SCIENCE AND MATHS: Decide only after a proper study
By DR FARIDA SHAH, Prof of Molecular Biology (Adjunct) UTAR, Kuala Lumpur
I WRITE this letter in the hope of shedding more light on issues regarding the teaching and learning of Science and Mathematics, the role of English as a second language and the use of English in teaching Science and Mathematics. This issue is not about politics, patriotism or the fear of losing our mother tongue, but one which is of importance to our children. It addresses two entirely different issues: the urban-rural science divide and the urban-rural English language divide.
As a bilingual professor of molecular biology, I was teaching at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (medium of instruction Malay) along with my colleagues who were and still are teaching in areas of physics, math, astrophysics, nanotechnology, etc.
Some of us (consisting of Malays, Chinese and Indians) were products of school systems where English was the medium of instruction; some went through the learning of Science at various levels with Malay as the medium of instruction.
Both groups are equally competent lecturers and able to communicate and impart knowledge to students effectively in Malay. From my observation, Science graduates from UKM were never at a disadvantage, as the good ones (with good grades) went on to do their postgraduate studies in Britain, Australia, etc. At no time did we feel that our students’ capabilities and scientific knowledge (content) were compromised because of the medium of instruction.
This trend has been observed elsewhere in the world for decades. Students from China, Taiwan and Germany, who studied in their mother tongue with English as the second language, went on to do their postgraduate and post-doctoral degrees in English-speaking countries and even secured jobs.
So, let me put the questions to parents (mostly in urban areas) and the relevant authorities: why this obsession with teaching 6- or 7-year-olds and older children Science and Maths in English when the medium of instruction of education is Malay or (in vernacular schools) Chinese and Tamil? If Chinese schools have decided to maintain the teaching of Science and Maths in Chinese, why can’t the national schools teach in Bahasa Malaysia?
Why teach Maths and Science in English? What do we expect these students to achieve? Do we want to teach Science and Maths so that students competence in English will improve as an additional important language? Or do we think that by using English, the students’ command of Science and Maths will improve?
There must be a clear focus on English language goals as well as goals within the command of Maths and Science curriculum. If it is the former, then teaching Science and Maths is not the solution. If it is the latter, then it is again not true. If it is the former that we are worried about, surely the answer would be to teach and learn English as a second language. We can increase the teaching hours for English from seven to 15 hours per week, change the method of pedagogy, teach more grammar and communication skills, etc.
On the other hand, those who think that Science and Maths are better taught and learnt in English are not aware that Science and Maths are not learned by memorising facts.
Some people think of Science and Maths as subjects in which learners are required to memorise terms, apply various formulae and weigh out chemicals. However, science education now emphasises the teaching of the conceptual nature of science, and the high-level cognitive processes required to understand and communicate these concepts.
The United States National Science Education Standards defines “scientific literacy” in a manner that reveals its conceptual and communicative dimensions.
Scientific literacy and curiosity means that a student can find or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. They should be able to understand underlying concepts and describe, explain and predict natural phenomena. Can we expect 7-year-olds to do this? Do they switch to thinking in their native language after the brief classroom period where they are taught in a second language for the rest of the day?
Another dimension is the competence of the teachers. How can teachers impart content knowledge in a second language if they themselves are not competent in that language?
Successful achievement in Maths and Science is difficult enough for students. It becomes more difficult when the subjects are taught in a second language. It has been shown that learners have the best chance of succeeding in Maths and Science if they study them in their own language. Studies have shown that when their language skills are not developed, their ability to think mathematically and scientifically is affected.
To address the science divide, students are at a disadvantage trying to understand instructions and express them in a foreign language, especially when they must compete with other urban students. To add to this disadvantage, some rural schools are ill-equipped with the labs and resources for teaching Science.
It is my personal opinion as a scientist involved in engaging the young in Science and Maths that if we continue with the present system, not only will we not achieve our goal of improving the use of English but it will also lead to deterioration in the teaching and learning of Science.
Throughout the world, there is an emphasis on science education for developing countries and a call to make “teaching and learning science fun”. Teaching in a second language is a sure way to get students out of Science and Maths. Yet, one of the goals of our nation is to increase participation in science and to increase the number of researchers/scientists per 10,000 population.
Some say we should wait for the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah results to see the outcome. But we all know that UPSR is not an indicator of language proficiency or content knowledge because exams, which are set to encourage rote learning and memory work, do not evaluate communication and/or thinking skills.
Another question: Was there a proper scientific research methodology set up to study the impact of the use-English exercise for more than six years of school life, with proper scientific controls, with measurable outcomes using qualitative and quantitative techniques, to ensure that a policy statement can be derived at the end of Year 6?
If it was done, we would all like to see it so we can put an end to the debates. If it was not done, it is not too late for the authorities to conduct proper research and identify what the people (parents) want.
I was surprised by the advice that we should not politicise this issue and let the cabinet decide. But surely, the cabinet must hear the voices of parents and this should be done in a scientific manner, meaning all policies must be formulated with proper scientific research. The evidence derived from such an exercise would allow people to think rationally and accept the decision, rather than one based on the whims of the minister or the cabinet.
So, if the authorities and everyone else is sincere in trying to improve the command of English as a second language, let’s go back to the basics and look at the curriculum. Schools, ministries and universities should rethink the teaching of English in their curriculum.
If there are insufficient teachers for English, we should perhaps look at getting the American Field Services (AFS) teachers who used to teach English in rural schools many years ago. Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) and other media can play a role and have more programmes for children in English, particularly science programmes in English with subtitles in the three languages.
In these two issues — where the future of our children is at stake — involving English language competency and the participation and engagement of students in Science and Maths for the development of the nation, we cannot let politics rule; a policy should be formulated on the basis of scientific research. All relevant and related ministries and agencies should have dialogues to ensure a more effective and efficient way of teaching and learning English as a second language, as well as improving the teaching and learning of Science and Maths. Again, I emphasise these are two separate issues.
I commend the government in its effort to re-look these two issues. There is nothing wrong in stopping Maths and Science from being taught in English if it has been shown (on the basis of research) to be ineffective.
Most importantly, any decision we take must help bridge the existing urban-rural divide in the effective learning and command of Science and Maths, and in English language competency.
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