PPSMI: Be data driven, not tribal

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  • Monday, 10 Feb 2020

THE debate about teaching Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) is quite typical as far as Malaysian debates go, in that people very often take a position based on their identity.

Other examples of this dynamic: Many Muslims support Zakir Naik, many non-Muslims are against him; many Malays are pro-Jawi, many non-Malays are anti-Jawi.

So, many English speakers are pro-PPSMI, many Malay speakers are anti-PPSMI.

This is a fairly symptomatic drawing of battle lines based on one’s identity and “tribe”. Usually, objectivity is the first casualty once these battle lines are drawn.

In the world today, political or policy debates are becoming more emotive than anything else. Once we enter into that tribalist head-space, we no longer bother with scientific or academic studies that take an objective look at what policy is really best for students in the long run.

Also symptomatic in the world today is the tendency to instantly pick a partisan position and then hold on to it for dear life, almost blindly opposing anyone who posits a different view.

That’s the kind of dysfunctional style of “democracy” that we’ve devolved to.

The wiser way to do democracy, and the way we used to do it way back when, is not to go in guns blazing, shooting first and asking questions later; but to start by identifying common ground and shared goals.

I think everyone involved here ultimately just wants a better future for our kids. We want them to get the best education possible, and we want them to excel in their studies – be it in the sciences or the arts.

If we can relinquish our fevered partisanship for a second, and at least agree on this, we can perhaps agree on the next step.

If we are so concerned about science and mathematics, then surely we must apply scientific principles to determine whether it is better to teach science and mathematics in Malay or English.

If we agree on this, then our discussion must be informed primarily by facts, figures, and academically sound studies.

This is not my area of expertise, so I cannot articulate what the most well designed study on the subject would look like, but I think it’s safe to say that there are a few things at minimum that we should be looking out for.

We should be looking at studies that compare the performance of students who were taught in Malay versus those who were taught in English. These studies should have controlled for factors like socioeconomic standing, students’ first languages, and so on.

I think if we have enough such data and analyses, we should be able to evolve from partisan polemics to a measured, mature discussion about what the evidence shows, and where our priorities should be.

The above I feel should apply universally. The rest of my article will be more of my personal views.

I think that the government’s priority should be on weaker, poorer students.

Inequality is a defining problem of our age, and if we set policies that prioritise those who are already doing well in life to do even better at the expense of those who are not doing as well in life, then we are worsening the inequality problem.

As an aside of course, having a properly run Dual Language Programme (DLP) would of course to an extent alleviate this problem, by allowing those who prefer English to use English, while allowing those who prefer Malay to use Malay.

Some quarters however appear to feel that the DLP has not been properly executed, and evolved into being some sort of PPSMI-lite.

If we can agree that we should prioritise students who are already having a tougher time at school, then we must look at making learning as painless as possible for them.

In this vein, I personally think that teaching science and mathematics in English will not help students improve their English. Teaching English better will help students improve their English.

I should think this fact to be somewhat self-evident.

In discussing this issue with my linguist wife (who like me studied just a smidgeon of Russian back in university), she asked me a question: can you explain the concept of rain in Russian?

Needless to say, I would be hopelessly unable to. I can talk about water falling from the sky in English and Malay (even to the extent of explaining condensation and so on), I know the word for rain in one or two Chinese dialects, but would be equally unable to explain the concept of rain in any of them.

Learning science and mathematics can be difficult enough in one’s mother tongue. I suppose for me to imagine students with an extremely limited grasp of English trying to learn science or mathematics, I need only once again try to imagine learning science or mathematics in Russian or Chinese.

The same applies to teachers. If teachers themselves are not fluent in English, which may not be too far of a stretch for a good number of them, then we face double the trouble.

Without meaning any insult whatsoever to either party, it may become a case of the blind leading the blind, and for what?

Of course, I think another factor that tends to colour one’s views on this subject is one’s own personal experience.

Perhaps I am no different. I am old enough to be from a time where everything was taught in Malay, and the only thing taught in English was English.

English is my first language, and getting good grades in Malay was often challenging. But given the way my life has turned out, there is no A1 in my SPM that I am prouder of than my A1 in Malay.

In any case, I know many people my age who went through SPM just like I did, with learning everything in Malay, and went on to become amazing scientists, and had absolutely no trouble in their further studies.

If one were being honest, I suppose the key reason was that many of them also had a great command of English. That said, I think it’s safe to say that their command of English did not come from having been taught science and mathematics in English, because they weren’t. They were taught English in English.

In a recent press conference held by anti-PPSMI activists, one point that was made repeatedly was that they were not against the mastery of English at all (the main spokesperson, Professor Wan Ramli Wan Daud earned his PhD in chemical engineering from Cambridge); they were only against teaching science and mathematics in English, and were in fact in full support of better teaching of English.

This group also cited many studies and international test results (like Pisa or the Programme for International Student Assessment) to argue the case that PPSMI has clearly been shown to have failed.

I did not read these studies myself, and have not heard citations from those who are pro-PPSMI, so I cannot comment extensively here, but I’m sure those who are interested can be connected to said studies.

Speaking of being coloured by personal experience, I suppose Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself learned science and mathematics in English.

There are times when Dr Mahathir can get a little ... obsessive perhaps, about certain ideas. PPSMI may be one, and the closest other example I can think of is his preoccupation with a third national car, or the idea that the old Barisan Nasional formula of race-based parties is the only way forward for Malaysia.

He is a man of conviction, and when he feels convinced about something, it sometimes feels like he ignores facts, figures, and how the world has changed from 30 years ago.

It’s alright to believe in one’s convictions, but for a man who is uncomfortable about too much religiosity in public life, perhaps he should be less inclined to have religious-like convictions about his own beliefs, and be more open to what data and analysis suggest.

In any case, as I mentioned, the second half of this article has only been my personal views that I have indulged myself in sharing, and which are not particularly informed by such hard data and analyses.

By far the most important principles going forward are to identify and recognise the common ground between those on both sides of the debate, and ensuring that we make our decisions about science based on science.

I doubt this will be the last time I say so, but in this issue like in so many others, we should be sitting and talking to each other, not standing and yelling at each other.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant who got a C5 in SPM for Pendidkan Moral (Moral Studies). He imagines that this explains a lot, and can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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PPSMI , Education , DLP , STEM , Mahathir Mohamad


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