Malaysia: For and against another change in science education

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Dec 12 21:17:08 UTC 2006

Forwarded from edling-list

For and against another change

StarEducation spoke to several former education director-generals and
found that they have mixed feelings on the teaching of Science and
Mathematics in English.

Mother tongue is the best

COGNITIVELY, studies have shown that the mother tongue is the best
language to teach children Maths and Science as both these subjects are
conceptual in nature. I have not seen any study on which is the best
approach to teach Maths and Science native language or second language. I
think we need to look at this issue in a rational and scientific manner.
Secondly, I think many Maths and Science teachers who were trained in
Bahasa Malaysia lack the language proficiency to teach effectively in
English. This is a big problem. Also, when children dont have a good
command of English, this will lower their confidence and might have an
adverse effect on their performance in Maths and Science.

I don't think teaching in BM has been a problem. In the past when Maths
and Science was not in English, the number of people who went on to
further their studies in Science and Technology related courses at
university level increased tremendously. There have also been many cases
of Malaysians furthering their studies at prestigious universities
overseas and graduating with first class honours. I don't think that
teaching and learning Maths and Science in English is a good way of
improving students proficiency in the language. There are other ways, such
as English literature.  Datuk Dr Abdul Shukor Abdullah (1998 2001)

Many are struggling to cope

As a member of the National Brains Trust, we were trying to find
alternatives to teaching Maths and Science in English, such as teaching
other subjects in English, but while we were in the midst of our
discussions, the Cabinet had already decided to go ahead with the policy.
Although globalisation, industrialisation and technological advancement
were given as the main reasons for the decision, the ultimate aim was for
students to be proficient in English. In reality, the decision meant that
our education system had essentially become bilingual, although until now
no one wants to say it openly.

Initially, I was not too happy with the decision to teach in English
because after more than 20 years teaching in the national language, our
country has still managed to produce doctors, scientists, accountants and
lawyers. However, (then Prime Minister) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad saw this
as the only way for Malaysians, especially the Malays, to compete because
he felt previous efforts to raise the proficiency level of students in the
language had not really succeeded. Earlier this year, I had a discussion
with retired Education Ministry officials and they expressed their worry
that the policy would deter Malays from going into the Science stream, as
they would find learning Chemistry, Physics and Biology in English even
more difficult, especially when there is no longer an option to answer in
Bahasa Malaysia in public examinations.

In my personal observation and visits to schools, I find that many are
struggling to cope and there is a lot of spoon-feeding. The way the
CD-ROMs are used in class also does not encourage individualised learning.
The implementers of the policy must convince the detractors that they are
doing something about the problems that have been identified. However, to
change course now would cause a tremendous upheaval. The success of the
programme should not be judged by exam results alone.  There needs to be a
more holistic and systematic feedback system. Datuk Asiah Abu Samah

Dont debate, focus on programme

I FEEL that we should concentrate on implementing the programme rather
than debating about it as it would be unfair to come to any hasty
conclusion on whether the programme has been successful or not. No doubt a
lot of adjustments need to be made along the way and we may also face some
teething problems, but the basic issue remains the same. Maths and Science
are in the long run more effectively taught in English as it has become
the preferred language for the teaching and learning of these subjects
almost everywhere in the world.

It is not that it cannot be done in Bahasa Malaysia or any other language;
to me that question does not arise. We must look at this purely from the
teaching and learning aspect. Bearing in mind that the sciences are
universal and that there is an explosion of knowledge; our children cannot
be at a disadvantage. By using English for these subjects, we should be
able to learn more efficiently and discover what is going on around the
world in those areas faster. Everybody acknowledges these facts; so I
would urge that we go on and do the best we can, bearing in mind that the
problem of implementation of any educational programme will always exist;
we should give our teachers support so that they can concentrate on
teaching the subject effectively.

Debating too long on this is not going to be helpful at all. Tan Sri Murad
Mohd Nor (1974-1985)

Prepare students and teachers

I HAVE come across many worrying stories. Parents complain they are no
longer able to guide their children. In rural schools, teachers conduct
lessons mainly in Bahasa Malaysia because they cannot speak in English.
Even in towns, schoolchildren still answer questions in BM as they are
comfortable in the language. Children in rural schools suffer the most as
English is foreign to both teachers and students. In any new project, it
is always best to prepare the students and teachers before it is launched.
Teachers must know the subject matter and the language of delivery. The
students too, have to have an understanding of the language to make
teaching and learning more effective and meaningful.

In addition, there should be constant evaluation to enable remedial action
to be taken to ensure that the project is on track. I believe that this
project was aimed at making children conversant in English, beginning with
Maths and Science. If that is so, a better approach to make English an
effective second language may lie in importing teachers (from overseas).
It may be costly, but in the long run, it may be worth the while.  Tan Sri
Abdul Rahman Arshad


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