PPSMI – Quality vs Language

No number of Mathematics and Science references in English will be of any use to a 7 year-old who can’t understand the language. Simple and clear.

By Feizrul Nor Nurbi

A question to start off today’s discussion:
“Will teaching Mathematics and Science using English as the medium of instruction at school-level, significantly improves the quality of learning experience leading to the improvement in the proficiency of learners in those two subjects?”
Here are a few reasons why I decline to answer in the affirmative to this question.
Firstly, there is the issue quality. To answer with a yes, a proponent will agree that teaching school-goers M&S in English will improve the student’s understanding in the two subjects. The reason cited, among others, is the abundance of references available in English.
While I certainly agree on the matter of English references available, it strikes me as odd that a school-goer from the age of 7 would ever need to depend on these cited abundant references. Do Standard One students need to study the Mathematical journals and papers written my MIT professors for them to learn addition, subtraction, division and multiplication? Or was I out of the school system for too long already to know that 7 year-old children nowadays are learning University-level Maths?
Here is where I believe the proponent of this policy is missing the point – the misunderstanding of the effects of the policy on young minds just starting to enter the school-system. At this critical age of 7, when one begins Standard One in our country’s schooling system, what they learn will set the tone for their entire life. The basics of numbers, the four operations; while seem insignificant compared to the mumbo-jumbo-MIT-level-Maths, these basics  are the base that they need to depend on even when they pursue that doctorate in Mathematics 20 years down the line.
Hence the importance of learning these basics, and also learning them well. Does teaching the basics in English add extra value to the whole experience? My answer is a wholehearted ‘No’. Basics are basics, you can learn them in any language, 1 + 1 will always result in 2 and 5 x 10 will always give you 50. The issue of learning them well will inadvertently lead to the issue of quality.
In Communications 101, the communication of information between two or more persons is only deemed as successful when the listener receives and understands what the communicator intends to communicate. Complicated? To simplify, you have bad communication skills if I cannot understand you, and vice versa.
It does not matter if the speaker holds a doctorate in English from Cambridge when these kampung-folks cannot understand a word of English that he is saying. In this case, the speaker is a bad communicator. He might be a good speaker, but communication-wise – bad.
How is this related to PPSMI again?  
At the age of 7, when the children need to learn the basics of M&S, the only way for them to learn and learn them well is for them to understand what the teacher in front is talking about. In going with the communication theme, utmost importance must be given to facilitate this communication process i.e. making it easy for the students to understand. It is no good to be ‘syok sendiri’ and for the teacher to blabber in English if the students can only understand Bahasa Melayu or Mandarin or Tamil or Iban/Kadazan etc at that point in life. Even if the teacher is an MIT grad coming direct from the States – in this instance, the teacher is a bad communicator.
No number of M&S references in English will be of any use to a 7 year-old who can’t understand the language. Simple and clear.
A good quality education system will have to consider the need to have quality communication in and outside the classrooms. An education system with a bad quality communication policy is simply a bad education system. It also does not help to have poor, uninspiring syllabus, dispassionate teachers and an education system in shambles; having a bad communication policy compounds the problem even more.
So how does not understanding the basics affect these students in their later years?
The inability to comprehend the basics will haunt the students causing them unable to keep up with the syllabus. This will then lead to low test-scores and then the worst thing that can happen – being ‘streamed’ into the weak class and be left to their own devices under the care of ‘couldn’t-care-less’ teachers when the best ones are given to the best class. No wonder that these students will lose interest in the subjects, which might lead cases of truancy and dropouts and even worse – gangsterism and teenage pregnancies, among others. 
The nation will suffer instead of benefit from this policy. Those kids with potential will end up being the victim of a policy which neither cares nor understands the affects of poor communication. Instead of helping the country, in effect this policy is totally detrimental for the majority of young minds in this country.
Back in 2008, when the UPSR results were announced and the MOE elatedly stated 31% of candidates answered the Science paper in English – did any of the PPSMI-proponents stop and think of the remaining 69%? Were there any study done to understand why this majority elected to answer in their mother-tongue? Or was it just deemed as irrelevant?
And also out of 69% who did not answer in English, what was the breakdown according to grades? I have this suspicion that the results of this 69% did not make for a good reading for the officials at the MOE.
Yes, that is the problem actually. These parents in their blindness to care for their loved ones have dismissed the ‘others’ as irrelevant, as inconsequential, as collateral damage necessary for the greater good. It cannot be more correct in this case to say that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. In their eagerness to provide the best for their children, they have knowingly or unknowingly trampled on the futures of the 69%, dismantling any hope for the majority which at the tender age of 7 had so much potential, so much vigor, so much ahead of them in life, but were undone by our government’s careless planning and implementation of a policy that is doomed from the start.
By all means – have good basics. What your children going to learn from Standard One up to Form Five are just basics. Learn from teachers that are able to communicate and articulate the intricacies of the subjects. And do learn them well.
And also learn English for all its glory; for the beauty of the language and its literature; its nuances and idiosyncrasies. Learn to speak and learn to converse, learn to voice out your opinion and learn to speak your mind. Learn to read diligently and learn to write beautifully, for English by itself is a wonderful language to be learned and appreciated.
For when the time comes to bid the country goodbye and jetting off to Harvard or Cambridge or MIT, it is the strong basics and your good English that will put you in good stead over there. And in good stead to make Malaysia proud.