THE recently announced 2011 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study results which showed that our Form Two students continue to perform very poorly in Science and Mathematics as compared with their counterparts in 60 other countries is indeed worrying.
This has led to calls that our schools must give greater emphasis to teaching higher-order thinking skills.
Accusations have also been made that our public examinations tend to set questions that test the students' ability for knowledge retention and recollection, and that questions which require higher-order thinking skills are insufficient.
It has been reported that the Education Ministry will send teachers for in-service courses on higher-order thinking skills.
Before we rush into it and spend more in the process, I suggest that we think further about the matter.
Firstly, any teacher-training course worthy of its name should have already taught Bloom's Taxonomy -- a classification of levels of intellectual behaviour important in learning -- to all teacher trainees.
Accordingly, there are levels of knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
A newer version updates the taxonomy to reflect its relevance to the 21st century by assigning corresponding levels as remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating and creating.
Higher-order thinking skills are skills related to the higher levels of applying, analysing, evaluating and creating.
A qualified teacher should already know these things and have had experience using these skills during teacher-training courses.
That they would need a refresher course, or worse, a "101" course, is a challenge to the Education Ministry.
I am not against teachers going for refresher courses, but certainly, the revision of basic teaching skills should be done on the teacher's own initiative, time and effort.
Have we not heard enough complaints that teachers are always absent from class, attending to all and sundry, to the detriment of their charges?
If teachers are sent for courses on the littlest whims, our students will suffer and tuition centres will continue to flourish.
This is not the scenario we want to see.
Secondly, it is presumptuous to say that questions which require higher-order thinking skills are not set in our public examinations.
Even during my time of service, the Examination Board clearly spelled out the structure and composition of each examination paper, requiring a fixed number of questions for each level of Bloom's Taxonomy.
This practice is to ensure that only students who have truly understood and can think thoroughly on the subject matter deserve to score high marks in the paper.
I believe the system of setting examination questions has, by now, been very much improved, rendering it more reliable and valid.
Why then are our students not scoring well in international examinations?
Perhaps in local examinations, higher-order thinking skills questions are asked, but do not need to be answered correctly to score an A grade.
It seems that nowadays, As are easily given for most subjects.
This leads to the unhealthy trend in schools where teachers do not devote much time to helping students develop higher-order thinking skills in their respective subjects.
In addition, with the easy availability of examination revision materials, higher-order thinking skills have been reduced to knowing certain tricks to get by examinations.
The students memorise and regurgitate these examination tricks, which result in them scoring well.
Also, quality reference materials for school-level Science and Mathematics in Bahasa Malaysia are scarce.
Even teachers and those who set exam questions soon "run out of bullets", so to speak, when trying to come up with new questions.
This causes similar questions to appear frequently in different examination periods.
If one wants a new example or situation to apply higher-order thinking skills to a familiar theory. formula or equation that he or she had just learned, try reading American or British textbooks on college, O- or A-level Science and Mathematics subjects.
You will be taken on a whole new world of discovery.
It is necessary to know the English language to pursue frontier knowledge. This is the reality of the world today.
We seriously need to re-think the decision to abolish the teaching and learning of science and mathematics in English in our local schools.
Lastly, before making teachers attend another in-service course on higher-order thinking skills, perhaps the Education Ministry should first do an audit.
Are our teachers practicing in their classes what they have learned about Bloom's Taxonomy?
Less than responsible attitudes are not corrected by attending yet another course.
Do our students' high examination scores truly reflect their mastery of higher-order thinking skills that are required to answer a portion of the questions?
Have the higher-order thinking skills questions become stale after having been recycled and overused because of the lack of new input?
We need to think deeper on our approach to higher-order thinking skills lest our students continue to fare poorly in international tests, though by no fault of their own.
Liong Kam Chong,Seremban, Negri Sembilan New Straits Times Columnist 16 January 2013