Malaysia: Continue Teaching Science and Mathematics in English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Sep 15 13:00:52 UTC 2008

Continue Teaching Science and Mathematics in English

M. Bakri Musa

In May 2003, five months after the government started the teaching of
science and mathematics in English in our schools, the Ministry of
Education produced a "study" with the incredulous findings of
significant improvement in our students' achievements! All in five
months!  Now five years later, research from the Universiti Pendidikan
Sultan Idris (UPSI) showed the very opposite results. What gives? Both
studies were prominently and uncritically reported in our mainstream
media. That first study was presumably swallowed whole by our
policymakers to justify continuing their policy. Rest assured that
this second one too would be used for a similar purpose, as an excuse
to jettison that same policy.

Despite many attempts I was unable to get a copy of that first study.
Nor have I seen it published in any journal, or find any paper
credited to its author, raising questions on the credibility of the
"study" and competence of its "researcher."

To the credit of its authors, this later paper is freely available on
the Internet, all 153 pages of it. Its lead author is an emeritus
professor, a title reserved for retired accomplished scholars, with a
dean and deputy dean as his coauthors. Despite its impressive
authorship, this study is deeply flawed in its design and conclusions.
It does however, expose many weaknesses in the implementation of the
policy, in particular the lack of teachers fluent in English.

Embarrassingly Flawed Study

The most glaring deficiency of this second study is its lack of any
control group. This is basic in any research design. As the English
language policy applies to all schools, you obviously cannot find a
control group among current students. You can however find historical
control groups by using the test scores of earlier comparable pupils
who had been taught and tested in Malay. With some ingenuity we could
still have concurrent control groups, for example, Malaysian pupils
attending English schools like Alice School and International School.
Another would be adults fluent in English, or even the teachers. If
those adults and students in English schools did equally poorly, then
clearly the test is not reliable.

When I look at the test questions, it is not only the teachers who are
deficient in English, so too are the test makers! Some of the
questions are convoluted and would challenge even those fluent in
English. The second flaw is that there is minimal statistical analysis
of the data. The pupils were tested and the results simply collated in
pages and pages of raw data presented in dull, repetitive and
uninformative tables. The authors must be graphically-challenged; they
seem to have not heard of pie charts or bar diagrams.

There is also no attempt in delineating the roles of the many
variables the researchers have included, like teachers' English
fluency, parents' educational levels, and pupils' geographic
background (urban versus rural). To do that the data would have to be
subjected to more sophisticated statistical analyses, beyond the
simple analysis of variance used by the authors. Thus we do not know
whether those students' test scores could be correlated with their
parents' educational levels (a well-acknowledged factor) or teachers'
fluency in English.

There are numerous conclusions based on just simplistic summations of
the data, with such statements as X percent of Malay students finding
the study of science "easy" compared to Y percent of Chinese or
Indians feeling likewise, or R percent of Malay students scoring high
versus S percent of their Chinese counterparts. It seems that
Malaysian academics, like their politicians, cannot escape the race

These studies were conducted in January, February and July. Even the
dumbest students knew that those were not the examination months. They
knew those tests "don't count;" thus skewing the results. The only way
to make them take the test seriously would be to incorporate it into
their regular examinations.

Besides, in January and February those students had just returned from
their long end-of-year holidays during which considerable attrition of
knowledge occurred. The difference between the racial groups may have
nothing to do with academics but on such extraneous matters as how
fast they settle down to their studies.

Of the 27 references cited, there is surprisingly no article from
refereed journals. Most (14) are government-sponsored surveys, press
releases, and newspaper articles, unusual for a scholarly paper. There
are a few books cited, with the most recent published in 2002. There
is considerable lag time between what is written in books versus the
current state of knowledge. For that you would need journals and
attend symposia.

Consequently the researchers' review on bilingual education is dated.
Contrary to their conclusion, it is now accepted that exposing
children at a young age to bilingual education confers significant
linguistic, cognitive and other advantages. The authors'
recommendation that pupils be taught only in their mother tongue and
learn a second language later at a much older age is not supported by
modern research.

Studies using functional MRIs (imaging studies) of the brain show that
children who are bilingual at an earlier age use their brain more
efficiently as compared to those who acquire those skills as adults.
For example, when asked to translate between the two languages,
"native" bilingual speakers use only one part of their brain while
those who are bilingual as an adult use two.

Other cognitive advantages to "native" bilingual speakers include the
ability to grasp abstract concepts faster, precisely the intellectual
skill helpful in learning mathematics and higher-level science. The
higher scores for non-Malays may well be the consequence of their
earlier and more extensive exposure to bilingualism than Malays.

Revealing Findings

The study nonetheless reveals many useful findings. I fear however,
that these nuggets of information would be lost by those who care only
for the study's unjustified conclusion to discontinue the present
policy and revert to teaching science and mathematics in Malay. That
would be a retrogressive step.

This study is only a snapshot; it does not enlighten us as to trend.
It could be that the results would continue to improve. It is thus
presumptuous for the authors to make a sweeping policy recommendation
based only a limited snapshot study, and a poorly-designed one at

UPSI in its previous incarnation as Sultan Idris Teachers' College was
a hotbed of Malay nationalism. This study is less an academic research
and more political polemic camouflaged as a pseudo-scientific study to
justify its authors' nationalist bias. Their data and methodology just
do not support their conclusion.

The study found that fewer than 15 percent of the teachers were fluent
in English, and that most teach using a combination of both languages.
That is putting it politely. In reality they use bastardized or
"pidgin" English. If those teachers lack English language skills, how
could they teach any subject in that language? The fault here is not
with the policy, rather its implementation. We should first train the

In its naivety the government spent over RM3 billion to equip these
teachers with computers, LCDs and "teaching modules" to help them in
the classroom. Many of those computers are now conveniently "stolen,"
plugged with viruses, or simply left to gather dust as those teachers
lack the skills to use them effectively.

The only beneficiaries of that program were UMNO operatives who
secured those lucrative contracts. Had the government spent those
precious funds to hire new teachers fluent in English, our students
would have been better served, and the policy more effectively

This study missed a splendid opportunity to find out what those
students, parents and teachers felt about the policy. It was as if
those researchers and their field workers (undergraduates in education
and thus our future teachers) were interested only in administering
those tests, collecting their data, and then getting back to campus.

Surely those parents and teachers had something to say on the policy.
What do the teachers feel about the billions spent on computers? Are
they eager to learn and teach in English or do they harbor nationalist
sentiments and resent the policy? Those surveys would have helped
considerably towards implementing the policy better.

A Better Way

I support the teaching of science and mathematics in English. I go
further and would have half the subjects in our national schools be
taught in English, including Islamic Studies. The objective should be
to produce thoroughly or "native" bilingual graduates, able to read,
write and even dream in Malay and English. That is the only way to
make our graduates competitive.

I put forth my ideas on achieving this in my earlier (2003) book, An
Education System Worthy of Malaysia. I would start small, restricting
the program to our residential schools where the students are smarter,
teachers better, and facilities superior. Work out the kinks there
first, only then expand the program.

I would also convert some teachers' colleges into exclusively
English-medium institutions to train future teachers of English,
science, and mathematics.

In rural areas where the level of English in the schools and community
is low, I would bring back the old English-medium schools, but
modifying it significantly with pupils taught exclusively in English
for the first four years ("total immersion"). Malay would be
introduced only in Year V, and only as one subject.

Since Malay would not be taught in the first few years and only a
limited subject later on, admission to such schools would be
restricted only to those with already near-native fluency in Malay or
whose habitual language is Malay. Further, such schools would be set
up only where the background level of Malay in the community is high,
essentially only in the kampongs.

If we were to do otherwise, as having such schools in the cities where
the level of English in the community is high and Malay low, those
graduates would not be fluent in our national language, as during
colonial days. It would not be in the national interest to repeat that
mistake. Besides, the problem of our students' deficiency in English
is most acute in rural areas. Thus it makes sense to establish
English-medium schools there.

There are many challenges to the policy of teaching science and
mathematics in English. One thing is certain. We will never resolve
them if we listen to ambitious politicians playing to the gallery or
rely on less-than-rigorous "researches."

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