Moving Forward with Science & English

(This is hundred times better than some of cheap comics out there and it is my son’s favourite book at the moment. It is also starting to be mine. Image source: http://www.gempakstarz.com/)

The flip-flop direction in regards to the use of English in our national schools over the past few years is showing its ugly side.

Read these first:-

The Education Ministry is looking at ways to encourage more students to take up Science subjects due to the current low take-up rate. Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said currently, less than 20% of students were in the Science stream, a shortfall of the 60% target set by the ministry.

“We found that many students are interested in Science subjects but there are no follow-ups probably due to lack of support from parents as well as lack of appropriate facilities in schools,” he said after visiting students who are sitting for SPM examination at SMK Taman Kosas, Ampang Tuesday morning.

He said the ministry was considering giving incentives to both students and parents to encourage more kids to take up Science subjects such as free books and grants for students, and tax breaks for parents.

Earlier this year, Deputy Education Minister Dr Mohd Puad Zarkashi said the ministry was viewing the matter seriously as there was a 37% drop in students taking up Science and Mathematics, and a 29% decline for pure science subjects. Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin had warned that the drop in interest in Science subjects may stunt efforts to improve technological innovations to make Malaysia a high income country.

(Source)

And

It has been revealed that two-thirds of 70,000 English teachers in the country failed to reach a proficient English level. Education Ministry deputy director-general Datuk Dr Khair Mohamad Yusof said it was one of the two major findings of a survey which required the teachers to sit for the Cambridge Placement Test.

Dr Khair added that the other major finding of the survey was that two in three students failed to meet the basics in English proficiency. “This was based on the comparison of the students’ results in SPM English and Cambridge 1119 standards,” he said, adding that the survey was conducted among 13,000 students.

(Source)

And

Students will suffer from the Education Ministry’s preoccupation with the Malay language at the expense of science and technology, according to the Parents Action Group for Education (PAGE). “Why are they pretending that the language of science and technology is Malay?” asked PAGE chief Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim. “They are definitely in a denial dream.”

She was commenting on the new education blueprint that the government unveiled this morning. “The blueprint is a total letdown since they played safe by not addressing key issues and recommendations,” she said.

(Source)

My son is very interested in Science and wants to be a Scientist one day (he has ideas that is out of this world but don’t say it is not possible in the near future). He has a good command of English (as far as I am concerned) so he watches more science related, complex documentaries than brainless cartoons (Marvel or DC cartoons however is excluded from this list) these days and even his comic books are all history or science related. He actively checks on the 3 large encyclopaedias (and me) whenever he has the slightest doubt of anything under the sun and he gets excited whenever he does any “experiments” in his room. He simply questions everything and is not happy when he cannot get a good answer.

Now, when I read the Education Minister’s comment that there is a major decline in Science stream students (not because the fucked up policy of not teaching Science in English?), I view this with great concern especially when my son has high interest in Science and is in the same education system. It is highly improbable that there is a lack of Science students due to “lack of support” from parents, not when most of us are aware the importance of subjects like Science and Mathematics. It is understandable if you say it is due to “lack of money for books / tuition” or “lack of means” to ensure their kids take up Science stream but I don’t think it is due to “lack of support” (unless Art and Religion are far more important than Science subjects for some parents). What is more probable is lack of facilities in schools – how many of them have a well-equipped lab with proper Science teachers and lab assistants? How many of them have the necessary funding to finance Science projects at schools?

The other item in the news – teachers in the country failing to reach a proficient English level was not a big surprise though. You can’t blame them entirely on this – they did not fail, the system did. The flip-flop on use of English in schools, over emphasis of the national language, lack of the necessary English trainers and sometimes the unnecessary hatred on mission run schools produces student who are weak in English and end up being teachers who are weak in English and the vicious cycle continues.

I was a Science stream student too but I did not do that well in all the science subjects for STPM but I did rather well in SPM. I don’t blame the teachers who taught me all those years though. I found that the teachers who taught Science when I did SPM were simply more brilliant (all of them have at least a degree or masters in actual science subjects), speak better English, more dedicated and more understanding (to weak, struggling students) than those teachers who taught me for STPM. Perhaps different school had different culture. I may not have done well in Science subjects for my STPM but I was lucky enough to go through schools (all secondary schools) that had proper well equipped Science lab which made learning Chemistry, Physics and Biology fun (still remember when you dissect the frog with the heart still pumping?). Those science labs were well equipped so we were able to conduct all experiments and more.

Move forward to the future, if nothing is done to curtail the lack of Science stream students and poor use of proper English in schools (yes, the education blueprint seems to address some part of this but it did not reverse the decision to teach Science and Mathematics in Bahasa instead of the more acceptable, universal English), the deterioration will only continue – couple that with lack of facilities due to lack of funds to schools, it is only going to get worse. It is not good news for the advancement of science and technology in this country. It is good to know that there are people both from the Government and the concerned citizens have not given up and continued to work towards improvement of the education system to meet real world challenges and demands. But such change is slow and faces many hurdles (quite a number political) before we can see a positive development.

So whilst we wait for the Government to reverse its unwise decision on not teaching Science and Mathematics in English and whilst we wait for our teachers to improve their command of English to a standard that we can really be proud of, it looks like it is up to you and me take up the challenge to ensure that our kids is inclined to use proper English and incline towards the subject of Science and Mathematics – ok, never mind Science and Mathematics but at least proper English. I am concerned about the state of education in the country and me and my wife have given a lot of thought on what we can do as concerned parents. What we can do to ensure that our kid do not slack on the subjects of English, Science and Mathematics and at the same time, master the national language and all other subjects (including Tamil).

No doubt, we cannot change everything overnight but let me tell you on what I have done for my son in the last few years.

My son’s first spoken language was English (we have been talking in English to him since he was born) so it was slightly easier to start him off on reading and learning things in English. So we already had a good foundation to start with. When he was small, it was not easy to get him to read (we read to him instead) – so we started with something highly visual and colourful – TV kiddies programs and we were quite careful on what we pick for him to watch. Anything that teaches him on reading, words and identification skills was on top of our list. My son got his share of children toys but in between we also try to add something that will provide mental exercise for him. And that continued even after he had started studying in kindergarten. But at the end of the day, all this was to build up good foundation. The real work starts for us when he started his schooling in national primary school.

For the first year he struggled with Bahasa but it did not stop him from keeping up with the school work (although we had to do some serious translations and plenty of checking at home). Kiddies shows was drastically reduced (although he gets to see whatever he wants to see on the weekends) and more educational shows (Discovery, National Geography, History channels) take more time when we switch on the TV. It is back to the highly visual and colourful method of getting him interested on at least some of the current development in science and technology. TV is just one of the tools we deploy for knowledge and understanding. At the end of the day, it is back to basic, so my son have to do some kind of school work (alternating between Mathematics, English, Bahasa, writing and colouring exercises) at least for one hour before dinner everyday (if he has more time, then we extend his revision time as well). After his dinner, he has his adventures comics (such as this  – he has collected a few over the last few months and intends to collect the whole set) which provides humour and general knowledge.

And we have been  learning too – the last thing we need is for the blind to lead the blind. We had to be very sure that whatever answer we give is the correct answer. We had to make sure that we can back up our answer with the right evidence (thanks for the internet for that). We had to be sure that we can explain the unproven theories and provide the various options. And when it comes to English, we also try to drop that “lah” from our conversation and with the right grammar and we keep a close eye on our son too. No doubt, it is tough to keep him interested and maintaining him in the right path when it comes to English and Science (after all he is still a kid and undue stress is the last thing he needs) and it would be more helpful if the education policies are changing in the right path too. Until then, it is up to the individual parents and students to make the big difference on how they are going to handle the shortcomings in the education system. We have to take the first steps and maintain at it.

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