Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Memory of PPSMI

It saddens me that the government has decided to discontinue PPSMI. After having taught Science and Mathematics for more than thirty years, I must say that the most challenging part of my career was when I had to teach Science and Maths in English. This medium of instruction was not something new to me because when I started my career way back in the mid 70's, English was still the medium of instruction in English-medium schools.

I was teaching at SMK St. Mark's Butterworth, when the government introduced the policy of making Bahasa Malaysia (or is it Bahasa Melayu)  the medium of instruction in all Government schools. Those days we were directed to change to Bahasa Melayu without so much as attending courses in preparation for the switch-over. It was so abrupt, if I remember correctly. Being a Malay, I did not encounter a lot of problems merely getting acquainted with new terminologies. However, the same could not be said of my non- Malay colleagues who were educated in English and had been teaching in English for so long. There were moans and groans but we survived and succeeded, both teachers and students. After a year or so, it became a norm in schools. All the grumblings about the language switch-over came to a halt, at least in the school I was teaching.

Looking back, I marvelled at the speed my non-Malay friends got adapted to the change. Please take note that we were from an era when English was considered an "elite" language.We communicated mainly in English. Some of my  friends sounded very English in class. I don't blame them because all their lives, at least from Standard one, they were exposed to English. However, all these English tendencies and inclinations did not make us any less patriotic than we are now.

When PPSMI was introduced, Maths and Science teachers were required to attend numerous courses and workshops in preparation for the introduction of teaching Maths and Science in English. I lost count on the number of courses I had to attend, some in Alor Star, some in Sungai Petani, some in Langkawi and some in good old Jitra where I reside. It was very hectic. We not only had to attend subject-related courses but also computer courses. All maths and science teahers in my school were  given a laptop and an LCD each. I belive, the same was true in all schools throughout Malaysia. I think most of us were more excited with these gadgets than we were with the prospect of teaching the two subjects in English! But, coupled with this excitement was our constant fear of losing these expensive teaching aids. We were reminded time and again to be extra careful with these items.

I was quite enthusiatic and excited about this PPSMI. For me, it was like going down memory lane once again. I must say that it was not difficult for me to switch back to English but I was not prepared for the challenges that awaited me this time around. It was entirely different from what I was used to when English was still the medium of instruction. I remember conducting my first PPSMI lesson. I was teaching a bunch of students who could not make out head or tail of what I was talking about. They did not understand a single word of what I said. It was very disheartening but I was quite optimistic that they will gradually come to understand the language. However, when I noticed that there was no change for the better, I began to panic. Here I was equipped with all the teaching softwares provided by the Ministry to make  lessons interesting and easy for the students to understand and yet they just stared blankly at me when I asked them questions. It was very, very frustrating.So, I devised a method to make them understand. After I completed a sentence in English, I translated it into Bahasa Melayu. Phew! at the end of every lesson I was competely drained of energy.I not only lost weight, I lost my voice,too.

We were closely monitored by various people from PPD, JPN, KPM and our very own PPSMI school commitee headed by our Principal . There was no way we could cheat by trying to teach in Bahasa Melayu. These officers would just pop in and observe us in the midst of our lessons.I must say it was not a nice experience to have them looking and staring at you and trying to find all the mistakes. I am sure if the situation was reversed, these officers would be no better than us.

Anyway, after one year, when my students were still the same as when they started, my enthusiasm began to dwindle. They refused to communicate in English, partly beacuse they were jeered at each time they tried. This was a rural school and when someone tried to speak English, he or she would be labelled a show-off. Hence, they shut themselves off completely from the language for fear of being ostracised.

We were instructed to set exam questions in both languages and the students were given the liberty to answer in whichever language they prefer. They all answered in Bahasa Melayu.  This, I feel, also contributed to their indifference to the English language.We, teachers, were compelled to teach in English and yet at the end of the day, the students could choose to answer in Bahasa Melayu.

A few years after PPSMI was introduced, everything was still the same. We continued to teach in English and they continued to answer in Bahasa Melayu. My first batch of PPSMI students did quite well in their PMR - over 80% passes but 99% answered in Bahasa Melayu, of course! I realised then, that my translation was quite effective.

Much as I loved teaching Maths and Science in English, I feel that the government is right in abolishing PPSMI because it is not working out as planned, at least not in the school I was teaching. Inspite of what the government had done to ensure that both teachers and students were adequately prepared to face the challenges of  PPSMI, the project failed disastrously. ( This was what I gathered from the local media). I can't help but wonder what went wrong. The government spent millions of ringgit (or is it billions) and yet it was a complete flop. When the government decided to switch over completely to Bahasa Melayu in the late 70's, they were successful. This time around, when only two subjects were involved, logically speaking, it would have been plain sailing. But, sadly, everything failed.

I hope  the much talked about MBM and MBI will not have a sad ending  like PPSMI. I am quite confident that MBM and MBI will be successful because many quarters are happy with this new education policy. Once again, the Ministry will be conducting numerous courses and workshops for the teachers in preparation for the switch over in 2011. We did not have to go through all the training back in the 70's when we changed everything to Bahasa Melayu, and it was successful. History is repeating itself again this time. The difference is that, this time around, teachers will be thoroughly prepared to undertake this new venture. Good luck.

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