Thursday, February 25, 2010

Maths mummy retires

I realise I haven't had a maths post in a long time which is kind of ironic since at one point, I think my blog was primarily about maths.

There's a simple explanation for this: maths was Lesley-Anne's stumbling block and I had to be actively involved to guide her through the subject so that she would be sufficiently prepared for PSLE. Now that the PSLE is over, I'm off the hook!

This is not to imply that Lesley-Anne has magically grown some mathematical DNA overnight. It's just that the transfer from primary to secondary school seems to have sparked a switch in my brain - primary school: Mummy On, secondary school: Mummy Off. I don't know what it is but I feel like at secondary school, the child should be mature enough to learn on her own and make sure she meets her deadlines. Mummy's role is now purely functional, ie see that she gets three square meals a day (well, one is in school so that's two) and that she gets enough sleep.

This mental switch is quite strange - it impacts me not just intellectually but affectively. I mean, Lesley-Anne came home with a 6/10 for her maths quiz and I was quite unperturbed, in fact nonchalant. My response was, "Do you know where you went wrong? You gao tim (handle) yourself, ok?" In other words, her not getting great results doesn't even stress me out anymore. Somewhere in the illogical region of my brain (maybe the part that controls food), I assume that she'll find a way to manage.

Maybe there's another reason for it and that is, I couldn't help even if I wanted to. If I thought primary school maths was tough, at least I could get away with drawing cutesy models and working out problem sums with narratives like "Ali and Ahmad have 25 balloons between them". How fun is that?

In secondary school, maths is serious business. Here are two samples of the no-nonsense questions from one of Lesley-Anne's math quizzes:

1) Given that 450 = 2 x 3² x 5² and 2625 = 3 x 5³ x 7, find
  • the largest common factor of 450 and 2625
  • the least common multiple of 450 and 2625, leaving your answer in index notation
  • the smallest positive integer n, if 450n is a perfect cube
  • the smallest positive interger m, if 450m is a multiple of 2625
2) Find a three-digit number A such that A + 17 is divisible by 15, A + 77 is divisible by 25, and A + 107 is divisible by 35.

Imagine a big, neon question mark above my head. What happened to all those fictitious names, the transferring of women and men into Halls A and B, and time taken to walk from playground to library? Sorry, this is secondary school. No more Ahmad and Ali. Didn't you hear? Maths is about NUMBERS. And PS, I have no burning desire to know the answers to the questions above so please don't email me.

After each topic, the teacher gives a quiz to test that the students understand what they have been taught. Those who score less than 6/10 have to attend maths remedial for that topic. I think it's quite a good system as the remedial sessions zoom in on specific topics rather than on specific individuals. After all, some kids may have difficulty only in selected topics.

And while we're on the subject of maths, Lesley-Anne called home sometime in January, informing me that she had been selected for Maths Olympiad training. She couldn't stop giggling as she told me. I asked her several times, "Sure or not???" She attributes it to her superior tikam skills on the MCQ diagnostic test ("Hmm... so many Cs, I think I'll colour a B...")

I let her go for the two-hour weekly training sessions, figuring hey, free maths tuition, why not? She's since been having thoughts about dropping out as she claims she has no idea what the teacher is talking about.

Bring back Ali and Ahmad, I say!

Monday, February 22, 2010

A tiger story to usher in the Tiger year

Secondary school means the introduction of new subjects, notably the humanities, which is a big attraction for the very much humanities-inclined Lesley-Anne. It's still early days yet but so far, she has been enjoying the lessons, especially geography.

Under history, Lesley-Anne has already done one assignment which I thought was pretty interesting so I'm sharing it here. The assignment was to pick an object which had historical significance to the student's life or family and write about it. The writeup had to cover the item's significance, student's reflection, and challenges faced in doing the assignment.

Here's what Lesley-Anne wrote, verbatim.

History Around Us

My item is this photo of my great-grand father and his hunting party with their hired worker behind the tiger they just hunted. This took place around the 1930s. At that time, many tigers, which were said to have swum to the island from Johor, used to roam Singapore. However, they could only be found in the old Chua Chu Kang Village, thus making it a popular hunting ground. Many people would think that the ones in danger would be my great-grand father and his hunting party. However, they do not know the full story.

The ones that were actually in real danger were the hired odd-job workers. Their job is to track down. When the tiger was found, they would start making loud noises to confuse it and chase it to the designated location, which would be where the hunting party was waiting. Then, one member of the hunting party would shoot the tiger on arrival. The process of tracking the tiger could sometimes take up to a week, hence the hunting party often camped out near the site.

My great-grand father was also the friend of the sultan of Johor. This resulted in his hunting party being granted permission to hunt, not only in Singapore, but in Johor as well. Back then, hunting was considered a sport meant only for the rich. This was because a lot of money was required to buy weapons, hire workers and last, but not least, the photographer. My great-grandfather’s hunting party was quite well-known at that time. A photograph of his hunting party was recently featured in the newspapers. However, it is unknown to us how the press managed to acquire the photographs.

This photograph is special to me as my aunt and grandmother would often show me this photograph and tell me about my great-grandfather when I was young. My family and I find the photograph very fascinating as it lets us get a glimpse of what life was like for my great-grandfather back then. We also like the fact that it shows Singapore before the Second World War just as she was developing.

Through this assignment, I made use of my interviewing skills as I had to interview my aunt and grandmother to get the information. Some difficulties I faced were trying constructing the interview questions to make sure I get actual facts for answers instead of opinions and assumptions. I also found out about my weakness in time management. I found it quite difficult to find time to work on this project whilst juggling many other activities and my busy school life. However, in the end, I’m glad that I managed to pull it off and I’m extremely happy that I managed to learn more about my great-grandfather and his life back then.

I thought this was a very interesting assignment as it helped bring home the relevance of history in the students' lives and made them reflect on their past. Lesley-Anne scored 16/20 for this project which I thought was a credible result for the first try. Her use of language is very simple but I think the teacher only marked based on content.

The humanities is definitely an area of interest for me as well. Looking ahead, I will probably be blogging about some of Lesley-Anne's lessons and curriculum so I've created a new label called "humanities" (duh) which will cover language arts/literature, history and geography.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"All the better to eat you with, my dear"

Life through the lens of a nine-year-old:

While we were visiting an elderly relative's place during Chinese New Year, Andre had to use the bathroom. As he came out from the bathroom, his eyes were wide as dinner plates and he whispered to me urgently, "There's something in the water!"

"Aiyoh, what?" I dismissed impatiently.

"It's TEETH!"

I hastily explained that this was not a ghoul house that kept body parts... after I'd stopped giggling. I'm not sure if he was more relieved or disappointed that his gentle 80-year-old grand-aunt wasn't really an ogre in disguise.

Well, artificial body parts can be pretty cool too - just look at Darth Vader. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chinese New Year in pictures

Chinese New Year is tradition, festivities, noise, colours and celebrating the fullness of life in all its glory. And because a picture is worth a thousand words, here's several thousand words' worth of what Chinese New Year is like in our household.

A big part of Chinese New Year in our household revolves around food, largely thanks to the fantastic culinary skills of my mother-in-law. It involves feasting so major that it is customary to stagger away from the dining table feeling extremely tight around the waist.

The pictures are but merely a small sample size of the spread that was offered during the first three days at my mum-in-law's place. Other unsung, unphotographed delicacies included butterfly prawns, yam basket, kung ba pao, lotus root soup and stir-fried bamboo shoots, all greedily lapped up before the idea to take photographs could surface.

A rip-roaring Year of the Tiger to all my readers and may your plate of blessings never be empty!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

10,000 hours to greatness

I always meant to write on this topic since Lilian posted about it, but somehow never got around to it.

In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers published in 2008, he put forth the premise of the "10,000-hour rule", namely the key to success in any field is not talent or genius but simply to practise that task for 10,000 hours. This works out to about 20 hours a week for 10 years.

Gladwell cited specific examples. The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, which he attributed to shaping their talent. Bill Gates met the 10,000-hour rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.

I find that like many people with a singular theory or hypothesis, they try too hard to justify their point to the extent of rationalisation and over-simplification. I feel Gladwell completely downplays the importance of talent to make it sound almost inconsequential, ie anyone who puts in 10.000 hours can be great. But common sense tells me that even if I were to swim 10,000 hours, I simply cannot be Michael Phelps because of my physical build, aptitude, etc.

Having said that, I totally agree with him that hard work and practice are more critical for success than genius, and this augurs well for anyone who has ever dismissed their abilities due to lack of talent.

I finally got around to posting about this topic because of the recent inter-school badminton tournaments that Andre experienced late last month. Having been thoroughly impressed by the standard of some of the students, I decided to kaypoh and check out the websites of the top Singapore schools in badminton. What was their secret? Did they manage to attract all the top players? Or did they have some fantastic technique?

One by one, I uncovered the same thing: all the schools list an intensive badminton coaching schedule, some as frequent as every single weekday, 3 hours each time. On top of this, I know some of the kids have additional coaching sessions outside of school.

So really, the secret is no secret at all. It's just plain and simple hard work. (Of course with that schedule, I've no idea where the kids find the time to study and do their homework, but that's another story). A friend of mine has a daughter in primary school who's doing very well in gym and has been participating in overseas competitions. However, she told me that realistically, Singapore has little chance outside of ASEAN because here, training is at most a few hours each day, to fit in studies and other activities. Whereas in China, the kids who train for gym live and breathe gym - they basically do gym from morning to night, everyday. They just amass 10,000 hours to perfection... quicker.

In short, talent is great, but without hard work, it means nothing. All great talents and successes in history have invested immense effort and time into what they do. Conversely, it's also time for people who keep whining that they cannot achieve anything because they have no talent, to get off their butts and start working because they have no more excuses.

Knowing that you have a terrific chance of excelling in something if you put in the hours means there are important decisions to be made. Everyone has a finite number of hours in a day, so where would you invest those hours? Something has got to give. As Lilian suggested in her post, most Singapore kids probably spend those hours in drills for exams. If so, then it's no wonder our kids tend to ace exams but they don't have time to develop much else.

So I'll just leave you to consider this: your child has 10,000 hours to master a skill, what would it be? I hope it's something more meaningful than exam techniques.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Andre's art attack!

Typically in primary school, art lessons are nothing to shout about. When the period is not being cannibalised for some other academic subject, it's usually filled with simple drawings or crafts that wouldn't inspire any Picasso wanna-bes.

Sorry for being so cynical but based on the art works that my kids have brought home over the years, I can see that things haven't really changed since I was in primary school. Can't really blame the school, in the Singapore primary education system, art is considered one of those peripheral subjects that don't even have its own dedicated teachers. Usually the teacher taking art happens to also be a form teacher or subject teacher that has been allocated an extra duty (same with music).

Anyway, I was expecting art this year to be pretty much the same as every year's (read: nondescript) until Andre brought this drawing (on the right) home after his first art lesson.

It was in his art file and at first glance, I thought it was a print-out and he had merely coloured it in, until I took a closer look and realised it was drawn.

From what I gather, Andre's art teacher had let his class watch a video on the computer which showed them how to draw this face step by step, using lines and shapes. He used a pencil first and drew over the lines with a marker later.

I know there are many doodle champs in Singapore so this is probably nothing to them, but I thought it was quite a good effort since Andre is no Einstein (the cartoonist, not the genius although he's not that either).

The following week, he came home with this:

Another cartoon! I was beginning to suspect that his art teacher (who's actually a science teacher) had no idea how to teach art and just hit on this winning method to engage the kids. I think my suspicion was correct because the following week, he produced this:

Hahaha! I just had to laugh as I wondered if Andre would be drawing cartoons the whole year round. Art educators will probably be appalled but you know, I notice that Andre is actually enjoying his art lessons now, unlike in the past three years. Granted it doesn't teach anything about art technique since he's probably just copying the steps in the guide but hey, art should first and foremost be fun, right? In this respect, the class is a-ok by me.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Reflections on competitive sports for kids Part 2

One of the first things I discovered as a noob badminton mum (as opposed to the soccer mum), was that not all sports are created equal. I'm not talking about prestige or sports techniques - I'm referring to the psychological impact on the child. This is most apparent when we compare team sports vs individual sports. Simply put, in a team sport, the pressure to win is shared among all the players whereas in individual sports, the responsibility lies squarely on one person. One of Andre's friends dropped out of badminton and switched to hockey instead because he didn't like the pressure that came with an individual sport.

Even among individual sports, there are differences and this is purely from my observation. In sports like swimming, track and field or wushu, the focus is on individual performance, bettering a record or clocking a time. There is less of a sense of "losing" a game vs you merely didn't win. Whereas with sports where you directly compete against someone, eg. racquet sports, judo or fencing, the focus is on defeating your opponent. Either you win or you lose.

These one-on-one, face-to-face matches require a certain level of self-confidence and nerve, as I discovered. In December last year, we signed Andre up for a badminton competition. This being his first competition, he had no idea what to expect. He didn't know what the procedures were, even when to switch courts or take a water break. Unfortunately, he met a very strong opponent in the first round who obviously had matches under his belt, and was decimated. Halfway through the match when it was clear that Andre was losing, his shoulders slumped and we could tell that he had given up. He was devastated at losing the match and cried himself to sleep that night. This being the first experience for us parents as well, we were not prepared on how to handle the situation.

It was then that I realised just how big an emotional toll competitive sports can have on kids. For these youngsters, we can spout competition for the experience and sportsmanship but chances are, they just want to win. In the inter-school badminton competition, I saw signs of this everywhere. More than one child, after losing a match, broke down. In fact, the self-confidence was so fragile that often, when they lose one set, they almost always concede the second set easily. Only those with more experience or maturity were able to keep their cool and fight back.

Think about it, even professional athletes have been known to break down in defeat, let alone 9-year-olds. I remember watching the classic 1992 French Open finals between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. It was closely fought and when Seles eventually pipped her rival to take the title, Graf was practically in tears.

I'd previously voiced my opinion to the head of PE in Andre's school that sports shouldn't be about winning (when he was considering scrapping badminton as a CCA) and he made this comment, "That's true but it's very demoralising for kids to keep losing." Much as I want to dismiss this as glib, I now know this has an element of truth. While sports shouldn't just be about the medals, to have a continuous streak of losses is extremely demoralising, especially for young kids. It takes a very determined and self-assured individual (plus supportive parents) to be able to pick himself up every single time and go on.

And here's the rub: there's a chance that certain kids may never be able to perform at the winning level - there are no guarantees in sports. How many losses will it take to completely erode a child's self-esteem? That's why I was so thankful that Andre managed to win a couple of matches - it's easier to learn how to lose when you've won some.

A friend whose son is a secondary school tennis player told me she hates watching his matches because it's so hard to see him lose, sometimes due to bad sportsmanship on his opponent's end. When he was in primary school, sometimes after he had lost a match, he would come home and cry bitterly. Today, he's doing very well but make no mistake about it, it's a tough road.

I think as parents, if our kids choose this path, we have to be mentally prepared. Competitive sports for kids in Singapore can be pretty ruthless. At the badminton inter-school tournament, one mother overheard a coach telling his students, "Remember, the face is the target. Aim for the target." It's not illegal, just very aggressive play. Sometimes, there's even a complete disregard for sportsmanship. I blame this on a culture that constantly emphasises and rewards winning.

Andre's badminton coach feels that Singapore stresses too much on competitions - he thinks there's plenty of time for that later and that the focus should be on laying the foundation for a love of the sport and developing skills instead. Ang Peng Siong, ex-national swimmer and swim coach, cautions against putting kids through intensive sports training too early as there is a risk of burnout due to physical and mental immaturity.

I hear this all the time, that sports is great for character moulding and I agree, but I believe that not every child is suited for COMPETITIVE sports. Some kids cannot handle the pressure, others are just too sunny and placid to muster that important "killer instinct", some just don't have the drive. Yet some others may simply need more time to mature.

These are my reflections based on my own observations. Our decisions for Andre are also largely influenced by his personality and his passion. So this is the only advice I can offer - to take the cue from your child's disposition and interests, and decide whether this is a suitable route for him.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Reflections on competitive sports for kids Part 1

When it became clear that Andre was serious about pursuing his love for badminton, I had the typical Singaporean mum concern - would he be able to cope with his studies?

This question is a tough one to answer. On one hand, it's true that sports training does take up an enormous chunk of time. When he was preparing for competition, his schedule was so packed that each day, he barely had enough time to go to school, go for training and finish his homework. His leisure time was negligible.

On the other hand, I found that competition actually increased his motivation level. Despite having less play time, he was more conscientious in his homework, complained less about studying and got everything done with minimal stalling. This is in line with a study done in the US which found that students in the school football team actually achieved better grades during the football season than off-season!

I attribute this seemingly contradictory result to the simple fact that for many kids passionate about sports, the sport grounds them and gives them a purpose in life. If you think about it, for a 9-year-old child whose life evolves around school, tuition and enrichment classes, even with play time, it can get pretty monotonous and aimless (few kids can be inspired by working towards an exam). Competitive sports, in particular, adds a fixed goal and that gives them something to work towards. For Andre, it provided the motivation to get all his work done properly so that he could concentrate on his badminton.

A friend of mine shared a similar anecdote. Her daughter was in the school volleyball team and due to the heavy time demands, her parents decided to pull her out to focus on her studies. To their alarm, her grades actually slid, despite having more study time. Realising their error, they promptly reinstated her in the volleyball team. According to my friend, by pulling her out the sport, it actually removed her focus in life and affected her other areas as well.

On one occasion, I had the opportunity to speak to the boss of the badminton academy that Andre trains with. As a coach and ex-professional player, he has seen many kids grow up in the sporting arena. Apart from the many obvious health benefits, sports provide other intangible advantages. He shared that kids, boys in particular, are at their most dangerous age from 14-17 as that's when they are most susceptible to peer pressure and have sufficient independence to rebel.

According to him, sports is a great way to keep them on the straight and narrow as it instills all the positive values of discipline, teamwork and determination. In addition, the boys will usually keep company with other fellow athletes, especially those they train with and this friendship tends to be more wholesome, bound by their common interest in the sport.

Of course nothing in life is ever black-and-white. It's not all roses and sunshine - there are also many challenges in letting your child enter competitive sports, as I've come to discover. I meant to cover everything in one post but found that I had too much to say! So look out for Part 2.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...