Monday, March 29, 2010

Jumping on the 'band' wagon

CCA is considered a very significant part of secondary school. It's taken very seriously and the time spent on your CCA can almost be as much as curriculum time, especially if you choose a competitive one.

In primary school, Lesley-Anne was in the library CCA, which she never fails to blame me for. The story behind it was that she was in p4 and had just gotten into GEP. I was worried about the upcoming workload and so urged her to take up a light CCA. Since she wasn't into sports, library seemed ideal - just a couple of hours of duty a week and you perform them in air-conditioned comfort. Quite shiok right? Except she found it supremely boring. I guess wrapping and shelving books isn't exactly heady stuff.

So when it came to secondary school, I'd learnt the error of my ways (basically never make certain decisions for your kid or you'll never hear the end of it). "Go choose whatever CCA you want!" But old habits die hard and mummy always thinks she knows better. So while I didn't force her to choose any path, I couldn't resist planting some ideas.

You see, I always wished that I'd joined a concert band when I was in school. There's something very appealing about playing music as a group - it's a much more dynamic experience then playing solo. So I made the suggestion to Lesley-Anne, even nudging her to speak to my sister who played percussion in her JC band (which if my memory serves me well, was also instigated by me. Once a kaypoh, always a kaypoh.)

Quite to my delight, Lesley-Anne was rather taken by the idea and decided to opt for the concert band as a CCA. Such is the power of suggestion. Or maybe projection. She auditioned and was accepted, thanks to her music background. Initially, she'd wanted the flute but there was only one vacancy and it was quickly filled so she ended up with the clarinet which was her second choice.

Since the sec 1s are newbies, they take almost a year to learn their allotted instruments under the junior band. They stay back after school twice a week, 3 hours each time to have sectional practices as well as practices together as a band. Each section has its own music teacher and there is a main teacher who leads the entire junior band. When they have progressed sufficiently, they will join the main band towards the end of the year, to take over the outgoing sec 4s.

It's been about two months since Lesley-Anne started the CCA and she's enjoying every minute of it. She has already begun to play simple songs although I haven't heard her play as the students are discouraged from bringing their instruments home for now. When she talks about the band, her eyes light up - it's clearly one of the highlights of school for her.

I can see that the appeal is more than simply playing music. Being part of the band means bonding with a small group of like-minded students. The clarinet section (which happens to be the largest section) holds regular bonding sessions and activities, it's like a mini club and the kids form strong friendships. Eventually when the band enters competitions or plays in concerts, I can imagine the shared experience will only serve to strengthen ties.

Before I wrote this post, I asked Lesley-Anne, "So was joining the band everything that you expected it to be?" She didn't hesitate. "No. It's even better than I expected." Well, one thing's for certain - it sure beats library. Phew.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ballet, piano... and exams

Lesley-Anne has had a hectic past two weeks. While other kids were probably enjoying the one-week break, she was busy preparing for her ballet exam (Grade 5) and piano exam (Grade 6).

What with starting a new school, new curriculum, tons of homework, demanding CCA, she ended up with little time to practise and it became a rather stressful period. Shakespeare claims that music soothes the savage breast but I'm sure he never accounted for ABRSM exams. Amidst the flurry of activity and frayed nerves, we wondered why we even made the decision for her to take both exams at the same time. In such situations, my reply is always: "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Anyway, it's done! I thought I'd post Lesley-Anne's piano exam pieces so I'd have a record of them since she's probably never going to play these again in her lifetime. That kinda tends to happen to exam pieces.

The first piece typically is a fast one in classical style.

The second piece is a gentle, lyrical song. When I was doing exams, I tended to love second pieces as they called for less finger technique and more expression.

Finally, the third piece is a contemporary, rambunctious one that I love best among her three pieces. Maybe it's because it's such an antithesis to Lesley-Anne's character that it's fun to watch her play it!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Breakfast for Andre

Before school closed for the holidays last week, Lesley-Anne's Civics and Moral Education teacher gave the class an assignment - the students had to perform five different household chores during the week.

This was Lesley-Anne's list:

1. Hang laundry
2. Fold clothes
3. Sweep floor
4. Dust furniture
5. Make breakfast for Andre

As you can imagine, it was the last item that elicited the most excitement from Andre. At last, his sister was going to wait on him and his stomach was the beneficiary. A double bonus!

The menu: scrambled eggs and cheese toast. Andre went crazy with the digital camera (I think he felt he had to record the momentous event).

The final product was pretty credible, so much so that Lesley-Anne gamely obliged with scrambled eggs breakfast for the whole family yesterday.

And here's the happy gourmand!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

More book recommendations for boys

As you know, I'm constantly scouring the internet for book recommendations for Andre. It's an uphill task as reading is not one of his favourite pastimes and the stories have to be able to capture his attention, make him laugh and not be too difficult.

The very helpful readers here have suggested a few titles (thanks so much!) and I've tried most of them, some with better success than others. There was one that was a particularly big hit, recommended by Lilian - Charlie Small.

Charlie Small is an 8-year-old boy who goes on a series of wild adventures and has close encounters with crazy creatures like a spitting Spidion (a cross between a spider and a scorpion). Andre was especially taken by Book 2 "The Perfumed Pirates of Perfidy" which featured, surprise surprise, a gang of cut-throat lady pirates!

The books are written in the form of a journal, complete with vivid illustrations which heightens the appeal. It's a series, I'm not sure how many books there are at the moment. The last I counted, there were five but I'm sure the author is still adding to the collection.

I was commenting to Lilian not too long ago that it seems like kids' reading levels are so advanced these days. They're reading Roald Dahl at p1 and below, by the time they're in p4, they're already into Artemis Fowl and Percy Jackson. I was slightly concerned when Andre was still into Beast Quest last year but then Lilian and I recalled that when we were in p4, we were still reading Enid Blytons! And we turned out fine in the English department.

So I'm not going to worry too much about the level of Andre's reading. Reading is not a race (the way everything seems to be in Singapore), there really is no compulsion to get to the difficult books in such a hurry. As long as he reads and enjoys it, that's good enough for me.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Education is not a business

A reader sent me this link a while back. Some students were forced to write letters of apology to their teachers for scoring below 85 marks in a maths exam. The principal justified the teacher's action and told Lianhe Wanbao that the purpose of the letters was to make the students reflect, and encourage them to improve their performance.

In a way, this post is long overdue - my thoughts on this topic date all the way back a decade or so when I was working at a local polytechnic, then a university. Most universities are run like businesses or at least pseudo-businesses. At the polytechnic, the Principal gave himself the title of CEO and he unabashedly said that running a polytechnic was akin to running a business.

I have fewer problems with this concept at the higher education level as these institutions have to be at least partially self-funding. However, it perturbs me to learn that more and more primary and secondary schools are also turning towards this direction.

These days, teachers are ranked against each other measured by KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). If their students don't perform up to par, then they drop in ranking. I assume this affects their appraisal and promotion prospects. Principals are also under pressure to keep up in school rankings (and not just in academics), hence they push their teachers to achieve better results.

Here's what happens when schools are run like businesses. Teachers become workers assessed and ranked according to quantifiable output. The principal is like the CEO, answerable to a higher authority based on numbers. Students become products, they are valued only according to the quantifiable output they can contribute, everything else is peripheral or redundant. Everything is reduced to numbers.

Therein lies the problem. When you run a business, the focus has to be on results. And preferably quantifiable results. Don't get me wrong, I think it's well and good to try and assess the effectiveness of a school. Afterall, we don't want ineffective schools and teachers.

But instead of seeing how we can better assess the effectiveness of schools, we run the schools to make them easier to assess. Do you see the difference? One tries to find the means to an end, the other changes the end to suit the means.

Education administrators love this because it's so neat, structured and orderly. But the problem is education is about moulding of individuals. And neither individuals nor learning is neat, structured or orderly. The process of education is not and should be like that of manufacturing, taking place in a factory.

If we take this route, there is no "business" value in helping a student overcome his learning disability or giving special attention to a child from a difficult family background because the outcome is not quantifiable. We're leaving it to the assumed social conscience of the teacher and the school to step forward in such instances. But realistically, ensuring A students continue to get top grades will likely get priority because it directly impacts on the teacher's KPIs.

There are so many problems with this model and it has frustrated me to no end that the authorities cannot seem to see it. I attribute this to the world's obsession with numbers. A degree in Finance or Economics is considered wow, so valuable. There's just something so finite and secure about numbers, we think they can't lie. But anyone who believes in the unquestioned objectivity of numbers is, well, to put it bluntly, an idiot. Numbers can be so easily manipulated or massaged to suit your own interests. Remember the financial crisis?

Financial people seem obsessed with reducing everything to numbers. I remember at the university, the Finance department implemented a financial IT system which made everyone crazy because it was so rigid it wouldn't allow for variations in anything. Basically, it suited nobody except the Finance guys because it enabled them to compute everything in neat, quantifiable categories. Instead of adjusting the system to cater to variations, they insisted that all departments adjust their output to fit within the given categories.

Using the same analogy, we need to adjust the means to suit the end, not the other way around. Education is not a business. It causes schools to ask kids who don't perform to transfer out; schools to focus on adding to their medal tally instead of character building; students to gauge their own self-worth by the marks on their exams; teachers to ask underperforming students to write apology notes.

Let's bring the focus of education back to its original goal - educating.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Let's hear it for art, music and PE!

I gave a little cheer when I read the headlines of yesterday's Straits Times: "Schools to develop 'soft skills' - Greater emphasis to be placed on physical education, art and music"

I can't provide a link as the online articles are deleted weekly and the full article is too long to post here. But for those who didn't read it, here's a condensed version reproduced from Straits Time online:

Focus on soft-skills

SCHOOLS will emphasise more on soft-skills such as creativity, innovation and global awareness to prepare students for work in a fast-changing and technologically advanced world.

The Ministry of Education on Tuesday announced that such skills will be stepped up through a range of strategies such as assessing them through project work other than pen and paper tests, increasing opportunities for co-curricular activities, more time for physical education lessons and placing greater importance on music and the arts.

The Ministry recognises that PE teaches student important life skills like team work and resilience and it will increase the time for PE lessons for Primary 1 and 2 pupils from 1.5 hours per week to 2 hours.

Primary 3 to 6 pupils will also attend 2.5 hours of PE, from 1.5 hours now. Sec 1 to Sec 4 students will attend 2 hours of PE from 1 hours now. These changes will be implemented in phases.

All new art and music teachers will be trained to teach only music or art so that they can specialise in the subject and improve lessons.

I think it's a step in the right direction. I'd previously mentioned how the Singapore education system is too overly focused on academic subjects, especially at the primary school level. It's not just about the number of hours allocated to art, music and PE. Right now, these are already at the minimal level but yet, they are constantly being cannibalised for more academic time. I've lost count of the number of times my kids have complained to me, "no art today, the teacher used the period for maths."

I've also heard many, many anecdotes of parents who enthusiastically start their kids on art or music lessons but gradually replace them with extra tuition or enrichment classes instead. Like it or not, these are generally still considered peripheral and almost always the first to be sacrificed.

A friend of mine once made a poignant comment on my Facebook account, which I'm taking the liberty to paste here: "I loved music and PE when I was in school but of course, they're never "important". I read somewhere 'when we teach our kids to draw, we're teaching them to see; when we teach them music, we're teaching them to listen.' Creativity and imagination are , in my opinion, far more impt than being able to spit out facts in record speed."

Isn't that what we need really? Not more kids who can work out algebraic equations faster than a calculator but creative individuals who can see beyond the end of their noses and listen amidst the cacophony of sounds.

As for PE, Education Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen acknowledged that sports allow students to acquire physical fitness and values such as self-esteem, teamwork, fair play and a can-do spirit. He also agreed to a comment from an MP that sports should be for all, not just for athletes who can win medals.

Sounds familiar? I've made all these points before on my blog. BUT the fact that they're finally publicly acknowledged by the authorities can only be good news moving forward. Hopefully with art, music and PE formally given more importance in schools, teachers, parents and kids will come to see these as so much more than just peripherals.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A moment of self-indulgence on International Women's Day

Most of my readers are probably not aware that my hubby Kenneth has a blog too. But it's not a social blog like mine, it's work-related. He blogs about training and management concepts which he finds fascinating (not to mention relevant to his field).

I'm the total opposite, I find management theories very dry. It's one of the reasons I never pursued my MBA when it was the hot thing to do. I'm more the "go with your common sense" type which probably won't be good enough for large corporations but works well enough for my little business.

But today, I'm going to introduce readers to his blog because *ahem* he wrote a tribute to me. When you have been married for 15 years, "sweet nothings" is more likely to mean not talking to each other at all! So we have to savour moments like these when our other halves actually make a deliberate effort to appreciate us. Here, most unashamedly, is the link to his post.

Incidentally, today is also International Women's Day. To all the great ladies I've met through this blog, take a moment to bask in the limelight because without you, the world certainly would have been a lesser place.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Let's change the way Chinese is assessed at PSLE

I've been mulling over the Chinese issue for a while now. When MM admitted publicly that he was wrong to assume that people could master Chinese with equal dexterity as English, I thought to myself, "Finally!"

Hordes of people will tell you that they've known this to be true for decades but nothing was done to help them. Just ask all my convent counterparts. Many of us only had tuition in Chinese, yet we continued to struggle with this subject. In school, I was always pretty good at my studies but I just couldn't master Chinese. We came to the conclusion rather quickly that you simply cannot become fluent in a language by swotting (we were all the jiak kantang types, our only exposure to Chinese was scolding from the characteristically fierce Chinese teacher for our total non-comprehension). Then came the inevitables - phobia, even extreme hatred, for the subject and the inadvertent sigh of relief when we finally passed the final compulsory exam for Chinese. No more Chinese!

Or so we thought. Sometime during the past two decades, China became an ecomonic powerhouse and there was a resurgent interest in all things Chinese, if only for pragmatic reasons. Suddenly, it was fashionable to be Chinese and in Singapore, more Chinese started realising the value of embracing their Chinese heritage.

In education, things changed too. The Chinese syllabus underwent several evolvements, slowly the focus shifted from the written to the spoken language, from mundane rote memorising to more interactive and relevant methods.

All this is great but you know what I found? Like me, my kids STILL struggle with Chinese. Despite all the changes in curriculum, the hard sell, the soft sell, my kids face the same problems I did 30 years ago. And this struggle has pushed them to the precipice of hating the language.

I thought long and hard about it and came to the conclusion that changing the Chinese curriculum is not enough to change the mindset of our kids. One of the biggest hurdles in my mind is the assessment approach, particularly in primary school. I find the issue less daunting in secondary school partly because the kids are more mature and also in secondary school, there is less pressure to ace Chinese. At the primary school level, for some inexplicable reason, instead of instilling the joys of learning and discovery, the kids are put through a rigorous channel aimed primarily at acing exams, culminating in the PSLE.

The PSLE is a strange animal. To do well in the PSLE, a child basically needs to ace or at least fare above average in every subject. There's no concession. You can't really do very well in one subject and hope to pull up bad performance in another subject, it just doesn't work that way. Because the scores are all in relation to others in the cohort, a bad grade in one subject completely drags your T-score down.

From where I'm standing, this is bad news for kids who struggle with Chinese. You see, unlike maths or science, I believe it's much more difficult to simply study your way into an A* for Chinese. In Lesley-Anne's GEP class last year, two very bright kids scored less than 245. Both have this in common - they are non-Chinese taking Chinese. It was the Chinese that pulled their scores down, despite having spent much more time on this subject than the other three put together.

I think this is such a shame and sends the wrong message. We should be applauding these kids for having the gumption to take up Chinese. Instead, we are basically penalising kids who for various reasons, their Chinese will never be on par as the Chinese nationals or those who speak Mandarin at home. There is another backlash - more and more parents, especially those who have been abroad, are trying to seek Chinese exemption for their kids for PSLE because they know it would be highly disadvantageous for their kids to sit for this dreaded exam. Our system is deterring them from even attempting to learn the language because unfortunately once you do, you will have to sit for the exam and God knows, your PSLE score can have such a great impact on your choice of schools and your future.

So here's my suggestion: if education authorities truly believe that Chinese cannot be "studied" so easily and want to promote the love of the language, then reduce its importance at the PSLE. Calculate the T-score based on either the four subjects OR the three subjects without Chinese, whichever is higher. The latter is what is currently being calculated for kids exempt from Chinese anyway so it's not new.

This system is fair for who can ace Chinese and for those who can't, without putting pressure either way. If the authorities are afraid that kids will then throw Chinese to the wind altogether, put a minimum requirement, ie you have to still pass Chinese. This is similar to the O level system. I think conversely, once the pressure to ace the exam is off, kids can focus on actually enjoying the language.

I think it could work - anyone from MOE listening?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Test your world geography knowledge

Kenneth has been urging me to post more about curriculum matters as he thinks parents are more interested in knowing what kids are learning at school. I don't know if that's true but I'm happy to give it a go. If you have any feedback on the type of topics you like to read on this blog, feel free to let me know.

It's more fun for me to post about secondary school curriculum because it's new to me. Almost everything that Lesley-Anne has been doing in school so far sounds interesting and refreshing.

Geography this term is focused on physical geography, including map reading. Below is the quiz that the students sat for (based on the given map) to test their knowledge of the topic. I'm also appending the answers below but just for fun, try the quiz before checking the answers to see how many you know. The numbers in brackets are the marks allocated to each question. The answers are below the map so don't scroll to that portion first.

1. Write the letter name and identify the mountain range located north of India. [2]
2. Write the letter name and identify the longest river in the world. [2]
3. Write the letter name and identify the mountain range located in Russia. [2]
4. Identify the continents labeled A and B. [2]
5. Write the letter name and name the ocean nearest to the coldest continent. [2]
6. Identify Sea C. [1]
7. Write the letter name and identify the capital of Australia. [2]
8. Write the letter name and identify the capital of United States of America. [2]
9. Identify Country D and E. [2]
10. Identify line X, Y and Z. [3]


1. P, Himalayas
2. H, Nile
3. W, Ural
4. A: Africa, B: South America
5. K, Southern
6. South China Sea
7. N, Canberra
8. L, Washington DC
9. D: The Philippines, E: Japan
10. X: Equator 0 degrees, Y: Tropic of Capricorn 23.5 degrees, Z: Arctic Circle 66.5 degrees
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