To the last bastion of Mathematics and Science in this country, Teachers!

Dr Nabilah Ali | .

I nearly became a history or English language teacher, but for the love of my parents and the encouragement of my teachers, I became a doctor instead.

Not that they forced me into taking up this profession. Coming from an extended family of mainly teachers, I was exposed to books and the teaching environment from a very young age. It was natural for me to be more inclined towards education. Nevertheless, my impatient nature and rebellious disposition, coupled with a competitive streak led me towards the path of a doctor instead.

I loved history to bits and even contemplated entering the social science stream in Form 4. The English language class was also a firm favourite and the soft spoken, petite English teacher Mrs. Sarojini was an inspiration. She was versatile and ingenuous in her teaching methods and I continued corresponding with her long after I left secondary school, well into my university days.

As History was not a subject included in the Science stream in Form 4, I had to tearfully say goodbye to it. I was then exposed to the world of Science in the form of Chemistry, Biology and Physics as well as Modern Mathematics and the ever challenging Additional Mathematics.

The teachers those days played a big role in our liking a particular subject, sometimes for the wrong reasons though. Of course in an all girls school, the young, shy, Mathematics male teacher invited more attention from the balding, middle aged Physics teacher.

Chemistry especially during my A Levels years was a blast as the teachers were totally awesome, as the younger generation would proclaim nowadays. Biology was equally fascinating although I have to admit that Physics was a tad too similar to Additional Mathematics (what with the neverending theories and mind boggling formulas) for me to enjoy.

Therefore, it is with dismay when I learnt that Malaysian secondary school students enrolling into the Science stream as opposed to the Social Science stream is only 19:81, which is way off the targetted 60:40, as reported by the Academy of Science Malaysia a few months ago. The trend has been decreasing to the detriment of the Science stream over the past years.

This phenomenon can partly be blamed to the infamous PPSMI or 'Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik dalam Bahasa Inggeris' which has proven to be a failure; having found to only increase the level of competency in English by a mere 4% but on the other hand, greatly reduced students' interest in Mathematics and Science. Countless studies have corroborated this.

One such study was in 2008 by Permuafakatan Badan Ilmuan Nasional, or Pembina which utilised the expertise of 53 language experts and involved 7 local universities. Its report revealed that PPSMI greatly suppressed students' capabilities and intelligence and as such, was proven to be a disservice to our future generation.

PPSMI was discontinued in 2012 to the relief of many sectors of the society. But recently in its place, the government of the day has introduced the Dual Language Programme in nearly 300 schools across the country. While not exactly two peas in a pod, the English idiom jumps to mind: 'Once bitten twice shy'.

Probably those planning this exercise have never come across this saying before and are content to be stung the third time, in keeping with the Malay saying: 'Sekali bekas kena, dua kali bekas tahu, tiga kali baru jera.' That is, only when it's the third time that they will realize their folly and repent.

As a nation, Malaysian too has not been doing so well in the international arena of Mathematics and Science. Results from recent assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) confirm that Malaysia remains stuck at the bottom third of the international league table of schools.

PISA is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) looking at 15-year-old school pupils' performance in mathematics, science, and reading.

In 2012, Malaysia was ranked 52nd out of 76 countries, several rungs behind Thailand (47), Kazakhstan (49) and Iran (51).

Singapore was ranked first, followed by Hong Kong and South Korea while Japan and Taiwan were joint-fourth, in an Asian dominance of the top five spots in the study.

Next were Finland (6), Estonia (7), Switzerland (8), the Netherlands (9), Canada (10) and Poland (11).

Unsurprisingly, as these countries have good track records.

However, surprise, surprise! Vietnam, a close neighbour came in unexpectedly at number 12!

Who would have thought that Malaysia would lose out to a nation three times more populous than us, with a tumultuous political history and immeasurable casualties?

However with reforms, the country has made a complete turnaround in this new century and since 2000, its economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world. And concurrently, their education system has fluorished. Probably our policymakers should learn from them and make a trip nearer to home rather than to Paris or London.

In 2012, Malaysia's reading ability fell the most, plunging to an average of 398 as compared to 414 in the previous assessment. 

Current OECD average? 496.

Truly devastating.

Coming from an era where Malaysian students studying overseas were hailed as accomplished and high achieving individuals compared to their international peers, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

TIMSS on the other hand, assesses the mathematics and science knowledge and skills of 4th- and 8th-graders internationally. In the last few assessments; with the latest published in December 2011, Malaysia suffered the biggest drop in results among all tested countries for both subjects.

Malaysia’s ranking in Mathematics fell from 20th (2007) to 26th (2011) while its ranking in Science fell by an even greater margin, from 21st (2007) to 32nd (2011). And to think that in 2003, Malaysia actually made it to the 10th spot for Mathematics.

With the cessation of PPSMI and the recent implementation of PBS (Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah) and KBAT (Kemahiran Berfikir Aras Tinggi), will we be able to see a reversal of fortunes? We await with bated breath the latest TIMSS findings due in December 2016.

Come what may, I still believe that our Malaysian students have the potential to shine in the field of Mathematics and Science.

My A Levels college mate, a Maths prodigy entered Oxford University. Others have also entered other prestigious universities in the field of mathematics and science. Many others especially doctorate students have won prestigious awards in the international arena.

Disregarding the frequent change of education policies in the country, I am still of the opinion that the most important people in education are the students and the teachers.

We should not merely publicize the numbers of successful students with straight As, but we should also look into:

1) the school drop out rate among primary and secondary school students

2) what happens to those less privileged students from the low socioeconomic groups, rural schools, orang Asli, Orang Kurang Upaya, autistic children etc?

3) what happens to our SPM leavers in terms of furthering their studies and the fate of those opting to join the workforce?

As we all know from years of experience, those who do well financially twenty years down the line may not necessarily be that straight A student and SPM top scorer. Instead, that rowdy, slightly delinquent, academic underachiever but very headstrong go getter who started a small business with friends, and later on prospered, after a few hiccups along the way.

So, we must not only concentrate on the good students but we must also motivate the average students and underachievers. They should be given access to good, dedicated and high achieving teachers.

And that is why the teachers are the most important asset in education.

They should be returned to that esteemed position held in the society in those days, revered by students, parents and society alike.

Teachers are our surrogate parents in the school setting and should command respect similarly enjoyed by parents at home.

They are responsible for the future of our children, and as such should be given the opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions with regards to the path our education system is heading to.

Teachers should not be mere puppets on a string, at the mercy of political as well as policy playmakers. Their working conditions and needs should be looked into and accommodated as is humanely possible.

I am not a fan of the Malaysian big screen but I would love to watch a story depicting the sacrifice and dedication of a Malaysian teacher for her students on screen, minus the love story, the car races, ghouls and everything supernatural as film makers are so fond of portraying.

And please do not have some corny film title like 'Cikguku, suamiku' or something in the same vein, please.

Dead Poet Society, Great Teacher Onizuka and Gokusen are some renowned films and drama series from overseas, albeit with local culture thrown in, that spring to mind.

The students portrayed are not your model students but troubled, underachievers needing that extra attention and guidance in life. 

The teachers themselves are also not your typical straitlaced teachers but with their dedication, they garnered respect and produced results which may not be purely academic in nature.

Great teachers are the reason why ordinary students go on to do extraordinary things.

With their optimism and dedication, the future of Mathematics and Science in the country can be reversed, rather than the introduction of any new educational policy.

I believe that teachers will be the guardians and last bastion of the future of Mathematics and Science in our country.

I have always looked upon my schooldays with fondness and affection. Some teachers do shine brightly more than others.

To all Encik Ahmad, Encik Anuar, Encik Fauzi, Miss Vicky, Miss Nana, Mr. Tan, Mrs. Sarojini, Puan Noraini and other respected teachers out there, Happy Teacher's Day!

Dr Nabilah Ali is a medical doctor and IPRO (Persatuan Graduan UK dan Eire) member. She firmly believes that Islam and PAS is the way forward for the nation.

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