PPSMI: For the future, the present must be allowed to choose

Kelly Tan CX completed 2 weeks of internship with LoyarBurokker Syahredzan Johan. Her assignment was to write an article for the blawg in a topic of her choosing. This is her article.

A right to our choice-PPSMI

Source: http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/dap-pushes-for-optional-ppsmi/

During an IdolaDemokrasi gameshop session at the PusatRakyatLB, my group was engaged in a discussion about our nation’s education system. We debated passionately on the Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris (PPSMI) (Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English) issue and each participant gave enthusiastic views for and against the policy. As most of the participants were graduates of Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (National Secondary Schools), their arguments were drawn from their respective experiences as students of the Malaysian education system.

A few participants were very supportive of the use of English for Science and Mathematics. They argued fiercely about the benefits of studying the subjects in English as it is the lingua franca language in that field.

I listened, nodded and thought, “You are right.”

On the other hand, some argued and tried to persuade the group that the subjects should be taught in Bahasa Malaysia, so as not to sideline students that do not possess a strong command of the English language, especially those from the rural areas.

I listened, nodded and thought, “You are right too.”

I listened intently to the on-going discussion with much excitement as their educational experiences differed from mine. Or more precisely, my experience differed from theirs. See, I studied both Science and Mathematics in neither English nor Bahasa Malaysia, for I graduated from a Chinese independent school. I studied both subjects in Mandarin throughout my primary and secondary school. As I draw upon my own experiences, I have a different approach to the argument on education.

PPSMI was formulated to improve the students’ command of the English language through the study of Science and Mathematics. The Ministry of Education intended it to allow easy understanding of information in these fields and indirectly strengthen the students’ command of the language.

The policy had its set of objectives to achieve, but I wish to point out its fallacies.

The subject knowledge and the command of language should be treated as two different objectives, and not be lumped together in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. Science and Mathematics are rigorous technical disciplines, while English as a language is a linguistic discipline. No doubt there will not be the study of theories if not conveyed through languages. However, to combine both objectives together to achieve the best of both worlds is not the best approach, even though the objectives of PPSMI may be noble.

Our students have the benefit of learning different languages at school. Every student should understand both Bahasa Malaysia and English, while some students have the additional command of vernacular mother tongues such as Mandarin and Tamil. If a student’s command of learned languages is competent (as taught by the schools), there should not be a problem in learning any subjects in whatever language. Language is a medium to communicate, and is not part of the subject’s knowledge. Hence, if a student is well versed in the languages he/she learns at school, there should not be the problem of understanding knowledge of the subject field in his/her learned languages.

My classmates and I had no problems learning Science in Mandarin. The terminologies and terms are but obstacles to overcome, the most important factor in determining one’s grasp of the subject knowledge is the depth and understanding of the subject itself. It matters not which language the subject is being taught in, as long as the student comprehends the subject.

Therefore, the quality of education is what is most important in order to equip our students with a solid academic foundation. To have a high standard of education quality is to provide students with the opportunity to acquire subject knowledge as well as the command of language.

Some examples that can be derived is the success of the inventor of the pen drive, Malaysian Pan Jian Cheng. He is a student of a Chinese school in Klang and has contributed to the benefit and advancement of computer science. Besides, Dr Tang Hai Chang, a product of Nanyang University education was a research fellow in nuclear physics at the Rutherford Laboratories of Manchester University, UK in the seventies. Furthermore, there are numerous Nanyang University graduates who are luminaries in their academic fields in universities in Malaysia, Singapore and abroad, all students of Chinese schools. Having learnt the Science and Mathematics in Mandarin, and not English, was not a deterrent for them to excel in the field of science.

Year after year, many students apply for places at the various Chinese Independent Schools, but thousands are rejected because of insufficient capacity. Studying the subjects in Mandarin is not a deterrent, as indicated in the number of applications. The common aspiration of most students is for the quality of education provided in order for them to excel in their studies.

I am by no means trying to disregard the importance of English in the field of scientific knowledge, and the importance of the English language as a lingua franca. Yet I feel the English language should be taught and learnt in school as a language subject itself. The PPSMI policy which seeks to improve students’ English through the study of Science and Mathematics appears to be an ambitious initiative, too daring and difficult to succeed in practice. Some students’ grasp of the English language is not even proficient enough to study other subjects in that language. It would be ideal to provide parents a choice for their children to learn Science and Mathematics in whichever language they prefer.

It would not be an easy task to provide options for schools to choose their respective preferred languages for the teaching of the subjects. However, the demands for a choice mean that this issue has to be looked into it and cannot be ignored simply because of the challenges. The Ministry of Education should first focus on improving the quality of teachers by providing more training. Indeed, currently there is a dearth in the number of teachers but these problems can be solved with enough resources. Better benefits and higher salaries will attract more people to become teachers.

We can learn from Finland where teaching is highly regarded and respected in terms of quality and prestige. Bottom line — let there be choice of learning Science and Mathematics in either English or Malay. Let the parents decide what is best for their children.

The Ministry of Education cannot sweep the problems under the carpet if it believes in providing the best education for the future generation of this country. Lack of proper commitment and working policy will only result in never ending flip-flop policy changes in the future. As the problems and challenges have been identified and are foreseeable, there is no reason why we cannot improve the quality of our education system. The nation’s education policy has a tangible effect on the future of the children and thus the progress of our country. We cannot afford any further delays and be dogged by further uncertainties.

Some might argue that the disparity in language usage might affect the unity of the nation as the students do not learn in the same language. One of my ‘favourite quotes is from former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad: “It is true nationalists who want their people to possess more knowledge, not just be able to speak in Malay.”

Indeed, education should focus on providing excellent standards of knowledge, and not be dragged into an endless debate of superiority of one language. Dr. Mahathir later contradicted himself by stating that the existence of vernacular schools, such as Chinese education, poses a threat to national unity. Nonetheless, it is important to reflect upon that unity is not a matter of all the citizens speaking in the same language, but that everyone is speaking about a multitude of things in a plethora of languages, in harmony.

The problem of unity does not arise merely due to the medium of instruction used in schools. The people can still communicate with other races using Bahasa Malaysia and English. These languages are compulsory subjects in all types of school, are they not? If so, why is there an issue of unity? The problem of unity arises because of inequality — inequality in terms of opportunity, status and class. Elimination of double standards based on races is the key to unity.

How then to eliminate double standards? Beyond equality of educational opportunities, the government must give the rakyat the opportunity to choose. This can be done by acknowledging PAGE’s call for a choice to study in English. Furthermore, the government should allocate resources fairly to all schools, from primary to secondary. Then, parents have the right to decide with certainty that the choice of education for their children, be it national type or independent type, is a choice between excellence in quality.

In order to improve our nation’s education, our policy makers must take the first step and set clear objectives that for the benefit of the country’s future. Is the Ministry doing enough in this regard? Parents have been calling for a choice of languages while it is a general sentiment that our nation’s education standard is not up to mark.

For the future, the present must be allowed to choose.

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Posted on 4 July 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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