We need G.A.S, not flip-flops in the teaching of Science and Maths

It is truly amazing that we are still flip-flopping over the language medium to teach maths and science in 2019. We hear that the education ministry now wants to revert to using English to teach these subjects.

It was in 2002 that this was an issue and I had written about the main issues involved then. It was ironic that the controversy over the teaching of Maths and Science in English in our schools at the time should coincide with the news that the country had run out of gas and we had to import gas from Indonesia’s Pertamina.

Focus on G.A.S: Goal, Attitude and Strategy

The question we have to ask is: What is it we want?

If the objective is to raise the standard of English of our students, all we need is G.A.S (Goal, Attitude, Strategy), rather than undermining our respective mother tongue education systems.

The respective mother tongue education systems in this country (which should also include English, the mother tongue of some Malaysians) are the proper claimants to “Malaysia Boleh” status. Let us not destroy this accomplishment in the name of this latest buzzword, “globalisation”. The English language was the main global language a few years ago; now it has to coexist with Mandarin the other de facto global language.

It is Goal/Attitude/Strategy that is lacking in the teaching and learning of English (or for that matter, any language or discipline) and which is the key to the problem we face in our schools.

Think about it. We have Malaysian students who spend just two to three months studying French or Russian before they go to these countries to further their studies. And we say that the ten years or more of English our students learn in schools is not sufficient and we need to Anglicise our mother tongue education systems – Malay, Chinese and Tamil – to cope with globalisation.

A rhetorical question: Do you think that the French, Russians, Germans, Japanese, mainland Chinese and all other proud peoples of the world are Anglicising their respective mother tongue education systems to cope with globalisation? The British Council must be laughing but they are also probably laughing at how gullible Malaysians are!

Goal-directed learning

Initially, the government’s goal was to raise the level of English proficiency. Then the director-general of education said the purpose was to raise the level of competence in Maths and Science. Soon other politicians began to proffer differing views on this issue while the public was asked to accept this “decision”. The government’s goal has never been clear from the start. Why should the imperative for mastering English be any less clear say, forty years ago when we went about dismantling our solid human resources in English teaching all in the name of nationalism?

Globalisation is just another word for a process of internationalisation of capitalism that started years ago. If our goal was clear in the first place, we wouldn’t have the problem today of insufficient qualified and trained English teachers. Goal-directed learning is seriously lacking in many of our institutions and should be foremost in the minds of teachers and learners.

Focused attitude

The focused attitude of a group of students who have to master a foreign language in three months in order to further their studies is the key to learning a second language. The attitude of the trainers who are focused on the goal is also paramount. The attitude of the government is reflected in the failure to train adequate qualified and motivated English teachers for all schools. We can do without amateur comments about how we only need computers to teach English.

Sound strategy

A student who has a sound strategy for attaining a goal and knows the study skills to go with it is likely to succeed. We all know that. The mastery of the English language follows the same strategy. This principle is applicable not only to the learner but also to the educator and the education ministry.

For educationists, the teaching method for a language subject is quite different from that of a knowledge-based subject such as Maths or Science. To master the English language, it makes sense to use text that has been designed to teach English. For example, would you use a Maths textbook written in Japanese to learn Japanese?

Using the mother tongue is effective and egalitarian

Using English to teach Maths and Science would make it difficult for those children whose mother tongue is Malay, Chinese or Tamil to grasp such essential knowledge. For the middle class who can afford tuition for their kids, this problem may be overcome, but for those in poorer families, we would be condemning them to a fate we know only too well.

Speaking for the Chinese schools, their record would indicate the folly of changing their medium of instruction for Maths and Science to English: In 1973, when there were still English primary schools in existence, the standard of Maths in Chinese primary schools was higher than that in the former! The performance of Chinese-medium pupils in maths and science has been good even today. So why should they change the teaching medium to English?

English-medium instruction for maths and science does not lead automatically to better performance in these subjects. At an international campus such as at the National University of Singapore, there are more high achievers at mathematics from Chinese-medium rather than from English-medium backgrounds.

In fact, a few years ago, the education ministry was using the Chinese school as a role model for teaching Maths. At the time, the government thought that the key lay in the use of the abacus. The fact was, the Chinese schools had stopped using the abacus for years! Again, the secret lies in the judicious use of G.A.S.

What would be left of our mother tongue education system?

Many people think that it is a “small sacrifice” to teach Maths and Science in English. In the first place, why should the question of sacrifice arise in this case? Let’s look at the examined subjects in the UPSR for the Chinese primary schools, namely, Bahasa Melayu, English, Chinese, Maths, and Science. Now if English is the teaching medium for Maths and Science, there would be left only a single subject in the UPSR (Chinese Language) in which pupils would be using their mother tongue. There would no longer be a mother tongue system!

This will definitely affect the attitude of pupils toward their mother tongue and sabotage the whole justification for having mother tongue education in this country. We will then suffer from the Singapore Syndrome in which pupils study one Chinese Language subject and everything else is in English. The consequence is their leaders now lament the loss of Singaporeans’ heritage and have to resort to “instant culture” by importing Chinese scholars from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and graduates of the Malaysian independent Chinese secondary schools!

The bottom line: Let there be choice

The best resolution to this interminable flip-flopping in language policy is to allow the various communities to have a democratic choice. I am quite certain the Chinese community prefers to keep their mother tongue education system which is also attracting nearly 100,000 non-Chinese pupils into their system. If the Tamil and Malay streams choose to teach maths and science using the English language, they should have this choice. But it should not be forced down their throats if they insist on keeping their mother tongue system intact.

Raising English proficiency in our schools

The Chinese education movement through the years has called for the improvement of English and BM in Chinese primary schools. But their repeated requests for teaching English from Standard One instead of Standard Three were consistently denied by the education ministry. Through the years, school committees and parent-teacher associations of Chinese primary schools have had to rely on opening tuition classes to coach our children in English.

Raising the level of English proficiency in our schools requires changes in language teaching methodology and resources (ie, sound strategy). The presumptuous and undemocratic method of implementing a questionable policy is not the way.

The better way is to increase the teaching period for English; train more professional English teachers; supply more and better teaching materials, and ensure effective learning environment in smaller classes.

To meet these conditions, what changes need to be implemented in our schools? In order to ensure more teaching hours for English in smaller classes, there must be a move towards single-session schools, which means more Chinese schools and classrooms. The statistics speak for themselves:

At Independence in 1957, when the population of Chinese Malaysians was twice what it is today, we had more schools, viz. 1,350 Chinese primary schools, 78 Chinese secondary schools and even a Nanyang university. Now there are only 1,285 Chinese primary schools and 60 Independent Chinese secondary schools.

Such a cramped environment is definitely not conducive for learning English in Chinese primary schools – the government does not allow English to be taught from Std One; does not allow the building of new Chinese primary schools, and also does not train adequate teachers for these schools.

Isn’t the solution obvious? The education minister needs to focus, focus and focus and step on the gas. Enough flip-flopping, please.

Kua Kia Soong is the adviser to Suaram.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.