THE teaching of Mathematics and Science in English was controversial when it was introduced five years ago, and it still is. Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris lecturer Professor Datuk Dr Isahak Haron says the change to English was an ’irresponsible move’, and many students lost out because of the policy. So, it’s time to cut our losses and go back to teaching these subjects in Bahasa Malaysia, he tells Elizabeth John and Aniza Damis

Q: From your study, would you say Malay students have lost the most because of this policy?

A: Yes, rural Malays — 70 per cent of them. But we found it’s not only Malay students outside towns who are suffering, it’s also the poorer Malay students in towns — those of lower socio-economic status, even in Ipoh and KL.

Q: Why do non-Malays do better?

A: When it comes to Mathematics, Chinese students have traditionally done better, because they have more practice. But first, they learn it in their own language. The emphasis in Chinese schools is to understand and practise until you get it right. So they will drill knowledge first in Chinese, and then have a Mathematics lesson in English, just to get a grasp on the terminology. That means mastery of the content first. When the fundamentals are strong and you move to Form One and Form Two, you are much better. There’s less of this in Sekolah Kebangsaan.

Q: Is it the same case then for Indian students?

A: A bit like that. And they now have extra coaching through tuition and they’re better at English than the Malay students, so they perform better.

Q: Is the system being used in Chinese schools a better way to go if the government wants to continue with this policy?

A: If you want to continue with this, you have to do what the Chinese schools do. You teach in Bahasa Malaysia and later learn the terminology in English. And if you want to improve the level of English, first, the number of periods of English lessons has to be increased. During the English lesson, you can put in elements of Science and Mathematics. In this way, you increase your vocabulary and learn in a more joyful way. English must be taught by people who are good in English, not by a Maths teacher who is not so good in English. When the students are good in Mathematics and Science, they will be able to understand the concepts of the subjects in English or any other language. The mix in these languages is the worst thing happening now. The teachers cannot teach properly. They are confused and their foundation is weak.

Q: Would it have made a difference if the teachers had had a better command of English?

A: That will take 10 or 20 more years then.

Q: Isn’t it possible to have a concurrent system? Because if you abandon things because they don’t work within five years, then you can never start anything.

A: This is what Dr Mahathir’s (former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) people are talking about. They don’t care about the 70 or 80 per cent of the children. All they care about is that their agenda is correct. It doesn’t matter if it takes 20 years; you see his gamble?

Q: What’s your position at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka?

A: I’m a board member. But I am first of all an educationist. I care about the children and what they learn.

Q: When students go to university, they suddenly find that almost all the textbooks are in English, so they have difficulty studying. Some students then pay to have some chapters translated into Bahasa Malaysia, but how many of them can afford this?

A: Once upon a time, Malay students were already quite good in Mathematics and Science. Teachers and students were quite confident to teach and learn these subjects in Bahasa Malaysia. In fact, all teachers, Chinese and Indian too, were confident about it. What was lacking was a good command of English. It had nothing to do with Mathematics and Science. The way things are now, you’ve disadvantaged Malay students in all three subjects. My problem was with the way English was taught. The way it is taught to rural children. You don’t have to bring in foreign teachers. What you need to do is study what students need to know, and provide suitable programmes. This has never been done by anyone here. They borrowed programmes from abroad and called it “Communication English” which hasn’t been successful, especially in the rural context. You need another programme. I’ve been demanding for one. I will challenge any TESL (Teaching of English as a Second Language) professor to devise a programme that can, in three months, teach 300 new words to students in a Sekolah Kebangsaan in a rural area and have them enjoy the experience.

Q: So the money and time should be spent on the way English is being taught?

A: Yes. It should be taught differently to everybody. If you are at level two, go for a level two English module. If your English is better, why not start at level four? You do it thoroughly. I’ve been proposing this for the past three years. When children start schooling, each has different abilities, so they all go for a screening test. Then you stream them into classes that fit their level of understanding. The classes should be specialised for all subjects. If a child is good at Bahasa Malaysia and poorer in English, they go for level 2 Bahasa Malaysia and level 1 English. In such classes, you have the right teacher, the specific course materials and undergo the appropriate exercises suited to the child’s needs. Once they pass one level, they can go to the next. Now, if a student is very good at one thing and poor in others, the marks get averaged and they get placed at the bottom of the class. I don’t like averaging. If they are good at something or poor at it, they should be allowed to proceed at their own pace in each subject. But at the same time. there will have to be classes that they enjoy together like art, physical education and music.

Q: Are schools now equipped for these kinds of lessons?

A: They spent RM5 billion for this project. Just give me RM2 million, I can convert classrooms for this purpose.

Q: How will the exams work if they are all at different levels?

A: It doesn’t matter. You take the exam when you are ready. Anytime you want.

Q: Then the exam system will have to change?

A: Yes. Its not so much about getting the certificate, its about knowing what level you are at. It should be more open.

Q: How do students get promoted to the next class then?

A: They’re being promoted according to age, not ability. At seven, you’re in Standard One, at eight, in Standard Two, whether you’re good or not. Whereas, you could be in Standard Three at the age of eight. We can encourage students and develop them according to their ability and interest. If they are weak, we can quickly address it and not average it out.

Q: What about students who just want to complete SPM and get a job that requires that as a minimum?

A: There’ll be no such thing as an SPM certificate. There will be different certificates for different subjects and if you want to do 10 subjects at SPM level, you can do it at different times.

Q: Coming back to the whole issue of teaching Mathematics and Science in English, what do we do next?

A: Go back to Bahasa Malaysia. Everyone knows Bahasa Malaysia and it’s not a loss to anyone. Teachers also feel more comfortable with it.

Q: What about the students who have been through four years under this policy?

A: They can do it in Bahasa Malaysia.

Q: Aren’t they going to be even more confused?

A: As it is, 70 per cent of students cannot follow. So, nobody is likely to lose. Those who can follow are already quite good in Bahasa Malaysia now.

It’s not a new language for them as it is already used widely in school. There will be the least negative effect on the teachers and students.

Q: What about the students who have been taught Mathematics and Science really well in English?

A: That’s just a few per cent. But even they have done Bahasa Malaysia. I don’t think they’ll lose their command of English and since they’re good at Mathematics and Science in English, they won’t lose that either.

Q: Could the system be converted immediately or would schools need a few years to phase it out?

A: Immediately.

Q: Including the ones who have to sit for exams the next year?

A: The exam papers are already in two languages. Only the textbooks are in English. I’ve always asked why they’ve deprived rural children of textbooks in two languages. That’s what they need.

Q: What if we teach English your way, but maintain Science and Mathematics in English?

A: If you want to learn a subject, the first foundation years must be taught in the mother tongue. Seventy per cent of students cannot do it in English.

Q: You presented the findings of your study to the prime minister. What was his reaction?

A: He said we should do it — convert (back to Bahasa Malaysia). He said he’d been thinking about it for a long time already.

Q: You also presented it to the education minister at a symposium. What was the reaction from the other people at that briefing?

A: They asked many questions about methodology. We could have done a study on the whole country, if we’d had a million ringgit. But we did this study for zero ringgit.

And we took many samples. We analysed test questions individually. There is no point doing an average achievement analysis.

You need to show where the student did well and where he didn’t. It has to be item-by-item, so that we know where the total is.

Then, some people from the Education Ministry’s Curiculum Development Centre said, ‘Some rural schools did well’.

So I said, ‘Which rural schools? I want to know which ones. And how many is some?’

In this situation, we’re not talking about the exceptional students. You are talking about the majority. I’m not doing the study to find out why seven per cent of Orang Asli kids can do it.

Q: So, there might be exceptions, but they don’t represent the rest?

A: Of course not.

The logical thing is to go back (to teaching Science and Mathematics in Bahasa Malaysia).

Q: So, why are people hanging on to this policy?

A: There are a few reasons. One of which is that they spent RM5 billion.

But I say, what is RM5 billion? What happened to the RM5 billion? It was spent on computers. It’s not like the computers are going to vanish if you switch to Bahasa Malaysia. The computers can still be used.

And all that training for the teachers is helpful to them, so let it be.

You don’t lose out in anything.

The second issue is that, “If we start using English now, eventually we will be good at it.”

I want to know how long do we have to wait? 20 years? An educationist doesn’t even want to see one child being destroyed by any foolish act.

If a person is sick, do you experiment on that person? To experiment with a few hundred thousand or millions is irresponsible.

Dr Mahathir’s policy was irresponsible.

But nobody questioned him. I questioned him, and he scolded me.

Q: Irresponsible because?

A: Because he knew that it couldn’t be done.

He may have been good in asking for the Petronas Twin Towers or highways to be built. The physical development of the country is not a problem. But (with this policy) you ruin children’s lives.And poor Malay students thought they could do it, but suddenly education has no meaning to them.

New Straits Times