The science behind the 'Sorting Hat'

Start them young: Students should be encouraged to learn the sciences from a young age. — File photo

The uncertainty over which subject packages this year’s Form Four students are eligible to study, is sorted.

And, no there was no Potter magic or ‘Sorting Hat’ at work.

The criteria to help schools identify students eligible for science classes were issued by the Education Ministry recently following the cancellation of the Form Three assessment (PT3) examinations last year due to Covid-19 – a first in this nation’s exam-oriented history.

The announcement of the cancellation by Education Minister Datuk Dr Mohd Radzi Md Jidin last April was welcomed by parents, students and teachers who were worried about the students’ health and well-being had they been made to sit for the exams amid the pandemic.

But the relief was short-lived as the Form Three school year came to a close in December. Many anxious parents and teachers had contacted StarEdu, as they were in the dark about how the subject packages – science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or Arts and Humanities – would be assigned when students began their Form Four classes on Jan 20.

Responding to StarEdu, the ministry said student eligibility for the STEM packages would depend on a combination of factors, namely, the teacher’s judgement and the students’ psychometric assessment, interests, inclinations, and proficiency and academic achievements in Science and Mathematics (see infographics).

A tough critic on the need to improve the way schools teach science subjects to increase student interest is National STEM Movement chairperson Datuk Prof Dr Noraini Idris who said the ministry’s package selection criteria is good, but its implementation is a concern.

“Teachers are often sceptical about their students’ capabilities and have the mentality that they are not good enough to study the sciences. Therefore, many don’t encourage their students to take up science.

“This is where the problem lies. We as educators don’t look into how to problem solve issues that plague our future generation of leaders (instead we discourage them), ” she said, pointing to how a little motivation can go a long way.


Prof Noraini, who is also National STEM Association president, Universiti Malaya STEM Centre advisor, as well as the Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) president, has been conducting research by working with secondary school students who live in squatter settlements.

Within months of fun teaching methods and encouragement, these students showed drastic improvements in their science results.

“What students need is passion and dedication from their teachers.

“Teachers must be confident in their method of teaching and every student must be given a fair chance to study the sciences.”

While the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) is in support of the ministry’s subject package system and the recently released criteria for determining the subject packages for this year’s Form Four students in light of the scrapped PT3 examinations, its secretary-general Harry Tan said parents, students and principals who have considerations other than the students’ abilities and interest at heart, are a problem.

“Some parents believe that their children are capable of being doctors or engineers when their children’s results tell them otherwise.

These parents will create problems for the school administrators just so that their children get into STEM classes, he said.

“There are also students who want to be with the ‘elite science crowd’ despite not meeting the criteria and those who qualify for certain packages but are rejected because there are limited seats available.

“These dejected students end up moving to another school that offers the package of their interest or settling for a package they are not interested in.

”Then, there is the problem of school administrators who put the nation’s interest ahead of their students’ interest.

“For example, a student who qualifies for the STEM package will be pressured into taking it although her heart lies in the arts.

“The blame is not entirely the administrators’ to shoulder because there is the 60:40 government policy looming over their heads.


“This policy, which sets a 60% target for our students to enter the sciences, puts pressure on administrators handling the sorting process, ” said Tan.

Educationist and former NUTP secretary-general Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam urged the ministry to give students and parents the freedom to select the package they want.

While their interest is taken into account, the freedom to choose isn’t completely in their hands, he argued, stressing that teachers and school counsellors can discuss, but not interfere, with the decision.

Education should be flexible, adaptable and agile, Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) president Prof Datuk Dr Asma Ismail said.

Teaching the sciences in silo is not conducive for the next generation’s development, she said, as the sciences and its careers are fluid and closely interlinked with one another.

“We should be providing them with the foundation, platforms and opportunities to acquire other information through experiential learning.

“Involve them in the decision-making process rather than being prescriptive in our approach.

“We need a more collaborative ecosystem. Collaboration must be the modus operandi for us moving forward, ” she said.

Commenting on the ministry’s package selection criteria, Young Scientists Network-ASM member Prof Dr Fatin Aliah Phang said schools should look into improving the process by asking their Form Five STEM students or alumni to share why they took up STEM.

School counsellors and teachers can also encourage students by sharing STEM career prospects and scholarships available before discussing the packages with them.

“The ministry should equip schools with the resources to assist the next generation of leaders, innovators and professionals in making the right choices.

“At the moment, not all schools have the capability to ensure that the sorting process for Form Four students is done properly.

“Providing scholarships can also make STEM fields more attractive, and together with government initiatives to boost STEM-based careers, we can increase the level of student participation, ” she said, calling for a re-evaluation of the curriculum to ensure it is able to withstand current and future global needs.

STUDENTS’ interest in the sciences has been well below the government’s 60% target for years and the situation is even worse in Form Six.

This is a pressing matter that the ministry needs to explore, apart from other issues students are facing as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since this year’s Form Four students did not sit for their PT3 examinations, the ministry should do away with the criteria they set when determining whether a student is eligible to choose the STEM package.

Leave it to the parents and students to choose the packages themselves.

Moving forward, whether Form Three students sit for the PT3 examinations or not, should not make a difference when it comes to choosing which package to study – student interest is more important.Some students, although they may not score very well in their Science and Mathematics examinations in PT3, are interested in the sciences.

Similarly, not all high achieving students want to be in the sciences; I’ve heard from many parents about how their children opted to study arts or accounts instead.

School counsellors and teachers can help them process and explore the options but only students know what’s best for them so let them decide.

Melaka Action Group for Parents in Education (Magpie) chairman Mak Chee Kin

PT3 should not be considered when deciding on the subject packages.

Teachers should be flexible when deciding, especially with this year’s Form Four cohort, as there was barely any learning in Form Three, based on the responses we’ve received from parents.

Perhaps more emphasis should be placed on students’ soft skills, personality and character traits rather than formal learning and grades.

It has been a growing trend for students to opt for arts or accounts rather than science and so, the 60:40 target is yet to be achieved.

Aside from the fact that science is perceived to be more difficult by students, some teachers even discourage it.

Parents do not view science disciplines positively because pursuing it at a tertiary level is more expensive yet science-related jobs are hard to come by.

Science careers require huge research and development budgets which are tough to obtain and are often unsustainable.

But we are now at a turning point. Information Technology (IT) and business are lucrative careers.

Employers seem to prefer science graduates as they are logical thinkers and have analytical skills.

Due to the pandemic, the reliance on IT has been exponential and this will continue. Parents should strongly urge their children to pursue IT and turn Malaysia into an IT hub as we have done with medicine and education.

Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim

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