What You Think

Where have all our English textbook writers gone? — Anne Munro-Kua

NOVEMBER 30 — The recent decision by the Ministry of Education to introduce imported textbooks to enhance the teaching of English in both primary and secondary schools raises more questions than answers and thus warrants some serious analysis regarding its likely efficacy.

First, my locus standi in this discussion:

I was an educator in Malaysia from the early 1980s; I was posted to both rural and residential schools as well as Colleges and Universities.  My role involved teaching English as a Second Language and Study Skills as well as to collaborate with my English teaching peers in enhancing effectiveness and results. I am delighted to report that poorly motivated students not only learnt to converse in English, a cohort of 30 rural students who spoke Arabic as their second language managed to get through their A levels in English, while 70 per cent of the Business students I taught achieved the high IELTS grades required for entrance into foreign universities.

In each of these cases success emerged from analyzing the specific problems they faced, collaborating with the students to clarify their collective outcomes and to co-create strategies to get there. In other words, a respectful relationship was established with the students, with clear agreed goals and that made the action steps and learning feedback loops possible. Let me be clear, I had been a teacher in the UK and had never done any of this before in the Malaysian context, what enabled me was a strong desire to help all children achieve their potential, even when I didn’t know how we would get there.  And to do so was deeply uncomfortable, I had to be willing to unlearn as well as learn from my students about what works for them and what doesn’t.  At its heart, this outcome oriented approach involves a mindset, a way of thinking that goes beyond the subject matter and English Language teaching techniques. Let me emphasise that this approach is born of deep respect for my students’ potential and was acquired through my own rich life experiences, and education in the UK, nothing to do with being an ‘orang puteh’.

So I ask again, what exactly is the problem faced by students in learning English in Malaysia?

My point is, if we are to enhance English competency, we need to correctly analyse the nature of the problem and ask whether imported books at a cost of RM78-135 each as opposed to local books at around RM10, (a) will make any difference at all, and (b) are a valid way of spending taxpayers money in solving the problem.

In my experience, young students, teenage and adult students may be poorly motivated for a number of reasons which can be summed up in whether they see learning English as relevant to their lives and future. Textbooks alone, no matter how good, are unlikely to change that.

Effective teachers get “buy in” from their students, they make their classes and the subject matter relevant to that particular group and collaborate to co-create meaningful learning. And of course it is vital that such a process is supported by well-designed books and materials that can inspire their “love” for learning a language as well as their competency.

The wisdom of 'Imported Wisdom'

Malaysia became independent in 1957. Now, sixty years after charting a new course free from colonialism, we see again and again a dependency on imported wisdom. Here are three examples:

Example #1: While I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Education in the 1980s, I note that every few years another such initiative is launched, at great cost, to contract native English speaking teachers work in schools here.  This puzzles me as from my observations, Malaysia has all the resources needed to fly high regionally and internationally in the teaching of English, without dependency on imported teachers. There seems to be an assumption that foreigners will do a better job but this suggests that Malaysia has not yet grown up and still needs parenting around the question of English proficiency. So what is the problem that foreign teachers are supposedly addressing that it is assumed local ones can’t?

Example #2: In seeking the best way forward for Malaysian Education, the Education Ministry contracted McKinsey consultants for more than RM20 million to design what has become known as Malaysia’s Education Blueprint. It is worth noting that US based McKinsey consultants, are known for their corporate management expertise and not in the field of education.

Example #3: Now, importing foreign textbooks — Another expensive taxpayer’s investment that begs the question: Do we not have the expertise here in Malaysia who can do this? For example at independence, we had excellent Kirkby trained teachers who provided a wealth of expertise in Malaysia. We have now wasted 30+ years when we could have more fully utilized their expertise as mentors. And we have had 60 years of textbook writing, 60 years of learning from what works and what doesn’t work in teaching English, haven’t we?

Look at what does work

Why is there an apparent reluctance to look hard at what does work?  Throwing expensive imported wisdom at a problem can never be a silver bullet nor a wise use of public funds, especially since Malaysia has invested a great deal in training up leaders in the latest 21st Century cutting edge wisdom.

Since Independence, thousands of Malaysians have experienced overseas university education, and many have been sent to Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, amongst other top universities.  In 2011, Malaysia’s expenditure on education, at 3.8 per cent of GDP was higher than the Oecd average and twice the Asean average. Between 2000 and 2008, the total number of public sector scholarships for studies at foreign and local higher education institutions was 12,500 and 58,500 respectively.

Even here in Malaysia, there is no shortage of “wisdom” training for top civil servants/policy makers, with the latest best practice models and strategic thinking programmes, etc. In short, by now we must have many leaders who are brilliantly equipped with the mindset and tools needed to analyse and address what is needed in Malaysian Education.

So I ask again, what is the problem?

Is it a matter of confidence? Why the chip on the shoulder? When will the powers that be have the confidence to trust that Malaysia has all the resources needed to achieve what they claim to want, namely, to be seen internationally as a hub of respected education excellence?

I believe achieving this is possible but first, courage is needed to let go of foreign dependency and pay serious attention to the incredible educational practitioners and expertise we already have within our borders. Yes, let us aim to meet the English proficiency standards of Europe, excellent… but will imported textbooks enhance the ability of teachers with poor English, to meet the CEFR standards (European proficiency in English)?

To reach those standards, we need to, like Finland for example, rigorously raise the status and expectations of teachers as professional co-creators of our future. This means ensuring recruitment of English Language teachers from amongst those competent in English, who have a passion for learning and who thrive on addressing challenges.  If we are serious about investing in English Language competency, and about becoming a respected hub of educational excellence, we must also empower masterful teachers with more respect, more autonomy and fewer administrative duties so that they can focus on their real work at the chalk face, with our leaders of the future.

What could be more important than that?

*This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.