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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Math and Science: It is the concept, not the language but is it really?

Math and Science: It is the concept, not the language but is it really?

Lately, it is interesting to note the shift in stand by the PPSMI-proponents generally, and PAGE specifically.

No, not that they somehow understand the folly of their campaign in reintroducing PPSMI in Malaysian schools, but rather the refocusing on their raison d’ĂȘtre - from arguing that PPSMI will improve the standard of English in Malaysian schools - to the argument that PPSMI will help to empower the nation in the field of Science and Mathematics.

Don't miss the forest for the trees

Firstly, it is worth noting that on PAGE's website - http://www.pagemalaysia.org - there is no specific and clear objective regarding the direction or the 'fight' undertaken by the body, just a broad mission statement that the body acts as a platform for parents to voice their concerns regarding educational issues.

With this very broad statement, it is peculiar why PAGE chooses to champion the PPSMI cause when there are other pressing 'educational issues' that warrant higher attention.

How about the issue of the diminishing quality of educators and teachers that are the backbone of the country's education system?

How about the diminishing appeal of teaching as profession of choice by the bright and talented?

How about the inadequate syllabus fed to our students that ill-prepare them for the challenges in university and also in the working world?

How about the outdated rote-learning methodology still used in classrooms today that kills critical-thinking and inquisitivity amongst school children today?

Believe me when I say that our country's education system is rotten to the core, and those four concerns highlighted above barely being the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Thus, it is peculiar that PAGE focuses its hard work and attention on something of less importance such as language of instruction, when the underlying causes of the decay are not even given a cursory glance.

Perhaps it's a classic case of 'missing the forest for the trees'?

Its the concepts, not the language

Back to the main point - will learning Mathematics and Science in English empowers the country's pursuit of excellence in those two fields?

To argue this point it is pertinent that we understand that to excel in these two subjects at the school level, it is of utmost importance that one is highly adept in the understanding of the concepts and principles.

Take the most basic concept of Mathematics - the numbers. It is easy to memorize the numbers in it language form - albeit in English or any other language - but to understand the concept of numbers is another different thing altogether. The concept of what the number represents, the mathematical usage and practical place of numbers in our daily life.

Perhaps we should go lower to something more basic than numbers - the concept of 'zero'. Seems simple, but try explaining the concept of 'zero' to preschoolers or even early primary students. Even those of the teaching profession will find it hard to articulate their understanding of the concept 'zero' to those new to the subject.

Even making it harder is trying to explain this simple yet essential concept in a language unfamiliar to the children.

Hence, it is in my view, that to excel in these two highly technical subjects, one must be able to hold a strong grasp of the concepts and principles dominant in the learning of Science and Mathematics. And there is no easier way to understand these than to teach the students in their mother tongue, as the oft-quoted UNESCO study suggests.

English prowess overrated

Perhaps, one might argue - what happens when the students go to university, and to one that uses English as medium of instruction?

Here is where their prowess of the English language will be tested. When I say 'prowess' it mean the overall strength in the whole language, and not necessarily the jargons and terms unique to those two subjects.

To demonstrate - a student, who learns Mathematics and Science in Bahasa Melayu and scores 100% in both papers, will definitely struggle in a full-English environment, if somehow he or she only scores the bare minimum in the English paper.

Also - a student who learns Mathematics and Science in Bahasa Melayu and scores 100% in both and combined with a 100% score on the English subject will definitely find it a breeze when learning the two subjects in English later in university.

How about a medium-grade student of Science and Mathematics , who is incidentally a product of PPSMI - will learning the two subjects in English during the school years turn him or her from a medium grade student to an excellent one in a full-English learning environment?

Therein lies the problem - it is rather logical to deduce that it is not the language of instruction that dictates the success achieved in learning the subject, but it is more on the understanding of the concepts and principles in whatever language that the subjects are delivered.

Minimal effort

Simply - master the concepts. A change in the medium of instruction will only require a minimal effort for the smart to remain successful.

Thus, the folly in the direction taken by PAGE and the proponents of PPSMI in championing the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English. To me it is clear that the students will respond better when learning these two subjects in their mother tongue, thus leading to better prospect for the nation in these two arena.

It is of no use to learn both subject in English just because 'the reference books are in English' or whatever excuses thrown by the PPSMI proponents when learning them in English may cause the concepts being lost on the bewildered mind unfamiliar with the language.

Perhaps, it is time for PAGE to re-examine its direction and objectives, also the fight it chooses to undertake. Perhaps there are more pertinent 'educational issues' requiring the grunt and perseverance demonstrated by PAGE, rather than wasting the effort on a policy that is haphazard in both its inception and implementation, and questionable in its achievements.

How about restoring the quality of the teaching profession - isn't it a nobler cause to fight for?

Feizrul Nor Nurbi reads Malaysia Chronicle

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