Landing softly, hardly taking off
Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Published: Fri, 18 Nov 2011
So the teaching of maths and science in English, and acronym of the year PPSMI, has been piloted to a soft landing. There’s a bit for all interested parties in the final give and take.
Schoolchildren who started with PPSMI will continue until they complete secondary school; families will be relieved that their progress is not linguistically disrupted. Teaching science and mathematics in Malay will be phased in, to the satisfaction of its proponents, under agenda MBM-MBI (soon enough, if not already, you will know what this stands for). And schools may determine for themselves whether to teach science and maths in English or Malay.
Many parents, especially urbanites, will welcome this overture – albeit cautiously – since their stake in schools’ deliberations has not been guaranteed.
The government’s decision to abolish PPSMI and the backlash over the past few years stirred up many issues, which now seem to be put aside in the spirit of moving on. Maybe every side got enough of what they wanted.
Two ideas have taken hold of the public mindset. First, reverting to Malay instruction will boost maths and science achievement in rural areas. Second, retaining PPSMI will move us up the technological ladder.
Both are questionable, desirable as the objectives may be. Indeed, a fundamental flaw of the PPSMI process, from conception to decommission, is that the government and society have not examined the problems with enough breadth and depth.
Take the measures we have used to gauge the outcomes of PPSMI. National exam results are a popular, and easily accessible, reference point. Pass rates for SPM maths and science have steadily risen in recent years. In November 2008, then Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was quoted extolling these results as evidence of PPSMI’s success.
However, the credibility of SPM scores hinges on the extent the syllabus, level of difficulty and impartiality in setting cut-off points have remained constant. On these matters, we have not received assurance, and it is safe to say many doubts linger.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a standard test across various countries of 13- and 14-year-olds, presents a more reliable, consistent and internationally recognised benchmark. According to this, Malaysia’s achievements declined. In 2007, Malaysia scored 474 for mathematics and 471 for science, down from 508 and 510 respectively in 2003.
Irony won the day when Hishammuddin’s successor and current education minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, referred to the TIMSS results in July 2009 as proof that PPSMI was faltering.
No one can be too sure. TIMSS was administered in English in 2007, Malay in 2003. Perhaps it was the language switch; perhaps it was truly a decline in Malaysian students’ aptitude that played a role. Between 1999 and 2003, our mathematics score declined, while our science score rose.
An academic study published in 2010 by Parmjit Singh, Arba Abdul Rahman and Teoh Sian Hoon of UiTM sheds interesting, and somewhat surprising, light. They conducted mathematics tests on Standard Four children in Maran – one in English and another, of identical content, in English with Malay translation.
They found that in rural areas, there is no significant difference between the two tests. The potential aid of Malay translation did not improve scores as one might expect. In contrast, urban participants did better with the bilingual format. In other words, rural students did as poorly in maths in English as in Malay.
Such studies demand further enquiry to be more broadly applied. But its central finding must be noted: deficiency in mathematical achievement in rural schools is due primarily to lack of mathematical knowledge, not language difficulties.
To be fair and apologetic, various countries have also seen the TIMSS performance dip recently. To be fair and dynamic, top performers like South Korea sustained high points across 1999-2007.
Incidentally, in 2007 a South Korean teacher with 15 years of experience earned on average 2.2 times GDP per capita – the highest among the OECD club of high-income countries.
I am not suggesting that we need only pump teachers’ salaries – yet there could be something to it, and related issues that we ought to probe.
Is it about language of instruction, or highly capable, well-remunerated and presumably self-motivated teachers? Can we aspire to be technologically advanced like South Korea without more in common with its education system?
It looks to me that we have switched from Malay textbooks and canned answers, to English textbooks and canned answers, to Malay or English textbooks and canned answers. A gradual phasing out of PPSMI softens the landing, but I struggle to see if and where we are truly taking off.