Cracking the Pre-Programmed Code

“Good morning, Mr. Max! How are you today?”

“I am very well, thank you. How are you?”

“I fine, fine.”

This short back-and-forth happens more times than I can keep track of over the course of any given school day. It is a never-ending barrage of one liners or short interactions. While these interactions are a step above being simply ignored, they are anything but fruitful. Whenever I stop and attempt to extend a short interaction into a brief conversation, the students I’m speaking to completely shut down. They bury their head in their hands, burst into an uncontrollable laughing tantrum, or look to their friends to help them escape the unwanted situation they have unwillingly found themselves. Our conversations stop before they even get the chance to begin.

All of my students who are the product of Malaysian public primary schools have been taking English since they began their educational journey. Some of my students have as much as seven to eight years of English instruction under their belts when they approach me and ask, “How are you today?” So how can it be possible that, after seven or eight years of coursework, my students shut down when I ask them, “How is your day?” or, “Where are you going now?” The answer, I believe has to do with the Malaysian obsession with getting the “right answer.”

During my students’ morning recess time, I wander the grounds of SMK Badak and chat with groups. While the desired educational outcome is to bolster students’ conversational English skills, it is also an opportunity for them to gain some much-needed confidence. I hope to speak with every one

From their very first interactions with English in primary school, Malaysian students are presented with the tools to uncover the right answer. They are programmed to operate in black and white, only seeing problems or interactions as correct or incorrect. This is why, I can walk up to any one of the nearly one thousand students at SMK Badak and ask them, “How are you?” and they will promptly respond, “I fine.” This interaction has been drilled into their minds: This is the correct response! Anything else is seen as unnecessary outside the box thinking or unnecessary fluff and is disregarded. 

Evidence of this aforementioned drilling can be observed on a daily basis in practically every classroom at SMK Badak. My Malaysian teaching colleagues will be the first to admit that their teaching techniques are far from perfect. They do not know how to present new information to their students any other way than direct instruction. One of my closest friends told me that, “All students expect from me is information. They want me to unscrew their heads and pour the information in.” The way in which the new information is presented strongly correlates with Malaysian attitudes about perfection: Malaysian teachers lecture everyday because that is how they can easily present the “correct answers” to their students. 

This reliance on direct instruction is the polar opposite of the way I approach teaching.

I believe that every one of my students enters my classroom with unique skills, passions, and experiences that set them apart from their classmates. My goal when I teach is to provide opportunities for my students to showcase their known talents and to hopefully discover new passions. I am a strong believer in student-led discussions and activities and feel that my role is to guide my students towards greater understandings of the world; not simply to tell them which answer is right and wrong. 

These two viewpoints are polar opposite of one another and my approach is clearly a foreign import. Whenever I enter into one of my own classes and ask my students to engage in an activity that requires critical or higher order thinking, they freeze. They do not know what to do. They cannot operate under these circumstances for all of the reasons I just mentioned. They cannot navigate the task I have asked of them because they are only used to working towards a single, correct answer. 

The students in my 4UO class had never been handed the teaching reins before. It was beautiful to watch them promote English language use, challenge one another when they didn’t, and forget they were supposed to be learning.

For example, I am working with my 4UA students on independent writing journals. I provide my twenty-nine students with an open-ended prompt at the beginning of each week and ask that they write at least one page over the course of the next seven days. When I initially outlined these requirements, my students and their Malaysian teacher seemed lost. Both parties could not fathom that I would collect these writing journals and not grade them for grammatical errors or content points. The idea of open-ended writing just doesn’t happen. 

Even now, after three weeks of journaling, I still see signs of students falling back onto their programmed habits: I receive three or four identical entries from friend groups who have copied the best student’s work because their writing is more correct. I have also received sentence-long entries in excellent English explaining that the prompt was too confusing and they could not come up with any ideas. 

This hesitancy to take even the slightest of risks is heart breaking. My students are undeniably talented. Deep down I know they possess the fundamental vocabulary and rudimentary grammar to craft a unique written response. But they are paralyzed by fear. The fear of being incorrect or making too many mistakes. 

If I could boil things down to the simplest of terms, I would say that my students know English but they do not understand English. They know how to respond when I ask them, “How is your day?” but they do not understand that their response does not need to be grammatically correct and they may not remember the “correct response” to the question. So they laugh or run away to protect themselves from further embarrassment. They can provide a short, pre-programmed response but cannot formulate an original idea from their knowledge base. 

While this pre-programmed level of English competency may be currently acceptable in Bachok, where English is not spoken nor required to navigate daily life, the situation is changing. As Malaysia attempts to promote itself as a primetime player on a global scale, the nations’ perspective on the English language is shifting. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the Malaysian educational system has had a love-hate relationship with the English language ever since it was founded in the late 1950s. Attitudes towards the importance of English have ebbed and flowed and nationwide educational policy has followed suit. Currently, the educational climate is shifting and new educational policies that demand English language instruction are being implemented. 

There is no clearer evidence of this shift than the addition of English to the list of subjects students are required to pass before graduating secondary school. Starting next year, all Form 5 students (aka high school seniors) will be required to pass English in order to receive their SPM certificates.

The Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, or SPM for short, essentially serves as the Malaysian high school exit exam. All students hoping to graduate are required to take the SPM exam and the results shape students’ immediate futures. Those students who receive extremely high scores on their SPM have access to university exchange programs both in and outside of Malaysia. For the elite, the opportunities include full ride scholarships to schools in England, Australia, and even the United States. Those who receive high marks but not elite scores have the chance to further their education at local or state-run universities. And those receive low marks will have no chance of graduating, securing an entry level job, or furthering their educational careers unless they retake the exam the next year and improve their score.

In other words, the SPM exam determines the lives students will live once they leave the confines of their secondary school. And now English proficiency has been thrown into the mix? That is a 180-degree shift in attitude and educational policy when it comes to English language instruction. If my students struggle with basic conversational English, how can they honestly be expected to excel in academic English? In the form of a single high-stakes exam? To add more pressure to the situation, the English portion of the SPM will include more open ended questions that will require students to craft original responses on the spot. This new English section won’t just be fill in the blank or multiple choice questions. 

Will the new English requirements change the way Malaysian teachers interact with their students? Cikgu Izani serves as a role model: meeting with students outside of class to provide additional help sessions.

The new reality for my students at SMK Badak and for students across Malaysia is that they will need to value English in order to succeed in life. If my students want to receive their SPM certificates, they will need to start recalling the conversational and academic English skills they have accumulated over their educational careers. Major shifts will also need to happen amongst teachers as well. My Malaysian colleagues will need to start encouraging students to take the necessary risks to bolster their language development. This will require that they reshape their own pedagogical approaches and move away from direct instruction. 

The addition of English to the list of compulsory SPM changes everything. It changes Malaysia’s perspective English language instruction. It changes the attitudes students, teachers, and community members will need to view English instruction. And it changes the way Malaysian schools operate as a whole. As a result of this shift in educational policy, English language instruction can no longer be disregarded and labeled as unessential. It is essential for teachers whose jobs are dependent on preparing students for the realities of the real world. And it is essential for students if they want to graduate and have access to a world of knowledge and opportunity. 

When I return to SMK Badak in a decade or two and am approached by students who ask, “Good morning, sir. How are you today?” I will be able to answer and our brief interaction will blossom into a short, yet fruitful conversation.

Only time will tell. 


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