Thursday, May 26, 2011

Letter to Mr Heng Swee Keat

Dear Mr Heng

The recent polls have triggered many dramatic changes, the biggest of which is PM’s consistent refrain for transformation.

In this spirit, I’m writing to you to ask whole-heartedly for a transformation of our education system. If not a complete transformation, at least a holistic review of some of the basic tenets by which education policies in this country are made.

As a parent with one child in secondary school and another in primary school with contrasting abilities, I have, over the years, become increasingly frustrated and disturbed by many areas of our education system which I feel are not edifying to the development of children. At the risk of sounding like one of those domineering, opinionated mothers, let me try to persuade you, from the point of view of a concerned parent, why a change is due.

Education is not a business

Many have felt that Singapore in the past few years has been run like a business and this mindset has filtered down to education. These days, teachers are ranked against each other measured by KPIs. If their students don't perform up to par, then they drop in ranking. I assume this affects their appraisal and promotion prospects. Principals are also under pressure to keep up in school rankings (and not just in academics), hence they push their teachers to achieve better results.

Here's what happens when schools are run like businesses. Teachers become workers assessed and ranked according to quantifiable output. The principal is like the CEO, answerable to a higher authority based on numbers. Students become products, they are valued only according to the quantifiable output they can contribute, everything else is peripheral or redundant. Everything is reduced to numbers.

Therein lies the problem. When you run a business, the focus has to be on results, preferably quantifiable results. Don't get me wrong, I think it's well and good to try and assess the effectiveness of a school. But instead of seeing how we can better assess the effectiveness of schools, we run the schools to make them easier to assess.

Education administrators love this because it's so neat, structured and orderly. But the problem is education is about moulding of individuals. And neither individuals nor learning is neat, structured or orderly. The process of education is not and should be like that of manufacturing, taking place in a factory.

A friend of mine who volunteered to lead a character module at her son’s school was taken aback when she was asked for KPIs. I have other friends who are teachers have expressed frustration at being assessed purely by how well their students score. If we take this route, there is no "business" value in helping a student overcome his learning disability or giving special attention to a child from a difficult family background because the outcome is not quantifiable. We're leaving it to the assumed social conscience of the teacher and the school to step forward in such instances. But realistically, ensuring ‘A’ students continue to get top grades will likely get priority because it directly impacts on the teacher's KPIs.

Obsession with results

The inevitable outcome of an education system that is run by KPIs is the obsession with results and by this, of course I mean quantifiable results. What happens then is the focus is shifted from the process of education to the end result of scoring, because that is what is measured in the end.

For example, I find that the way many subjects are taught in schools are based on the marking template, understandably because if the objective is to maximise scores, then you teach to fulfil this objective. I’m a corporate writer and one of my biggest pet peeves is the way composition writing is taught in primary schools.

Many teachers today are told to mark the language of a composition based on how many "good phrases" are used. In my son’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. These phrases are often so bombastic and pretentious that nobody in real life would actually use them. Yet the students are taught them because “ticks” are given for each “good phrase” and added to their vocabulary score.

I remember during a parent-teacher conference, I raised my concerns to my son's English teacher. 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"). Unfortunately, her hands were tied.

I know why this is imposed - it's to make marking simpler. This way, schools don't have to depend on the arbitrary standards of each marker and 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?

To me, attempting to come up with a template for creativity is simply oxymoronic. Ironically, we’ve managed to suck the creativity out of creative writing.

This obsession with results extends outside of the classroom. In my daughter’s school, the performing arts groups are given funding according to how well they perform in the SYF. Likewise, bigger budgets are given to sports that bring in medals. The list goes on. What this breeds in the race for medals and results is that schools often prioritise these over values like effort, sportsmanship and character building.

Even otherwise worthwhile activities, such as CCAs and community service, have lost their noble intent somewhat, as many students now perform these duties clinically for the sake of window dressing their resume.

Valuing people based on academic results

As 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, Singaporeans have become obsessed with chasing grades. While I don’t deny grades are important, for many, they have become life-centric, meaning kids spend every waking hour performing tasks that will help them better their score.

The mindless pursuit of academic achievement has become so over-arching that many parents are now sending their kids for what I call indiscriminate tuition – tuition in every single examinable subject whether or not the child actually needs it. My daughter is in an SBGE (School-Based Gifted Education) class and her classmates were either from the GEP in primary school or top scorers in the PSLE. So I was startled when she told me that most of her classmates have tuition in 3 or 4 subjects. Tuition has become a crutch - even if the kids are doing well on their own, parents fear the consequences of doing without it.

The backlash is that our children’s self-worth and perception have become intrinsically linked to their academic grades. Teachers, peers and possibly parents judge the value of students according to their academic ability. I know children whose self-esteem is low simply because they don’t do as well in school as their classmates. In the “branded” schools, it also breeds elitism because these students deem others less academically-inclined as somehow inferior. When my daughter attended her first day of school in sec 1, many of her new classmates, meeting her for the first time, didn’t ask “what’s your name?” but “what’s your t-score?”

This treatment of academic prowess as a “superior” skill can be seen throughout our system. Although we profess to embrace all talents, it’s often lip service. Prefects and student leaders are usually chosen first on their academic ability before their leadership skills. In many DSAs for sports, schools still ask for academic results before they will even entertain the child for a trial. The message we seem to be sending is: we'll look at your other talents IF you have the academic ability.

Putting standards above learning

In my son’s recent p5 mid-year exams, in one class, every single child failed the math paper. This is a common scenario among some of the popular schools. Obviously, it’s not because the students are intellectually deficient. It’s because the papers are often set at a level designed for only the top 25% of kids. In fact, one question required a method that had not yet been taught to the students. It’s a mockery of the “teach less learn more” motto – does it mean the teachers teach less but the kids somehow have to learn more on their own? No wonder tuition centres are flourishing!

I’m tired of hearing the age-old excuse from schools that this will spur the children to work harder. Incidentally, this is not supported by fact. I suspect it's an urban legend spread by schools who wish to justify their "high" standards. I meet many parents and students who are more demoralised than "spurred" by their consistently bad results.

What is the point of this? The age gap between my two children is only three years and yet I can see that what my younger child has to learn at his age is markedly more difficult than what his sister had to know.

Perhaps this constant accelerating of the educational syllabus is a knee jerk reaction to the influx of brilliant foreign students, but this is no justification. We need to recognise that these kids have completely different motivations. They are here purely to study, to carve a better life for themselves, much as our students work harder when they study overseas. Do we then use these as benchmarks to whip Singaporeans into shape?

No education system is a one size fits all but we need to consider the best interest of the majority of students. If half your students fail in an exam, it doesn’t reflect badly on the student – it reflects badly on the teaching. I find that in setting the curriculum and exam papers, there seems to be some semi-sadistic streak in MOE and schools, to trip kids up and make them feel stupid. It's as if someone is saying, "Aha! I managed to set a question that no one could answer!" There will always be a small percentage of brainiacs who can ace any exam, no matter how difficult. That is not a logical benchmark by which to design curriculum or exam papers.

Plea for a more meaningful system

In the course of my work, I had the opportunity to interview the Vice Dean, Education of Duke-NUS. It was, in my mind, one of the most inspiring interviews I’d ever conducted. In his words, “We don’t just want the straight ‘A’ student. Does having one less ‘A’ make you less of a person? We know Singaporeans are already great at memorising facts – we’re looking for passion, dedication and the ability to see a problem through different angles.”

I feel we could use more of that mindset here. Singaporean educators are often proud of our high standards but let's be honest, we're good at ticking off checklists, exams and competitions. We laugh at the laissez faire American system for its laxity but in truth, they have churned out more innovators and thinkers from their messy system than we have (even after adjusting for size and population).

I will be the first to admit to occasionally suffering pangs of anxiety when my child doesn't do well in an exam because it's hard to stand firm in the onslaught of a tsunami of kiasu-ism. But at the end of the day, I try to keep reminding myself his character and happiness matter more. I want a kinder system, one that encourages my child to explore the world around him, not closes it up. One that shows him the richness of issues and topics out there, not limits him to four subjects.

I want a system where I can encourage my child to enjoy music, art, sports for their own sake, and not with the pre-requisite that he does well academically. I want him to want to help others, and not because it counts towards community service hours in his report book. I want to groom a child with integrity and respect towards others, and I hope others can appreciate him for these values.

I am doing as much as I can in these areas but I cannot fight against the education system. I'm writing this in the hope that as you now helm the Education Ministry, you can make the transformation happen.

Thank you very much for your time.


Hopeful said...

Well said! You should have started an online petition. I would have signed. :)

Did you really send this to Mr Heng Swee Keat? That's really brave of you. I do hope that it will spur him to consider how best to change our education system.

In the meantime, as you have rightfully put it, we can only try our best to instill the joy of learning in our kids, and not compel them to keep up with the ever-increasing academic requirements.


monlim said...

Hopeful: Yes, I sent it to him. Not sure if he'll even read it but one can only try! The letter is making its rounds on FB, hopefully it can garner enough support to put some pressure on MOE :)

Anonymous said...

well said! it exactly reflects on my family with one daughter currently studying inpimary school.
i am actually hesitating over sending her to tuition because of the common say :"every primary student can't avoid to have tuition",then what is the role of teachers at school?
can i ask your permission putting your link on my facebook so that more people can read this ?

Anonymous said...

i totally support and agree to your views. Is about time they should look into this...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, forgot to leave my name: sally

monlim said...

Sally: Sure, please go ahead and share!

Jo said...

Thanks so much for being a voice for what so many parents and children are going through.

Even at Pri 3, I noticed that the school's exam papers have gotten harder over the last 2 to 3 years ! I shudder to think of the standards required 5 years from now ! Even higher ability students are not spared and further stressed by plunging grades ! So much is expected and I am sorry to say ... the teaching leaves much to be desired... the teachers are always rushing to finish the syllabus :(

During my time up to PSLE, I don't recall having any stress, I think tests for compo/oral were only introduced in upper pri or even P5/6 ? I know of ex-teachers ( from top secondary schools) who tell me how the stresses of academic performance have taken their toll on the children - many of whom are not only depressed. worried but resort to more serious acts like self-injury....scary!

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Well said!! I am with you if you ever need to send in a petition. I already know a native Singaporean family left Singapore just because she thinks that her kids will not thrive in Singapore education system.

~ my

Anonymous said...

well said! it exactly reflects on my family with one daughter currently studying inpimary school.
i am actually hesitating over sending her to tuition because of the common say :"every primary student can't avoid to have tuition",then what is the role of teachers at school?
can i ask your permission putting your link on my facebook so that more people can read this ?

Sorry, my name is Ling
So can i post it in my FB?

monlim said...

Jo: I know, in a way, I'm relieved Andre is already in p5. The way it's accelerating, the kids will need to understand nuclear physics pretty soon!

MY: Thanks for the support, hopefully MOE will finally sit up and see how their system is affecting Singaporeans.

Ling: Sure, go ahead!

Anonymous said...

Fully agreed, thank you so much Monica.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monlim, I chanced upon your blog recently and have really enjoyed reading your writings.They are so insightful and your latest one resonated with me completely.
I have a son who's in P3 and I am already having exam fatigue!Thank you for standing up for us all, tired moms and stuggling kids!


Pearline said...

Couldn't have said it better. I hope that our minister gets to read this. Suspect that chances are much higher now that it is making its rounds on FB. :)

Incidentally we just had a Parent-Teacher-Meeting and when we voiced our concerns about how the Maths is not exactly Maths but sort of like IQ questions, the teacher's answer was "I agree. Wait till you see P5 & P6 Maths. No choice, just have to expose (the child)."

Even the teachers themselves think so, but yet they can't do anything about it. :(

Anonymous said...

Good letter! Thanks for writing it :) Looking forward to his reply.


Anonymous said...

This is totally well said. I'm a student currently in my sec 4 year. You have really spoke for many students. I thank and applaud you for that!

Hopefully, we'll see change, real change.

Sam said...

bravo! a teacher-friend of mine passed this post to me, and i've passed it on to my colleagues too. you have no idea how many rank-and-file teachers share the same feeling. and this is the problem with the teaching profession - many teachers who love to teach are driven out by despair at the system. no matter how many MOE tries to recruit, it cannot stem the tide.

i really hope you can publish this letter on the national media (if it is even possible cos no one in the officialdom will even want to hear about the proverbial elephant in the room), else i doubt anyone in our Cabinet will even want to know this.

Unweaving the Rainbow said...

kudos! thank you for penning this!!

thomas said...

Well written

The Wobbly Guy said...

The solution is simple: get rid of compulsory public education. Implement a two-tier system just like in healthcare. A lower one which is fully paid for, where the child studies in a classic public school system. An upper one where the value of the public education the child would have received is converted into a monetary value, which can be used to subsidize tailored education delivered by accredited home tutors.

In such a system, the learning group can be customised to the needs of the child, and even according to subject, taking into account the child's specific learning needs. Does he learn best alone? With a peer? Or in a small group? The parents are free to choose the best option for their child. This will also be far more efficient than ordinary classroom teaching, freeing up more time for other activities.

This also solves a whole lot of other issues. Manpower - the shadow educators (the tuition teachers) are brought into the mainstream. Efficiency - we eliminate the silly phenomenon of children receiving four hours of useless instruction in school followed by two hours of home tuition. Choice - parents and students are free to proceed at the pace that suits them best. The smart ones can move ahead and do their PSLEs, O and A levels early if they want. Taxation - the use of vouchers means that if the tutors want their money, they have to register with MOE and go through the system, which can then track their income and tax them accordingly (hey, I have to throw a bone to the bureaucrats!)

What abt the students from humble backgrounds whose parents cannot afford the extra premiums for the upper tier? Well, with the removal of students to the upper tier, the teacher to student ratio would improve. The schools would also face the additional challenge of being more responsive to the actual needs of their students instead of the whims of MOE bureaucrats, because they are competing with the upper tier providers.

This is a radical change, but it offers the best way out from the current mess we are in. What I hope to do is to raise awareness of my solution, then pitch it when the time is right. In perhaps five years' time...

Anonymous said...

Where we can read the interview that you did with the Vice Dean of Duke-NUS?

Ming Kang said...

mummy monlim, firstly, I wish to congratulate you for your courage to stand firm on your beliefs for your children. Your children will be proud of their mummy and appreciate what you have shown them. I believe they will benefit from them as a person much more than the A's the system is going to award them.

I believe as you have pointed out it is hard to stand firm against the onslaught of something so prevailing. But, I think this is precisely why we feel so helpless. We think we could not stand firm and choose otherwise. However, I believe you can and so as everyone else.

Let's not wait, do what we believe and do not follow what we could not agree now for the sake of the lovely children, and they will learn to stand for themselves and no longer feel helpless!

I am intending to do so for my children as their guardians to safeguard them as a person and forsake the so called flying colors in the system. I am not going to wait for the minister to persuade those guys in the ministry or the teachers as the world does not wait for them, and my children will learn to survive in that world. I am gaining my integrity and authenticity of my and my children's life by letting go what other hold as dearest.

The question will be: We all have the choice, what will that be?

Anonymous said...

Thank you Monica Lim for so eloquently putting in words my feelings & thoughts after having survived my first 2 terms of primary school with our eldest child. I too hope you & all of us will be heard. I too hope for happiness, humanity & learning for my children.


monlim said...

Anon: If you're interested, the interview with Vice Dean of Education, Duke-NUS can be found here (pages 6-9):

Anonymous said...

i'm a teacher and you have no idea how excited and comforted to read this letter. i had wanted to write when pm announced his new education minister but i knew if it came from a parent, it would be better received. you hit the nail on the spot when you highlighted ranking of teachers. this system of appraisal empowers principals to do almost anything they want to blindly achieve moe's goals at any cost and most teachers are too afraid to speak up even when the flaws are so glaring and obvious. i also believe these principals and superintendents are fully aware of these issues you have brought up but are also unwilling to point out to their perm sec and directors because of their high salary (superscale). another point you might be very interested to know is that number of teachers who resigned and retired increased sharply after ranking was introduce in '02 (10.3%)and fully implemented in '05 (6.9%). calculated using offical figures from moe and nie websites.

Anonymous said...


I am a Singaporean who used to be a teacher and now I live in the suburbs of Chicago. You hit the nail on the head with the way you discussed Singapore's education system which currently churns out identical, mechanical and boring robots who can't even think for themselves unless they are spoonfed.

My 8yr old in 3rd Grade (he skipped a grade btw) is creating a web page on Egyptian Civilization based on his own research for school. He has no tuition nor parental help. Infact, he doesn't even bring home homework everyday. His English is flawless and he has read up to book 4 of the Harry Potter series. He is expected to give persuasive speeches to the entire class. He is already learning algebra without even realizing it through puzzles and games. He writes poems, invents corny jokes, comes up with riddles just like the rest of his friends.

When he goes to 5th grade, kids like him will learn how to trade on the stock market. It is no surprise that the education system in the U.S. really gives a lot of importance to creativity and critical thinking. It seems as if they focus a lot of energy on the language arts and they seem a lot weaker in Maths and Sciences. I don't think it's true. Programs like the STEM program are actually allowing bright high school kids to take college level courses in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Statistically it may seem as if countries like the U.S. are lagging behind in terms of test scores but the reality is it's not all about grades. We've seen so many high-school and college drop-outs who have turned out to be more successful in life than people with degrees. Education should be about developing and challenging a child's brain in order to solve problems creatively and maneuver through the trials of life. Singapore's obsession with ranking - best airport, best airline, highest GDP etc. is the bane of the country. Ranking teachers is a further insult to the profession. Maybe they should start by changing the way they recruit teachers. Offering scholarships and bonding them is not the best way to attract the best minds with a genuine love of educating the young. Start by ensuring all teachers have at least a Bachelor's degree. Most of the teachers in my son's elementary school have at least a Master's Degree. Do I think it makes a difference to the quality of education that my child receives? I definitely do. Maybe it might help to offer scholarships to get degrees in Education overseas rather than in Singapore to bring in some new ideas. I am not saying that the education in NIE/NTU is inferior, I just feel that it still fits in the mold of what is expected of students in Singapore which is all about churning out good grades. Frankly, I doubt you can teach creativity or critical thinking by force. It has to be encouraged through autonomy in all aspects of life. It can start as simple as allowing children to share their opinions on what they would like to wear or eat or play. Our Asian mentality places a lot of importance on obedience and conforming to certain rules and regulations. That will definitely curb a young child's creativity and sense of independance. Rote-learning, memorizing, practising over and over again in guide books and mock tests/exams help a child do nothing but ace a test. Give open-book exams, expect children to write book reports and submit cross-curriculur projects. Have ECA's that encourage creativity like photography, graphic-designing, music etc. In schools here, kids have to learn an instrument from 5th grade. It is not just for a select few who join the band or choir. Is that why the most popular music comes from the U.S. too??


Anonymous said...

I have to continue on ....

Success doesn't depend on ranking. Infact children here do not receive a class or grade level rank like we did in Singapore. School rankings, class rankings, national rankings- all that doesn't matter. Instead of forceful tuition, parents should consider playing a personal part in their child's education. Read to them, encourage discussions, allow them to be a part of family decisions, play games that challenge their brains with them, expose them to art, music and theater, take them on trips outside of Singapore to show them how varied and beautiful our world is. Don't let your teenagers waste their time by watching mindless TV programs, playing video games and window-shopping in the mall. Don't be "helicopter" parents by hovering over your children. Trust the teachers and have more faith in their abilities to bring out the best in your child.


Agnes Tan said...

Hi Monica, this is the 2nd time I read your blog (posted on FB). Have you ever thought of parents being the cause of the present education system? My daughter is 15 and my son is 13 - in their time, parents sent their children to enrichment centres as young as 3 years old, and many even sent their kindergarten kids to 2 kindergartens in the hope of making them more intelligent? With these kids learning at a much earlier age, teachers would have to pitch at a different level. Yes, there is definitely an uneven playing field but parents toe the line. My teenage kids have contrasting abilities - one struggling with Math and Science and the other in GEP (now in RI). Knowledge is infinite - if the syllabus is easy with time for performing arts, parents would complain too, saying that teachers or MOE are idle? It's a chicken and egg problem. Personally I know what my kids need tuition is a need and never a pressure to exert on them simply because others have them! I raise my kids to have lives beyond school - music and swimming (more competitive for my son) and lots of outdoor play. I teach them to cycle, to play badminton and table-tennis. So if you complain about the system, have you ever thought of parents being the cause? Children who cannot cope with 2nd language just have to acknowledge this area of weakness and work on it - and no Education System aims to make straight As out of all students. The dichotomy between the academically more and less so will always exist.

monlim said...

Agnes: Of course it's a cyclical issue. But saying that parents are unilaterally the cause of stress is as absurd as saying that only the system is the cause. Some parents, even if you put them in a more relaxed school environment, will still put pressure on their kids.

The fact is, both affect each other and having a system that stresses results above all else does not help create a balanced environment (similar to what we've been hearing throughout the GE that the emphasis on GDP above all else has been detrimental to Singaporeans). I have friends who were very kancheong parents in Singapore but when they had to move overseas and send their kids to international schools, they found themselves becoming more relaxed.

All I'm asking for is a more balanced education system. Surely that's not too much to ask. If we always shrug things off as "that's how it is, take it or leave it", we will never effect change for the better.

Amy - Parenting Gone Mad said...

Monica, what a well written piece of work. Did you feel better for having vented your frustrations? As a fellow blogger, I totally agree with your education mantra.

I live in Australia, but am Malaysian and grew up in an education system which demanded such high and unrealistic results. Luckily for me, my father had the foresight to place in an English system of education. I have nothing but great memories of my school life that was very well balanced.

I am certainly not familiar with what there is to offer in Singapore when it comes to education however, whilst you may pioneer a movement in hope of change, it may and most likely will not happen in your children's education life.

Are there no other alternative schools that perhaps support your thinking? Take them out now and continue the fight but in the end, your children will be at the raw end of the stick.

Good luck and thanks to my friend who posted this letter on FB. I have now found yet another blog I can identify with.

Sabrina said...

Hi Monica,

Your article is fantastic! I do not have any children yet but I see my nieces and nephews struggling with their education.

They no longer enjoy the childhood nor the knowledge that they are supposed to acquire through fun ways. It is saddening how the education system has evolved to such a stage. I do believe in having a holistic education that the children are able to enjoy music, arts, nature and games instead of a stressful lifestyle from young. Like you, I hope this article can push them to do something. I will circulate your article through fb. Thanks!

Sabrina :)

Sam said...

if i might add on to my earlier comment - just a minor point about ranking. very few people realise that our EPMS system ranks teachers' performance according to what EXTRA stuff that we do - ie. committees, what CCA awards we bring etc... and not according to how many "As" we produce, because producing good results is only "Meeting Expectations" in the EPMS ranking as this is 'expected'. so, now you know why teachers are bogged down by admin work that are (mainly) not benefiting students directly, and leaving us little time to actually reflect about our teaching. don't be fooled by those 'glowing' testimonies about reflective teachers cos no one wants to know how much personal sacrifice these teachers have to give up on their own family life just to be 'reflective'.

Anonymous said...

How the education system works is a reflection of society as a whole. I am a teacher and i am very tired.

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica,

You have said everything I feel about the education system - much more eloquently than I would have said.

I have 3 children in the primary education system here - all with very different capabilities & personalities - therefore coping very differently in the education system here.

I totally agree that, although the changes are "happening" in the education system, the changes taking place is way too slow - and academic and scores oriented are still the primary focus.

I do hope that your letter reaches Mr Heng Swee Keat - and that we do see some definitive tweaking of the system. A change that actually would bring out the creativity and the best in the younger generation - rather than exam smart generations.


Anonymous said...

Your mentioned of students having to learn "bombastic and pretentious" phrases that "nobody in real life would actually use them" rings a bell. Now I know where praises such as "rare flower that will bloom in the winter of adversity" come from.

SCY said...

Hi Monica,
It is really refreshing to read your arguments for having a change in our education system. Many lower-income families with children in school are unable to keep up because they cannot afford to give them extra tuition in order to keep up. They therefore fall behind because the system does not cater for these people. I believe this is one reason why such families find it so difficult to get out of the poverty trap in Singapore. I hope the Minister will listen, as they promise to, and come up quickly with a system that is more inclusive and less business-like.

Yihui said...

Hello Ms Lim,

This issue is often belabored in the media, and I would be the first
to agree that our education system is too pragmatic and KPI driven. I
also feel you have hit the nail on the head with your criticisms of
'indiscriminate tuition', one of my pet peeves when I was in primary
school (yes, this was already a phenomenon 6 years ago). Thankfully I
no longer observe this amongst my friends as my school's syllabus is
accelerated and no tuition centre offers programs tailored to this.

I was particularly struck by your point on the artificiality of
judging an essay on the number of bombastic phrases used (although I
felt this eg. would have been more appropriate under 'Education is not
a business'.)I am sure all of us would Iike to see an education system
that better embraces creativity. But the devil here is in the
implementation. How else would you suggest that teachers benchmark
their marking of narrative essays? IMHO, without quantitative
standards it would be quite hard for teachers to be accountable for
their marking, as well as standardize the stringency of their

Wrt your point that exam standards should be lowered -you mentioned
that an exam set only for the top 25% of kids is too hard- I am also
interested to know what you would use as your benchmark. My opinion is
that setting an exam in which only the top 25% would do well is an
acceptable standard. Much as I empathize with your desire to motivate
your child, I feel that exams should be exempt from this aim. Exams
such as the PSLE are known as streaming exams because they
differentiate students based on academic ability as reflected by their
relative performances. The same is true of school exams. Thus they
must be of a certain standard to fulfill this purpose.

Lastly, I think we should be mindful that in explaining the ability of
the American education system to produce great innovators, we cannot
divorce the impact of a liberal culture from that of the education
system. It would seem that the root of the problem that you have so
astutely highlighted extends beyond the inadequacies of our education
system into entrenched 'Asian values' that favour rote learning over

Thank you for a very well-balanced read!

Anonymous said...

You expressed your views very well and I agree with all that you have expressed. It reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson's speech at TED. Here's a link.

Albert Leong said...

I am impressed with the clean choice of words and clear minded for the subject.

I dont understand why it is so difficult for the MOE or the Minister to comprehend?

Let me know how I can follow you online and if you need any from me, pls let me know.


glynnisbaby said...

I agree with you that the education system is a mistake. But correcting the education system will not correct the mistake.

Someone once asked me this question that makes me truely understand the solution to the education system.
This someone asked me: "How come his ang moh friend can work at a fastfood restaurant all his life in the US while we cannot do it here in Singapore."

Expectation of life in singapore is special. We predict the future to be difficult thus we rush our next generation so hard so that they will not suffer in time to come. If working in a fastfood restaurant can afford you a good life in the year 2100 then will you be so bothered about getting all As in school?

Problem is not simple here. it is not just an educational system that is giving stress. If you think that your kids is stress in school then why dun you let your kids quit school. You will not right...!!! We the parents are the one that is really stressing the kids. We stress them because we do not see a bright future for them if they do not do well...

haiz... so in this case what should we do?

caroln said...

I applaud you for your reflective perspective which I hope will be read by both the new Education Minister and MOE officers. I worked in the local education system for some years, but have since moved on to teaching overseas. I have had the blessing of having experienced systems of education where students are spurred on to develop themselves as individuals and as members of the wider learning community, where character education and personality development are considered as important as knowledge and skills, where the inculcation of positive attitudes reign supreme, where students know that failure is not the end of the world, where differences and diversity are both appreciated and encouraged. Despite our supposedly high education standards, our students are less creative, less innovative, less of risk-takers, and less responsible as global citizens than their counterparts in many other developed countries. We have yet to ask ourselves why that is so or to acknowledge the flaws in our system. Instead, we are smug about our rankings and supposed high education standards. We import foreign talents and foreign student talents, some who already have the base for creativity and innovation by virtue of their initial social and cultural environments, and we expect our children to compete in the same field. We have yet to learn how to really give our children a world class education that will not strip them of their pride and dignity as individuals, or to cater to the holistic learning needs of the average child. Thank you for your honest take on the education system. I totally agree with you, and hope that the young ones will be given a chance to become their own persons and feel good about themselves as individuals in the global society, rather than just feel like cogs in wheels in the ranking machinery.

Joe Roissier said...

Nicely written post, Monica. But I'm an American, and I must take polite exception to your comment about our "Messy American system."

My name is Joe Roissier. I'm retired from industry and I live and work at a Monastery in California as a Buddhist monk. I'm raising a bi-racial 14 year old boy. His mom's Vietnamese but we managed to live in a well-funded and well managed school district, so my son's particular school system is not very messy. I'll allow that many here are, and our particular problem is that the good schools are to be found where there's money, and dare I say it - a preponderance of Asian-American families in percentages that exceed that of the general population. They always get the best value for the least amount of money. This is just a demographic fact, sorry if it seems like I'm profiling.

So the Asian methods have been highly successful here - up to a point. I'm trying to give my son the best of both worlds. Please check out my blog on the matter here

What's happening at the elite universities in the US is a backlash against the mad test-takers be they Asian, white or anything else, but truth be told, these are mostly Asian American kids. The Ivy League has a de facto limit of 20% on Asians and tries to tilt the scales in favor of Hispanics and African Americans, but that's a particular issue here in the US with our equal opportunity laws and mania for political correctness.

One admissions officer at an elite school was quoted as saying that there are enough math wizards with no personalities to go around and that they prefer well rounded young people who are real human beings, that will contribute their share to the learning experience at (Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, take your pick).

Some of our schools do seem to have a knack for turning out free-thinking creative people in many fields, especially at the tertiary level, but this is often a function of parental involvement, too. We don't always look to our school systems to act in loco parentis, and we're willing to fill the gaps that educators just can't take care of.

Anyway - Good discussion.

ruqxana said...

I may not have children but I thoroughly agree with you. Well said!!!!!!!!

Ai Ling said...

Thank you for taking the time to write out your thoughts and helping to articulate some of mine. We have just returned from NZ and been blessed by the way education is done there. It's a whole way of life/culture that values children that supports the education system. Sophie did not go to sch in NZ but we've watched it from afar and learn lots.

Limed said...

I completely agree with Monica. If Mr Heng Swee Keat does not pick this up and at least do something, then why do we need another Education Minister? He will just be like the ones before him. We might as well keep the last one. Somehow, i feel that the government is just moving the minister around like what is being done in companies for executives to move up the corporate ladder. We do not need this in the government. If a minister do not have the heart to serve the nation, i do not see treating them like executives will banafit the country in any way. The education system is suffering due to the corporate approach in how the goverment runs the country, as Monica has highlighted. If the ministry does not see what singaporeans wants for their children, then i would rather be a 2nd class citizen somewhere else.

senior citizen said...

Dear monlim,
Your analysis of the education system and that of government is indeed not far from reality. Its all about running a business. This has evolved from the time of the 2nd PM and has continued until the awakening of the 2011 GE result. Over the years without much opposition strength in parliament, the people had also succumbed to this mental state with the creation of the term "kiasu" which is used only in this country. Then there is the propagation of tuition classes where most parents of children subscribe to, even for those who can ill afford them fearing that their children may be disadvantaged.

My recent stay in NZ with my friend's family allowed me to see the difference with children education there and here. The children are aged 3 /5 / 9. They are smart and happy children and do their own things, reading, drawing and playing. The parents and children have fun time together in the evenings and not attending tuition classes.

Life is about living and not striving all the time to be better than every other person around.

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica

As a teacher of more than 30 years, I fully share your sentiments. I think education needs a revolution for Singapore to survive with our next generation. All around us, we are seeing the product of a highly structured education that advocate standardisation. Yes, some may argue that what we are facing is not peculiar to Singapore but we are a small country and hence education is our key to success.
I am glad there is a change of minister and with every change, we hope. There are many malpractices or rather not educational sound practices in schools in order to get the grades. Teachers should revisit why they teach and what is education for besides getting good grades. You might be interested to check out Ken Robinson on transforming education and also how schools kill creativity.

I applaud you for writing this letter and sincerely enough people power will move change as in the recent election. I believe our PM is sincere as seen by the immediate changes taking place.

There are teachers out there who question the system and also believe that schools are destroying the confidence of our students starting from the high standard of primary school examinations.

I hope all principals and leaders would voice the `pains' of our students for MOE to take actions.


monlim said...

Dear all, thanks for your overwhelming support. I'm especially heartened by the fact that not only parents, but many teachers agree that a change is needed in the system.

Many great points have been raised. I just want to add that to those who are quick to blame parents for this kiasu syndrome, it can't be so simply just the fault of parents and here's why: I know many parents who have to move out of Singapore for various reasons, like work. When their kids are in an international school setting, suddenly they're less kancheong, their kids are more relaxed, enjoy school more. The minute they're back here, they instantly feel the stress and start pushing their kids more. Same parent, same kid, different system. None of us live or operate in vacuums. Although we have free will, we respond to the situation that we're confronted with. To say MOE has no culpability in the system that it has established over the years is ridiculous.

However, I suspect that if HSK replies, it will just be a “thank you for your feedback” type of non-answer. Cos honestly, I don’t know how else he can! He really is too new to promise any reforms but given the public outcry, he also can’t say that he will change nothing.

For my part, I just have to be content with the fact that I've spoken up. He has 5 years to see if he can move this giant mothership without everything falling apart. I don’t envy his job.

Alvin said...

Dear Monica

Thank you for sending the letter to our new Minister for Education. Along with a lot of teachers, I share the hope that it will bring about some much-needed changes to our Education system.



Alvin said...

A Teacher's Wish....

If I Could

I would teach each child to be positive, to smile, to love and be loved.
I would teach each child to take time to observe some miracle of nature - the song of a bird, the beauty of a snowflake, the orange glow of a winter sunset.
I would teach each child to feel warmly about those for whom the task of learning does not come easily.
I would teach each one to be kind to all living creatures and to crowd out of their lives feelings of guilt, misunderstanding and lack of compassion.
I would teach each child that it is OK to show their feelings by laughing, crying or touching someone they care about.
Every day I would have each child feel special, and, through my actions, each one would know how much....
I really care

TC Lai said...

Many pertinent points here. If we judge the kids on We Are Singaporeans segment of The Noose, I would say we have pretty dumb kids in more ways than one. So what if they excel in international tests when they can't even handle simple questions. What we lack is a core philosophy on how we want out kids to turn out. Give me a kid who knows how to analyse, question, inquire, humor and write with soul. In the end, honest kids. Honest in their abilities and how they view the world. I've taught in a Future School before and the IQ-type math bothers me. In some ways, it teaches out kids to see problems in different ways, but too much and it becomes an IQ test that gives more stress than educational value. I would like to see a return to an apprentice system kid of curriculum. This will ensure that kids learn and produce what is current in the world today and they in turn will see value in what they are learning. I believe it will more Teach Less Learn More more meaningful and productive. Also if kids can learn more through Black Box thinking, they will find more joy in knowledge acquisition, exploration and creation. Give them that value and foundation in their young lives.

Breath of God said...

thanks for your kind sharing.
hopefully, the authorities can do something about this

Moxie Beauty said...

Wow I thought the local system was bad, but didn't know it's this bad! I pity the children and the whirlpool of anxieties and stress parents have to endure with their children. My son studies in an International school here and is so happy! I actually thought of switching him to a local school since he is not equipped with much Mandarin there but after reading yoir blog, I better think halt my decision! I don't want to be raising one dimensional kids who only care about scores.

Pris said...


I'm in awe and speechless at how your words have penned out what I feel about the education system in Singapore although I'm neither a part of it nor am I residing in Singapore anymore.

I'm looking forward to a reply from the guy!!!

Anonymous said...

I am not a parent. But I have watched my colleagues (with kids in both pri & sec) bring math questions to work and ask other parents on how to solve certain "out-of-the-box" questions. I have attempted some of them myself and I was dumbfounded, some of the questions were just too "challenging". It actually took me quite awhile to solve them myself and I am 30! I was starting to feel stupid myself and the question was a Pri 5 question. I can not imagine the feeling of the kid who "stares" at the question.

Another issue is the use of tuition, I myself had tuition when I was in Pri & Sec, but it was only for Mandarin as it was something that my family didn't converse regularly in. Tuition, in my opinion, should only be used to enforce or to assist but not for "competition". Everyone has different speed/style in learning and yes, tuition can help in that way. But if your kid is perfectly okay and able to follow in class. I really don't see the need for tuition. But unfortuately, the emphasis has been on the results solely and nothing of the child's character.

To me, it's more important to nurture the "self-learning" interest in a child. If one is able to find enjoyment in learning, one will never stop learning, no matter the age.

From non-parent: just my personal opinion.

Seah said...

Well said! You have penned the very concerns n frustrations of many suffering parents/teachers/children of Singapore! Is this letter going to reach the minister n his team? Keep me in the loop if u are putting up a petition. I am in! god bless our pleas!

Judith said...

Dear Monica, thank you for writing this letter on behalf of the parents. I wonder what more can us, the parents do in order for MOE to sit-up and listen? If we could garner group support, like the recent election rallies, where the frustrations and anger of the people are heard, that would be excellent!

God Bless...Judith

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your letter and believe you would enjoy the latest speech by Sir Ken Robinson who I think is one of the few people in Education who really "gets it".
All the best

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with u. I have 4 kids, eldest in P4. The papers are indeed getting really ridiculous. So many kids are having tuition nowadays, even the gifted ones. The grades are mediocre but no tuition becos I simply refused to believe I can't even help my kids in the primary school syllabus. My 2nd is in P1. The new Holistic Assessment type of teaching is even worse. On top of spelling and tingxie, she gets some formal assessment nearly every week.

Anonymous said...

Honestly no one will understand unless they have a son or daughter who is currently going through this. I have both and honestly i feel for them as i remembered really and truly enjoying my childhood. Parents have to understand if the child do well because of the parents constant pushing, then the results belong to the parent and not the child.

Corsage@A Dollop Of Me said...

Hi Monica

I was so glad to read this letter of yours. My daughter is only 20 months old and already I've had many well-meaning parents giving me 'advice' about what I should do to prepare her for primary school. Needless to say, I've been rather shocked and freaked out the more I heard and read about our school system today. I've even in jest told my husband that we should move to another country to spare my daughter a childhood that will be made up of tests and competition, potentially robbing her of joy and a sense of wonder.

Recently, we tried to find a pre-school for her to attend next year. I was shocked (again) that so many schools have already been fully-booked. I thought it was just the few brand name ones that we read of in the papers, but no. One school administrator even gently 'admonished' me saying that people queue up at 4am to get their kids in!

It is my prayer that changes will take place in the system so that there will be a good balance. A system where children will be allowed to be children and nurtured as whole beings.

Thank you once again for putting everything down so eloquently on behalf of so many of us!

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica,

Thank you for writing to our new Education Minister. I share the same sentiment "Education is not a business and should not run like a business."
Our Educatiion System has lost its focus as stated in the website of the desired outcomes. It should be about values, not standards/grades only. More should voice out for immediate change.

Anonymous said...

great read :)

some argumentative points from a student's point of view:

immense levels of stress due to the education system that is centred around results. examinations are conducted all year round, and even though only two of them are counted as major exams, teachers place undue stress on students to score well for all of them (15 per subject per year?) due to the KPI. some examinations are even held DURING the june holidays, which is totally paradoxical.
for most junior colleges in singapore, their mid year CTs are held directly after the june holidays which also forces students to spend their holidays mugging. incidents of students committing suicides, more dissatisfaction and unhappiness are effects of such a examination-centred system. students feel like slaves, where grades are no longer forms of achievement, but rather a whip that forces you to study harder should you not adhere to the strict system of relentless studying.

it is often propagandized by schools that our school is our second home and we have to love it, obey the school rules, etc. in fact, students spend so much time in school that it actually becomes our primary home. a typical academic school day for students in colleges extends from 7am to 4pm (9 hours), and students have numerous projects, tasks, ccas to complete, which require even more time spent in schools for discussions. some of these even take place during weekends, so that they can meet the deadline. the result of this is that time with family and friends is heavily compromised. weekends which are unspoken stipulated family days are often taken up to fulfill the heavy demands of education. the total amount of time students spend in schools already exceeds that spent at home.

true learning takes place outside of the classroom. unfortunately, students are so restricted by the strict demands of the system that what little time we have outside the classroom is merely time to catch our breath.

Elissa said...

Dear Monica,
I am both a teacher and a mum. Like you, I have a girl in sec school and a boy in P5. Both my kids dislike school. No prize for guessing how badly they are faring in their tests and exams. The whole irony is that I'm so busy teaching other peoples' children that I have little time and energy left to teach my own. The reasons for the anger and frustrations felt by my husband and I with helping our kids cope with school have been so well reflected in your blog. Your letter to the minister resonated so strongly that I was banging on the table and exclaiming "YES!YES!" when I first read it :) Your observations about use of standard phrases in compo writing (my son's school calls them power phrases), the supplementary/remedial lessons (my son has up 3 - 4 days per week, being weak in all subjects!), etc. mirrored what I experienced. I find myself doing the very things that I'm against in the name of helping my kids get out of being labelled. The latest was using the percentile ranking provided by my son's school to "shame" my son into reaslizing how badly he is doing in school. I know very well that my son had a demanding math paper but I went along with the school's unspoken intention to use it to "wake up" the "weaker and lazy" students in P5 - the critical year before the PSLE year. It takes my non-graduate husband to remind me that percentile ranking doesn't tell the full picture. He called my son's teacher to find out about the passing rate but was told that the info was not available. (I think the form teacher needed to get the HOD's permission to reveal this). Like you wrote, if 50% has failed, that's an indicator of something wrong with the teaching. I fully agree and I understand this need not refer to the teacher. My son has a most dedicated teacher. But her hands are tied, to school policies, to assessment, ranking, etc. Although I fully understand that statistics can both inform and mis-inform, I chose to use it to "frighten" my son, out of my desperation to get him to conform to the expectations of the school system. Anyway, no parent would want their child left behind. His current performance spells clear danger of being streamed into Normal if nothing is done.

I am so grateful that your letter has gotten the attention of the minister. Not many of us can articulate so clearly the frustrations we feel about the education system. Some of us are are not at liberty to vent these frustrations as we're bound by terms of employment to be politically correct.

I have only this final word to add - assessment drives learning, just as the way teachers are appraised drives the way they teach. There are changes made in recent years to address the stress felt by students & parents but as long as the way students are assessed doesn't change, teachers and parents will not. This is actually a no-brainer but perhaps policy makers do want to engineer society to be result-oriented and so are reluctant to address this critical feature of the education system.

Once again, thank you for inspiring us tired working mothers to be agents of change.

Alan said...

Two thumbs up! Totally agree with what you said and feel that your views reflect the vast majority of Singaporeans.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am glad you penned these words down. Much of what you have said are my exact thoughts and your plea brought tears to my eyes as I can relate to how much you feel about this issue....thanks for this... Karen

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher and I fully agree with what you said. I hope MOE does something about the education system in Singapore asap.

edmund said...

Wow...this post of urs is still circulating after these few months. Kudos.
Got this from my wife & both of us share the same sentiment.

An interesting phrase that youth use now-a-days to describe the way they were taught to write Composition is "Phrase Spamming". They know the system is silly, but they are under yoke to follow it. The Phrase book gets thicker & thicker as teachers consolidate the phrases their students had used over the years.

One ray of hope however was when my kids school, HGP, recently revamp the Sports day. Instead of a selected group of "strong" students from each "House" competing on standard races, the school set up sports stations (rock climbing, skipping, etc etc) where every members of every "House" can participate in to help their team accumulate points.
The objective of encouraging overall participation of every students is worthy of praise.

Anonymous said...

I've just finished reading the posts under "GEP education" and "gifted kids". Oh, and that letter to Mr Heng Swee Keat. The next time you decide to write to him again, pls make it an online petition, I am sure many will sign and support. :)

I am glad I didn't decide to "boycott" GEP, or I may be short-changing my son, cos he seems to fit some of the characteristics mentioned in your posts regarding intellectual giftedness and highly sensitive kids. I plan to take a look at the book you highly recommended.

The next topic I am going to read is DSA, which I believe it's fast becoming another controversial topic (or is it already...?). And I suspect the vibes spread to CCA. Sigh... my husband was just lamenting the other day that it seems like nowadays kids can no longer join CCA "for the fun of it".

No such luck.

Gina Lee

Anonymous said...

Hi I am a teacher. I totally agree with you. Pursuit of results at the expense of character development. All I can say is that I know too much to pen it down. I just have no idea where to start.

Unknown said...

Without resorting to overhauls of a stable system, these are systemic questions we ask and seek answers:
1) Are people focused on achieving the goal or on reducing the discomfort of not being at the goal?
2) Are there two or more players of equal power whose individual actions can be perceived as a threat by the others?
3) Have actions been taken to respond quickly to a crisis without much consideration of long-term consequences?
4) Do problems created by growth, rather than long-range planning, act as the organizational signal to invest?
5) Are once-successful programs experiencing diminishing returns?
6) Are actions taken to alleviate symptoms shifting attention away from more fundamental solutions?
7) Are there two or more options whose investment decisions are linked in a zero-sum game?
8) Is the system set to be self-regulated, with no overarching governing body?

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