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