Sunday, August 15, 2010

The curious case of creativity in a box

Exams are around the corner again and even as I try to help Andre with his revisions, I'm struck (once again) by how the way English is taught at the primary school level completely stifles creativity.

Ironically, this is contrary to what MOE claims they want to promote. For a few years now, the government has acknowledged that while Singaporean kids tend to be exam smart, they could do with a little more creative thinking. However, as we all know, wishing for something is different from actually making it happen.

The problem as I see it is that Singaporean authorities are stuck in the loop of needing everything to be definable and measurable (see my previous post on KPIs) and this clouds their vision. What happens is then they actually attempt to come up with a template for creativity which is so oxymoronic that it renders me speechless.

To cite an example, many teachers today are told to mark the language of a composition based on how many "good phrases" are used. In Andre's school, a commercial book of good phrases is part of the syllabus and the kids are told to learn these phrases, even for spelling. Let me give you some examples of the actual phrases from this book:

The satiny soft bedsheets enveloped me like a curtain of clouds the moment I lay on my bed.

I choked and coughed breathlessly on the carbon monoxide infused air as I stood at the zebra crossing.

Cars' and motorcycles' tyres tore away from the coarse surfaces of the asphalt roads at top speed.

The ball of tangy globe retired beyond the horizon as the sky faltered into a deep purplish shade.

Are you kidding me? Who in real life talks or writes like that? As a professional writer, I can tell you that if I ever pick up a book with such pretentious and stilted prose in every other sentence, I'll write it off (and the writer) instantly. Not to mention, the book had several sentences that were completely ungrammatical and wrong. I guess the writer herself got carried away by her own pomposity.

In term 1, Andre had to learn how to write a book review. Now, in my understanding, a book review talks about the story and how you feel about the book. That's the gist of it. But for Andre's assignment, he was given a very detailed and specific template - he had to give 3 reasons why he liked the book followed by accompanying details, name his favourite character and give 3 reasons why, name 3 favourite parts of the book and why, and so on. Each of these items gets a tick and marks are allocated accordingly. So if you gave only 2 reasons, then you only got 2 ticks. If you miss out one step, you're deducted marks.

Andre had an extremely hard time with this assignment. Not only did he find it very difficult to follow the template, he didn't even enjoy the story to begin with. However, since not liking the book was not an acceptable option, he still had to make up 3 reasons why he liked the book.

Here's an even better one: in open-ended comprehension, you frequently find a question (often the last one) which asks 'What do you think... ?' I find it totally ludicrous that an answer to a question which asks for your opinion can be marked WRONG. Honestly! As one of my friends astutely assessed, "They're not really asking 'What do you think...', they're really asking 'What do you think I think...'"

I know why they impose all this - it's to make marking simpler. This way, they don't have to depend on the arbitrary standards of each marker (which the authorities obviously distrust). This way, the marker just has to follow a matrix. It's certainly more orderly but don't mistake it for creativity. I don't know any other education system which designs its curriculum around the grading. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

During the parent-teacher conference earlier this year, I raised all these points to Andre's English teacher ("vented" is probably a more accurate word). To my utter surprise, she agreed with me. She said that once the school started imposing the memorising of good phrases for composition, she ended up with 44 scripts of almost identical introductions (mostly about the "fiery sun in the sapphire sky"). She knew that it was not ideal and had lodged feedback accordingly but her hands were tied. She tried to pacify me by saying that the kids didn't actually have to use the phrases from the book, as long as they could come up with their own. In translation, they still need to use bombastic language to score high marks, it just doesn't matter where it comes from.

I've said this before and I'll say it again - only in the Singapore system can you suck the creativity out of creative writing.

Once, as he was struggling to write his composition with the requisite good phrases that were so alien to him, Andre said sadly, "I think it's because I don't have imagination." I can't tell you how furious this made me feel because Andre is one of the most imaginative kids I know. If you've read the posts I've written about him, I'm sure you'll concur. This is a system that not only doesn't recognise or reward real creativity, it has kids wrongly associating rigid compliance with creativity. That's seriously warped.

I'm expressing my frustrations because I'm so torn. On one hand, I know this method kills creativity in the long-term, so I want to be able to give Andre a free hand in expression, to let him develop his own writing style naturally, to be able say what he truly feels, much like what Lesley-Anne has done. On the other hand, this will definitely jeapordise his exam scores, which has real repercussions.

It's the age-old dilemma of whether we are educating for the sake of knowledge or for the sake of exams. In this respect, it's disheartening to note that things have not changed much in the last 30 years.
"It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education." - Albert Einstein


Karmeleon said...

And nowhere is my p5 boy near this bombastic language standard. *sigh*.

Anonymous said...

I cannot agree more! I've avoided those phrases all my life, because when I was made to use them I felt they made my writing seem shallow and stale.
I'm very happy that my secondary school (RGS) doesn't force cliches upon us :)

I guess how I got around this problem was to write descriptively, but keeping everything unpretentious by using my own words, not strange metaphors (ball of tangy globe??). Some markers do appreciate honest writing, as long as it is still reasonably illustrative. (As in, don't bland it down altogether.)

Hope this helps!

naggo-nitemare said...

LOL!!!..ball of tangy globe...Hilarious! Just want to let u know, u are not alone in feeling this way. My p6 son n i too feel the same way. To make u feel a bit better, his english teacher told his class tt marks will be deducted for using cliches. How the markers determine w/c is a cliched phrase, w/c is a gd phrase worthy of extra marks is anybody's guess. For now,he too resists compo tuition n std guide bks in order not to fall into this 'seductive web' of writing 'good' essays.

monlim said...

leapsandturns: I think the issue doesn't exist so much at the secondary school level, there's much more emphasis on original thought and the topics are so varied it's actually difficult to regurgitate these phrases. It's at the primary school level that this is a problem.

NN: L-A's GEP teacher told the class the same thing, that they would be marked down for cliches. Unfortunately this doesn't seem to be the case for mainstream classes and I really don't know who to believe. Like you say, how do they decide what is cliche? And it doesn't help that PSLE marking criteria remains non-transparent and vague. I just hope I'm helping Andre on the right path!

Lilian said...

What a passionate post...I could feel every drip of your disgust and frustration. Brian's P6 GEP teacher also warned that they would be marked down for cliches.

The examples you got from the book, I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. When Brian was having trouble with writing Singapore-exam-style compo last year, I was also tempted to get him to memorise some phrases. But instead of using these gawdawful books from Popular, I got him to write down interesting sentences from whichever novel he was reading at the time. Makes more sense to get phrases from successful, published authors than these assessment book wannabe writers right? haha...We only got so far, I don't think he used any of the phrases for his exams.

I also told him to read LA's compo and make his writing interesting like that...he rolled his eyes at me. I think LA should write more PSLE-style compos and publish them. Her book will be heaps better than what's found in Popular right now. I would definitely good money for them LOL!

Am just glad that this is over for us. PSLE English compo was the only area where Brian and I came to loggerheads during his exam prep...he absolutely hated writing about what happened after someone bumped into him at the foodcourt, or when he heard a loud scream one night, or when there was a commotion at the mall :P hahaha...

All the best my friend, I think just go with your gutfeel and most definitely don't let Andre write about the sapphire sun, asphalt roads, and getting a whiff of carbon monoxide infused air (shouldn't there be a hyphen somewhere in between those words??).

monlim said...

Lilian: Thanks for the support. It's so frustrating that preparing for a national exam can result in putting off kids from writing altogether. What a horrible backlash! No wonder people keep saying that SG kids, even at the tertiary level, cannot write to save their lives. It's because they were never taught how to write, just how to regurgitate someone else's phrases.

Knowing the SG mentality, I shudder to think what would happen if L-A's compos were published - suddenly you'll have lots of kids copying the same style and words! *peng san*

Well, Andre is having his compo exam today and he asked me whether he could write about "the fiery globe". I didn't know how to answer, I just told him to do whatever he thinks is right :P

Anonymous said...

110% on your side for this! The standards imposed are obviously by people with NO imagination and no passion for the language.


ada said...

Oh Mon, your post had me laughing so hard and crying all at the same time. Those phrases/sentences ...did someone actually get paid to write them and are we actually having to pay for this book (it sounds like a prescribed text!?!!?) AND on top of that somehow get our kids to use it!?

This is all so misguided and honestly downright wrong.. isn't what they're promoting nothing but copying and plagiarism?? I feel your fury and frustration.. like a fiery tangy globe of fire. I've thus far only experienced Pri 1 compo writing, so no gripes just yet... but seeing where this is going, I seriously need to go get some fresh air now as I'm turning blue as a smurf thinking about our stifling education system... which is not unlike breathing in carbon monoxide infused air (yes, I do think a hyphen is missing)... sigh, our poor kids!!!

monlim said...

Ada: I love your application of all the cliches!! "blue as a smurf" LOL!!!

I hope for your dd's sake, her school adopts a more enlightened attitude towards compo writing. I do know that memorising and regurgitating "good phrases" is now quite a standard practice in tuition centres. Poor, poor kids...

Lilian said...

Blue as a smurf OMG! Ada hasn't lost a bit of her corniness. And does this mean Sean can write Pink as a panther haha.

You two should combine effort and go revamp the English curriculum lah. Then no more poor, poor kids...

monlim said...

Lilian: ROFL@ pink as a panther!!!! Only the *ahem* sophisticated can appreciate such humour. Aiyah, as if MOE will allow pple like Ada and me to mess around with the curriculum... we're probably considered troublesome parents!

Anonymous said...


Great post!
Some of my friends with P6 mainstream kids (from diff schools) lamented that their kids were told that they would be marked down for cliches in PSLE, and so why in the first place were they forced to memorise cliches at P4 ?!! BTW, it's not just the English CREATIVE WRITING, the same thing is happening to Chinese CREATIVE WRITING.


monlim said...

SC: It's mixed messages all over, the kids don't know what to learn any more! And yes, it's also happening with Chinese, even more so I think. It's quite obvious that they award marks for these "good phrases" and since it's even harder for most kids to come up with their own Chinese "good phrases" than English ones, they memorise the ready phrases :(

elan said...

Dear Monica,
I TOTALLy agree with you and I can feel your frustration with every phrase you have written.
I say go with your gut feel and let Andre have free rein with his OWN creativity, continue to let him read good books and he will be able to absorb "good phrases" from real authors rather than stock phrases that sound so ridiculous. My sons GEP English teachers also told them they will be marked down for cliches. Most good English teachers should be able to recognise good ORIGINAL writing and would not appreciate reading hundreds of scripts about "tangy globes" and "sapphire skies" too.


monlim said...

Elan: Glad for your support! I wonder why the GEP classes tend to be more enlightened, whether it's the teachers or because the GEP kids tend to have fewer issues with expression. I'll try to let Andre develop his own style... at least I'll know it's original!

kjj said...

hey mon, i've been meaning to post my 2 cents worth. u and your friends r lucky to have kids who can express their thoughts and feelings in either English or Chinese.

at the centre where i volunteer, those kids, they have a hard time for a variety of reasons - lack of interest, inability to read, etc. stock phrases and rote learning, these are the quick-n-easy ways to get these kids on the same bandwagon as the other kids.

in the greater scheme of things, it's a matter of economics. where there's a crowd of kids to get thru with a ratio of 1 teacher to 44 kids (right?), there has to be a process / system to see them thru. sigh, am not speaking for the educational system but i see the rationale for a process.

personally, i MADE myself improve chinese by picking one story a day (in those days, Nanyang Siang Pau had a page with different daily stories - xiao shuo) and copying the entire text. made myself read and understand the stock phrases.
after a while, i'd be confident enuf to turn these stock items into something of my own. (not that i really wanted that much opportunities to do compos!!)

anyway, in short, i don't think it's a bad thing. :)

rgds - kjj

monlim said...

KJJ: Cannot lah, I understand it's an easy way to teach a whole bunch of kids at the same time and yes, it's useful to learn phrases and learn how to apply them in a compo but it's been taken so far out of context now, not as a method to help kids who are poor in expression but as a technique to score points. And the system rewards that. Actually, for kids who have problems with expression like Andre, it's probably more effective to teach them everyday phrases than these artificial, tongue-twisting ones that no one in real life uses. How are we doing the kids any favours?

Anonymous said...

Hi, I’m from GEP P6. I know I should be revising for PSLE, but I’m unmasking myself for a moment since the long time I’ve been lurking in the shadows of your blog. And I’m taking a break after the Chinese Oral this morning. I’d like to tell you my opinion about the clichés, from the point of view from a kid in the education system.

I write abstract writing out of passion during my free time, passages that are short, but expressive. For compositions, I believe in the same thing. My compositions are usually emotionally descriptive, and as things go, sometimes I do run out of phrases to use. Many a time, I do use clichés, but not excessively. Take a phrase that was cliché years ago and is still cliché, “cried till me eyes were red and puffy”. It’s something I use, because I think it is an accurate reflection of reality. Also, most of the phrases I use tend to be from books I read, and my friends’ writings.

As for the impact of those clichés on my score, which is quite as unstable as the stock market, I think that it has no influence so long as the phrases are suitable. Though GEP does not make us memorize clichés like I heard the mainstream pupils do, I think GEP teaches English in an excellent way. Over the short three years, I’ve found my passion for writing, if only a little, and in a measurable sense, my marks have also improved drastically. But perhaps, that’s only because I failed my first composition, in which I scored 19/40. My most recent piece of composition has been given 36/40. I’m just praying that I’ll do okay for my PSLE. I just hope I’ll be inspired on that day to write.

The Mouse who would like to remain incognito =)
I’m back to the books for revision.

monlim said...

Mouse: You write very well for a p6 student and I'm truly happy to hear that you've found your passion for writing. All the best for your PSLE!

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