Monday, May 24, 2010

Getting into the heads of China kids

Almost every year when the PSLE results are released, you'll read in the papers about some kid from China who is among the top in the cohort. In fact, some of these kids came to Singapore with scant or no knowledge of English but within a few years, have managed to beat the crap out of local kids academically.

All sorts of theories have surfaced. Some say that the China kids are smarter. Others think it's the age advantage. You can't deny the fact that these kids are usually one or two years older than local kids - a huge difference at the elementary level.

While I agree that these could be contributing factors, I believe the main reason is that these China kids simply work harder. (See my earlier post on Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule). Recently, I spoke with a badminton coach originally from China. She's the guardian of her nephew who's in p5 this year. Everyday after school, he finishes his lunch and does his homework before sitting down to complete six different worksheets or assessment papers set by his grandma. After which he memorises 20 English phrases, checking the dictionary for words he doesn't understand. At the end of the week, he hands his grandma the list of 20 x 7 phrases and she tests him. He has to recite all of them, indicating the meaning of each of the words she calls out. He gets no breaks except for meals - his life evolves around his studies.

If that's the extent to which China kids work, then it's little surprise that they tend to do better than local kids. Some people immediately jump to the conclusion, "oh, Singapore kids are lazy" or "they're not as motivated". To me, that's as pointless and condescending as the some gahmen folks lecturing the later generations on how we take life in Singapore for granted because we didn't suffer during the war times.

Simply put, the circumstances and environment are different. Singaporean kids don't put in the same Herculean effort at their studies, not because they're inherently lazier but because our value systems are different and there is less at stake. There is nothing wrong with this, it's just the way it is.

As the coach told me, her nephew was sent here by his family so he could improve his prospects and his future compared to staying in his little hometown in China. The child is told this in no uncertain terms and is given a choice - he stays in Singapore and focuses only on his studies or he gets sent back to China. He chose to be here.

I joked with her, "you can send your kids back to China, where can I send mine?"

I realise this case may be a little extreme and certainly doesn't apply to ALL kids from China. But it's no exaggeration to say that for many China kids, the objective of coming to Singapore is simply to do well in school so that they can have the credentials to move ahead in society. Often, that's the sole reason for the entire family relocating here from China.

In contrast, for many Singaporean parents like myself, we decide that we want our kids to have a balanced lifestyle, to enjoy sports, to enjoy music and dance, heck, even to enjoy learning (which means we don't kill the interest by focusing only on acing exams). For most of the China folks, there's no such angst. Enjoy learning? Bah. They're just here for the tangibles.

Unfortunately, the Singapore education system is exam-centric and assesses students primarily based on their performance in these exams. And so the China kids do what is necessary - to them, it's not about the process, it's about the results. If they have to memorise model compositions or model answers to score in exams, they will do it. If our education system one day imposes the testing of Swahili in PSLE, make no mistake about it, the China kids will learn it (and ace it). Whatever it takes.

But this is not the life we want for our kids because to us, it's no life. For example, if I want Andre to ace his PSLE, what I have to do now is make him drop badminton, piano and remove all his play time. He just has to adopt the coach's nephew's formula and focus on studying during every waking hour. Will I do this? Of course not.

If that's the case, then we cannot begrudge the China kids who score superlative grades because they have fixed this as their life's goal. But neither do we need to be apologetic about our approach. If I believe that life is more than acing exams and give my kids the type of childhood I endorse, then I also need to accept the fact that the China kids will likely out-perform mine academically.

To use an analogy, when we compete in a race, we first acknowledge the terms for winning. But if we decide that our first priority is not bringing home the challenge trophy, that there are other aspects of the race that we value like sportsmanship or the process of racing, then we don't have a right to complain about not winning or about fellow racers who zero in on the winning at the expense of all else. By the same token, we shouldn't let others dictate to us that winning is everything.

Do I resent these China kids? Not at all. I admire their tenacity, their single-mindedness and dogged perseverance. But I also feel a little sorry for them (of course this is from my developed world, middle-class mindset) and I do not want my kids to live that life. That is my conscious decision and I will have to accept the outcome, whatever it may be.


Anonymous said...

It is this single minded determination from the children of developing countries to succeed that separates them from the lot but mindwell once they become successful they will not allow their kids to go thru the same thing again(most of them)they will also appreciate the finer things in life like we do and life goes on each its own

YY said...

Congrats on a well thought out and well-written piece on the China kids! I'll save it in my personal archives as a 'landmark' exposition on the phenomenon of China kids in Singapore at the turn of the 21st century.

I think every generation of parents want to give their kids what they did not have as kids. I'm very sure this generation of China kids will give their own kids plenty of playtime and the opportunity to 'enjoy' learning for the sake of learning. But for this, they'll probably have to move to a Western country where the competition is not so cutthroat and social pressures not so oppressive, and where 'play' is deemed an indispensable part of the learning experience of kids of elementary schoolage. Haha. Full circle.

My stepson, who had a genius-level IQ and who was hothoused 24/7 much like this kid described in your article, now bitterly resents his childhood as an adult. It's not every case that turns out this way but we need to be very sure about the reasons if we want to put a kid through rigors that strain the outer limits of human capacity. When kids get older, they tend to question everything, so our reasons have gotta be compelling however we want to shape their childhoods.


monlim said...

YY: As you and Anon pointed out, the China kids will be unlikely to put their own kids through such a draconian method cos after one generation, they too will be more likely to embrace a more "balanced" lifestyle. Much like how a generation ago, the SG kids who were sent to Australia to study topped all the schools and won all the prizes, to the chagrin of the Australians. They were hungrier.

Your stepson's case is a timely caution to me that at the end of the day, we need to balance what we think is best for them vs their emotional and social development. It's a tough balancing act. No wonder so many people are in therapy! LOL

Karmeleon said...

That top girl last year could even take care of her 'baby' sister and cook for the family. Not bad. And she loved to read ... amazing.

I also know some China students who came to Singapore and had very active life apart from studies, eg. in orchestra and others, and eventually obtained scholarships to study overseas.

So they are v motivated n determined even when they hv a life too! Unlike the example you related.

monlim said...

Karmeleon: Being motivated and determined is not dependent on "having a life", my point is that it depends on their life circumstances and the reasons behind why they're here. Sure, I know there must be many China students who have other activities apart from studies but I think it still is true that studies are their top priority. The fact that these kids you mentioned can ace their studies while enjoying their other activities attests to that.

I guess the true test is whether they would give up or cut down on these other activities to focus on their studies if they weren't already academically so strong.

Karmeleon said...

Yes, they ace their studies and music, so they don't have to go home. My son's music teacher actually hates the thot of visiting his home country, you know? They know they were fortunate to have that one chance to leave the country and so they work very hard to keep it that way.

monlim said...

Karmeleon: Hates to go home? That's interesting. I would have expected some of them to be v nationalistic even though they're here. I guess it follows the trend of 1st generation migrants no matter which country they go to, that they tend to be more appreciative of the opportunities given to them.

Karmeleon said...

I guess must understand the v reason why they want to leave in the 1st place. Something to the effect of "3rd world", and leaving in the wake of 1989.

Karmeleon said...

I think they went to lengths to preserve their art in those days too. I've seen the state of some of the scores they have. Makes me wonder if they were buried somewhere!!!

monlim said...

Karmeleon: I can just imagine the "riches" they had to preserve! Thank goodness they succeeded, is all I can say :P

YY said...

Come to think of it, let me also add here the phenomenon of Korean kids.

I was talking to a Korean dad the other day (we're living in Vancouver, fyi), and he decries the Korean culture in which kids are sent to private tuition schools and made to study till late at night, almost daily. It's my impression that academic competition in Korea is even more rife and cutthroat than amongst China kids in Singapore (maybe even more so than current-day Japan). In Korea, they're not trying to 'escape' from having to return to any 3rd world country, it's not that the parents' generation has struggled with dire hardships that they want the kids to escape at any costs, the country is not forced by geophysical circumstances to have to compete to stay afloat (as Singapore is for instance, due to its size). The culture per se is just plain competitive and prides itself on it. If you'd followed the recent Winter Olympics, you might have seen how cutthroat and competitive the Korean athletes are--particularly on the speedskating track.

Over here in Canada, the Korean kids seem to be more toned down, because the Koreans emigrate here largely so their kids can learn English and receive a more 'creative' rather than 'competitive' education ('escaping' Korea for a different reason than China kids.. haha!). Nonetheless, Korean tuition schools are a common sight in neighborhoods where there are Korean communities (Coquitlam, where I live, is the suburb that has the 2nd largest Korean community in Canada, after Toronto). The Korean competitiveness still stands out in many areas of endeavor. For instance, hubby and many of his HK tennis-mates dislike playing with a few of the Korean chaps because they're too competitive and would take too seriously every single point lost, even though it's a casual, informal game.

Here's a BBC clip on culture of studying in Korea.


YY said...

Another fascinating BBC video, in which US education secretary speaks on Korean education and how the US is waking up to the lapses in its own system:-

The video on Finnish education is also interesting, coz it shows how the country can get to top ranking status without the traditional Asian 'grill and drill' learning style.. ;-) [Singapore, incidentally, is not ranked on the 'PISA' rankings, where Finland achieved top marks. Apparently, it has been observed that "Western countries generally performed better in PISA; Eastern European and Asian countries in TIMSS"].


monlim said...

Thanks YY. The competitiveness of Korean schools is infamous, I believe they were the ones who started the concept of cram schools? Certainly, the situation in Korean and Japan is worse than in SG. Hope we don't go down that route.

Teaspoon said...

Dear Monica,
TQ for writing many great articles on children & education! I enjoy them very much.
Sometimes, as parents, we need to ask ourselves, are we pushing our kids (sometimes beyond their limits) for them or for ourselves (ie. our ego, self-esteem)? Do we know wht we are doing, when we send them to infant/toddler enrichment classes & a whole lot of tuition thereafter? Do we do our own reasearch, or give in to the advertisements of enrichmnt centres because we lack the self-confidence that our kids are actually fine without these extra classes?
If our kids are doing well with added pressure, well & gd. I knw of several who broke down during revision for exams, lose their mind and their parents spend a fortune looking for a cure. Some make it thru schs and uni, but can't hold a job down after that. Education is a marathon. We must know our kids, know wht they are capable of and ensure that they grow up able to hold their own.
My son, who is in P5 now, cldn't read a word until he was 4 yrs & 9 mths old. He was labelled "slow" in P1. Of crse, I panicked and immediately sought help in the many tuition centres. But my MIL cautioned me and said not to worry so much. Every kid is different and don't push them beyond their limits. My son suddenly picked up reading by himself in P2, finished the whole lot of HP bks within 6 mths that year and hasn't stopped reading since. He's shown interest in various areas and we just direct and help him develop further interests in those areas.
So, frm my experience, it's great if you have kids who can succeed in this competitive world. If not, let them grow up in their own ways and love them as they are. That will probably see them thru life's many challenges more than our IQ and exam scores.

Sarah Chan said...

Dear Monica,
Kudos on yet another thought provoking article. Being a family who's born, bred and moved from the 'lazier' world of Oz to Singapore, we are certainly struggling in all aspects to fathom all this 'strife' towards success.

I too have 2 children who are chalk and cheese in response to the MOE education. I just want to give my 2 cents by saying that it all boils down to choice and what is meaningful to us as a family and as individuals.

I am sure (from stories I hear) that most Chinese nationals have life much harder and they strive even more in their home country. The major difference is, they GET somewhere in Singapore while they may be 'lost' in the masses in the great dragon kingdom.

In reality, there's ALWAYS someone better than us, there's ALWAYS a goal the higher for the better potential. In the real working world, there can only be ONE Prime Minister, ONE CEO of a company, ONE leader of a country.

In our family, we have decided that we want to be part of a greater community and be contented knowing that we have given to it. I sense that you too are taking that stance. I thank you for your openness and your conviction...

You are a blessing to many!

Karmeleon said...

Can read at 4yrs 9months and that's slow????

my 2 older boys couldn't read until the middle of p1. No one actually discovered that they couldn't read! my elder boy is now in sec 1 and the other younger one is p5 like yours. interestingly, this p5 boy who could read English in his preschool years, actually started reading in Chinese first ... at 4years old. So strange, since we are an English-speaking family.

monlim said...

Teaspoon: Same as Karmeleon, I thot "wow, reading at 4 & 9 mths is slow?" Cos my kids could only read at about k2 :P

Definitely, kids develop differently (gosh, I should know lol!) and in SG, I think many parents push their kids for their own egos. But I admit it's sometimes hard in this crazy competitive environment to make the difference. That's why I think it's important to surround ourselves with like-minded friends who can keep reminding us what's really important :)

Sarah: Thanks so much! Your encouragement means a lot. I think insecurity has to do with many parents thinking that they need to push harder in order for their kids to become somebody. But something has got to give and if that something is your child's happiness or self-worth, it's totally not worth it, in my books. I guess at the end of the day, it's about knowing what we want in life and being content with our blessings.

Anonymous said...

This piece of yours is a balanced and well thought out. Frankly what i worry is in times to come, these groups of foreigners would land themselves into the upper middle class through their hardwork, while the lesser determined singaporeans would be their "followers". One might say that this grp of foreigners would become singaporeans in times to come. but somehow i felt that our local kids are not getting as much help as they can. A lot of local kids did not fare well in subject like English if they are born into a disadvantaged families, and thus it would affect their comprehension in Maths problem sums. Not much efforts have been used to help these disadvantaged group of neighborhood students. Back in my mind, i felt the government is not doing their best to help local kids.

monlim said...

Anon: I know that at primary school level, there are programmes to help the less advantaged eg LSP and the structure has also been changed to cater to different abilities eg Foundation level subjects. I agree more can be done but I don't think we can just judge effort by one observation ("there are still kids failing English!), know what I mean? There are just too many variables, so much is dependent on the school, teacher, home environment, parents, peers, etc, to just blame one party.

As for locals becoming the "followers" of foreigners, I think this is an age-old issue in every country that has to grapple with the interests of natives vs new migrants. Think Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, UK, etc. But this "us" vs "them" mindset is unhealthy, IMO. Instead of feeling threatened, we need to be secure enough not to let others define success for us in such a narrow way. I think we all know that acing school is not a guarantee of success anyway, no matter how we define it. Maybe it's being too idealistic but that's how I feel.

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