(Petaling Jaya, Saturday): The “2:4:3” formula for English teaching in Std. One in Chinese primary schools beginning next year is a pure political contraption and the product of compromising politicians who put politics above education and their political interests above the interests of the nation and the schoolchildren.
It has no educational merit whatsoever and could never be conceived by educationists working solely with the best educational interests of the children and the nation in mind, as it is “neither fish nor fowl” and can only be the laughing stock of the educational world.
I challenge the Education Minister, Tan Sri Musa Mohamad to name one country which is recognized internationally as a powerhouse in mathematics and science which has the ludicrous system of teaching mathematics and science in two languages in the first year of primary school!
That this is politics first and education last is best illustrated from the reaction of the director-general of education Datuk Abdul Rafie Mahat, who said that the Barisan Nasional supreme council’s decision was “a purely political one”, with the Education Ministry now having to work out the details of the implementation – options including ”teaching the same content in both languages, teach some chapters in Chinese and the rest in English or teach the syllabus in Chinese and have supplementary teaching of science or mathematical terminologies in English”. (The Star)
This is not a recipe for educational excellence but the exact reverse, as it is not a formula to maximize the educational potential of Std. One school-children to best develop their thinking and academic abilities but to impede such a development by loading and confusing them with unsound educational baggage – which will result physically in heavier school bags with more text books, longer schooling hours to the ridiculous extent that Chinese primary school Std. One pupils next year will have the longest schooling hours in the country, not only longer than Std. One pupils in national and Tamil primary schools but even longer than older students from Std. Two to Std. VI.
But the harm such an unsound educational contraption in impeding the attainment of educational excellence of the students in the long-term will be greater and more long-lasting than having heavier school bags and longer school hours next year.
In fact, the “2:4:3” formula reached by the Barisan Nasional Supreme Council on Thursday for Std. One in Chinese primary schools fails the first test to fulfil the dual objective of raising English proficiency and maintaining maths/science standards in Chinese primary schools.
DAP would seriously suggest that all these nine new periods should be devoted to teaching English in Std. One for Chinese primary schools if there is to be no further modification of the weekly timetable, as there is no strong educational case that using English to teach mathematics and science from the first year in primary school is the best and most effective way to raise the proficiency whether of mathematics, science or English.
As far back as July and early August, the DAP had tried to bring to the notice of the educational authorities extensive educational studies world-wide which show that using a second language as a medium of instruction from too early stages can impede the development of thinking skills of students resulting in low achievements in mathematics, science and languages.
For instance, I had referred to studies by internationally-acknowledged educationists and researchers of bilingual education, like J. Cummins, M. Swain, M. Saville-Troike and K. Anstrom which show that a unitary cognitive academic proficiency (i.e. “thinking skills”) underlies all language performance, and may be expressed through either the first language (L1) or the second language (L2). The “thinking skills” are developed primarily through the L1 in the early years, and may then be transferred to and expressed in an L2 later on. If a learner’s L1 remains underdeveloped, then so does that learner’s “thinking skills”.
Thus, when that learner attempts to acquire an L2 and pursue studies through the medium of an L2, that learner will bring lower “thinking skills” to the task and be disadvantaged.
These studies show that if a learner uses and develops his or her L1 for several years, and then moves into an L2 educational system at a later stage, that learner will invariably perform better than a learner who entered the L2 education system from the very beginning.
This is why Cummins and Swain, after reviewing extensive research results in this field for the past few decades, reached the conclusion that an initial period of L1 education is imperative to achieve a higher level of mental maturity, which can then be transferred into L2 education.
These findings are collaborated by the fact that in the long line of world distinguished Asian scientists, nearly every Asian Nobel Prize winner in the sciences like Chen Ning Yang and Tsung Dao Lee ( both Nobel Prize Physics) had their elementary and/or even high school education in their mother-tongue, indicating that it is not vital or necessary to learn mathematics and science in English in the first year of primary school to distinguish in these fields in later life, provided that one acquires mastery of the English language in later years.
DAP was delighted when in mid-August, Gerakan endorsed this approach and the Gerakan President, Datuk Seri Dr. Lim Keng Yaik announced after the Gerakan Central Committee meeting on August 17 that the party had spent a month studying the proposal to teach the two subjects in English, including referring to 12 books and working papers presented by eminent local and foreign academicians on the topic.
Keng Yaik said that the study revealed that although children in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany learnt the subjects in their own languages, the countries were still advanced in science and technology. He said most studies had shown that a student should first have a strong command of his mother tongue to learn Science and Mathematics effectively.
In fact, South Africa is the best example of a country where the use of English to teach mathematics and science instead of the mother tongue has ended in an educational disaster. As illustrated by the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) in 1995 and the TIMMS 1999, involving 41 and 38 countries respectively, South Africa came out last for mathematics and science in both and this is traced to the use of a second language, English, as a medium of instruction from too early stages which impeded the development of thinking skills of students resulting in low achievements in mathematics and science.
Unfortunately, such educational insights did not prevent Gerakan leaders from compromising their political principles to agree to the outrageous “2:4:3” formula which they know in their hearts of hearts as completely unsound educationally.
In the circumstances, DAP calls for all the nine new periods in the “2:4:3” formula for Std. One in the Chinese primary schools to be devoted to the teaching of English if the 50-period-per-week solution cannot be further modified, and this proposal should be seriously considered by both Parliament and the Cabinet.
However, as it is most ridiculous for Std. One pupils in Chinese primary schools to be having longer school hours not only when compared to their counterparts in national and Tamil primary schools, but even older students in Chinese primary schools from Std. II to Std. VI, there should be a re-think of the formula in the light of three objectives: to strengthen English proficiency, maintain/uplift the traditional high standards in mathematics and science and preserve mother-tongue education.
As a first step, Std. One pupils in Chinese primary schools should not have longer school hours than older students from Std. Two to Std. Six, and this can be done by increasing all weekly school periods from Std. One to Std. Three to 48 periods per week to match the timetable for Std. Four to Std. Six.
For Std. Two and Std. Three, the three additional periods per week should be devoted to teaching English. For Std. One, one ideal time-table which will meet the three objectives of strengthening English proficiency, maintaining science and mathematics standards and preserving the character of mother-tongue education, will be to distribute the 48 periods as follows:
English should only be used as medium of instruction for mathematics and science from secondary one.
The “2:4:3” formula decided by the Barisan Nasional Supreme Council should not be the final answer to what is the best educational system for Std. One for Chinese primary schools as it fails to meet the triple objectives of strengthening English proficiency, maintaining science and mathematics standards and preserving the character of mother-tongue education, and should be regarded as the starting point for a fuller national discussion and debate by Parliament, the Cabinet and the civil society.
*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman