©New Sunday Times (Used by permission)
• Study reveals policy's flaws
• The story on thinking Science and speaking English
THE teaching of Mathematics and Science in English was controversial when it was introduced five years ago, and it still is. Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris lecturer Professor Datuk Dr Isahak Haron says the change to English was an ’irresponsible move’, and many students lost out because of the policy. So, it’s time to cut our losses and go back to teaching these subjects in Bahasa Malaysia, he tells Elizabeth John and Aniza Damis
Q: From your study, would you say Malay students have lost the most because of this policy?
A: Yes, rural Malays –– 70 per cent of them. But we found it's not only Malay students outside towns who are suffering, it's also the poorer Malay students in towns –– those of lower socio–economic status, even in Ipoh and KL.
Q: Why do non–Malays do better?
A: When it comes to Mathematics, Chinese students have
traditionally done better, because they have more practice. But first, they
learn it in their own language. The emphasis in Chinese schools is to understand
and practise until you get it right. So they will drill knowledge first in
Chinese, and then have a Mathematics lesson in English, just to get a grasp on
the terminology. That means mastery of the content first. When the fundamentals
are strong and you move to Form One and Form Two, you are much better. There's
less of this in Sekolah Kebangsaan.
Q: Is it the same case then for Indian students?
A: A bit like that. And they now have extra coaching through
tuition and they're better at English than the Malay students, so they perform
Q: Is the system being used in Chinese schools a better way to go if the government wants to continue with this policy?
A: If you want to continue with this, you have to do what the
Chinese schools do. You teach in Bahasa Malaysia and later learn the terminology
in English. And if you want to improve the level of English, first, the number
of periods of English lessons has to be increased. During the English lesson,
you can put in elements of Science and Mathematics. In this way, you increase
your vocabulary and learn in a more joyful way. English must be taught by people
who are good in English, not by a Maths teacher who is not so good in English.
When the students are good in Mathematics and Science, they will be able to
understand the concepts of the subjects in English or any other language. The
mix in these languages is the worst thing happening now. The teachers cannot
teach properly. They are confused and their foundation is weak.
Q: Would it have made a difference if the teachers had had a better command of English?
A: That will take 10 or 20 more years then.
Q: Isn't it possible to have a concurrent system? Because if you abandon things because they don't work within five years, then you can never start anything.
A: This is what Dr Mahathir's (former Prime Minister Tun Dr
Mahathir Mohamad) people are talking about. They don't care about the 70 or 80
per cent of the children. All they care about is that their agenda is correct.
It doesn't matter if it takes 20 years; you see his gamble?
Q: What's your position at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka?
A: I'm a board member. But I am first of all an educationist.
I care about the children and what they learn.
Q: When students go to university, they suddenly find that almost all the textbooks are in English, so they have difficulty studying. Some students then pay to have some chapters translated into Bahasa Malaysia, but how many of them can afford this?
A: Once upon a time, Malay students were already quite good in Mathematics and Science. Teachers and students were quite confident to teach and learn these subjects in Bahasa Malaysia. In fact, all teachers, Chinese and Indian too, were confident about it. What was lacking was a good command of English. It had nothing to do with Mathematics and Science. The way things are now, you've disadvantaged Malay students in all three subjects. My problem was with the way English was taught. The way it is taught to rural children. You don't have to bring in foreign teachers. What you need to do is study what students need to know, and provide suitable programmes. This has never been done by anyone here. They borrowed programmes from abroad and called it "Communication English" which hasn't been successful, especially in the rural context. You need another programme. I've been demanding for one. I will challenge any TESL (Teaching of English as a Second Language) professor to devise a programme that can, in three months, teach 300 new words to students in a Sekolah Kebangsaan in a rural area and have them enjoy the experience.
Q: So the money and time should be spent on the way English is being taught?
A: Yes. It should be taught differently to everybody. If you
are at level two, go for a level two English module. If your English is better,
why not start at level four? You do it thoroughly. I've been proposing this for
the past three years. When children start schooling, each has different
abilities, so they all go for a screening test. Then you stream them into
classes that fit their level of understanding. The classes should be specialised
for all subjects. If a child is good at Bahasa Malaysia and poorer in English,
they go for level 2 Bahasa Malaysia and level 1 English. In such classes, you
have the right teacher, the specific course materials and undergo the
appropriate exercises suited to the child's needs. Once they pass one level,
they can go to the next. Now, if a student is very good at one thing and poor in
others, the marks get averaged and they get placed at the bottom of the class. I
don't like averaging. If they are good at something or poor at it, they should
be allowed to proceed at their own pace in each subject. But at the same time.
there will have to be classes that they enjoy together like art, physical
education and music.
Q: Are schools now equipped for these kinds of lessons?
A: They spent RM5 billion for this project. Just give me RM2
million, I can convert classrooms for this purpose.
Q: How will the exams work if they are all at different levels?
A: It doesn't matter. You take the exam when you are ready.
Anytime you want.
Q: Then the exam system will have to change?
A: Yes. Its not so much about getting the certificate, its
about knowing what level you are at. It should be more open.
Q: How do students get promoted to the next class then?
A: They're being promoted according to age, not ability. At
seven, you're in Standard One, at eight, in Standard Two, whether you're good or
not. Whereas, you could be in Standard Three at the age of eight. We can
encourage students and develop them according to their ability and interest. If
they are weak, we can quickly address it and not average it out.
Q: What about students who just want to complete SPM and get a job that requires that as a minimum?
A: There'll be no such thing as an SPM certificate. There
will be different certificates for different subjects and if you want to do 10
subjects at SPM level, you can do it at different times.
Q: Coming back to the whole issue of teaching Mathematics and Science in English, what do we do next?
A: Go back to Bahasa Malaysia. Everyone knows Bahasa Malaysia
and it's not a loss to anyone. Teachers also feel more comfortable with it.
Q: What about the students who have been through four years under this policy?
A: They can do it in Bahasa Malaysia.
Q: Aren't they going to be even more confused?
A: As it is, 70 per cent of students cannot follow. So, nobody is likely to lose. Those who can follow are already quite good in Bahasa Malaysia now.
It's not a new language for them as it is already used widely in school. There will be the least negative effect on the teachers and students.
Q: What about the students who have been taught Mathematics and Science really well in English?
A: That's just a few per cent. But even they have done Bahasa
Malaysia. I don't think they'll lose their command of English and since they're
good at Mathematics and Science in English, they won't lose that either.
Q: Could the system be converted immediately or would schools need a few years to phase it out?
Q: Including the ones who have to sit for exams the next year?
A: The exam papers are already in two languages. Only the
textbooks are in English. I've always asked why they've deprived rural children
of textbooks in two languages. That's what they need.
Q: What if we teach English your way, but maintain Science and Mathematics in English?
A: If you want to learn a subject, the first foundation years
must be taught in the mother tongue. Seventy per cent of students cannot do it
Q: You presented the findings of your study to the prime minister. What was his reaction?
A: He said we should do it –– convert (back to Bahasa
Malaysia). He said he'd been thinking about it for a long time already.
Q: You also presented it to the education minister at a symposium. What was the reaction from the other people at that briefing?
A: They asked many questions about methodology. We could have
done a study on the whole country, if we'd had a million ringgit. But we did
this study for zero ringgit.
And we took many samples. We analysed test questions individually. There is no point doing an average achievement analysis.
You need to show where the student did well and where he didn't. It has to be item–by–item, so that we know where the total is.
Then, some people from the Education Ministry's Curiculum Development Centre said, 'Some rural schools did well'.
So I said, 'Which rural schools? I want to know which ones. And how many is some?'
In this situation, we're not talking about the exceptional students. You are talking about the majority. I'm not doing the study to find out why seven per cent of Orang Asli kids can do it.
Q: So, there might be exceptions, but they don't represent the rest?
A: Of course not.
The logical thing is to go back (to teaching Science and Mathematics in Bahasa Malaysia).
Q: So, why are people hanging on to this policy?
A: There are a few reasons. One of which is that they spent
But I say, what is RM5 billion? What happened to the RM5 billion? It was spent on computers. It's not like the computers are going to vanish if you switch to Bahasa Malaysia. The computers can still be used.
And all that training for the teachers is helpful to them, so let it be.
You don't lose out in anything.
The second issue is that, "If we start using English now, eventually we will be good at it."
I want to know how long do we have to wait? 20 years? An educationist doesn't even want to see one child being destroyed by any foolish act.
If a person is sick, do you experiment on that person? To experiment with a few hundred thousand or millions is irresponsible.
Dr Mahathir's policy was irresponsible.
But nobody questioned him. I questioned him, and he scolded me.
Q: Irresponsible because?
A: Because he knew that it couldn't be done.
He may have been good in asking for the Petronas Twin Towers or highways to be built.
The physical development of the country is not a problem. But (with this policy) you ruin children's lives.
And poor Malay students thought they could do it, but suddenly education has no meaning to them.
Study reveals policy's flaws
by Elizabeth John and Aniza Damis
TANJUNG MALIM: Five years after schools began teaching Mathematics and Science in English, tests on thousands of students have revealed poor scores in these subjects.
The tests and surveys, part of a study of that policy, have
also shown that the majority of students still find it hard to follow
Mathematics and Science lessons in English.
Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) put over 3,000 Year Five pupils and about 2,800 Form Two students around the country through short Mathematics, Science and English language tests between February last year and January.
The schoolchildren were from a mix of urban, rural and vernacular schools in Peninsular Malaysia.
The tests were made up of modified past–year examination questions. Some were taken straight out of textbooks.
Some 1,700 Year Five pupils tested this January had a mean score of 7.89 out of a maximum 20 for Mathematics.
The results were not much better for Science: a mean of 4.08 out of 14. English proficiency was not good either: a mean of 11.87 out of 31.
The mean scores of Malay and Orang Asli pupils were also much lower than those of the Chinese and Indians, said study leader Professor Emeritus Datuk Isahak Haron.
Isahak has called the policy a failure, particularly in terms of its impact on Malay students in national schools (Sekolah Kebangsaan), and is asking for a return to the teaching of Mathematics and Science in Bahasa Malaysia.
In the survey, many Year Five pupils told researchers they found it hard to learn Mathematics and Science in English, saying they did not understand the lessons.
In one sample, less than a fifth of the Year Five Malay students surveyed considered it easy to learn Science in English and only about a third thought it was easy to learn Mathematics in English.
When a sample of 1,300 Malay students were asked how well they understood the Mathematics and Science lessons when it was taught in English, over 60 per cent said they only understood the lessons "sometimes".
The policy had even failed in its aim of improving the pupils' command of English, said Isahak, a lecturer at the Faculty of Cognitive Science and Human Development.
Students struggled to correctly complete even simple sentences, he said, citing the following sentence in a passage taken out of a school textbook: "He ..... to bed" (The answer is "went".)
An average of 14 per cent and 19 per cent (two different groups) got the answer right.
Even the highest score according to racial breakdown –– 41 per cent of Chinese students in one group answered correctly –– did not speak well of the policy's aim of improving English.
Isahak suggested that it would do more good to allocate more time, staff and money to the teaching of English at the primary school level.
He urged a change in how the language was taught in schools. He said the standardised syllabus should be scrapped in favour of lessons tailored to suit the abilities of different students.
The UPSI study also incorporated findings from other surveys of secondary school students that pointed to similar problems.
Shortly after the policy was implemented in 2003, Associate Professor Hashima Jalaluddin of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia interviewed 43 teachers and 971 Form One students from six schools in the central and southern states of Peninsular Malaysia .
Most of the teachers said students had problems following Mathematics and Science lessons in English, while 70 per cent of the students said they would be more interested if the two subjects were taught in Bahasa Malaysia.
Only a quarter said they had no problem following the lessons in English.
In 2004, Zainuddin Bikum surveyed 229 students in two schools in Kuala Kubu Baru, Selangor, for his dissertation at UPSI and found that more than half of the group was facing difficulties.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Professor Juriah Long found that about half the students in both urban and rural schools were worried because they found it difficult to follow Mathematics and Science in English. This was one of the results of her 2005 survey of over 7,000 Form Two students nationwide.
Her study, which also looked at the location of schools and the socio–economic background of students, found the concern was greater among Malay students, those in rural schools, and poor students.
Isahak said Malay students in national schools, mostly in rural areas and from lower socio–economic backgrounds, had lost out the most as a result of the decision to teach Maths and Science in English.
The ones who gained from the policy were a small percentage of Malay students from upper middle class families who went to good schools, he said.
However, UPSI's own test results showed Year Five Malay students from rural schools scored highest in nine out of 10 Maths questions and two out of seven Science questions compared with Malay students in big town and city schools.
Meanwhile, Malay students in city schools consistently fared the lowest.
Isahak believes the difference in the percentages is marginal and because there are more Malay students in rural areas, it is these students who will be most affected.
The story on thinking Science and speaking English
MAY 10, 2002 marked a momentous turning point in the country's education history.
Then Umno president, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad,
announced an Umno Supreme Council proposal that Mathematics and Science be
taught in English.
The move came in response to complaints over the decline in the language and was, at the same time, meant to enhance knowledge in Science and Mathematics.
This instantly stirred a passionate debate, which remains to this day.
The government allocated RM5 billion to implement the programme over the following five years.
The RM400 million that would be spent on support material and
equipment went into laptops for teachers, LCD projectors and software for
schools to begin teaching Mathematics and Science in English.
Small schools and those without electricity were given generator sets and a 34–inch digital television set in place of LCD projectors.
Teachers were trained and given courseware and guides. The Education Ministry also set up hotlines for queries.
The teaching of Mathematics and Science in English for Year One, Form One and Lower Six students began on Jan 5, 2003.
In the early stages, the ministry reported that everything was smooth sailing.
Even the National Union of the Teaching Profession said the feedback it had received showed that most students were keen to learn Mathematics and Science in English.
But within the first month of its enforcement, teachers in some schools reported that students who were weak in English were struggling with the lessons.
Teachers were often forced to revert to Bahasa Malaysia to ensure students understood the basic concepts.
And by April, Education Minister Tan Sri Musa Mohamad was threatening to discipline teachers who conducted Mathematics and Science classes in Bahasa Malaysia.
Yet in June 2003, just six months after the programme began, Musa reported that students' performance in Science and Mathematics had improved significantly.
Quoting a study by the ministry's school inspectorate division, he said average scores in Science, Mathematics and English had improved.
About 85 per cent of teachers in 1,031 schools covered in the study said they were inspired and confident in implementing the policy.
Despite this, and figures presented in Parliament over the years showing improvements in the average Mathematics and Science scores, questions continued to dog the new policy.
In January 2006, four students sought a declaration from the High Court that the policy of teaching Science and Mathematics in English was unconstitutional.
They wanted the subjects to be taught again in Bahasa Malaysia in national primary and secondary schools, and in Mandarin and Tamil in vernacular primary schools.
At the end of that year, the ministry reported a nine per cent drop in the number of students who answered PMR Mathematics and Science papers fully in English.
Though there have been numerous examples of students, teachers and schools doing well with the new policy direction, there were also those that had not adapted well.
This spurred Johor Umno chief Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman to hit out against the policy during debates at the party's General Assembly last year.
Ghani, who is also Johor menteri besar, said the move widened the divide between urban and rural schools.
His criticism dragged the debate back into the limelight, tailed by a chorus of calls for a policy reversal.
Even the MCA Youth, at its convention last August, called for Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah test papers in the two subjects to be written in Mandarin in Chinese schools.
Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said that studies on the issue were being carried out by his ministry.
He said a decision would only be made this year upon completion of one full cycle of implementation. The decision is expected soon.