From 13 to16 April 2009, HKAHSS led 17 secondary and special schools principals on a study trip to Malaysia. The purpose of the trip is to understand the effectiveness of Malaysia’s policy on teaching Science and Mathematics in English in Chinese schools. We visited three Chinese schools: Tsun Jin High School (TJHS), Kuen Cheng Girls’ High School (KCGHS) and Kuen Cheng Girls’ Primary School (KCGPS).
Observation on schools
- Teaching Science and Mathematics in English
In 2003, the Malaysian government announced the policy of teaching Science and Mathematics in English from Primary 1 and Secondary 1 to raise the students’ English standard. From our observation, the policy has not been fully and satisfactorily implemented.
TSHS The School Committee and the principal of TSHS believe that using English as the medium of instruction for all subjects and creating an English environment in school are ways to improve students’ English, not just teaching science and mathematics in English. They think teaching these subjects in Chinese enables the students to better understand them. Moreover, the government’s public examinations for Secondary 3, 5 and 7 can be written in either Malay or English, and the more internationally prestigious Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) organised by The United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia uses Chinese. Therefore TSHS uses English textbooks for Science and Mathematics but teach them in Chinese so that their students can sit for both the government and the UEC examinations.
KCGHS The school prepares students for both the government and the UEC examination. Science and Mathematics are taught in Chinese in junior high and the first two years in senior high; but in the third year supplemented with lists of English vocabulary. Same as TSHS, students use English Science and Mathematics textbooks but they are taught in Chinese in class.
KCGPS This primary school insists on teaching key Science and Mathematics lessons in Chinese. To meet the government’s policy requirement, the English teachers also covers Science and Mathematics in two lessons per week, mainly to introduce the English terms in the subjects. Since the students’ English standard is high due to their family background, their results in Primary 6 public examinations are outstanding.
- Teaching in English and English-speaking environment
TSHS The school uses various methods to increase the effectiveness of English teaching and to create an English-speaking environment. Students in the same grade are divided into four groups according to their learning ability and have lessons together. The school employs more teachers so that the group size is reduced to 20-30 students to benefit from small-class teaching. All English lessons are held in the English Corner wherein students must speak in English.
KCGHS The English standard of KCGHS is high. There is even English Literature subject for Secondary 5 students. Students’ overall results in public examinations are exemplary although some of the lessons we observed were not particularly outstanding and the school has not put in a lot of resources to create an English-speaking environment.
KCGPS The situation is similar to that of KCGHS. Since the students have good family background and speak English at home, they don’t have much problem in adapting to learning in English and Chinese simultaneously. Some of the lessons we observed were not especially outstanding and the school has not invested a lot in building an English environment.
Observation on students
The English standard of TSHS and KCGHS students is above average. Some students speak English at home but most of them speak Putonghua, English and Malay at school. The students are eager to learn and respect their teachers.
The students prefer to learn in Putonghua though they do not have much difficulty in communicating or learning in English. Quite a few of the lessons we observed were conducted in a one-way format, ignoring students’ learning disparities. Hence the effectiveness of learning is not obvious. In the case of Science and Mathematics, learning effectiveness is also not apparent. As feedback, we suggested to teachers to use more student-based methods and create a diversified English-learning environment. This requires more school resources, teacher training, parental education and social support. In a word, the politically-oriented policy of teaching Science and Mathematics in English is not as effective as expected.
Discussion with the United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia (UCSCAM)
Chinese education in Malaysia has a history of 200 years. At present, there are 60 independent Chinese secondary schools, each headed by a school committee. The association for all these school committees is the UCSCAM. All of these 60 schools use Putonghua as their medium of instruction. Some of them follow the government’s instruction and use English to teach Science and Mathematics. But it is quite common that they use English textbooks and teach them in Putonghua.
The purpose for establishing UCSCAM is to maintain education in the Chinese mother-tongue. The association designs its own curriculum, publishes its own textbooks and organizes a common examination (the UEC), which is written in Chinese, for the students of its 60 schools. The examination, though not recognized by the Malaysian government, is widely endorsed by overseas universities in their admission process. The UCSCAM is like a non-government education bureau making great contributions to education in Chinese and the promotion of the Chinese Culture in Malaysia.
Conclusion and reflection
The overall results of the policy to teach Science and Mathematics in English are not satisfactory and the Malaysian government is considering amendment to the policy. The outcome is expected due to inadequate policy consultations and supporting measures. In comparison, the English teaching and English environment of the schools visited are not as dynamic, interactive and diversified as those in Hong Kong.
If Hong Kong is serious about its mother-tongue education or English teaching, it must have the perseverance and determination of the UCSCAM. We need a map that shows clearly the languages and standards required by different strata of society and use it to plan our primary and secondary education and its required supporting resources. Parents and other stakeholders’ opinions on our language policy must be respected. Language education should be actively implemented from primary schools.