Categorised | Letters to the Editor

Higher standard of English needed

AFTER reading Wong Chin Huat’s Scaling the language barrier, I thought I would share a few thoughts on English education and education reform.

I was born in Malaysia, but after a year, my parents and I moved to Canada.

At the time, public education in Canada was very good.
 
We returned to Malaysia in 1995. My parents immediately enrolled me in ISKL, where I spent the next four years of my life. I went to university in the UK and came back in 2003. I got a job at ISKL as the assistant theatre manager, during which time I helped teach the Stagecraft class. I stayed for five and a half years before leaving for a job in publishing.
 
Although a student would like to believe otherwise, teaching is very hard. The time spent preparing the lesson, something I learnt firsthand, is so important. The iceberg metaphor comes to mind: of the 10% face time a teacher spends with their students, there is 90% of preparation time that a teacher must attend to for that 10% of time to be effective. If you do not know the subject thoroughly, the students will know it, and it will affect their rate of learning.
 
I agree with one of Chin Huat’s conclusions, that the English for Teaching Mathematics and Science (ETeMS) policy is not effective; not even refinement can save it.

I, however, disagree with the point that English-medium schools are a solution. Earlier in the article, Chin Huat states: “But teaching science and mathematics in English to all students of varying abilities has inevitably entailed a sacrifice of the general standard of these two subjects.”
 
This statement is presented as a reality against English. But the statement reflects a problem of implementation on two levels. One is that “students of varying abilities” need some kind of assessment process to determine the proficiency of English they need or want (perhaps this would involve asking a student questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?”). The other problem is that “a sacrifice of the general standards” is inevitable with big changes in curriculum.
 
The pace of change

Let me address the second point. If education standards go down because of change, I would argue that the change was implemented too quickly, the teachers weren’t ready, and that the planning by administrators was incomplete.


Jose Antonio Abreu (Source: portal.
unesco.org)
I would also argue that the people who designed the education policy are not people who are trained to do it for a living. If, say, we wanted to implement a music education programme in schools, we would no doubt invite Jose Antonio Abreu of Venezuela’s celebrated El Sistema to consult.

Were celebrated educationists consulted in the design of our education programme? They have not been touted. It would be something to be proud of — but I suspect this is not the case.
 
To return to the first point, here is a controversial notion: public education died when Malay-medium schools became the norm. I understand the reasons Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad chose to do it. I don’t think the country was sold on those reasons. If it were, organisations like Dong Jiao Zong would not exist.

Public education is, after all, what we are talking about, even though Chin Huat does not mention it. And it is characteristic of public education, like the system in Canada, that a standard be imposed upon all the students in it. It is an imperfect standard (all students learn at different rates, and learn in different ways), but I think educationists recognise that real learning happens in spite of it. Learning happens in the classroom, and some of it should not be codified.
 
What should be codified is a high standard of English for all students, regardless of other factors. It’s shocking to hear Chin Huat say, “Well, not every student intends to become a mathematician or scientist.” That is true, but it should be the potential of every student to attain that profession if he [or she] so wishes.

The idea of dealing out educational opportunities to those who can afford it or those who show the most promise is wrong-headed, and something Chin Huat shares with those creating policy right now. If it’s a case of not leaving “weaker or non-English-speaking students” behind, it becomes a question of bootstrapping them up to the same level as the other kids. It is not a case of holding back the other kids so that they don’t have too great an advantage.

Searching for a remedy

Chin Huat speaks of the economic and social costs of teaching maths and science in English. “The policy would be fine if it did not entail any costs.” There is no policy that does not have a cost. In effect, that’s an argument for getting it right the first time.

The real question is, “Are the right people on the problem?” Since we already know the answer is “no”, we need to ask how to remedy this. Look at other public education systems around the world. I would hazard a guess that none of them proposes to split public education racially. We need to build workable scenarios for education in this country.

We ran out of time years ago; we’ve effectively consigned a generation of kids to a significantly lower number of opportunities than people like me, who came out of the international school system. We have consigned them to this fate simply because we couldn’t make up our minds.


A student waits for the train at the Masjid Jamek station (Pic by Bilal Mirza @ Flickr)

Let me leave you with one thought: In some countries, the transport minister takes public transport to work. It’s like he is saying, “I believe in my policies to the point that I subject myself to them.” As we all know, KL public transport is a gauntlet of frustration, fraught with train delays, blackouts, falling debris, inconveniently placed stations, etc. But it works — or at least it can.

Education is a little more slippery than public transport to determine its effectiveness. But as a friend pointed out, all you have to ask is this: are the ministers responsible for the education policy putting their own kids through the system?
 
See Tshiung Han
Editor
Bluetoffee Press

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11 Responses to “Higher standard of English needed”

  1. kahseng says:

    This writer is barking up the wrong tree, much like many young English-educated, once-foreign-dwelling writers who are too optimistic about the dark side of the implementation of Malaysia’s education policy.

    Wong Chin Huat’s writing assumes that you understand that a whole layer of rural students are learning less math and science because parents, grandparents, teachers and their environment cannot support their doing so in English. In the process, they are not even learning English properly.

    Poor Malay [Malaysians] are suffering especially hard academically. This isn’t going to improve for a while. This is the kind of cost Chin Huat is talking about; you may be thinking of costs too narrowly.

    He half assumes that you know, as millions of Chinese [Malaysian] parents with children in the Chinese vernacular schools know, children are lugging two sets of Chinese and English math and science (books) to school, reducing class time precisely for English lessons.

    He also assumes the readers have lived through the government policies that are long-proven to be badly implemented, changes too quickly to be effective, and made for nationalistic political aims more than for educational means (for eg the 3R system). Why did your parents take you out of the system?

    There is nothing wrong in saying, “Well, not every student intends to become a mathematician or scientist” when diversity is part of the goal of education in a liberal environment. I and most of my high-school friends studied Upper 6 Pure Math and Science (and enjoyed the subjects) without becoming mathematicians or scientists.

    Many of us could have (spent) one to three years less on math and science, and spent that much more time on law, economics, commerce, accounting, language, psychology, and made more use of our lives.

    You are not observing the ground swell of demand among English-educated parents fervently trying to subvert the Chinese vernacular schools into de-facto English schools by first sending their children to English-speaking kindergartens, then encouraging them to speak English, even in Chinese-language classes, and trying to tear down Dong Jiao Zhong’s efforts, which many Chinese-educated parents want and defend.

    Fact is, there are many families who consider their mother tongue to be English and feel their children can learn the most effectively through English. I sympathise with them, even though I stand on the side of Chinese vernacular education. Again, why did your family take you out of the system?

    Same applies to families who speak Chinese and Malay, and Tamil. They want to learn in their mother tongue. This is at least at the primary school level, as the children grope around the world in the language they are most familiar with.

    This is a linguistic-congnitive issue I am sure your background can allow you to understand.

    Because of the way the local media is muffled, the real issues are not dug up and discussed critically. You need to live a while in the vernacular school environment to see the dishonesty of government policy that is making the children and their learning in Chinese suffer, and sympathise with the Malay schools in the lower-class areas.

    I think thenutgraph.com may not allow me to include these links. But if they do, please read the debates in the comment section under these two articles:

    http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/index.php/malaysia/14250
    http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/index.php/malaysia/14177-speaking-in-tongues

  2. kahseng says:

    I hope thenutgraph.com will let me include this link about the language debate.

    http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/index.php/malaysia/14331

    By the way, thenutgraph.com can benefit by speeding up the moderation time, so that commentators can get fresh reactions quicker. They get more excited (sometimes too excited), and more readers will get involved and become more loyal readers.

  3. Hi kahseng,

    You’re suggestion is noted with thanks. We are aware that speed is the name of the game with internet readers.

    But because we take pride in being a responsible, fair and accountable media outfit, we make it a point to moderate and edit the comments that are left on our site. That obviously means that someone on our side literally spends time going through every comment. It may take longer for a comment to be posted but what it means is that we keep our promise of being fair, responsible and accountable.

    Additionally, I’m sure readers can appreciate that with three by-elections happening in the country right now, The Nut Graph’s very small team is deploying its energies in those areas, and other aspects of the site like moderating comments quickly will suffer on some days.

    However, we are doing the very best we can with the resources we have and are thankful for the readers who keep coming back to populate our site with zesty and intelligent contributions.

    Jacqueline Ann Surin
    Editor
    The Nut Graph

  4. philip says:

    Finally, we have unity among the Malay, Chinese and Indian Malaysians – everyone is clamouring for the teaching of maths and science in their respective mother tongues.

    In fact, we should go one step higher and start teachng English grammar in the various mother tongues and then we can proudly proclaim – Malaysia boleh.

    All these language fanatics keep harping on teaching maths and science in Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. Have they ever thought about those people in this country whose mother tongue is not any one of the above three languages?

    I did my schooling in the seventies and at that time, right from Standard One, I studied English, Maths and Science in English while the other subjects were in Malay. I studied in a boys school in KL and the students came from all the races and surprisingly, none of their parents made any issue about the teaching of these subjects in English.

    At that time most of our parents were not fluent in English, they were either low-ranking civil servants or traders and the only reason they sent us to these so-called English schools was so that we would have a better future.

    They were not worried that their children were studying the sciences in English and looking back, I dont think we students suffered in understanding maths and science and we have done quite well in life and dare I say our knowledge in science and maths is far superior to present fresh graduates.

    The idea of teaching in the mother tongue is probably to keep the population subservient to less than able leaders.

  5. Steve Tan says:

    To each his [or her] own, my friends…this is a dysfunctional country. Find your language, find the country that will best serve you. Give your children the global language of communication, not the language of our oppressors or that of your ancestors.
    Good luck everyone. I was lucky to have been through an all English education!

  6. tengku mohd faizal says:

    I’ve been lucky to have embraced Chinese education for at least 12 years, both primary
    and secondary. I am so proud of and grateful for it.

    To some, embracing means to be subdued and to be looked down upon. But to me, embracing means I am able to see things in different perspective and I’m able to tell you that everything has two sides to it. Sadly, not many Malaysians are willing to embrace and most of them only see one side of the story.

  7. Hi kahseng,

    Forgive me for not replying earlier. I wish The Nut Graph has some comment notification system as The Edge does. I happened to check this piece on a whim and found your response.

    I began to write a response, but I felt I should take another step back to examine the issues that you are addressing. Let me take a look at your links, read your response and get back to you.

  8. Ok, deep breath.

    kahseng, I can see you feel passionately about this issue. I hope we can agree that a school isn’t meant to prepare a student for the world as it is right now, but the world in 20 years. As arts educator Ken Robinson says, we don’t know what the world is going to look like in five.

    Robinson also says that education is a very personal thing for people. The Malaysian Insider discussions show this. I’m trying to digest the discussions that you’ve linked to, but there are a many opinions and few facts. Know what we could use? A study. Done by non-partisan educationists. God forbid, a panel of non-Malaysians, since it is hard issue to be objective on.

    I hate to piss people off, but if a curriculum is good, the parents should have very little choice about the education system. It takes too much infrastructure to customise an education system to a rural Malay [Malaysian], a rural Chinese [Malaysian], a rural Indian [Malaysian], or based on the parents’ preference. Likewise, it should not be the student’s choice to opt-out of math or science. You can look back in hindsight now at your education and say “it would be better if I had more of one subject and less of the other,” but we are not privy to these insights when we are young. If I knew I’d go into publishing, I’d do nothing but read and write for the half the school day. It isn’t up to me. There are other concerns in education besides getting the perfect job. I think it benefits the student to have a well-rounded education.

    I agree that this goes back to the media. The media is responsible for highlighting the exceptional cases of the school system, while ignoring the overall problem of reform. Not only is it muffled, the coverage postpones reform because the education ministry can point to those cases and say, “See? It works!”

    You speak of the problems in rural areas. I am aware of them. You point at the English language policy. I agree with Chin Huat; it is ineffective. But the system needs something more far-reaching.

    Thank you for bringing the issue about English-educated parents undermining Dong Jiao Zong to my attention. That sounds grave.

    My parents took me out of the education system because they thought it doesn’t work. My dad saw that if I went through the system I would be struggling with English for the rest of my life. That’s the short answer.

  9. Bilal Mirza says:

    I think the Malaysian education system is improving and in the coming years, it will stand out as an Asian learning destination. As for the mode of education, I took a couple of subjects at UCTI /APIIT and as an international student, I found that the courses were detailed but the communication skills of local teachers required improvement.

  10. chinhuatw says:

    Responding to Tshiung Han’s assertion “… if a curriculum is good, the parents should have very little choice about the education system”. Who decides what is good?

    Agreeing with the American educationist John Dewey that education is to know something of everything and everything of something, I can understand that there must be some common stuff for every student to learn whether or not he/she likes it.

    However, does a one-size-fits-all education policy really work? Everywhere in the world, rich parents have the luxury to take their children out of the public school system into private education or even home schooling. What do poor parents in rural areas do when they find that the public school system ignores their kids’ needs and preferences?

    Are we as a nation so poor that we cannot afford the customisation that makes the education system fit better with everyone’s need?

    I don’t question those who want the best system for the nation. However, Hayek’s warning always rises in my mind: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    I am afraid I am seeing a fatal conceit – perhaps unconscious – when some (not Tshiung Han) go as far as crying that this country would meet its dooms day if we don’t abandon the Malay language for English.

    It reminds me of how the “lost generation” in Australia was created by taking aboriginal children away from their families to be adopted by “nice” white people. It was about survival in the modern world too.

    I am contemplating a more encompassing reply to questions raised by Tshiung Han.

  11. Hi Chin Huat,

    There’s a lot of room for abuse in determining what system is “good.” The party-in-government’s assessment of good runs counter to Dewey’s educational vision or even the British one of social mobility. I think there’s a strong argument to say that the trend in education policy was towards creating a Malay [Malaysian] middle-class. Now the government has been shanked with a whole bunch of unintended consequences as a result.

    I don’t think it illustrates poverty if we can come to a consensus as to what we want out of our education system: world-class knowledge workers? Functional individuals?

    When I studied in Canada, half of my classes were in English, half French. It is known as French Immersion. I learned fast, but I lost fluency when I came back to Malaysia. ISKL is, after all an English language school. My accent is still good, but my vocabulary is chier.

    I suppose you are proposing to create a sort of immersion programme where the primary language is the mother tongue and the secondary language is English.


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