Friday, July 10, 2009

Quick Fixes Never Work - Borneo Post, 10 July 2009

Quick fixes never work By Robert Raymer, Borneo Post 10 July 2009

KUCHING: Everyone wants a quick fix, whether we’re talking about getting rich, the pathetic state of Malaysian football, or increasing the standard of English - it just doesn’t work!

The results speak for themselves. I agree teaching math and science should be done in Bahasa Malaysia, and that’s coming from a mat salleh, an American, who has taught creative writing in two Malaysian universities (USM and Unimas) for 13 years.

There are two separate issues here and let’s keep them separate. One is increasing the standard of English; the other is teaching students to learn math and science.

Face it, teaching math and science in English was a good idea, with good intentions, yet it was a rushed decision that never had a proper foundation not unlike building a house on the sand - it was doomed to fail.

My son started Form 1 at Penang Free School that very year and he had a lot to say about that matter. He and his classmates were frustrated because when they asked questions in English to clarify what the math teacher was telling them, the teacher kept brushing their questions aside because his English was so poor.

The teacher probably didn’t even understand the questions let alone how to answer them. Basically, he lacked the necessary language skills in English that is required to teach a complex subject like math (and science for that matter.)

What about those students, unlike my son, whose English skills were weak? They were equally confused, and even more so - they were lost in math and English.

The reality was that the students weren’t learning and they were coming home to complain to their parents, myself included. Eventually, that particular math teacher, who I assume was knowledgeable in math in BM, was replaced. But what about all the other teachers out there with the same problem, who continued to teach, year after year, with the same disastrous results.

Let’s assume they even have the passion for teaching math and science, but they lacked the necessary language skills to teach these subjects in English.

Just imagine if I were to teach creative writing - a subject I’m passionate about and spend a lot of time doing - in BM! The results would be horrible. My poor students wouldn’t have a clue as what I’m trying to say with my extremely limited vocabulary skills (I even managed an “A” recently in BM.)

Then consider those students in rural areas, whose English is extremely poor, where teachers with good command of English don’t want to teach. What is the state of their math and science being taught in English? What is the competency of their teacher’s grasp of English? And that’s assuming these teachers are passionate about teaching and have the necessary skills to teach. Not this, boleh-lah, never mind, try-lah, what-to-do attitude.

And this is part of a bigger problem that needs to be solved. Many teachers are in the teaching profession because their parents convinced them that it’s a safe job with a lot of off days, or it’s the job of last resort since they couldn’t find any other jobs, or they had to be, reluctantly, retrained because the higher science or math they were educated for (sometimes overseas, too) had no jobs waiting for them at home in that field - at least this is what the teachers that I taught for 10 years at USM used to tell me or write about in my creative writing classes.

Where’s the passion? A bored teacher teaching a subject that is boring to them will only pass on that boredom to their already bored students.

How is this helping them? Perhaps we should look at the root of problem, the quality of teachers being accepted into the teaching field and at their training not just to become adequate teachers (since there’s a shortage of teachers in rural areas), but teachers who can inspire their students to want to learn. This whole emphasis of teaching students merely to pass their exams is the crux of the problem.

It’s not the knowledge that they learn that is important; it’s what they can do with this knowledge now that they’ve learned it. Can they apply their mathematical and science skills in the real world? How about their English? If not, why not? Do we blame the teachers or the students or the education system as it now exists?

Take for example those who teach subjects like literature or, more precisely, the water-downed version of a book they haven’t even bothered to read because they themselves don’t understand it, or because the book is too thick. If it’s obvious to the students that the teacher hasn’t read the book (and it is), how does that inspire the students to learn literature, whether it’s BM or English?

Of course, there are some very gifted teachers out there, but they feel so overworked, burdened down with extra curricular activities and additional administrative responsibilities, it’s difficult to maintain that enthusiasm, day after day.

I should know; I have several teachers as relatives and friends, plus all my former students, so I hear about this all the time. They want to teach, have a passion for teaching, but it’s being squashed out of them!

Even with teaching math and science in English, if you don’t make English compulsory, little or no effort will be put into this subject, despite the promise of additional hours, especially by the vast majority of the students.

We’ve already seen the embarrassing results of that at the university level, whereby most students can’t string together two grammatically correct sentences. At USM where I used to teach teachers with 5 to 10 years’ experience in primary schools many would make 10, 20, 30 grammar mistakes per page. These were teachers. They were utterly clueless. I kept thinking, what about the hundreds and thousands of students they used to teach. What foundation did those students get? Or was everything grammar-wise glossed over since the teachers themselves weren’t even taught it.

A whole generation was lost!

The employers are frustrated with the quality of the graduates in today’s international, global marketplace. They say our student’s use of English and their writing ability is horrendous! This is not a new issue.

I’ve been hearing about this for nearly 24 years, and seeing the results for 13 years teaching at two universities! Compare that to their parents or grandparents, many of whom can speak fluently. So if you want more of the same, stick to how it is. If you want to seriously increase the standard of English, you have to make a pass compulsory.

While you’re at it, can we establish a passing mark for MUET to get into university? This would also increase the English standards. Students will be forced to make an effort, to learn basic grammar and writing skills, and you’ll see the difference. They will rise to the occasion. They’ve done it before. Give them a chance to help themselves and they’ll give you a lifetime of thanks. They’ll make more money for their families, too.

Again talk to their grandparents! They approach me all the time, those taught by the Peace Corp in the 60’s, and I’m very impressed! Those times, most definitely, have changed! Isn’t it about time Malaysia gets serious about this issue? Making English compulsory is a step in the right direction, a step for a better Malaysian future in this global world.

So go back to teaching math and science in BM so the students can understand what they’re being taught! As for the state of Malaysian football, instead of pointing your fingers at everyone and blaming everyone but yourself (sounds like education, doesn’t it), take the time to learn what other Asian countries are doing right, especially the world beaters, and do the same. Quit looking for quick fixes, get rich schemes, and some magic wand policy that will suddenly make all Malaysians wealthy, World Cup winners, and fluent in English. Get real, roll up your sleeves, and lay the foundation for a better future.

But if you keep changing your minds to rush back to square one, our students will be left behind, while everyone else in the world is making huge strides forward. My children’s future, like parents throughout Malaysia, is in your hands. Guide them wisely. Good luck, and let the force for teaching and learning BM and English be with you!

Robert Raymer, who teaches at Unimas, is author of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, winner of 2009 Popular - The Star Readers Choice Award. His blog on writing, his interviews, and book reviews can be accessed from his website at

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited 

**Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie. 


BorneoExpatWriter said...

When I referred to English not being compulsory I was referring to the PASS -- an oversight. It was a rushed article brainstormed and written in a couple of hours to meet someone else's deadline. What's the point of making a subject compulsory if they don't need to pass it! We teach students at the university level who have taken compulsory English since primary school (and tadika) and it seems to have zero effect on the weaker students when it comes to speaking, writing and especially grammar! The vast majority of students we get at Unimas have a Band One and Two in MUET! Without that compulsory pass, we'll continue to get the same results!

People assume that compulsory English means compulsory pass to get their SPM. Don't be faked out by this. Very, very misleading. I was shocked to find this out recently, and my son went through the national schools! I just assumed compulsory means compulsory! They have to take it and pass it!

In Malaysia, it does not. It's called lip-service. We can proudly say to the world that English is compulsory, but for Malaysians, never mind lah, you don't have to pass....This is an incredible injustice to Malaysians. If they had to pass it, they will. They'll learn it. Parents will see to it, otherwise they will not get their SPM. Talk to their parents and grandparents who learned it way back when. They speak and write with eloquence. Give this new generation the same opportunity and they'll thank you for it for the rest of their lives -- better pay, better opportunities for them and their families.

KittyCat said...

Nice post, Robert, which I agree with on many points. As an English teacher, I recently posted on this issue too.

Hope you'll check it out at: Raising the standard of English in Malaysia

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks for the link. Enjoyed your blog. It's very true. There are proven ways out there to teach English with good results. Find one, stick with it. But without properly trained teachers the language will continue to go nowhere very fast despite the great infrastructure they aleady had going for them. Teachers will continue to get burned out and will always find more money elsewhere -- like teaching tuition to the very same students they should be teaching English to in school.

Ina said...

Dear Sir,

I totally agree with you on several points. First, university students should at least get a Band 3 in Muet to be able to study in universities. Not just sitting for it like they're doing now. Please do some justice to the exam. If you do not want to use it, just abolish it! Anything is possible in Malaysia, right?!!

I've examined candidates for Muet who could hardly converse in English and was terribly shocked and saddened when I found out that he/she was teaching English in the primary school. The education system needs people of quality to be teachers not quantity!

I wish somebody 'up there' would consider the future of their fellow Malaysians instead of just thinking to save their own skin politically.

Thank you Sir for sharing the passion for the future generations. Is it okay if I link your blog to mine? I'll wait for your permission before I link. Thanks.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks. Yes it's a sad state of affairs. We're starting the children off on the wrong foot by giving them an English teacher that can barely speak English and clueless about grammar and sentence structure. It's always this, ah, never mind lah. Then these same students show up in the university level Band 1 and 2 and are equally clueless by grammar, and no doubt they'll, by default, become teachers too and this vicious cycle continues for another generation...

Yes, by all means link by blog! All the best.