August 22nd, 2013

Scientific teachers

A good education comes from an educated educator

THE educator is as good as the knowledge he or she imparts, which is dependent on the depth of knowledge possessed. A good mathematics teacher, for instance, should be one proficient in the subject to an extent that is more than textbook deep.

The very laws that determine a formula must be understood so a child's imagination is captured. Inasmuch as a child travels round the world with the teacher in a geography lesson, understanding topography, wind movements, climates and climate changes along the way, a science or a technology teacher must be able to do the same. The laws of physics, for example, should be taught in a way that a young mind can relate to, like how the bridge they cross everyday can actually carry the user load it bears every day. The same is true for biology, chemistry and technology. In fact, this is true of all learning, including the most abstract of ideas.

It is, therefore, the perfect solution for making sure that the country produces the half a million sciences and technology graduates needed: by turning teachers themselves into scientists. Educating the educators to the highest level possible will indeed breed the expertise and depth of knowledge necessary to excite a pupil's interest in what are now unpopular subjects. Potential teachers ought to be the cream of the crop and not those who do not qualify for other disciplines at the undergraduate level. The outcome is the pervasive incompetence in the teaching profession.

Given the level of difficulty of the sciences is it any wonder that interest has tailed off the moment options are opened to pupils. To reach the targeted 60:40 ratio set by the government, therefore, although easily achieved, does not guarantee the end result. A child may be channelled towards the sciences, but performance is contingent upon the ability to properly grasp the subject. And if teachers are teaching by rote what hope is there for a student?

Indeed, it is no easy feat to produce these "scientist" teachers. Thousands are needed to produce the hundreds of thousands in human capital that will service the economy to bring the country to the next level of the value chain. In the United Kingdom every effort is put into raising the pupil's interest in the sciences. Collaboration with doctoral level students, science competitions, applying subjects to industrial reality by visiting factories and inviting relevant personnel as speakers are some of these initiatives, but in the end it is the quality of the teaching that makes the real difference.

New Straits Times Online Editorial 20 Aug 2013

Science for all Malaysians

NATIONAL BLIND SPOT: We must master this knowledge and apply it in the work place

THERE have been many concerted national efforts to ensure that citizens of  all ages master various literacies. In the early years of independence, the focus was on adult   basic literacy.

Although remembered in amusement by some, it was really a serious matter to get people to learn to sign their names, and not just to get thumb prints. Two-pronged actions were taken to help adults to be schooled while educating those of school-going age, many of whom were in multi-grade classes because of the shortage of teachers and classrooms.

With universal primary education, Malaysian society has come a long way from those early days of struggle for education. The agenda has moved from universal primary education, mass secondary education to democratisation of higher education.

Malaysians are increasingly literate in various kinds of social media, which require at the very least nimble fingers to touch screens and keyboards to initiate conversations or respond to communication, however truncated in language. Information communication technology literacy has now become the mark of the digital era. There has also been focus on national historical literacy.

There has always been the rhetoric and reality of the need for multicultural living literacy. In the school system, there has been an incremental focus on manipulative skills, living skills and design skills.

There has been the ongoing push for religious literacy. Since the beginning of schooling, there has been the provision of opportunities for health science literacy for all and domestic science literacy for those who choose such subjects.

With the realisation that a sizeable component of the Malaysian economy is export orientated and that there is the critical need for the creation of employment, there has been the focus on entrepreneurial literacy and skills, on innovation and creativity.

Of the critical literacies that are neglected are those like earth sciences, sometimes addressed in naïve and one-off passions for tree planting, banning of plastic, and romantic notions of institutions in gardens or gardens in institutions. Beyond such surface-level passion for the environment, there is little understanding of earth sciences.

As a society, Malaysians do not really have science literacy. The majority of students shy away from science subjects although official data indicates that there is a surplus of science teachers.

Over the years, official policies of having a 60:40 ratio of science to arts students have wavered and criteria of defining science have gotten confused in the midst of the promotions of science and technology literacies, and vocational and technical education.

Science for all Malaysians is not just about mastery of science subjects in schools and universities and applying that knowledge at work. Science for all Malaysians is about mastering efficient living in a complex world where science and technology intrudes in every aspect of existence. It makes quality living meaningful but simultaneously threatens and endangers lives.

There was an occasion when a prime minister chaired a policy meeting and the matter of science literacy for all was raised, as well as the initiative to establish science museums throughout the country, modelled, for instance, on the Boston Science Museum or the Science Centre in Kuala Lumpur.

There was an immediate response by advisers that such initiatives were in the books and underway. Almost two decades after the assurance, there is no evidence of the establishment of science museums nationwide.

Clearly, advisers to policymakers should not be so quick to get the personal approval of people in power that they are doing their work. Closed minds in the policy-making process deny the people the opportunities and right to more enlightened implementation of policies.

Science for all Malaysians remains a blind spot of the national agenda. As long as citizens do not master scientific content of daily living, hone and exercise scientific thinking in all aspects of decision-making, then Malaysians will exercise non-scientific habits in decision-making.

Manipulators will have a field day manipulating nonscientific minds to believe and live in a world of zombies and vampires of the soul.

Datuk Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid | is a deputy vice-chancellor, INTI Laureate International University New Straits Times Online Columnist 19 Aug 2013

Medical Profession: Think twice about this career

IT is that time of the year again, where top scorers post-Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia and matriculation courses compete for limited seats in critical courses at local universities.

The government is unable to provide places for everyone, especially when the number of top scorers seems to increase every year.

With astonishing regularity, almost all top scorers in the science stream want to pursue medicine. Reasons range from wanting to do the noble thing and serve the public and a lifelong ambition, to parents' wishes and job security. That prestige and good income are serious considerations are often not stated.

As a senior doctor in the public service for the last 15 years, with exposure to teaching medical students, and temporary involvement in the private sector, this obsession is puzzling.

It is acknowledged in the medical fraternity that there are too many doctors and too many medical schools, almost 40-odd in the country, churning out some 5,000 doctors every year, one of the highest per capita in the world. Approvals for private and public medical schools in the last decade had contributed to this.

Many private colleges lack facilities and do not have enough senior lecturers. They usually take the easy way out by "hitching" on to a nearby public hospital. This saves costs of employing lecturers, as the colleges usually engage the public hospital consultants to do the teaching on a part-time basis.

Although frequently denied, service to patients is disrupted to a certain extent in public hospitals as doctors teach when doing their ward rounds and clinics prior to attending to the patients' needs, hence the Ministry of Health's (MOH) recent circular that prohibits doctors from teaching during office hours.

According to the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) June 2013 newsletter, there were 28,309 medical officer posts available in 2011, with 21,765 already filled. The remaining 6,544 vacancies should have been filled this year, considering the annual number of graduating doctors.

The figures were presented by MMA president Datuk Dr N.K.S. Tharmaseelan during its 53rd annual general meeting recently. He also stated that the number of MOH hospitals in 2007 was 130, increasing by only two hospitals to 132 in 2011, a time gap of four years. Fact is, we are just not building enough hospitals to place and train all our new doctors. Thus, job security in the medical field has become a fallacy.

This will inevitably happen as entry qualifications into some medical schools have been relaxed to fill up numerous available seats. For example, in some departments in a hospital, there are 30 to 40 house doctors, with the heads of department being unable to remember their names or faces.

For those who intend to become specialists, there's not much good news either. According to MMA, in 2011 only 690 medical officers were offered post-graduate medical programmes in local universities.

In the private sector, there is an "overload" of doctors. Private hospitals, which are essentially business entities, do not actually employ doctors but hire them on a private contractor basis. They will continue to do so to enlarge their income pool. This has resulted in too many doctors trying to meet the needs of the minority group of patients who have insurance coverage or the funding sources to pay for private medical care.

Those aspiring doctors among top scorers should think carefully before opting for the medical field. This letter is not meant to dissuade students from pursuing medicine but to encourage them and their parents to think about issues affecting the profession today which can help them in making an informed decision.

Dr B.A. Kareem, Penang New Straits Times Online Letters to the Editors 20 Aug 2013