Malaysia: TEACHING OF MATHS AND SCIENCE IN ENGLISH: 'Revert to teaching in our national language'

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Sep 7 16:36:30 UTC 2008

national language'


'Revert to teaching in our national language' 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. DOWNLOAD FULL COPY OF THE REPORT

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

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

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?
A: Immediately.

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
in English.

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 RM5 billion.

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

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.

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