(© Dan O’Connell / sxc.hu)
THE English for Teaching Mathematics and Science (ETeMS) policy has become more than just about its effectiveness. It has been politicised to the extent that all kinds of claims have been thrown into the mix. These include threats to national unity and the position of Bahasa Malaysia (BM), to the erosion of mother tongue culture and education.
So, either do it or don’t. Either continue the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English as it is now, or scrap the policy totally.
There are existing tools available, such as the Pupils’ Own Language (POL) classes, and improving the way English is taught and learnt, that if used creatively, could go some ways in resolving political and racial polemics.
Seven options, one decision
The Education Ministry has put out seven options drawn from roundtable sessions it has held since early 2008 to review the policy with various stakeholders.
Maintaining the status quo is the first option, which is to continue the policy as it is now.
Scrapping it would mean option four, which is to use BM or mother tongue language at primary level, and BM fully at secondary level. This would be a reversion to the practice before ETeMS was implemented in 2003.
The other alternatives appear to be half-measures which make for messy implementation. Some problems are already foreseeable.
Take the second alternative, which is to use BM or pupils’ mother tongue as the medium of instruction from the primary school level, and English for Maths and Science at the secondary level.
One can anticipate future complaints about pupils’ difficulty in making the switch to English at secondary level. This is likely to happen if the core problem of poor English proficiency at primary level is not resolved.
The third proposal is to start using English for Maths and Science from Standard Four right into the secondary level.
Why start from Standard Four? Until the rationale for starting at this stage is provided, there doesn’t seem to be a solid reason. It is generally accepted that students learn a language best when they start from young. The earlier they start, the longer they have to learn and become more proficient.
The fifth option is to let schools determine the medium of instruction for Maths and Science.
This sounds reasonable as it would promote competition among schools and give parents and students the right of choice.
It would also make for an interesting study if the schools’ performance were tracked over a long-term period. The study could be used to compare the outcome in English proficiency, and the students’ performance in Maths and Science, between schools that continued ETeMS and schools that didn’t. A study like this would address the debate over the policy’s effectiveness.
But, this option can be hijacked by politicians and self-professed defenders of culture and race who will decry such autonomy for schools as a further erosion of national unity. From a practical point of view, would letting schools go their own way on this matter create future problems for students entering tertiary education?
The sixth alternative is to use BM or mother tongue from Standard One to Three, implement bi-lingual use from Standard Four to Six and full use of English at the secondary level.
This sounds similar to option three with more staggering in the use of English. Like the argument against option three, why stagger the use of a language when it is best absorbed from young?
Option seven is to abolish the Science subject from Standard One to Three and incorporate teaching of Science in other subjects.
I hope the cabinet doesn’t even consider this. Abolish science as a subject? It would be a pity to squander the innate curiosity that young children have on watered-down science disguised in other subjects.
Science is a universe of a subject in itself. It would be a shame to imply to our children by abolishing it, that science is unimportant. Instead, science should be taught more creatively to the young to instil an early love for it.
What the ministry should abolish is Pendidikan Moral. Pendidikan Moral is a subject that can be incorporated into other syllabi, yet our children waste time memorising a whole syllabus.
Out of the box
The ETeMS debate has recently been subsumed into the vernacular schools debate, sparked off by Umno Youth chief hopeful Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir.
As Chinese education groups reacted angrily to Mukhriz, Dong Jiao Zong inserted a threat to hold a protest against the use of English to teach Science and Mathematics.
Perhaps enforcing POL classes in schools is a solution, albeit imperfect. This was actually a point, lost on many that Mukhriz had made in the same breath when calling for vernacular schools to be integrated into a single system.
He had said that under a single education system, students could be made to learn their mother tongue and also be given the chance to learn another language.
The role of vernacular schools is a separate issue; in any case Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has already clarified that they are here to stay.
Based on demand, schools decide whether POL classes should be held (© Dave Sackville / sxc.hu)
The Education Ministry’s policy on POL classes is to let schools decide whether they should be held or not, depending on demand by parents and as long as there are 15 or more students.
POL classes and ETeMS can converge as a solution to both the national unity and language debates. By teaching POL, students can learn their mother tongue and perhaps even learn each other’s mother tongues. That’s a start for national unity.
But thinking out of the box is required — perhaps POL subjects should not be examination subjects, and classes should not be limited to students according to race. Perhaps even Chinese vernacular schools could offer POL to non-Chinese students. Fostering national unity should be creative and not dogmatic.
At the same time, ETeMS could be maintained but with better training for teachers. That way, students will be equipped for the future and become more comfortable using English, even if the policy isn’t the solution to improving language proficiency.
But if ETeMS was scrapped, then concentrate fully on finding ways to improve the teaching of English as a subject.
But don’t adopt half-measures that will only subject schoolchildren to further confusion. They have been guinea pigs of the education system for too long.