and the mother of that child has tried so hard to buck the convention by wanting to send her Malay daughter to a Chinese independent secondary school.

Secondly, it is interesting to note that she noticed a discernible improvement in her daughter's Mathematical skills after she started going to the Chinese primrary schools. In the article, Sabriah commented that her daughter would do Math in her head and come up with the answer quickly (mental abacus). The fact that she could compare her daughter's results with her son's, who goes to a national primary school, probably boosted her confidence in the Chinese medium primary school, especially in Math.

While I have not seen any studies which show this statistically, I'm convinced that the Chinese medium primary school environment somehow is more conducive to learning Mathematics compared to a national school environment. Sabriah had her daughter and son to compare. A more natural 'experiment' would have been to separate twins, sending one to a national school and the other to a Chinese medium school. From my own experience, I found that among the ASEAN scholars in my batch, those from Chinese speaking schools (Chung Ling in Penang, Chung Hwa in KL), on average, was better than those from non-Chinese speaking schools (such as myself). Since most ASEAN scholars in my batch were Chinese, this gives us reason to doubt the myth that somehow Chinese people are more genetically disposed to Math.

What exactly this 'environment' in Chinese medium schools provides that is more conducive to learning Math is still a mystery to me. I can hazard some guesses but they would not have any scientific basis. It could be something to do with the learning of the Chinese language - you have to learn to count the strokes, write them in a logical order, use spatial thinking to recognize and remember words. It could be something to do with the nature of the Chinese language that makes Math problems more intuitive to solve - 二二四,四四十六 (two times two equal 4, 4 times 4 equal 16). It would be interesting to investigate if Math results are worse in Chinese medium primary schools after the introduction of teaching some Math classes in English. My suspicion is that the difference would not be significant, since it does not fundamentally alter the 'Chinese' character of the Chinese primary school. And if my speculation about the link between learning the language (strokes, logic, cognition) and Math has any basis, then the difference is likely to be insignificant.

The point here is that people do recognize the quality of education in schools. While parents do not have the luxury of using their children as test cases - you can't send your kid to one type of school for two years and then transfer him or her to another type of school to see if his or her results improve - there is a small minority of non-Chinese parents who do recognize the quality of education in Chinese primary schools and have thus sent their children to these schools, including PPP President M. Kayveas. If even non-Chinese parents recognize this, then why can't the government recognize this as well and build more Chinese primary schools? Of course, I'm simplifying a complicated issue but the point is not lost on many parents, including non-Chinese parents such as Sabriah, who at the end of the newspaper article, expressed her hope that the government would buld more Chinese primary schools.

Sabriah in unique in wanting to send her non-Chinese daughter to a Chinese independent secondary school. However, she's not unique in sending her non-Chinese daughter to a Chinese medium primary school. Many other non-Chinese parents are doing the same as they recognize the quality of education and discipline in Chinese medium primary schools, the increasing importance of knowing Chinese and the steady drop in standards in our national schools.

My hope is that Sabriah's wish to have her daughter study in a Chinese independent secondary school is fulfilled. I suspect that now that her plight has been made public, it would not be difficult to find her daughter a place in a Chinese independent school in Klang. If only the larger issue that her situation highlights can be addressed as easily.

P.S. I'm just starting to formally learn how to write and read Chinese so if I've made any errors in translating the contents of the SinChew article, please let me know.


Husain Zaman said...

Dear Tony,
Your claim that somehow chinese schools produce students with greater mathematical proficency because of the nature of the Chinese language, not trying to be rude here, is ludicrous. There is a far more prosaic reason for the better performance of Chinese schools in mathematics, good old fashioned discipline and hardwork. The amount of maths homework that an average chinese school student gets far outstrips the amount work an average national school student gets. In addition chinese schools teach their students calculation shortcuts which national school students are exposed to. The aim here should be how to transfer the expertise that Chinese schools have to national schools so that students from all races can bebefit from them. Buiding more schools is not the solution, not even Singapore, which is almost completely Chinese, encourages Chinsese schools. All students go through the national school system whose quality standards are rigorously mantained. Malaysians should try to get past their parochial

Golf Afflicted said...

Hi Husain,

Err... umm... I wouldn't say that Kian Ming's hypothesis is ludricrous, but I certainly agree with you that it's like the result of "good old fashioned discipline and hardwork (i.e., quantity of homework)"

;p Tony P

Husain Zaman said...

Dear Tony,
Extremely sorry, didnt notice that the post was written by Kian Ming. My sincere apologies. By the way big fan of your blog.

Anonymous said...

i hear the same thing from my Penagjian Am teacher few years back.


du-a da-rab du-a em-pat [8]
er er shi [3]

That is more than 100% faster recital.

Possibly that's why Chinese school student learn Math faster. No scientific support, just an observation.

Anonymous said...

Actually there are a few schools in Singapore devoted to the propagation of Chinese culture - the Special Assistance Plan or SAP schools. So Husain's statement isn't totally accurate.

Husain Zaman said...

aww the point that i was trying to make(unsuccessfully it seems) was that singapore tries to make sure that most of its students go through a reasonably good common education. Sure like chris said, theres the SAP but thats only for the academically talented ones, and even in the SAPs mathematics is taught in English. Just to be a cynic here, the SAPs are not devoted to the propagation of chinese culture they are devoted to producing people who can do business with China comfortably.

Anonymous said...

I am on Husain's side in that I do not believe the language has anything to do with mathematical prowess. I think it has more to do with the training(syllabus), and then practice, practice, practice. I have work with many different nationalities all over the world and I would never judge anyone's mathematical ability based on what language they speak (although the level of maths involved at work is different from that required in everyday life).

Anonymous said...

Unlikely, highly unlikely for her to get into an independent school.

It is obvious, isn't it? How can one expect to be enrolled in a chinese independent school if one has a grade 'C' in UPSR chinese? She may not even be qualified to sit for the admission test, IIRC.

Anonymous said...

Husain - no, SAP schools do not have trade with China as their main objective, as with compulsory mother tongue education in ALL schools, a grasp of basic Mandarin among the Chinese is guaranteed.



The Wikipedia entry gives a rather concise treatment of the concept.

For the record - I do not agree with the SAP concept, in the same way as I do not agree with the way certain types of schools are sidelined in Malaysia. Let there be many kinds of school, with their own ethos and values, but with a common, secular national curriculum! After all, this is what you see in the States, the UK, Singapore - all of which have much better educational outcomes than we do (although the UK is slipping behind, to be honest).

There may be some substance to the fact that Mandarin, having fewer syllables per word than Malay, encourages faster mathematical problem-solving. However, as someone who isn't too bad at Mathematics but has been educated in English and Malay, and whose Mandarin is limited to 5th language status, I have come to the conclusion that language is hardly the barrier some people make it out to be.

Husain Zaman said...

k last post, gosh this is becoming a habit, my last comment bout sap and china trade was my attempt at some humour ( seems to feeble. Just a simple enginnering undergrad offering my views so dont hate me ok.

Anonymous said...

Wanting to correct a common misperception (that is embedded in this article, but orthogonal to the main points):

Being able to do arithmetic quickly (or in one's head) is not necessary for being good in maths, which at a higher level involves much more creative problem solving and visualization skills.

Having said this, the way of teaching maths in our country, for both Chinese & national schools, is in need for serious revamp if we want to produce graduates capable of leveraging technology in the future. This is because a good foundation in mathematical logical thinking & problem solving is crucial in understanding modern science and technology.

Anonymous said...

I second the viewpoint by ong shien jin. Being able to do arithmetic fast is totally different from mathematics problem solver. Doing mathematics involves understanding the formulas and concepts behind it, especially when we go on to the higher level of mathematics in tertiary level, which comprise many branches such as linear or abstract algebra, calculus, probablity and statistics or even higher standard like math inductions and numerical analysis. These branches require a lot of thinking and creativity whereby arithmetic doesn't necessarily help while we have calculators at our disposal. I truly salute those mathematcians who have invented the formulas which we learn today.
Anyway, does anyone knows the famous E=mc^2 formula fall into which category/branch?

Anonymous said...

Chinese are good in maths is because they are hardworking and love rote learning systme. Practice, practice and more practice. They practice all possible ways of solving the maths question until all possible way the examination asked, they memorized the way.

They lacked creativity and language, because maths use different part of the brains.
That is why chinese make good mathematicians or scientists due to their training in logic by mathematics.

Also, from early start maths is very important to chinese esp dealing with money and business. You cannot be good business man if you dont know how to count.

You need to know good mathematics to cheat money in business. So chinese all born into this world on abacus! he he

Anonymous said...

sorry, some grammar errors above if you can spot it.:)

Anonymous said...

Not trying to be racist or what, but there is a funny myth.

You see... When a Chinese student didn't do well in Math exam, other people will look at him in a strange way as if he had just committed a crime or something bad.

But when non-Chinese student didn't do well in Math exam, people will think "oh, that's normal"..

As they say, traditionally, Chinese students always do well in Maths, regardless whether they went to Chinese medium school or national schools. Even at national schools, just go to their Hari Anugerah Cemerlang and you would notice that the top student in Maths is usually a Chinese.

Thus, it's not surprising that Chinese students usually dominate Math subjects. And those students are kind and are willing to help their friends. Yes, this happens even in premier schools like MBS and VI. But there are some Malay students who simply don't appreciate it and branded those kind souls as arrogant or 'showing-off'. But if it's their Malay friend who is kindly teaching them Maths, they will appreciate it. What's the difference?

My point here is: why do we Malaysians always have to think based on skin colour?

YT Kuah said...

"why do we Malaysians always have to think based on skin colour?" Good point. I wonder, how many like me cringe when words like "chinese maths", etc, etc. appear.

another point, *back to the topic* what is more important in education, good maths, or good problem-solving. I'm not even sure rote-learning works even in Chinese language schools anymore.

Anonymous said...

To nerd,
E=mc^2 was derived using Lorentz Transformation, which falls under linear algebra.

Anonymous said...

you are wrong! my teacher in form four discovered the equation e=mc2.
his name mr mak from sultan abdul samad pj

Anonymous said...

no no no .. now, it's e=mc^3 .... inflation :(

Anonymous said...

二二四 said,


du-a da-rab du-a em-pat [8]
er er shi [3]

That is more than 100% faster recital."

Not the language, not the number of syllable it is read. It is the teacher's quality and creativity.

If you just memorise the figures, it is even faster. No need to read er er shi. When you see 2x2. Imediately relate to 4. If the teachers are not creative, the students have to be.

Everything we learn, we must learn the concept, once we understand the concept then we must speed up because speed is a winning factor.

If you are slow, then you would have time to explore and learn more things.

If you are slow, by the time you got a good grasp of linear algebras, I'm already approaching mastering calculus.

If you are fast, you always have EXTRA TIME to explore new things and exercise your creativity.

If you are slow, you only have enough time to learn what is taught, that's all.

Speed is a winning factor!

Anonymous said...

sorry typo.. i mean,

"If you are fast, then you would have time to explore and learn more things."

Anonymous said...

I have been following the discussions on this blog quite regularly, and I can't help but comment that perspectives seem focus on stereotyping this group of people as hardworking and good in Maths etc and the other group as not. As a Chinese myself, I must say that this is not always the case. For example, upto 4% of the population are known to be dyslexic. Dyslexic students are normally intelligent children but they fare poorly in reading, writing and spelling. In fact, they may also have memory retention problem, hence they may not be able to follow fully the instructions given to solve Maths problem. On other hand, they may do better in solving puzzles, artwork or music. These children may have to struggle to be able to keep up with their peers academically - the situation is not helped by the amount of workload as they tend to tire easily by the end of the school day.

I mentioned only 4% of the population may be dyslexic but there may be a greater proportion who may be mildly dyslexic. Singapore's Ministor Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew is known to be mildly dyslexic. Besides dyslexia, I also did not mention other learning disabilites like attention deficit disorders among others. Do our educators take these facts into consideration when formulating a syllabus? Unfortunately, our education structure is divided physically into SKs and vernacular schools so much so that many 'uneducated' and even educated parents are not able to assess their children's learning ability/disability and have joined the bandwagon of sending them to tuition centres - further saping their emotional energy. Perhaps educators of this blog can dedicate a topic specially on learning disabilites - sorry for the long digression - this is my first posting here. IMHO, what I am trying to say is don't be blind to this other perspective in education, ie a child's psychological predisposition even though I believe I may be in the minority here.

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming said: “In the article, Sabriah commented that her daughter would do Math in her head and come up with the answer quickly (mental abacus).”

I wonder if any of you remember some years back Dr M attempted to introduce the learning of the Chinese Abacus (there are other types of abacus) in national schools. Like many such projects, it fizzled out after a year or 2.

If you have learned the abacus, you will know that you have to learn the complementary numbers that add up to 10 like 1 & 9, 2 & 8, 3 & 7 etc because that is how to operate the beads in the abacus.

For example if you want to add the following: 8 + 7 = ?, someone who has learned the abacus will do this 8 + (10 –3) = 18 –3 = 15. What we are taught in the national type schools is that we have to “know” that 8+7 =15 by counting our fingers.

Have you ever wondered how the Chinese fruit seller mentally calculate 9 kilos of fruits selling at 3.20 ringgit per kilo?

She will say 10 kilos cost 32 ringgit. She minus 1 kilo which is 3.20 ringgit which gives her 28.80 ringgit.

You draw your own conclusions – “mental abacus”.

Richard G.

Anonymous said...

I like the above "mental abacus". This is what I called creativity.

Instead of using multiple of tens, and minus off the unwanted like the example by the anonymous above, we also can do this.

Break down the dollors and cents,
$3.2 = $3 + $0.2
9 x 3 = 27, 0.2 x 9 = 1.8
You add them together gets $28.8

Same results but faster for those who have difficulties with subtracting.

Anonymous said...

Hi hehe,

The objective is to avoid complex multiplication. For example, it becomes complicated if you have to mentally calculate 9 kilos at RM 3.98.

Using the "mental abacus" method, you do this: 10 kilos at 3.98 - (4.00 +.02) = 39.80 - 4.00 + .02 = RM 35.82.

Have fun.

Richard G.

Anonymous said...

Hi hehe,

Sorry it should read 10 kilos at 3.98 - 1 kilo at(4.00 - 0.02) = 39.80 - 4.00 +.02 = RM 35.82.

Richard G.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Richard, lesson learnt.

For simpler numbers, you can use the method I presented.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.