I READ with disappointment our Malaysian schools’ dismal performance in the global school maths and science tests despite the large budget allocated by the Education Ministry and the many plans initiated to achieve the level of education of developed countries, “Big money but little progress in education” (The Star, March 14). I therefore want to share my observations as a volunteer at a community-based tuition centre for underprivileged children.
Some of the children I teach are in Year Two and Three but they do not know the answers to simple sums like 5+6, or 11–2. They have to count with their fingers and sometimes still get it wrong. These are normal children, perhaps poor and even a bit slow in their studies, but they do not have learning disabilities. They perform quite well in the language of their preference and respond well to coaching.
I believe this weakness is due to insufficient drilling of simple arithmetic in Year One or perhaps even kindergarten. My children were all right doing simple sums by Year One, probably because they had sufficient drilling when they were in kindergarten. The first problem that arises is that there is a big gap in students’ arithmetic ability as they enter Year One. Some students are already very good at simple additions while others are not. This could be due to their kindergarten experience as well as their family environment.
As such, the normal addition and subtraction exercises given to Year One students, which are sufficient for an average child, are not enough for those who are weaker in maths.
They need more exercises in simple addition and subtraction before they can spontaneously give the right answers.
My second observation is that some children in the tuition centre who are already in Year Four do not know the multiplication tables. In this case, I am inclined to think the problem is due to the teacher’s failure to ensure their students mastered the tables. When I was in school, our teacher always said she was going to test us on the multiplication tables and we would go home and memorise it in a frenzy.
Woe betide the person who did not know the times table back then. The student would have to stand up in class or get hit with a ruler or, worse, both and such actions were not viewed as abuse. Furthermore, the “tests” on the multiplication tables continued several times over a few months so that even the most unmotivated student learnt it by heart.
As such, one does not need to be smart to master the times table.
One just needs discipline or incentive to memorise it, and with sufficient exercises the times table will be at our finger tips.
The Education Ministry has big and ambitious plans to overhaul the education system but I fear there is a big gap at school level in terms of executing these plans. The problems I have just illustrated need to be addressed in the early years of primary school.
As the child grows older, the lag in maths competency will only grow bigger and the child might even develop a dislike or even fear for a subject that he/she does not do well in. This vicious cycle will persist later in life, resulting in our nation’s overall poor performance in international maths tests.
It just takes a few very weak students to pull down our country’s average maths score based on the principle of averages. I hope the officials will get down to the classrooms to see the actual situation.
One will not understand it unless one has firsthand experience. S.L.Lim Penang The STAR Home News Opinion Letters May 19, 2015