"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Medium of Instruction and Science Learning

Apparently in Chinese, a single word can be used to convey either "heat" or hot":

This obviously could be confusing to a high school student who is trying to learn fundamental physics in Chinese. Science learning does require much more than just grasping concepts. Science requires a certain precision in academic language. Even in English, force and power may seem interchangeable in everyday conversations, but in physics, these two correspond to two distinct quantities. Hence, the question of how the medium of instruction affects science learning is an important issue to address especially now that most learning resources for the sciences are in English.

A paper scheduled to be published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching tackles this question by performing a quasi-experimental study in a secondary school in Hong Kong. Participants (about 200 students) come from working class families. For about half of the students, the highest educational attainment of the parents is junior high school (9 years of basic education). All of the students in the study use Mandarin as the language at home. Since Chinese is the medium of instruction in junior high school, the students have been exposed to English only when taking the English subject. In the study, about half of the students is enrolled in a physics class where English is the medium of instruction (EMI) while the other half is placed in a class where Chinese is the medium of instruction (CMI). The following is the abstract of the paper:

Albeit the authors seem to emphasize that Chinese seems to be a better medium of instruction in enabling low-ability students, this appears to apply only on one of the topics covered, forces. When it comes to heat or thermal concepts, the results do not really support this conclusion:
Above copied from
Fung, D. and Yip, V. (2014), The effects of the medium of instruction in certificate-level physics on achievement and motivation to learn. J. Res. Sci. Teach.. doi: 10.1002/tea.21174
In the above figure CMI corresponds to Chinese as medium of instruction while EMI corresponds to English. Since a pre-test is provided, the students can be initially grouped according to initial ability at the end of junior high school (where only the general sciences have been covered with everyone using Chinese as the medium of instruction). Clearly, as the authors have also presented in the paper, when differences are examined, EMI provides higher improvement for both "middle" and "high-ability" students, and there is really no difference between CMI and EMI with regard to students who perform poorly in the pre-test:
Above copied from 
Fung, D. and Yip, V. (2014), The effects of the medium of instruction in certificate-level physics on achievement and motivation to learn. J. Res. Sci. Teach.. doi: 10.1002/tea.21174
The above results are indeed telling. More importantly, an interview has also been performed by Fung and Yip, and one specific issue that comes out is a question often raised by students who are in the physics class that uses Chinese as medium of instruction. It is in fact more of a comment than a question: How will they perform in college where physics is exclusively taught in English? It is an appropriate question to ask. Unfortunately, their answer perhaps is to dismiss simply physics as a future course to take.

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