Let’s get serious about teaching and learning

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 24 Mar 2013

If we want to be a step closer to the world’s best education, let’s start by attracting and keeping the best minds in our education system.

I was privileged enough to complete my schooling in one of the top schools in Kuala Lumpur, an all-girls mission school, over two decades ago. Although the school building no longer exists, the memories and the experience anchor deep in my soul, and it played a large part in moulding me into the person I am today.

Then, teaching and learning were different compared to my daughters’ experiences today. Supposedly, it is the same national curriculum derived from the British system which went through some remodelling, nationalisation and so-called improvement to suit this day and age.

I remember things were made simpler to digest and understand then, especially languages. I would vouch that I was privy to better teachers who were made up of a diverse group of learned characters. This is in no way to disrespect the teachers now, but I believe that career mismatching results in who gets to teach our children in the end.

The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) admits that there is a mismatch in teachers teaching subjects that they are not meant to. Through no fault of the teachers, 30% who are teaching English were not trained to teach English, and some who are supposed to teach English are teaching other subjects.

The system does not autocorrect itself. This must be checked and rectified.

It is about time that besides Bahasa Malaysia, Malaysians must also be strong in English. The recent efforts to boost English are commendable.

In preparation for making English a compulsory subject in the SPM, English teachers were made to sit for a Cambridge Proficiency Test (CPT). Of 70,000 English teachers who took the test last year, two-thirds were found not proficient enough in English by Cambridge standard.

Recognising that these teachers need to adhere to established international standards is a step forward.

But what now? How are we to ensure that the teachers would have the proficiency required of them to teach English? Retraining these teachers in 16 weeks of intensive and own study sessions remains to be proven.

And what is the next step for SPM English?

English taught in school must be benchmarked against Cambridge tests from primary level and not only against Cambridge English 1119 at SPM level. If SPM is matched to 1119 come 2016, possibly only 28% would pass the SPM by the track record.

According to the MEB, of the core subjects for the UPSR, PMR and SPM, English remains as the worst performing subject.

The trend results for SPM 2004-2011 show that the average failure rate for English is 25%. Hence, the rural students would need a serious intervention plan to boost their passing rate, which averaged 66% over a seven-year period.

The SPM English paper that is merged with the 1119 is the essay writing section. The section is marked twice, one for SPM level, the other for 1119. But the English teachers were not made to write essays in the CPT; they took the multiple choice test online.

What is perplexing is how the teachers, the majority of whom don’t meet the benchmark, would be able to teach the 1119 essay writing? How are students to achieve proficiency for tertiary education in English if the teachers are only able to function in a social setting instead of being professionally proficient?

Nonetheless, SPM English-must-pass is something that we need to tackle head-on in the next few years. Oral English test was compulsory during my time, but it has been taken out of the current system. English is not just about a subject, and it can’t only be about passing exams either.

There are many other English language activities to aid in the improvement of English which can be practised in schools. However, a lot depends on the proactive attitude of school heads, teachers, students, parents and the community. A conducive environment for learning and practising English must be established.

During my time, school activities included concerts, choral speaking, compulsory English-only speaking days, as well as English being spoken at assembly.

But still, all that was not enough. SPM level English is inadequate to prepare one for tertiary education in English. High-level proficiency is required to enable students to thrive in top universities in the United States and the developed Commonwealth countries.

The benchmark for the SPM, which is to achieve “operational proficiency” according to the Cambridge Common European Framework of References (CEFR) as discussed in the MEB, is the minimum one has to achieve if one desires to get into a university. And that is just getting past the admission, without even considering good performance in the course work.

An “A” in SPM English would be a prerequisite in order to manage ­higher-level English competency required at reputable tertiary institutions. One has to have the motivation and be proactive in trying to improve after the SPM.

Top universities do not “give chance” or lower benchmarks to accommodate shoddy report writings and compositions. One is severely marked down for such incompetency, and plagiarism is a serious offence. Spelling mistakes are not tolerated. They are inexcusable in the age of automatic spell checks.

In my experience, discovering how ill-equipped I was after the SPM despite getting an A1 for English was a huge blow. My 1119 result was horrendous as I barely made the pass. When I started tertiary education at a local college, the Introduction to English further jolted me into realising how unprepared I was in English for higher learning. Possibly, I was the worst performer in my class; the final verdict was a C- in EN101.

Only a couple of years later did I realise that the problem was not completely my English but my weak writing skill; it was disorganised, had poor sentence construction and was vague in delivery. I managed to correct my weakness under the tutelage of a professor in English for Intermediate Composition, in a university in the US.

From then on, my writing skills improved. Part of the improvement was also due to the fact that I was reading more in university compared to when I was in school. Reading helps and it is a shame that Malaysians are not a reading society.

As for us, for now, the benchmark is the SPM English to pass. We look forward to the improvements in the teaching of English but caution its implementability. The progress of teacher upskilling must be continuously monitored and mentored.

English by subject immersion is necessary to make up for the insufficient instructional time in English. PPSMI, the teaching and learning of Science and Mathematics in English, is a bridge to more exposure in English, and it is “doable” at this time. We must make every effort to benefit from this.

If 70,000 English teachers are trained for English proficiency, surely we can train the Science and Mathematics teachers. In an earlier article, I wrote that we need at least 20,000 Science and Mathematics teachers. If we are benchmarking Science and Mathematics against the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), we must strive to improve the way we teach them. The tenacity for improvement must be equitable in other core subjects as well.

And before we start chest thumping that “Malaysia’s education system is fast becoming the world’s best”, let’s evaluate Finland as the benchmark of “world’s best”. It is true that Finland has the most equitable education, where education is an instrument to even out social inequality. Every child has access to the same type of education in all schools and they do not have private school. But one fact remains head and shoulders above the rest – its teaching fraternity is outstanding.

Therefore, it is not only equitable education that matters but the equitability must be of high quality. If we want to be a step closer to the world’s best education, let’s start by attracting and keeping the best minds in our education system. We need to ensure that the teachers we select for the teaching profession are the ones who are matched to the job and are of quality.

We don’t need to look to Finland to prove that having good teachers is good for the children; we had it once in our past and we let it slip. It is time to get back that mojo.

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