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