Thursday, January 27, 2011

Education and the great divide

A few days ago, the local news profiled MM Lee as saying that the main difference between students in "branded" and non-branded schools is parents' educational backgrounds. Branded schools have a much higher proportion of students with graduate parents, which according to him, provides for a more favourable learning environment for the child.

His advice to less educated parents is to bring their kids to the library early and teach them to acquire knowledge by themselves.

If only it were that simple! While I agree that the free educational resources in Singapore, like libraries, access to IT etc, are excellent, they're not enough to make up for the enormous disparity in resources and opportunities (which I feel is the real crux of the matter but not an issue MM Lee would want to address because it's an inevitable fallout of a capitalist system and has no solution).

The proliferation of tuition centres and enrichment programmes across the island demonstrates that these are no longer occasional luxuries, they are de rigueur in many families. How then, do you compare the standard between a child who has individual coaching in every subject and is groomed to answer each question to a T versus the child who has to depend solely on what he learns in school, without parents able to provide additional guidance?

You may say, well the second child just has to work harder. True, but more and more in our society where the playing field is constantly being leveled up exponentially, the odds of his ability to play catch up are quickly diminishing. I feel that's why these days, you hear less and less of national scholars with hawker or taxi driver parents. They're now largely from middle class families.

It's time for the zonal badminton school competitions once again and yesterday, I was at one of the matches to support Andre, who incidentally has been appointed co-captain of his school's junior team this year. The school they were playing against is a neighbourhood school not known for its academic standards. As I looked at the kids, I realised instantly these are not privileged kids. They wore faded PE t-shirts and school shoes. They were as hyper as hamsters on steroids and I'm guessing, not the type who would typically do well in school academically.

Those kids clearly had no external coaching and were participating in the competition for the first time. Nevertheless, they showed unbridled enthusiasm and even as they were getting trounced, they gave everything they had. Their team mates cheered with gusto every time one of their friends managed to win a point. One boy in particular, impressed me. He's pint-sized, skinny and even though his opponent was making him dance circles around the court, he ran down every single shuttlecock like Speedy Gonzales. Andre's school coach told the team, "see, I want that sort of determination!"

Andre's team eventually won the match 5 games to nil and that was a great boost of confidence to the school but amidst the celebration, I just felt for the kids at the other school. Their spirit was such a contrast to the students from those of one of the top national badminton school teams (and a branded school), which was also at the venue yesterday. Those students showed an aggressive, competitive streak. They trained up to 7 times a week, most of them had additional coaching outside of school. They played badminton purely to win.

The thought then hit me how lucky our kids are. Where we see talent, potential or interest, we can provide the opportunities for them to nurture these areas. From yesterday, I saw that many other kids are not so fortunate. Even if they have the passion for badminton, their parents may not have the time or money to help them develop their skills.

Singapore can claim to have the Junior Sports Academies and the Sports School to groom sports talent but I know for a fact that to pass the trials, you need to already have some level of proficiency in the sport and those who make the grade almost always have external coaching. Potential and interest are not enough to get you past the door, which means kids like those at the school Andre played against yesterday will never get the opportunity.

I don't believe that money can buy success but it's hard to dispute the fact that money can buy you opportunities which increase your chances for success. If there was a Lee Chong Wei or Lin Dan from a disadvantaged family in Singapore today, would we be able to discover him?

We all love to hear underdog stories but instead of merely celebrating how some guy managed to beat the odds, it's my wish that our society can help increase the odds for these folks.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Weighing in on the Tiger Mother

For the past couple of weeks, netizens have been up in arms about Amy Chua. I will state for the record that I wrote this post yesterday, before today's deluge of articles on the topic in the Straits Times, so these are strictly my views. In any case, Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School who just published a book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Penguin Press. The Wall Street Journal printed an excerpt from the book entitled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" which led to an uproar throughout the US (and thanks to the Internet, halfway across the globe).

In essence, it talks about why the Chinese parenting style produces more math whizzes and music prodigies than Western parenting, the latter she clearly considers soft and over-coddling. The excerpt describes her personal parenting practices for her two daughters, which include not being allowed to go for sleepovers or playdates, no tv or computer games, no grade less than an A. She has called her kids "lazy"and "garbage". When her 7-year-old daughter couldn't perfect a difficult piano piece, Amy forced her to practise for hours without water or toilet breaks until she got it right, threatening her with no lunch, dinner and birthday presents. I recommend you read the whole article (if you don't, Amy might say you're "cowardly" and "pathetic").

It all sounds like something from a Nazi camp, yet has familiar echoes. I think anyone who has a Chinese parent or is a Chinese parent would recognise the tune to which Amy sings, even if it's not to that extreme. Take this paragraph:
"Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough. That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)"
Come on, admit it. You do that too.

As you can imagine, that article has unleashed a storm of polarizing responses. Some laud Amy's courage and tenacity while others have condemned her. One reader called her the "worst parent ever" and she has already gotten death threats. Admittedly, it's hard to take Amy's side as she appears slightly manic. She's not only the Tiger mum, she's the Tiger who mauls other tigers.

Since then, Amy Chua has come out to say that the title for the article was not from her, it was a publicity ploy by the publishers (brilliant, by the way. Her book is already No.4 on Amazon's best seller list). She claims that the excerpt took all the most controversial parts of the book and highlighted them, that the book was also meant to poke fun at the Chinese parenting stereotypes, and that she never meant to imply that one parenting style was superior to another. In fact, the book was a coming-of-age for her because she realised she had to change her approach when her own daughter rebelled against her draconian methods at age 13. In this follow-up piece in the Wall Street Journal where she answers some of readers' questions, she appears a lot more humane.

Then the New York Post published a heart-warming letter from Amy's daughter Sophia, now 18, to her mother, thanking her for raising her the way she did. She sounds like a wonderful individual - certainly not the neurotic, nervous social recluse you would expect. Typical of me, I had a moment of suspicion - hmm... maybe her mother made her write that letter. But to be honest, it seems pretty genuine.

I really haven't made up my mind entirely about Amy Chua. Is she a crazed control freak trying to cash in on book sales or the quintessential strict but loving Chinese mum? As for whether such methods work, for every well-adjusted, accomplished individual that has blossomed from heavy-handed parenting, there's one who's resentful, insecure and laden with baggage. Therein lies the complexity of humans - we're all different.

In general, I'm more Hobbes than Shere Khan. However, like most cats, I have a Jekyll/Hyde syndrome and occasionally, the Tiger in me awakens and goes a-roaring (strangely enough, usually near exam periods). I think there's a little bit of that Tiger mum in all of us, though I would never recommend taking it as far as Amy Chua. Nevertheless, her article has brought to the forefront one of the most valuable tenets (in my opinion) in Chinese parenting - we believe in the enormous potential of our children, often much more than our kids realise themselves. To be good at anything, you have to work at it and that's why we push them the way we do. Not because we want them to be someone they're not but because we know they are capable of accomplishing a lot. Oh and by the way, that's how we build self-esteem.

So here's my message to my kids: the next time I make you do yet another fiendishly challenging math problem sum or attempt that convoluted piano piece - that's how much I believe in you.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book recommendations for kids who love Roald Dahl

Until recently, I didn't know much about Anthony Horowitz the writer, except that his Alex Rider series is very popular among teens and pre-teens. Lesley-Anne is one of the fans of the series.

However, I could never find any of his books in the library and from browsing at the bookshop, I felt that the Alex Rider series would be too advanced for Andre.

In the December holidays, Popular held a sale and I saw this 10-book set by Anthony Horowitz. After discount, it was less than $70 which seemed like a great deal (each book supposedly retails for £5.99. I googled some of the titles on the Internet and read many reviews of how these books are great for boys who are reluctant readers. The deal clincher was the fact that he was described as the contemporary equivalent of Roald Dahl. So I took a chance and bought it.

It turned out to be a good buy.

Like Roald Dahl, Anthony Horowitz grew up miserable in English boarding schools with cane-wielding headmasters. Also like Roald Dahl, he has a wicked sense of humour and utterly memorable characters (especially the villains!)

Andre has yet to read all the books but here are a few he has finished (and enjoyed).

Granny bears resemblance to Roald Dahl's George's Marvellous Medicine. Both grandmas are not of your sweet, nurturing variety but evil, kid-hating villains. Groosham Grange and the sequel Return to Groosham Grange tell of the adventures of David, a 12-year-old boy who is sent to a repressive boarding school for wizards full of dark magic and secrets (Harry Potter anyone?)

When asked, Andre told me he still prefers Roald Dahl, I suspect because Anthony Horowitz's humour is slightly more sophisticated. I would put the reading level of his books as one notch higher than Roald Dahl's. Nevertheless, I feel he's currently one of the more engaging writers for young readers. Worth checking out!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Balik kampung

This is a post on the last CIP session Lesley-Anne did in the December holidays. This was organised by Ground-Up Initiative, a small volunteer group that aims to educate the public on ecological issues and promote sustainable living.

Their main project is setting up Sustainable Urban Farms (SURF) at Bottle Tree Park in Yishun to revive the kampung spirit and way of living in this little community.

It's very charming. There's an area showcasing traditional methods of farming,

a greenhouse where many varieties of plants are grown,

and a large covered area where they farm vegetables (not sure what type, though).

Every weekend, the volunteers engage in an activity they call "balik kampung", ie clearing rows of stepped terraces and planting different herbs, flowers and so on. Even companies get in the act, all in the name of raising environmental consciousness.

That's what Lesley-Anne did that one Sunday morning. She did mostly weeding though and it was a different but eye-opening experience for this urbanite. Even though she was given gloves, the thorns were something fierce. No picture of her at work but here's what the other volunteers were doing that day.

It's hard work but rewarding. I thought it was an excellent change from the usual stuff and hey, no better way to save the earth than to tend to it!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Are we tuitioning the life out of our kids?

I did it. Finally, I signed Andre up for English tuition. If you are one of the early (pioneer!) readers of my blog, you would remember that I had tried to send him for English tuition when he was in p2. In fact, the bad experience at one centre was what prompted me to start this blog.

After two failed attempts, I shelved the idea and decided to teach him English myself. Afterall, I'm a writer! It shouldn't be too much of a problem, right? Wrong. I found that while I was able to guide Andre through his maths and with slightly more difficulty, science, I was getting nowhere with English. Compo was the worst - when I could muster up enough energy to set him a composition, which was almost never, nothing was accomplished anyway because I never knew how to help him improve. The inevitable outcome was always scoldings, red marks across the paper but nothing constructive that he could use.

I long hold the belief that just because you're good at something, doesn't mean you can teach it. (As I write this, I have a flashback to all the PhDs who mumbled and rambled their way through my lectures in NUS.) True enough, Andre's grades in English started to slide. For the SA2 last year, his English score was the lowest among his four subjects, even lower than Chinese!

You gotta know when it's time to admit defeat and I did. If at first you don't succeed, outsource. He started his first session this week and I'm hoping it will be effective. At any rate, it can't be any worse than what I was doing!

Which brings me to the real focus of this post - tuition. The traditional role of tuition is give a kid some help in his or her area of weakness. Eg, both my kids have only had Chinese tuition and this is because we don't speak Mandarin at home and they would otherwise struggle just to maintain the required standard in school.

However, I find that more and more parents are treating tuition as an extension of school, ie school isn't enough to teach you all you need to know, that's the role of tuition. What happens then is what I call indiscriminate tuition - parents send their kids for tuition in every single examinable subject, whether or not they actually need it.

I feel it's a direct outcome of a school system that emphasises scores above all else and uses these scores to dictate the child's educational path at a very early age. It's not enough just to be adept in a subject, you've got to score better than your peers to get ahead. By sending their kids for tuition in everything, parents are trying to get one up on the competition. This of course, sends panic waves among other parents who start thinking that they need to do the same. Tuition becomes a crutch - even if the kids are doing well on their own, parents fear the consequences of doing without it. The beneficiaries are the tuition centres and tutors who prey on parents' insecurities. Such is the capitalist society. If someone will buy, someone will sell.

What I'm concerned about is the backlash of such a mentality. Lesley-Anne's class is an SBGE (School-Based Gifted Education) one. Her classmates were either from the GEP in primary school or top scorers in the PSLE. No one can dispute that these kids are bright. So I was startled when she told me that most of her classmates have tuition in 3 or 4 subjects.

"Where on earth do they find the time?" I asked incredulously. Secondary school hours are notoriously long. When she has CCA, which is three times a week, Lesley-Anne sometimes doesn't get home till 7.30pm.

"Oh, they go after school, sometimes at 6.30pm."

Then the more horrifying truth emerged. Some of these kids, after a long full day in school, go for tuition before heading home late at night. They then proceed to do their homework before turning in as late as 2am in the morning. And their day starts again at 6 or 6.30am. According to Lesley-Anne, some of her friends struggle to keep awake in class. One even falls asleep right under the geography teacher's nose. Unfortunately for her, this teacher doesn't bother to wake her up which ironically affected her grades.

Lesley-Anne is one of the few in her class who has only Chinese tuition. She also goes to bed by 10pm on school nights. Her schedule is already pretty full and that's because she has lots of other activities like piano and ballet. She has time to watch tv, read, swim, even play computer games on occasion.

She does well in the non-examinable subjects like dance, art, gym, music and home econs because we have allowed her to cultivate a wide range of interests (well, except for PE. Would take a miracle to help that one). But for the record, we know she will never be top of her class, and that's not our goal for her. Those spots are taken by the ones who have placed their sole objective in life as performing academically. Some of these kids squeal at the sight of a flame, cannot coordinate their limbs on the dance floor or are unable to thread a needle.

I say this without contempt, rather with concern. It's not their fault they can't do any of these things, they have never been taught that these are important parts of life (these are non-examinable subjects afterall!) We each only have 24 hours in a day - if their parents have given academics such a high priority that they'd let the child sacrifice something as basic as sleep, it's no surprise the kids have no time allocated to other non-academic activities.

I think that's completely missing the forest for the trees. These kids are our future leaders. I wonder how our country will function if we continue to assess people and design systems primarily around academics. In grooming our children to be excellent exam-takers, have we missed out on educating them about life?

I know it's hard for us parents to go against the grain. When everyone else around us is rushing to book places in popular tuition centres, it's natural to feel a tinge of doubt as to whether we're doing the right thing by not jumping on the bandwagon.

But don't we teach our kids never to follow the crowd blindly? I think it's time to heed our own advice. We need to ask ourselves the hard questions - do our kids really "need" tuition in that subject? What is the trade-off? The idealistic part of me wants to believe that it's still possible in Singapore to raise intelligent, balanced children grounded in values. All I can say is, look long term and have faith in your own instincts (not your impulses). Ultimately, it's not the school or the tuition centre who has your child's best interests at heart - it's you.
"It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated." - Alec Bourne

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Selling flags for SPCA

I didn't manage to finish blogging about Lesley-Anne's CIP during the holidays so here's one in the New Year!

Animal welfare is one of the causes that Lesley-Anne is a huge advocate of so without hesitation, she signed up for SPCA's flag day in December, along with two of her friends.

Volunteers were encouraged to dress up in the animal theme or even bring their pets. Since it was close to Christmas, there was a very festive air about the whole event, which was great.

Dog on the right is not ours, by the way, another volunteer standing in line brought it.

The girls parked themselves at an MRT station to take advantage of the high human traffic and got to work.

I was quite surprised to discover that by the end of the four-hour shift, the cans were almost full. Maybe people are more open with their wallets during the year-end season but it's nice to see the giving spirit among Singaporeans.

Job well done!
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