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


Karmeleon said...

Yup- i know my elder boy's classmates have tuition too for various subjects - however do they find the time was also my response! My boy certainly doesn't have the time except CL.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't have said it better myself!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this timely reminder! At the beginning of each year, I go into this panic mode of deciding whether to send my girl for tuition and am glad have yet to succumb to it, except for CL. Pam :-)

Lilian said...

I would love to get my hand in the billion-dollar tuition pie! Love the quote at the bottom of your post.

We need to rethink what being educated means. Surely this includes learning to think for yourself, being independent, reflecting, even failing and picking yourself...learning about your strengths and weaknesses, and not just in the academic area.

Personally, I do not have any friends whose kids are 'over-tutored'. In fact, most of the kids I know only take Chinese tuition, so I don't know how prevalent this problem is. Perhaps it's a case of birds of a feather flock together...our circle of mums are the relatively relaxed type.

But recently, I met a lady whose nieces, one of whom is in the top girls school, each have 9 tuition!!! Don't ask me how come so many, I was told they have 2 tutors per language, one tutor specifically to go thru newspapers and reading with them. They do not do anything else except academics. School CCA is library. No swimming, no outing, no dance, no music. Shocking but true.

monlim said...

Lilian: Come back and give maths tuition lor, charge a bomb and only smart kids need apply, sure full house one, keke.

Totally agree with you on the holistic definition of education but unfortunately, most parents want the tangibles so it always boils down to grades. So scary to hear about kids who have 9 tutors. It's really impossible to have any sort of life outside of academics in that context. Wonder what type of adults they'll grow up to become?

Zoobie Pets said...

This post was very thought provoking. I think that something needs to be done about this situation because it is getting out of hand.

Jo said...

After a couple of years of trying to tutor my 2 girls I have also waved the white flag and sent them for English enrichment. Why ?

Being a working mum it's hard to help 2 primary school kids concurrently, I managed with 1 but when the 2nd started school last year I struggled with it...but managed to survive with only just chinese enrichment.

This year I realised due to time constraints and CCAs, I don't have the luxury of time to help them in compo, math & science ! And..also, admittedly I am quite tired of tutoring them in all their subjects.

So, even though we were against the idea of putting them in English class (concept is so foreign 'cause my hubby and I never had any tuition for english ever), I finally caved in and registered them both at a well-known "Learning" place end of last year. My hubby supported my decision but I think he felt it was bordering on the absurd !

To my surprise, we kept on bumping into so many people we knew when we brought the girls for their lessons.

So it's been 3 weeks since we started - I realised creative writing is about who can use the best and hardest vocabulary/phrases ! My hubby was amused by phases like "cerulean sky" and "gobsmacked" (did I even spell that correctly??) Surely I never used these during my PSLE days and I don't think it made an impact on my English grades :P

monlim said...

Jo: I think I can guess which tuition centre your kids are at :P Arrrrghh... once again, it's about memorising those "good" phrases for compo.

I understand the dilemma of working parents - you have a time constraint and don't have time to review the work with your kids. But I know you're level-headed enough to discern what is necessary. Good luck and I'm sure both your girls will do you proud!

Anonymous said...

I just like to add that some of these students are the ones asking for the tuition themselves and driving themselves towards the perfect score by skipping sleep etc.
I do not know if this is call kiasuism or should I say they are perfectionists. But I know their parents can't do much about it but it could be a good problem to have since the kids are so driven themselves.

monlim said...

Anon: I wouldn't rule it out but I suspect these are in the minority and they've probably inherited the same crutch mentality, from their parents or peers. Perfectionism and kiasu-ism are 2 different things, I hope people won't rationalise their kiasu behaviour as "perfectionistic" just so they can continue to perpetuate it.

Anonymous said...

Does no one else see the irony of attending cookie cutter classes for *creative* writing? SIL, who is an EL teacher at a prestigious primary school, says she can always tell who have gone for creative writing classes - they all use the same phrases!


monlim said...

Iris: Absolutely, I've written numerous times in this blog against the practice of using such "creative" phrases for composition.

Anonymous said...

My son does not have tuition except for CL creative writing. However, whenever I hear of others with tuition in many/all their subjects, I often wonder if I am depriving my kid to learn more than what is taught in school. It can be difficult to act against the current, ie, not to follow the herd mentality. I am glad that so far so good. Luckily for us, my son is doing ok in school. Sure, he is not the top boy but he is happy to have time with his lego, books, computer, MTV etc. I hope we will not succumb to the pressures from the rest.

btw, on memorising phrases or compo, it seems to work for those China girls who scored 9A1s from Crescent girls sec school. I guess it is a quick way to see tangible results. How ah - to get good marks or to be creative? Sigh


monlim said...

TW: I know what you mean. We just have to look long term and be firm in what we believe in.

I've always maintained that English is easier to learn than Chinese but the Chinese chauvinists will always shoot that down, I guess cos it's not politically correct. But I've heard countless cases of kids going from zero English to an A grade in 2 years but never heard of doing the same for Chinese. Surely that must mean something?

Anonymous said...

I think Chinese is easier to learn because it has less rules. In a way, it is idiot proof, but you do have to be hardworking and consistent to accumulate enough characters that you can recognise. We probably don't hear of the opposite case because this is Singapore, not China or Taiwan. The environment is different, the impetus of learners are different.

I believe there's no replacement for reading widely, be it English or Chinese. However, memorising phrases CAN help, and it's good to have a store knowledge of idioms and sayings, and it's good to go through the basics of languages in a systematic manner. After that, it's reading, and listening (radio, audiobooks, good shows) that will help to improve usage and provide context for what has been learnt. My dad's Mandarin used to be terrible. After he got hooked onto some Taiwanese soaps - wow! He could spout couplets and sayings from the show! LOL!

I read about the China girls. One of them read and wrote a composition EVERYDAY as practise. She later upped it to writing two compositions a day. She has definitely gone beyond memorising phrases.


Anonymous said...

not just kids in primary school go for tuitions which may not be necessary for them, even babies of less than a year old also have enrichment classes like the GUG, LNT, etc which again may not be nessary for them too!

~ my

monlim said...

Iris: Personally, I think it's easier to learn rules than to learn every single character on its own. Imagine if numbers were like that, instead of 1 to 9, and then combinations of these numbers, imagine if every number in the world was a distinct character. That would just make it so much harder to remember! Chinese is a little like that. Having said, of course with hard work, people can learn anything. With languages, definitely exposure and usage are important factors.

MY: I know! I think it's ridiculous that babies are being sent for enrichment classes. The world is going crazy!

Anonymous said...

Actually learning Chinese words should be planned in stages, Starting with basic vocabulary and the radicals. Once the child understand the meaning of the radicals, the number of words he can read and comprehend will be multiplied. It is not a straight line progression. Doing so will waste a lot of unnecessary time and energy.

But nuff said about Chinese! :) my firstborn is one of the few kids without any tuition too. And he's only in P1!!


monlim said...

Iris: I'm realising that all the mums who read my blog have such young kids! Gosh, makes me feel old...

Anonymous said...

Have been MIA for a while and took some time to read your blogposts which I missed. It is an anomaly right now. The tutors outside can teach so much better than our school teachers and they are able to devise high level material to capture the interest of our children and stretch them better than the school teachers. It's ridiculous. IMO, I think the main problems are lack of training for school teachers, lack of ministry support for school teachers in terms of resources (eg materials) and the big class sizes. To their credit, there are some good teachers but sigh, always allocated to best classes. As for IP secondary sch, well, IP doesn't teach - so who teach? Parents and tutors of course. Most children can't self-teach themselves (they have to be independent right?) for subjects which they really made no head or tail and the school teachers are not guiding/teaching. Tutors to the rescue please! 8) [But pls, not 9 tutors of course - poor child!]


monlim said...

SL: Lol, I know what you mean by the good teachers always allocated to best classes. It's like the rest of the cohort doesn't matter, the school wants to make sure the top performers perform.

Every year, I pray very hard my kids will get good teachers cos it's luck of the draw. When they get a good one, it's like touching lottery!

elan said...

I agree that this tuition business is getting really crazy. I've just gone the opposite way.
At their ardent request, I have this deal with my 2 boys (sec 1 and 2, SBGE in an IP school) that they can skip their CL tuition (their only tuition subject) for 1 term and we will assess their grades at the end of it. If they score below 80(for Sec 1) and 75 (or Sec 2), (my expectations are really not high at all) they will have to resume CL tuition.
They claim that tuition is boring and makes them hate the subject more and they study better on their own.
They must be the 2 free-est boys around, spend all their time "idling" away, but stress-free.
Maybe I'm nuts but these are 2 relatively unimportant years so best time to "experiment".


monlim said...

Elan: Good for you! I agree, if the boys can get 75 on their own, which is an A1 afterall, then they don't really need tuition. Unfortunately L-A is still bordering a B3 for chinese so being tuition-free is not an option just yet :P

Anonymous said...

Chance upon your blog today, found it quite an interesting blog.

I am also looking for English Tuition for my son as I find that he did not learn much from school. He is weak in all components, grammar, vocab, compre, close passage, compo and oral. Partly because he only likes to read easy books and do exam papers.

Could you share more about your son P5 English tuition and how you rate it as my son is in that level too ?



monlim said...

LL: I'm so far not wowed by Andre's English tuition. What's good about this teacher is she gives lots of practice in compo. In other areas, I feel she doesn't spend enough time reinforcing concepts, instead she gives lots of worksheets. Though to be fair, it may be a bit early to judge since language proficiency tends to take longer to develop.

QueenMummy said...

Hi Monica,

I have been quite vexed about this tuition nation phenomenon in Singapore. My 8 year old is now feeling very anxious as she has not had tuition and all her friends, even those who are really good in schoolwork are having tuition and enrichment of some sort. She will be P3 next year and I am just wondering is tuition an absolute necessity or just to make yourself feel better because everyone else is sending their child for tuition. What has become of our education system?

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