Thursday, October 16, 2008

How should English be taught in schools?

Warning: long post!

Following my earlier post on Andre’s composition skills, there was a debate on Lilian’s blog about education systems around the world and whether the Singapore system stifles creativity. For this post, I'm focusing specifically on the teaching of English. I’m cutting and pasting some of the comments here (Lilian and YY, hope you don't mind!)

YY, who’s in Canada said:

“It was a pleasant culture-shock for us when we saw my boy & his classmates' journal entries when he was in Grade 1 last yr. They were full of spelling mistakes but never-the-matter, the 'suggested' correct spelling is written unobtrusively under about half the wrongly spelled words without any 'crosses' implicating you're 'wrong'. Kids are encouraged to explore & express themselves freely without fear of making mistakes; if they don't know the spelling, just make out the word according to how it sounds. It's like the emphasis is on developing the confidence to put down on paper all their thoughts as much as possible, before developing the skills to follow often-arbitrary language rules that's culturally or historically dictated…

So he came up with these 'creative' spellings that reduce words to bare phonics: 'peyeno lesens'; a good 'pursen'; 'jakat'; 'elafant'; feeling 'nurvas'; 'tabl'; 'apl' (for apple); 'bamntan rakt'; 'avry sumar' I go to the 'beech'; 'rimot' control' I want to be an 'egeener' when I grow up... ; a 'speshl' toy.

I read somewhere that creativity has to do with not being afraid of making mistakes. So fostering creativity may have something to do with even small things like this... I'm not saying that not correcting spelling mistakes is one way to foster creativity, but it's within the the overall context & culture of not being so anal about everything having to be right to the extent that it cramps the free flow of ideas.

Lilian, whose kids have attended a prep school in London and are now in an American school in Moscow, said:

“The teachers in his UK school do not use red-inked pens, but green ones, how's that for some positivity? Green for go, red for stop. And there are no angry markings (unlike when mummy dearest is in charge), just the correctly- spelled word written at the end for the child to write say, 4 more times. But unlike in North A, I don't think British schools would allow spelling mistakes to go uncorrected. You know how proper they are…

And I definitely think he was getting a much better academic education over in the UK than here (in Moscow). They had specialist teachers for every subject there, even the artwork they produced were of outstanding quality. Over here, one teacher teaches everything (except music, art, IT and PE) so good luck to you if you get a lousy one that year… That said, the atmosphere here is a lot more relaxed. There are lots more project and team work. The kids in the UK seem more competitive.”

Here’s my take: Each style of teaching seems to mirror the ethos of the country, ie the Americans (and Canadians) emphasise freedom of expression, the Brits focus on proper usage and Singaporeans? Well, Singaporeans, typically Asian, focus on results.

I think there are two different issues here – teaching competence in the language and fostering appreciation of the language. Sometimes, one is sacrificed in the over-zealous quest for the other. I think the two extremes are reflected in the American and Singaporean styles – ie Americans foster appreciation (to the extent of not correcting mistakes) and the Singaporeans drill down to getting everything right (to the extent of dictating content).

I’m not sure if the British system is a good balance of the two, maybe. Using green ink instead of red to mark is a positive method of encouragement – I found this adopted at Morris Allen, a British tuition centre here.

Don’t take this personally YY, but I actually disagree with the American system because I feel that the emphasis on creativity above all else comes at the expense of competence. I think that could be the reason why Americans as a population have a poorer grasp of the language, especially written, than other English speaking countries. (Just my opinion! Don't shoot me!)

Since we won’t be migrating anytime soon (and possibly ever), I don’t want to write off the Singapore system just yet. Yes, it has taken a lot of flack but it has certainly proven itself in terms of building competence. Eg. Singapore has consistently churned out kids who win international writing competitions, and we are ranked 4th in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study despite not all kids here coming from an English-speaking background (coincidentally, the same score as Canada British Columbia, YY!) See? Results!

With regards to appreciation of the language, earlier this year, I was invited to give a talk to the GEP kids about what I do, as part of a programme to showcase different professions. They were very excited that I was a writer, even though I did explain that I'm not the JK Rowling type of writer whom they would be more interested in. I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the kids were keen on becoming writers, even though it’s not the most prestigious or money-making (remember these are the high-flying kids, the potential leaders, doctors, lawyers, etc.) Obviously the love of the language is very much alive and the system didn’t quash that passion.

The system does try to promote expression without correcting mistakes (albeit to a limited extent) via the journal. Every kid has a journal where they can write about anything they want. Here, the entries are not corrected for spelling or grammar, the teacher only makes a comment at the end. Eg. when Andre wrote about his holiday, his teacher wrote “Sounds like you had fun!” One of Lesley-Anne’s classmates in p3 wrote pages and pages about how the government hates children because it makes them wake up so early for school and piles them with homework. (Must have been a fascinating read!) The teacher wrote at the end, “I don’t agree with your views but I see your frustration. Keep writing.” I thought that was very understanding and encouraging.

Having said that, I’m not blind to the flaws of the system. As many parents here have noted, there’s too much focus on correcting spelling and grammar mistakes in composition. Andre’s papers often have red marks all over, which must be very discouraging. I’m not sure they do any good anyway, because he only cares about the overall score, which again, is a problem arising from over-emphasis on results.

In my opinion, one of the biggest problems is the standard of English among primary school teachers in Singapore. Like in Moscow, many of the teachers in the lower primary levels teach everything – English, maths, social studies, art, music, PE. Jack of all trades, master of none. Many of these teachers, sad to say, have a really poor level of English themselves. Grammar mistakes galore, even in the simple notes they write. A friend was lamenting how her son said his p1 teacher pronounced "kennel" as "canal" and told him to "on the computer". And this is in a mission school, usually known for good English! Aiyoh, how to teach kids like that? These teachers also don't know how to handle off-the-wall content, probably stemming from their own traditional experiences as a student. If Andre wrote “the furious fox came to eat John for his lunch” at school, I’m pretty sure it would be given a big cross because the teacher has no idea how to deal with such unconventional thinking.

But we’re not just dealing with an isolated educational system that's easy to replace as a single entity. We’re talking about an entire psyche of a population. I may consider myself an “enlightened” mum but my Asian roots emphasising achievement are still deeply entrenched. I suspect even if the MOE suddenly decides to adopt the American system, majority of parents here are not ready for it.

YY wrote that in Canada, “Asian kids win the vast majority of the academic awards despite forming only maybe 1/4 to 1/3 of the student body. I was telling hubby that if not for the 2nd, 3rd & 4th categories, the white kids would have very few awards to win!! I was proud that one of the top Social Responsibility awards was given to a pair of Japanese twins (but being Japanese, it kinda figures too, doesn't it?)”

So at the end of the day, even when we’re out of Asia and in a Western system, our Asian values still take over! It’s a symbiotic relationship – the system shapes us and we shape the system.

I like what Lilian said: "But seriously, so many of you also went through the stressful system and you all turn out great, so something has to be said for the Sg education system".

It’s not perfect, but I’ll work with it and change what I can.


Lilian said...

Monica, Monica, Monica...why do you write so darn well. I have so many thoughts in my head, but find it so hard to crystalise them and pen them down the way you have here.

Yes, it's like the saying, if life hands you lemon, just make lemonade. Make the best of any situation you are in, see the positives in it. I think that's what we're all doing in our respective lives.

As I've said often, I'm a compulsive moaner, so don't mind me when I complain about this or that; I do see the positives of every system I've been in, but where's the fun in talking about that :) hehe, so moan lah. Hsien was with me in London and she will know, I used to moan lots too when the kids were in the UK system, but now looking back, it was heaven man. hehe.

Our kids are probably hardier than we give them credit for, and will be fine at the end of the day, whichever system they're in.

Okay, gotta go make some lemonade, with some vodka thrown in.

monlim said...

I'm a moaner too, so I understand you perfectly! Yah, I have to see the good aspects of this system cos we're stuck with it for the next 10 years at least. If I was in another country, I bet I'd throw more stones :D

But like you said, we all turned out ok (and the system in the last generation was even more restrictive!) so at the end of the day, it's what the individual does with what he's given. And you're right, our kids are hardier than we give them credit for. We're such enlightened mums! Of course they'll be great kids!! (hahaha, must occasionally give ourselves a boost!)

Anonymous said...

""Here’s my take: Each style of teaching seems to mirror the ethos of the country, ie the Americans (and Canadians) emphasise freedom of expression, the Brits focus on proper usage and Singaporeans? Well, Singaporeans, typically Asian, focus on results.""

You're so perceptive, man. But let me add: what do Sgp-reans focus on? Singaporeans 'everything-also-wan' lah!!

""I actually disagree with the American system because I feel that the emphasis on creativity above all else comes at the expense of competence. I think that could be the reason why Americans as a population have a poorer grasp of the language, especially written, than other English speaking countries.""

Oh my stepdaughter can't agree with you more!... Remember I wrote earlier that she came over here in G11 and topped English in her Canadian school? She went as far as to say that many of the kids in her school here ought to have been retained instead of promoted--it would have done them more good! [Oh but that's also her 'elitist' side speaking--wait till she herself gets retained.. remember that mid-yr exam in Sec 3 when she failed half her subjects???... :-)] Anyway, she has all her theories about how English should be taught. Here she decries the Canadian system but back in Sgp didn't I hear her decrying the Sgp system too?? [I'm so tempted to remind her of the things she used to say, but doing that would simply irritate her even more... haha.. wait till you girls have to deal with your know-it-all teenagers next time..]

I think Americans themselves--esp. highly educated ones, know the limitations of their school systems and homeschooling is gaining a lot of grounds, parents going as far as to search for good materials.. (they have a Californian HQ now, btw). Canada, as I've said, is more socialistic and my feeling is that they put more resources into their public schools, probably because there's a smaller population to cater to.

Nonetheless I suppose N. America rests in the fact that for various reasons, they consistently have that critical brain-mass plus other factors to keep them being the world super-leader in quality-of-life & other things important to most people, which is in turn causative to why they're such a magnet for world-brain-drain. So the cycle perpetuates itself...

And I also say, what Sgp needs to have, Sgp has gotta do it. If she needs her kids to maintain that keen edge which I agree is critical to national economic survival, by all means sharpen them up.

One of my coping mechanisms is to keep focusing on the positives of the place I find myself in. So in those years when there was no signs that the possibility of emigration was shaping up, I kept defending Sgp to all that would care to hear. But I remember after we've fixed a date to move here and I handed in my job-resignation, I freely allowed all the erstwhile suppressed negatives to surface. And it became a long litany of very valid justifications for why I lose very little by 'quitting'..

So I say, while focusing on the positives of being in Sgp while you're there, let another small part of your brain work out if this is the only option. :-))

As for that reading skills ranking, it was interesting that the various Canadian provinces competed separately... I wonder why... ANyway my thinking is that Canadian kids by-&-large have more equal reading skills across the board, while Sgp kids are of a wider spectrum, with the really brilliant ones compensating for the weaker ones. I suspect Britain may also see a wider spectrum than Canada, the latter having strong socialist leanings and is very much shaped by previously British people who came here to seek a 'classless' society.

As for Sgp kids winning writing competitions, it's a fact but I haven't pinpointed what that is exactly attributed to, except that kids in Sgp are well-drilled to 'give the examiners what they're looking for'. But what I want to explore is: somewhere along the line there must be 'wastage' of some kind. Because, all the global math, science, and writing competitions that are won by Sgp kids should translate into equally world-class groundbreaking achievements 20-30yrs down the line. But when it comes to the 'global scene', the same Singapore kids who have become adults somehow no longer find themselves at the head of the global pack, quite as much as they had been when they were students... I haven't yet tried to analyze why this is so. Any takers?


Anonymous said...

Oh another observation regarding that Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS): I have previously noted that in the previous ranking in 2001 Sgp was way behind at 15th place, whilst the other countries that are currently in the top 10 (UK, USA, Canada for e.g.) had been more consistent.

It made me think: is this a sign of Sgp's superior 'adaptive' mechanism when it comes to tests & scores, I wonder?? I'll bet after that 2001 results a 'work-group' was formed to explore how they could improve the kids' scores in future testing.. :-) [Hey, I had been in civil service before lah... I know how they work lah]. And when they got that higher ranking, they tell Sgp parents that hey, see how we've tweaked our system so that our kids can now read better? [please lah, those kids are reading better now because their moms sweated it out in their preschool years to teach them how to read when they're still babies, lah..]

ok ok.. I'm being super cynical. Don't shoot. [quickly siam]


monlim said...

YY: Very astute observations! Re: where the brilliant kids are in 20, 30 yrs, I don't know - has any study tracked them down? I suspect it's not because they've lost their edge along the way, but rather that the pragmatic side takes over and instead of becoming world-renowned mathematicians, scientists or writers, they become subsumed into mainstream society as doctors, lawyers and engineers, etc. Hence you don't hear of them anymore. Anyway, when you're talking absolute numbers, they are not that many, since our population is so tiny. But that's just my guess.

No idea why the Canadian provinces are tested separately, maybe because some are tested in French?

Hehe, you could be right about SGP's approach to the PIRL, not just mums sweating it out, but I think more and more families are becoming English-speaking at home vs five years ago. But I have to say that the kindies here are early in getting kids to read and write. By the time you hit p1, if you've been to kindy, you would already know how to read, which in a way is due to the education system (even though it's not yet regulated).

Re: migration, I'm never one to say never. But seriously, it's not a case of passive acceptance - with all its faults and my constant complaints, I actually like living here. And I'm adverse to moving to an ang moh country because *looks around for lurking ang mohs* a lot (though not all) of them annoy me, with their big egos and pompous attitudes, more talk than action. There, you made me say it, now I'm the one who has to siam!!

Lilian said...

You two crack me up!

YY, I wondered too about what happened to all these Math, Writing prize winners. Monica, the population being tiny can't be the reason, cos that didn't stop these kids from winning the competitions when they were young. Logically, we should see at least a few of them performing at world-class levels.

It could be what you YY talked about in the comments section of one of my posts, "It has also been observed that whilst accelerated-early-learning can boost a child's IQ and give him a significant headstart in early years up to high-school level, this advantage becomes insignificant by the time they reach adulthood." Makes sense doesn't it.

Makes you wonder if some world-class achievers could have emerged if they had been allowed to muddle their way through and not been 'pushed' in the early years (not just by parents, but by being in the education system). All moot, cos no way will the Singapore government leave it to chance and allow kids to just muddle through. So we'll never know.

monlim said...

It depends on what you mean by "insignificant", if it means that the IQ doesn't impact on "success", that's definitely true.

Population tiny as in each year, 1 or 2 students make the headlines but in absolute numbers (vs the rest of the world), the combined pool of these prize winners is still very small even over the years. So unless someone has tracked what happened to them, how can we tell whether they're "performing at world-class levels"? It's just like SGP has the highest no. of students taking the ABRSM piano exams each year (can't you believe this? Even more than UK??) but how many go on to become world-class pianists? Sure, there are some child prodigies you hear about, but more often than not, these kids later take the "pragmatic" route and pursue other careers. No money in music mah...

I think it was mentioned in ST sometime that 10-20 years ago, you still would find children of taxi drivers and hawkers becoming President's scholars (ie muddled thru themselves and shone) but not any more. This means without the support from the family, these undiscovered talents without privileged backgrounds are up against an impossible task of surmounting the system by themselves. This is a scary thought.

Lilian said...

Could it be sampling bias again? In the past, the proportion of the priviledged/white-collar/middle-class to blue-collar workers is lower than it is now. Also, the old hawkers/taxi-drivers have kids who all grown-up and the hawkers/taxi-drivers of today are increasingly non-Singaporeans? Dunno, just thinking out loud.

Btw, I find it really funny that whenever ST reports on top scorers, they have to mention that this kid lives in HDB, and the father is a technician or some other blue-collar worker; why is that relevant?

Lilian said...

Macam trying to appease the peasants! haha, referring to the last point on my previous post.

oh, and I count myself amongst the peasants, so other peasants please don't stone me.

monlim said...

Oi, how come we all so scared of being shot, stoned, etc?? See lah, where got freedom of speech like that? Our blog, we should be able to say what we want, right! (Don't like comments just delete, haha - see, the autocratic style is ingrained in me!)

Anonymous said...

I hear from some people that nowadays, the Prez scholars are of 2 categories:--

1) Children of highly 'connected' people.

2) Children of heartlanders.

With the usual cynicism, Sgp-reans read into this that (1) reflects the cronyism that's actually taking place, powers-that-be doing 'favors' for one another; and (2) is there to show that 'everyone can make it in Sgp'. So they say that if you're from the middleclass you've got no chance of a shot at this.


Lilian said...

Astute observation YY.

monlim said...

True or not? I thot every year I seem to see that the scholars are kids of administrators, businessman, engineers, mostly middle class folks leh...

Not that it bothers me, President's Scholarship not in my radar - past, present or future.

Lilian said...

I remember a recent Prez scholar being EDB CEO's daughter, not begrudging him of course, he was my former CEO, very nice guy, just stating a fact. Oh, he was also Prez scholar. I just found out that year, another Prez scholar's dad was a Colombo Plan scholar. Not implying any cronyism lah, these kids have pedigree, good genes, and opportunities to do excel in non-academic pursuits also there; Prez scholar must be well-rounded mah.

Definitely there'll be some middle-class folks in there, cos they're the bulge of the population. But for the tiny number of top honchos, their offsprings sure figure a lot amongst Prez scholars. Even amongst middle-class, many of these are top-rung middle-class, not the sandwiched-middle-class.

Alcovelet said...

Whoa, quite an conversation going on here! I have too much to say on the topic, having worked among the international crowd for so long. Blogging now ...

Anonymous said...

Wha, now I find out different adjectives for the middle-class: top-rung, sandwiched..


eunice said...

OK, here is my 2 cents worth. I don't know about the Sin system now as Sean has never studied there but I see friends' children who are always doing homework, tuition etc.

I think most schools are so results orientated that they forget the child as a person. Yes, I do moan that they don't drill, drill the kids, but the children are vocal, inquisitive and also taught to give back to society.

Sean's school has events and even curriculum that is aimed towards giving the children more than just textbook lessons.

Btw, yes, they don't use red pens to mark work here. It's blue (more restful?) or a pencil.

monlim said...

Ladies, Eunice is in Bangkok. So not all Asian countries have education systems that focus on results! Maybe that's why Thailand is one of the most gracious societies in Asia...

Anonymous said...

eunice: ""... but the children are vocal, inquisitive and also taught to GIVE BACK TO SOCIETY. ""

That's so, so true for my kid in Canada too! (where's yours btw?)

When I attended my kiddo's first Recognition Assembly for the schoolyear 2 yrs ago, the principal was elaborating on the 4 aspects of Social Responsibility the school wished to inculcate in the kids, namely:--

(1) Exercising your democratic rights (can't see THIS happening in Sgp curriculum! :)

Meaning when asked for your opinions, you don't sit on the fence. You take a stand & stand up for it.

(2) Contributing to the classroom & the community.

By & large the pple here are very non-judging but if they ever do, it's more based on how much you're contributing to the society rather than how much 'stuff' you've heaped up for yourself.

(3) Valuing Diversity.

Meaning that you do not judge a person by how he looks, how he speaks (aha, perhaps a veiled reference to the British society they left in the distant past.. :), where he's from. We had ALL been from somewhere else some time ago (a loaded statement agst the background of how their pioneering fathers had treated the First Nation natives :).

I was so struck by this & also by the feedback given by friends who've lived here for some time, that there is a GENUINE intent to see themselves as a multi-ethnic nation and not a white one. And they do it not because of some social imperative or advantage, but simply because they think it's the only decent thing to do. Don't care that some new-immigrants of certain ethnic groups have really acted in ways to have given a bad rep, the Canadians still push ahead with the conviction that they have a higher ideal & that to believe in a person is probably the only thing that's within your power to do to make that person rise to that expectation. Esp. here in B.C. where 35% of the pp. are Asians (orientals plus east-indians), it's become de rigeur for an oriental or at least an eurasian to be featured on any media production that's supposed to be representative of the B.C. society, for e.g. government publications & retail advertisements.

Contrast this with Sgp: granted that racial harmony is something that's been strongly drummed into us since childhood but I can imagine that were Sgp surrounded by nations populated by the majority ethnic group, the gahmen wouldn't care a hoot about this issue at all. Very pragmatic lor.

ok ok, better stop now or I'll become obnoxious with all this 'propaganda'.

(4) Resolving differences in peaceful ways.

The principal made an impactful point when he said to the kids that most problems that do exist amongst adults are due to a failure to practice this very principle. Whoa.... how true..

eunice: ""...I do moan that they don't drill, drill the kids,...""

In contrast I don't moan about them not drilling the kids because since having done some 'drilling' myself for one of my older kids, I've seen what an OGRE it turned me into.. :-\


Anonymous said...

monlim, oh yes I always did enjoy my Thailand trips! They make you feel so happy treating you like honored guests (despite how obnoxious Sgp-reans can sometimes be :-)...

Perhaps the Buddhist philosophy teaches them that it's more honorable to make themselves smaller in their own eyes and make others bigger...


monlim said...

YY, I see you have a lot to get off your chest! Giving back to society is so important. They're trying to give that message in schools now too, the problem is sometimes, they're shouting so many things at the kids, the kids stop listening. Everything also must do, everything also want lah.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, they're certainly being flooded with too many messages. Come home also must listen to tuition teacher & mommy-coach.


Btw just y'day my stepdaughter told a visiting Sgp-rean couple that she DIDN'T FEEL STRESSED AT ALL when she was in the Sgp system (0_0 !)

Was she totally out-of-touch or can this actually mean I didn't do too bad a job of it to have taken all that stress upon myself without putting it upon her???* (*wishful thinking; self-congratulatory licking of wounds..)

But it set me thinking: can it be that--excluding the odd un-enlightened teacher--much of the stress in the Sgp system actually comes from thinly veiled or explicitly spelt-out expectations & attitudes FROM HOME?? So that any educational initiative from the system is immediately viewed through the lens of cultural imperatives, & that it's the inherent attitudes in the culture that produces the stress.

For e.g. I don't think all ethnic groups in Sgp feel stressed by the education system. They're all going through the same system right, but all the stress that floods certain ethnic group(s) seems to be just water-off-the-duck's-back for some other.

I think it largely boils down to the very oriental thinking that 'doing your best' means 'doing-at least-as-well-if-not-better-than your-parents-did' and bringing your 'family name' up a notch in social ranking.

I guess I got a triple-dose of that coz both my parents were chinese-language teachers!! buahahaha... bawls..

I don't think hubby or I had ever inculcated this kind of 'family-centric' obligations in our kids. Dunno whether this is good or bad, but considering how shipwrecked my relationship with my parents is, I can't help but shy away from all that kind of talk..

(don't you think I've got lots & lots of neuroses?)


Anonymous said...

... I want to add: in the kind of oriental thinking that was passed down to me, 'doing your best' also means 'doing better than my friends' kids' lah!!


bACk in GERMANY said...

So much going on here...
Ok, am not MIA online... just not here...

Shoulders and stiff neck have been giving me problems, thus just moved laptop to bedroom to enjoy the week's of the usual US series... e.g. I even caught latest of DH on Monday, just one day after broadcast in the States!

Anyway back to this discussion:
I know I know I know I know someone who's in world class standard...
Ok, they didn't exactly win world class competition then. But they were among the tops of my cohort at the times of public exams.
The guy who topped PSLE my year is a pretty renowned oncologist in Sg... and he was busy researching in the States some years ago... yep, I would say, he's also trying to return to the society with what he's so abundantly endowed with - knowledge!
Another prez scholar of my year was an assistant prof at NIE and has now moved on to Oxford to lecture.... see... also "giving back to society".
And I'm sure there are many more... not just within Singapore, but of world class calibre too!

I won't be too fast to pick up a stone and aim it at our education system. Like most of you have recognised it, the stress level depends on how much the family actually subjects the child to. Besides, from the top level down, our education system is very much based on Confucianism of "xiu shen, qi jia, zhi guo, ping tian xia"! As far as I can remember, we were too taught to give back to our society. We've been in the same system, and clearly, people have taken different aspects of it with them and move on with their lives.
Also somewhere along the way (between the top level people and the people in the middle management), the essence of education in a greater picture is lost... and yes, what measures better than producing statistics and results?!

I applaud you moms for putting every thought out so nicely in words. If ever there's a committee to review any education policies, there should be some parents like yourselves on board, esp when parents are considered as stakeholders of our kids' education.

Ok... can't verbalise my sentiments as eloquently as Mon or yy... but yeah, the gist of it all is still to make lemonade. After all, most people I know have turned out to be wonderful individuals despite the stressful system we all went through.

monlim said...

Hope you feel better soon, Cindy. Ironically, it could be long-time use of computer that gave you the neck and shoulder pain! (See what us IAA members endure...)

It's good to hear that people are giving back to society, not just spouting it in theory. The adage "The more you get the more you should give" is oh so true.

bACk in GERMANY said...

O yes... the focus on mistakes and things that we don't know.... our school teachers sure know how to diminish our self-esteem.

I remember one Sec school Eng teacher who used to tell us to highlight the words that we didn't know in a passage...
What a great way to tell her students how stupid they were!

Back in a didactic class, our lecturer told us to direct our students' attention to the possibles, things that they know.

In my class... when I told my students to underline things that they knew, there was a pause. They all looked at me blankly.
"Yeah... you are hearing me right. Underline all the words that you understand! There will be many, I think."

They were all smiling, reading that passage... and guess what? They did so well, even when it came to words that they didn't know, they learnt to read the meaning from the context! Now they became confident of a passage in a foreign language!

I wonder how comprehension is taught in school now.

Lilian said...

PP, you sound like a really enlightened teacher, your students are really lucky.

Oh, everytime I moan about my neck aching (an ailment I've had since pre-internet days, ie during my teens), Eddie takes the chance to say, "Just stop surfing lah". @#$%^&

Anonymous said...

Regarding: “”Confucianism of "xiu shen, qi jia, zhi guo, ping tian xia"!””

Unfortunately Confucius’ ideals have not been fully realized in actual Chinese societies, real Chinese people largely do not live this ideal beyond the ‘family’ level.

Some 15yrs ago I was reading this book that discussed the Chinese “Stepping-Stone” syndrome, and referring to HKgers fleeing the 1997-transition in particular. I agreed with the author when he wrote that for Chinese people their loyalties are to the family & clan. But they have little loyalty at the municipal level & above because throughout Chinese history there had been too many emperors & governors who’ve only ended up being tyrants & dictators corrupted by power.

Hence in Chinese diasporas throughout the world the Chinese retain strong allegiance to their families & their ‘interests’ are patently for their own families and much less so even for the Chinese community as a whole. [ In this one can see an obvious contrast with the Korean diaspora for example, who retain strong communal allegiances & identities.]

I find it a paradox that here we’re being told that westerners are individualistic and value individual freedom more than the interests of the community while Asians are views as ‘community-minded’. Yet in reality it is in western societies that you see pretty uniform civic-mindedness (excepting the slums & ghettos, of course) as reflected in most people doing their part to keep communal properties in pristine conditions, while Chinatowns in most western cities are almost invariably the dirtiest and messiest parts of the cities. It’s as if Chinese people only care about up-keeping their own homes and what happens in public property is someone else’s business and they really can’t be bothered about the environment as a whole. (Which is why during the recent Olympics opening ceremony presentation, Beijing made a point of making their children paint this collage that had significant environmental messages, to show the world that they hope to raise up a new generation of environmentally conscious Chinese). But westerners are particularly concerned about how their actions or inactions impact on the community & environment.

For instance here in Vancouver, in the Classified Ads of the local papers that’s delivered free to our house 3x a week, one can see TWO WHOLE PAGES full of just VOLUNTEER activities that people can involve themselves in. And as far as I can tell there’s really no personal interests that they can derive from these volunteer activities, except for the ‘kick’ they get out of volunteering. For example parent volunteers in schools is a veritable force that influences the quality of education in that particular school, but there is really NOTHING the individual volunteers get out of it, except in as far as their direct efforts can add-value to their kids’ education.

So I want to refine our understanding a bit by saying this:-- In Chinese culture individuals may be expected to sacrifice individual freedom for the FAMILY or maybe the village, but not for the society at large or humanity as a whole. In Western cultures one is not expected to sacrifice individual freedom for the family’s sake (except maybe in old ‘moneyed’ families where familial patriotism exists) but within this framework of individual freedom that one enjoys, one weaves in the ideals of contributing to society & humanity as a whole.

As for outstanding Sgp-reans who return to ‘contribute’ to Sgp, let me play the cynic a bit. I would say that this happens almost everywhere else too, even where the home-country may have more ‘undesirables’ than Sgp that can understandably keep one away. The reasons for these Sgp-reans returning are almost never purely out of the desire to ‘give back to’ their home-country, though that would be a very good reason to give when asked. In many cases they HAVE to return to serve govn’t bonds and after that happens, they gradually lose touch with their overseas ‘networks’ and the prospect of living & working overseas begin to look less ‘realistic’, esp. if they then meet & marry a local. In some cases they feel they don’t want to contend with some ‘glass ceiling’ that they perceive overseas. In some cases the spouse (or they themselves) do not ‘connect’ with the foreign cultures. In some cases they have elderly parents they need to be more in touch with or who’ve (quite selfishly, I feel) exerted subtle pressure on them to return (my parents are a case in point, but I’m glad both my brothers stuck to their guns).

Finally for many outstanding Sgp-reans, whether they return or not is the result of their answer to this very pragmatic question many of them ask themselves:-- “Do I want to be a small fish in a big pond, or do I want to be a big fish in a small pond?”

I think what Ken Robinson wrote in one of his books can provide some of the answers as to why Sgp is internationally noted for producing students who beat the rest of the world, but not noted for adults who beat the rest of the world. He wrote:--
“” Many companies are facing a crisis in graduate recruitment. It's not that there aren't enough graduates to go around; there are more and more. But too many don't have what business urgently needs: they can't communicate well, they can't work in teams and they can't think creatively. But why should they? University degrees aren't designed to make pple creative. They are designed to do other things and often do them well. But complaining that graduates aren't creative is like saying, 'I bought a bus and it sank’ “”

I infer from this that Sgp is very good with the 20th-century education model and thus produces excellent students and even professors. But this model is not designed to make people think out-of-the-box, which is really what’s required for ground-breaking innovations that advance humanity. If you think about it, every single significant scientific discovery, business enterprise or artistic creation has been the result of some form of thinking-out-of-the-box.

I know the GEP would be the best environment in Sgp to cultivate this, and the non-GEP stream which involves 99% of the student body has a lot of catching up to do in terms of training these kids in those skills not already performable by computers or that can be more cheaply outsourced elsewhere … Moreover the GEP precludes students that are not in the top 1% of academic-giftedness. The first question directed at the GEP should be: is academic giftedness the only kind of giftedness that can lead to humanity-advancing breakthroughs? This is a premise that is perhaps in itself based on the flawed 20th-century education model.


monlim said...

I won't get too analytical on this topic otherwise I suspect it will get me depressed! But perhaps at the end of the day, as we've figured out, many thing in SGP, education included, is still based on economic survival, whereas in a place like Canada, that's not an issue so you can move beyond to the higher ideals of education. I don't know about other developing countries, but I suspect their education system won't be focused on issues like "giving back to society", but more on hard skills, again for pragmatic reasons.

Not to say therefore we don't cultivate adults who can create "humanity-advancing breakthroughs" but that really isn't the primary purpose here... yet. The GEP does groom more creative thinking individuals but not because that is its main goal - its main goal is still to groom a group of people who are potentially leaders for the country, again economic survival.

As I mentioned in Lilian's blog, many SGP polys have long adopted problem-based methodology (as far back as 10 yrs ago) which moves the focus away from content-based learning to life skills learning (creativity, problem-solving, communication, etc). Just that it's taking a long time to filter down to the primary school level.

btw, I think the statement "SGPeans are not noted for adults who beat the rest of the world" has still NOT been established, ie is it really there are any or we just haven't personally heard of them? Again bearing in mind the smaller absolute numbers. Cindy has listed quite a few who are leaders in their own fields. Not to belabour the point, but I'm still not convinced.

Anonymous said...

"" ... many thing in SGP, education included, is still based on economic survival, whereas in a place like Canada, that's not an issue so you can move beyond to the higher ideals of education ...""

That's so right... something about the hierarchy of needs, isn't it?

""humanity-advancing breakthroughs ...really isn't the primary purpose here... yet. The GEP does groom more creative thinking individuals but ... its main goal is still to groom a group of people who are potentially leaders for the country, again economic survival.""

Yah but the thing is that both the Sgp govnt AND the Sgp business community are in agreement that Sgp's paradigm for economic survival has SHIFTED very dramatically over the past couple of decades... And we are at the point where we need real 'breakthroughs' to create new economic niches in order to keep the kind of progress & prosperity we've been enjoying. And the govn’t is recognizing this fact by ploughing heftily into biotech research in the hope of making some headway. Another hopeful stab is the IRs. Where else I'm not sure, but so far I haven't seen anything very reassuring... They've invested heavily in some big foreign firms & the financial markets which, I'm afraid, may be turning out disastrously...

""...bearing in mind the smaller absolute numbers. Cindy has listed quite a few who are leaders in their own fields. Not to belabour the point, but I'm still not convinced. ...""

Ok, first fact to keep in mind is that Sgp has only one company within a 2006 ranking of the Top 100 most innovative companies in the world (Businessweek), namely SIA, ranked 56th. But SIA was an idea birthed 30 over years ago. Since then, what else?

Now let us examine some countries or regions who also have relatively ‘small absolute numbers’. [Information largely culled from wikipedia.]

Sweden, with population 9million (2x Sgp's), created Volvo, Ericsson, Electrolux, IKEA, AstraZeneca (pharmaceutical), Pharmacia, Saab, & the Nobel Prize (I only picked out these amongst a horde of others, because these are the ‘household names’). Sweden is also ranked as having the best creativity in Europe for business.

Denmark, population 5.4million, is home to Maersk (international shipping), Lego, Bang & Olufsen, Carlsberg, Novozymes (enzymes and biotech) and the pharmaceutical companies Lundbeck and Novo Nordisk (well-known to Sgp doctors). In Denmark 41% pursue tertiary education & all college education in Denmark is free.

Finland, a nation of 5.3million people, is home to Nokia. There are 20 universities and 30 polytechnics in this country & the World Economic Forum ranks Finland's tertiary education #1 in the world... Finnish researchers are leading contributors to such fields as forest improvement, new materials, the environment, neural networks, low-temperature physics, brain research, biotechnology, genetic technology and communications.

Norway, population 4.7million, has the 5th highest GDP per capita in the world in 2007 (others ranked: USA 5th, Sgp 27th) and has maintained first place in the world in the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) for six consecutive years (2001-2006), and was 2nd in 2007 (others ranked: Canada 4th, USA 12th, UK 17th, SGP 25th).

[(HDI) is an index combining normalized measures of life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, and GDP per capita for countries worldwide.]
Norway has seven universities, five specialised colleges, 25 university colleges as well as a range of private colleges.

Switzerland, population 7.6million, has been the wealthiest country in Europe by a considerable margin for much of the 20th century. It is home to several large multinational corporations, the largest by revenue being Glencore, Nestlé, Novartis, Hoffmann-La Roche, ABB and Adecco. Also notable are UBS AG, Zurich Financial Services, Credit Suisse, Swiss Re, and The Swatch Group. Switzerland has the world’s 3rd most Nobel Prize winners per-capita, most famously, Albert Einstein. In total, 113 Nobel Prize winners stand in relation to Switzerland and the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded 9 times to organizations residing in Switzerland. Geneva host the world's largest particle physics laboratory, the CERN. Another important research center is the Paul Scherrer Institute which belongs to the ETHZ.

The state of Washington, with population 6.4million, is home to Starbucks, Boeing, Microsoft, Fedex,, Nordstrom & Costco, amongst others. The state has 6 state universities, 24 private universities, & 31 community colleges.

British Columbia, population 4.4million, boasts the Vancouver region which is known as Hollywood North, being the 3rd-largest movie production location in North America, after Los Angeles and New York City. It has 11 public & 3 private universities, and many more community colleges.

And now the following is a ranking of Nobel Prizes per capita:--

#1 Iceland:3.36999 per 1 million people (1 win for Literature in 1955)
#2 Sweden:3.33259 per 1 million people (total 30)
#3 Switzerland:2.93764 per 1 million people (total 32)
#4 Denmark:2.39323 per 1 million people
#5 Norway:1.74178 per 1 million people (total 8)
#6 United Kingdom:1.65451 per 1 million people (total 100)
#7 Austria:1.34392 per 1 million people (total 11)
#8 Ireland:1.24502 per 1 million people
#9 Germany:0.934115 per 1 million people (total 77)
#10 Netherlands:0.914244 per 1 million people
#11 United States:0.912983 per 1 million people (total 270)
#12 Belgium:0.868391 per 1 million people
#13 France:0.807834 per 1 million people (total 49)
#14 Finland:0.382922 per 1 million people (total 2)
#15 Slovakia:0.368256 per 1 million people
#16 Canada:0.304832 per 1 million people (total 10)
#17 Hungary:0.29979 per 1 million people
#18 Australia:0.298656 per 1 million people (total 6)
#19 Italy:0.240951 per 1 million people
#20 Czech Republic:0.195293 per 1 million people
#21 Portugal:0.189286 per 1 million people
#22 Greece:0.187477 per 1 million people
#23 Spain:0.148732 per 1 million people
#24 Poland:0.129675 per 1 million people
#25 Japan:0.094179 per 1 million people (total 12)
#26 Burma:0.021278 per 1 million people
#27 Korea, South:0.0205588 per 1 million people
#28 Mexico:0.0188319 per 1 million people
#29 Vietnam:0.0119709 per 1 million people
#30 Nigeria:0.00776603 per 1 million people
#31 China:0.00153103 per 1 million people (total 2)

Still not convinced, ah?? Neh'mine, I'm going to bed liao...


monlim said...

Aiyah, don't want to get into argument leh... Wasn't really talking about companies, thought we were saying we wonder where the individual adults went. But anyway, most of the countries (mostly in Europe) you mentioned have been developed for a really long time, hundreds of years of history. Even in the Nobel Prize list, hardly any outside the developed world. Again, the higher ideals of education started long before ours, which only recently churned out the so-called "prize winner" types (just one generation ago, during our time, this was not the case).

Not making excuses just trying to be fair. Again, I agree with you the focus in education has to shift.

monlim said...

Let's just agree to disagree :) Then we can move on to other pleasant topics like the disagreeable teenage years, hehe...

Anonymous said...

Ok, as I was rolling out that long spiel it did cross my mind that there's this 'historical advantage' one has to consider.

""...most of the countries (mostly in Europe) you mentioned have been developed for a really long time, hundreds of years of history...""

Ok, it would be interesting then to figure out why these countries ended up being 'developed for a really long time' vis-a-vis less developed countries. It's not that humans have been living there much longer right? So is it just that historically these nations' societies had picked the right ideals to embrace?

""..Again, the higher ideals of education started long before ours, which only recently churned out the so-called "prize winner" types (just one generation ago, during our time, this was not the case). ...""

Ok, it can also be argued that when our nation was kick-started a few decades ago, we had the 'advantage' of having a clean slate and we could have picked any kind of educational ideal to embrace.

I don't think these Nobel-Prize Winning nations' educational ideals are very far from what we hope to have either. I.e. it's not that those Nobel prizes were all in the Arts, but preponderantly in the sciences too.

What I don't like is the self-congratulatory tone the pple 'up-there' in gahmen & the media have of singing the praises of our system, how we're right up there on par with the best, and only talking about how well we've done and how that shows how good our system is. I myself had one time been happily 'benumbed' into thinking this way and did not look further for contrary evidences.

I only remember our founding father (note singular) talking about western societies in derisory tones. ['white trash'?] For a clever man like him, I don't think he had ever showed us that despite how smart he'd made our high-school kids, supposedly world beaters, but when it comes to the important crunch--i.e. the longterm PRODUCT of this system, nobody had ever shown us a Nobel Prize per capita ranking like this one, or any other kind of ranking where we're not in the top 10, and admit that there's something really BIG we're missing.

And if anyone even brings up something like Nobel Prize, someone else would pipe up: oh one has to consider our small population, mah. But here I think the small-population-myth in itself can easily be debunked.

Thanks to the internet, even people who hadn't had the advantage of travel can now find out these comparisons.

And speaking of China, considering the leaps & gains some of their cities have made in the short 2 decades since they've loosened up, we should also be shaken off the 'historical advantage' couch. I think they are willing to take cold, hard, looks at themselves and at others and cherry-pick whatever is working best.

With due respect to you as the owner of this blog and that I'm on borrowed space :-), I hope my expose leaves readers with the realization that despite our kids topping SOME educational ranking scores, the system is not as good as it has been made out to be in terms of longterm product.

I know that you're here also trying to portray the other side of the argument, play the 'devil's advocate' so to speak. But for one thing, Sgp-reans need to have that 'small-population' couch & 'historical advantage' couch yanked out from under our butts!


bACk in GERMANY said...

Aiyoh... where were we e.g. when the Vikings were raiding and colonising Europe? Many of the countries listed have a longer history and have gone through some eras of Reformation, Renaissance or whatever Golden Age they had in their own societies... even their Asian counterparts. Cut Sg some slack lah... :)

Anonymous said...

Am not expecting Sgp to be like these very mature societies.

Just as long as the media (& whoever's controlling it) actually paints an accurate picture of where we stand in relation to the rest of the world. No maneuvering or selective reporting so that we can look bigger & other countries smaller. What's happening is a bit of 'emperor's new clothes', 'frog in a well', or 'head in the sand'. I think even China is much quicker to thrash an existing system that doesn't work & quickly adopt whatever they see as producing good results. In Sgp I really can't remember ever being honestly told about the many good results of others that we can & should emulate. Can any of you give any examples to refresh my memory?

I was told by an ex-Sgp-rean friend that Sgp-reans have gained a reputation for being arrogant & unlikeable. I think the psychology behind it is traceable to lingering angst from our founding father, whose life has been possessed by this big chip on the shoulder, this need to prove that we can not only survive, but we can 'make it'. There is an innate insecurity and this gives us a need to be excessively aware of our achievements and play-down those of others. Quite to our detriment, actually. The result is many Sgp-reans who think we're bigger on the world stage than we actually are.


Lilian said...

Phwoarrr, YY, you very Kanggh Si (daring), Monica already said End of, you still wrote so much hahahah! I didn't dare add to the debate cos I'm not Singaporean, don't wanna be accused of Singapore-bashing.

I understand where you're coming from. Small-size didn't stop Sg from topping all the math & science competitions, top A-level Lit scripts. So surely there should be a few renowned writers by now...not even talking about Booker winners or Booker shortlist...just New York Times bestseller. Okay, writing not lucrative, what about journalism? No Pulitzer Prize winners nevermind, what about a top columnist. What about top economist? Top scientist?

People don't wonder about the lack of world renowned performers in other countries. Why not? Cos these countries don't have students who are world-beaters. Singapore is different, there's so much thumping of chest about how well our kids do in all these competitions, the natural question would then be what happens after?

Instead of using the excuse that Singapore is too small (remember the little engine that could?); we could approach this debate in two ways. First, maybe it's not fair to link academic success to professional success. So we shouldn't expect that just because Sg produces many world-beaters at student level, she should also produce world-beaters at adult level. If that is the case, the gahmen should stop making such a huge deal about these competitions, cos in the long-term, there isn't much to brag about.

The second, a scarier thought, is this: Could it just be that the method used thus far to 'produce' world-class students is precisely the reason for the dearth in world-class performers amongst Singaporean adults?

Not all gahmen or MOE's fault lah; like many of you have said, it's the Asian parent psyche too. Though I know I'd be a lot more lax with my expectations of my kids if I knew they'll stay in the angmoh education system forever, than I am knowing they'd have to return to the Sg education system eventually.

monlim said...

Thanks Lilian! Ok, I think I will blow referee whistle now... all systems got bad and got good, ok? We are aware of the shortcomings here but not to say there's nothing good. That's why it irritates me when some foreigners come here and start picking the country apart (even though they earn a good living here, live in nice place, enjoy the perks etc etc). One ex-colleague from NZ used to bitch in front of me about how this country sucks (because she couldn't find all-day breakfast to other trivial things) until another expat said, "If you hate it here so much, why don't you go back?" Yay! I would never go to her country and bitchmoan abt it in front of their countrymen so dunno why they think it's ok for them to do this. Talk about ang mohs having social graces!!

Anyway, this argument getting a bit heated and don't really want this blog to become a political forum so I'm not going to publish any more comments on this post ok? Thankee all!!

Anonymous said...

OK you don't have to publish this comment if you don't think it'll serve any good purpose but I want to say that I realized one of my comments in particular was so ranty I couldn't even bring myself to reread it! ;-P
I sounded pretty riled up and I trust & hope that readers can be calmer than I was and are able to separate the rant from the facts.

Ironically, some 3-4 yrs ago hubby was the one saying these things to me & I found myself at the defensive end. I now understand why he got so mad at my inability to see the things that he saw and my refusal to unravel my 'safe cocoon'.

Even for myself I did not arrive at this mindset in a day... it was a gradual transition & I had to slowly let go of the worldview I had carefully crafted in which everything had its place and which gave me a sense of 'I now know how things work & why things work'. I really did not want to have things disturbed from their places and me having to find new places for them all over again. And I say this in the most literal & also the most metaphysical of senses.

Thks for allowing us to air our thoughts so far & I pray that ISD has not already begun to train their lenses in this direction... hee.. ;-P


Anonymous said...

Something to share:
Sorry for scoring only 75 marks
Fri, Nov 13, 2009
A primary school teacher asked students from his class who scored below 85 marks in their Mathematics exam to write letters of apology.

A disgruntled parent called Lianhe Wanbao to complain when her daughter was made to write this letter upon scoring 75 marks in her exam.

The primary five student had to explain why she did not score at least 85 marks (the minimum mark for Band 1), and get her parents to sign the letter.

Related link:
» Boy, 7, slapped thrice for skipping tuition
» Girl, 9, slapped by teacher for being 10 minutes late

In her class, 5A, a total of six students were made to write letters of apology.

"My daughter wrote repeatedly that she had tried her best. She was also worried that she would be kicked out of her class, and kept on apologising to the teacher," said Mdm Chen.

"She doesn't know how many students did not score at least 85 marks, but she is devastated."

She also said that her daughter used to be very cheerful, but she has become more and more depressed since she started primary five.

"She would ask me what I would do if she was not in the best class."

Mdm Chen says she told her daughter to just do her best and not give herself too much pressure, but is still concerned that she may breakdown due to stress.

'I tried my best'

In her letter of apology, Mdm Chen's daughter wrote "I tried my best" four times, and apologised to the teacher twice.

According to the letter, she scored 60 marks in the last exam, and 75 marks for this exam, but she apologised for "improving too little".

She also wrote, "I know I will be kicked out of this class."

Mdm Chen said she cried when she read the letter.

"The letter really broke my heart. I never pressured my daughter to be first in class. I really want to ask the school: why put so much pressure on the students?"

Principal: Teacher just wants to encourage them

The school's principal told Lianhe Wanbao that the purpose of the letters was to make the students reflect, and encourage them to improve their performance.

The six students did not meet the targets that they had set for themselves, so the teacher's intention was to help them understand where they went wrong, and improve they way they learn.

Their parents' signature was required so that they will be kept informed of their children's progress in school.

The principle also clarified that this was not practiced in other classes within their school.

P.S.: I chance upon your blog and is now hooked. Not only will I checked your latest blog posting, I started to read your archives too.. Thanks for sharing. If you do not make your blog public, I would have known its existence!

monlim said...

Anon: Thanks for the story. This is simply horrifying. I wonder how the Principal would feel if she was made to write an apology letter to parents for not meeting up to their expectations?

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