Monday, June 23, 2008

Bakri Musa's take on Science & Math in English

M Bakri Musa wrote this piece on his blog last week. I agree with most of this points. I'm agnostic when it comes to this issue since I recognize that there are pros and cons on both sides of the argument. I'm a pragmatist and I would choose the option which will bring about the most benefits with the least cost. Given that internal studies of the MOE have shown that teaching Science and Math in English doesn't really affect the results of students (I'd like to see the methodology though), I think that it makes sense to continue teaching both these subjects in English.

Continue Teaching Science and Mathematics in Malay

The government’s decision to revisit (and most likely do away with) the current teaching of science and mathematics in English is an instructive example of how an otherwise sensible policy could easily be discredited and then abandoned because of poor execution. Had there been better planning, many of the problems encountered could have been readily anticipated and thus avoided, or at least reduced. The policy would then more likely to succeed, and thus be accepted.

Ironically, only a year ago a Ministry of Education “study” pronounced the program to be moving along “smoothly,” with officials “satisfied” with its implementation. Now another “study” showed that there was no difference in the “performance” (whatever that term means or how they measure it) between those taught in Malay or English.

The policy was in response to the obvious deficiencies noted in students coming out of our national schools: their abysmal command of English, and their limited mathematical skills and science literacy. They carry these deficits when they enter university, and then onto the workplace.

The results are predictable. These graduates are practically unemployable. As the vast majority of them are Malays, this creates tremendous political pressure on the government to act as employer of last resort. Accommodating these graduates made our civil service bloated and inefficient, burdened by their deficient language and mathematical abilities.

This longstanding problem began in the late 1970s when Malay became the exclusive language of instruction in our public schools and universities. Overcoming this problem would be a monumental undertaking.

The greatest mistake was to underestimate the magnitude of the task, especially in overcoming the system’s inertia. Today’s teachers and policy makers are products of this all-Malay education system. Change would mean repudiating the very system that had produced them, a tough sell at the best of times.

In their naivety, ministry officials convinced themselves that such enormous obstacles as the teachers’ lack of English fluency could easily be overcome by enrolling them in short culup (superficial) courses that were in turn conducted by those equally inept in English. Or by simply providing these teachers with laptops programmed with instructional modules!

Even if we had had the best talents devoting themselves exclusively to implementing the policy, the task would still be huge. Unfortunately we have Hishammuddin Hussein as Minister of Education shepherding the change. An insightful innovator or an effective executive he is not. Being simultaneously an UMNO Youth Chief, he was also distracted in trying to pass himself off as the champion of Ketuanan Melayu.

These factors practically ensure the initiative’s failure. The tragic part is that the burden of the failure falls disproportionately on the rural poor, meaning Malays, a point missed by these self-professed nationalists. I would have thought that that alone would have motivated them to succeed.

A Better Way

Teaching science and mathematics in English would solve two problems simultaneously. One, considering the critical shortage of textbooks, journals, and other literature in Malay, teaching the two subjects in English would facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge by our students. With the exponential growth of new knowledge, it would be impossible to keep up solely through translations, even if we were to devote our entire intellectual resources towards that endeavor.

The other objective was to enhance the English fluency of our students. Of course if that were the only consideration, there are other more effective ways of achieving it, like devoting more instructional hours to the subject.

If, as the recent Ministry’s “study” indicates, there is no difference in performance between those taught in Malay or English, that in itself would favor continuing the program because of the twin benefits discussed earlier. Besides, changing course midstream would not only be disruptive but also counterproductive. Our educational system needs predictable stability and incremental improvements, not disruptive U-turns and faddish changes, especially in response to political pressures.

A more important point is this. Altering a politically pivotal and highly emotional public policy requires careful preparation and deliberate execution. If I were to implement the policy, this is what I would do. Lest readers think that this is hindsight wisdom on my part, rest assured that I had documented these ideas in my earlier book, long before the government even contemplated the policy.

Being prudent, as we are dealing with our children’s and nation’s future, I would begin with a small pilot project, analyze the problems, correct the deficiencies, and only then expand the program.

First, I would implement the policy initially only at primary and selected secondary schools, like our residential schools. The language requirements as well as the science and mathematical concepts at the primary level are quite elementary, and thus more readily acquired by the teachers. And at that level the pupils would not have to unlearn much as everything would still be new.

In schools where the background English literacy level of the pupils is low as in the villages, I would have the pupils take English immersion classes for a full term or even a year. We had earlier successful experiences with this with our Special Malay Classes and Remove classes. This strategy has also been tried successfully in America for children of non-English-speaking immigrants. Another idea I put forth in my earlier book is to bring back the old English schools in such areas. As the Malay literacy level in the community and at home is high, these pupils are unlikely to “forget” their own language.

At the secondary level, our residential schools get the best students and teachers. Consequently the program could be more easily implemented there as the learning curve would be steep, and mistakes more readily recognized and corrected. Once the kinks have been worked out, expand the program.

Second is the issue of teachers. Fortunately Malaysia has two large untapped reservoirs of talent: recently retired teachers trained under the old English-based system, and native English speakers who are either spouses of Malaysians or residents of this country. Given adequate compensation and minimal of hassles, they could be readily recruited.

I would add other incentives especially if they were to serve in rural areas where the need is most acute. Thus in addition to greater pay, I would give them first preference to teachers’ quarters.

A permanent solution would be to convert a number of existing teachers’ colleges into exclusively English-medium institutions to train future teachers of English, science, and mathematics. As the present teacher-trainees have limited English fluency, I would begin admitting them right away in January following their leaving school in December of the preceding year.

From that January till the regular opening of the academic year (sometime in July), these trainees would undergo intensive English immersion classes where their entire 24-hour day would be consumed with learning, speaking, thinking, and even dreaming in English. With the subsequent three years of additional instructions exclusively in English, these graduates would then be fully fluent in English.

With such quality programs, these graduates would be in great demand within and outside their profession. With their heightened English facility and mathematical competency, their educational opportunities would also expand as they could further their studies anywhere in the English-speaking world. With such bright prospects, these colleges would have no difficulty recruiting talented school leavers. Our teaching profession would also be enriched with the addition of such talents.

As for textbooks, there is no need to write new ones. The contents of these two subjects are universally applicable. Meaning, textbooks written for British students would be just as suitable for Malaysians, so we could select already available books. With its purchasing clout, the government could drive a hard bargain with existing publishers.

I hope Ministry of Education officials, including and especially Hishammuddin, would heed these factors when they review the current policy. They should continue the current policy, correct the evident errors, and strengthen the obvious weaknesses. The success of this policy would also mean success for our students, and our nation. That is a worthy pursuit for anyone with ambitions to one day lead the nation.


Anonymous said...

Dont worry, just look at our southern neighbour moving forward while we in Malaysia "advancing to the rear"

With teachers themselves cannot speak proper English, what do you expect the students ability in using English

We are very good at dismantling but very poor in building or improving.
I think our country plus the politicians suffer from bad karma

Shawn Tan said...

Must remember that, by changing education policies regularly, new books are constantly required to keep up. This means more money for everyone involved in the sale of a textbook, from the person who writes it to the person who actually sells it. With millions of students having to buy dozens of books annually, it quickly adds up.

Anonymous said...

Most of the "teachers" who are tasked with teaching these two subjects in English are often unable to speak and explain the terminologies in the level that the students, especially in the primary school students would be able to understand and apply.

By the way, have anyone really look into the Primary 4 to 6 Science Text books and work books? At Primary 4, the students are expected to answer subjective questions that are experimental based - which as far as I know, my son's school do not use the work book to conduct such experiments.

Anyway, most of my son's school mates do not understand the exam questionas that are being set as most of the time, the sessions for Science taught in English are being used to teach other subjects like Chinese Language and Maths in Chinese (since he is from a Chinese medium school).

Science and Maths are subjects that most of us need to understand the fundamental "how tos" before we can progress on. To me the teachers of my son's primary school is determine to make this project a failure by not teaching these subjects as they are designed to and purposely asd well as openly putting these subjects down as useless and inappropriate for the students.

I am sadden by the lack of professionalism within the teaching circles as well as the lack of sincere care and love for building up the future generation. All I get are children commenting that their teachers are always yelling at them, canning them (they are not suppose to cane our children right?!!!), punishing them and being told to shut up.

I would agree with Shawn that with the policies being changed at such a regular interval, it is convenient for many parties to make money out of these changes but the people that is losing out would be the future generations.

Anonymous said...

I can empathise with the rural folks who do not have much opportunity for exposure to English. I remember having difficulty buying The Star or ANY periodical in English when I was in a small town recently.

However, to do away with the teaching of the two subjects in English is undesirable. Instead, we need to INCREASE their exposure to English. It may sound pedantic but it is really for their own good.

To increase exposure, start with schools having more trained English teachers and more English periods, but do not stop there. RTM 1 & 2 can also play a big role in this. Get mobile libraries and the works. We can also have English immersion camps during school hols.

We all know, without the good command of English, it is not easy to get a good job, graduates they may be. We have already taken a step forward, let's not take two steps back.

I would say, Bite the Bullet.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous (post #3 6/24/2008 0700am)

I agree with you that some teachers are bound to want to make this project a failure. Change resistance is very human. That's why I hope the ministry is aware of this when they seek teachers' feedback. They need to be able to sieve out the real feedback against the smoke.

Right at the onset, it should have been told that there is NO U-turn on this policy. Such firm resolution on the ministry's part will ensure that all would focus their effort appropriately.

Having said that, I am glad to report that there are some Chinese schools which are serious in the teaching of the subjects in both Mandarin and English. And I have met some very caring and dedicated Chinese school teachers. I just want to be fair to the Chinese school teaching profession.

Anonymous said...

let us start a petition by all bloggers concerned abt teaching of science and maths in English

KM/TP please set it into motion

Anonymous said...

There is a very interesting blog written by a Malay teacher who have to teach science in English and how he felt about the problem of teaching in English.

Do go to his blog:

Anonymous said...

Rich or poor all students are entitled to free books. So the purchase of books is not an issue. Since the momentum has been set for the teaching of Science and Maths in English a few years ago it should be continued. The students shouldnt be subjected to the wishy-washy decisions of the higher ups who flip flopped on the language issue. The will to make it a success must be sustained for the greater benefit of the students and shouldnt be undermined by protaganist of the national language. If students are to compete on a global level where the lingua franca of international business, communication and exchange of ideas and thought are conducted in the English Language, then it should be given emphasis. After all other subjects remain to be taught in the national language.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Bakri Musa has to say. Implementing English to Science and Maths is a great idea to boost the standard of the students and not to mention the future employees of our country. We should not be afraid to experience changes as moving forward is a vital element to acquire success. Stepping outside of box is really what we need to do now. Teachers need not to allow their pride or 'waterface' get in the way of change. Be brave to embrace it. Go out, open up and learn. If teachers aren't brave enough to counter this challenge, on what grounds will their students be able learn and mature as competant individual? We need to be smart and brave to take charge, and adapt to be successful.

bow said...

Why abandon all our advantages from British education system ?Only those racist umnoputra will come out with all these BM medium of instruction in science n mathematic so that non- Malay students can remain retarded for easy manupulation by BN. While all the ministers' children are oversea study ENGLISH language.

Anonymous said...

I think the approach of teaching
Science and Maths in a so-called lingua franca is dubious compared to dealing with the language subject itself which is more pragmatic in improving the language. Int'l research shows that kids are better able to cope with studies when they're taught in their mother tongue than in some foriegn/int'l tongue. Refer to

Oh yeah, the parliament's Opposition Leader once called for the two subjects to revert to BM, among others (Look: As allies, you should enquire her abt this.

Anonymous said...

It seems so obvious, doesn't it? I've been thinking the same thing for years; the solutions to English fluency, teacher training and the learning of Science and Maths in English? It makes you wonder why the people who get paid to have knowledge that will enable the MOE to come up with these solutions simply couldn't think of them. Lack of political will? Lack of ...?? Definitely not lack of funds. Good money has been wasted in too many ways. I can't help but stop in awe at the stupidity of the people who are at the helm of 'educating' our children. Schools now seem a very dangerous place for the advancement of intellectual abilities.

Anonymous said...

This problem is not going to be solved by current national policy and political thinking. Education is mixed with politics and special interest group is having too much say in the education of others.
If Malaysia is serious about developing its human resources, she should stop micromanaging the Mission and Chinese schools. If you leave the mission schools alone, they can get back to their formal days as good schools. The Chinese schools have been strong in Math, why hold them back by a language requirement? At the end of the day, Malaysia needs specialist in all areas, not full of all rounders who are not particular good in any thing. If the current policy and thinking continues, Malaysia will stay on as a developing country for many years to come.
Malaysia is not thinking ahead about problems she is going to face like energy and food. There is a lot of talk, but it is all noise, if oil goes up to US$300 per barrel and when Malaysia runs out of oil and gas, are all these talk going to help?
The think tank we have is preoccupied with who gets what than how to create value. How to create new products and technology to meet Malaysia and the world's needs.
For example, we have solar cell manufacturing in Malaysia, should we make it into a center of excellence? Who have proton, but what role do we play in plug in hybrids? We have nuclear reactor in Malaysia, but where are we in nuclear energy?
It is a lot easier to destroy what others have spent decades to build up. I have met educators who want to do the right things for the country, but their hands are tied.

Frank Chong

Anonymous said...

Ironically, the majority, especially the bumiputra has failed to see that the experimentation of untested educational policies of the BN had deprived a generation of competitiveness in the global market and created huge disparity between the "haves" and the "have not". The BN govt. has robbed millions of youth in the rural districts the opportunity to utilize education as the equalizer in society!

support mother tongue said...

for english speaking Malaysians, they would certainly agree with this policy..

But remember, MANY of our students out there do not speak good english...

Teaching sc and maths in mother tongue is IMPORTANT to strengthen the knowledge on maths and sc during the primary school level.

Talking about whether or not the results are affected by this policies, have anyone really examined the STANDARD of the papers?

to me, studying ONE subject in TWO languages is simply idiotic.

how many great minds were born during the time when maths and science are taught in mother tongue during primary school level?

the uncompetitiveness of Malaysians due to the lack of meritocracy in our education policies... Not because of the language...