Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Let's talk character education

A few weeks ago, the Minister for Education announced a new Edusave Character Award scheme where students who demonstrate good character will be given cash rewards.

I know this post is tardy, many people have already openly voiced their views on this. I've been procrastinating, maybe because even though I'm disappointed, to say the least, I wasn't terribly surprised by the news. (Hey look, two prepositions side by side. I'm sure it's grammatically wrong but I'm too lazy to look up the right form).

In other words, the move is so in character with MOE policies that I couldn't even muster up enough indignation to write an immediate response. So why am I writing one now? Well, last week, a friend of mine and I met up with a graduate student from the LKY School of Policy Studies who's organising a dialogue on character education in schools, and the discussion that followed was interesting enough to nudge me out of my lethargy.

So here are my (belated) views on character education. I've added sub-headers cos it's a long post.

A reward system undermines character building

Primarily, why I'm against cash rewards for displays of good character is this: values are about doing something that's intrinsically good, done for its own sake. If you do it for a reward, it automatically negates the value of that deed. It's the difference between a social worker who volunteers at a nursing home and the nursing home employee.

Child psychologists warn against giving rewards for something that the child should do anyway. For example, if you always reward a child for his eating vegetables, he'll be conditioned to think that eating vegetables is an undesirable thing and he deserves something in return for doing it.

That's exactly what is happening here. By offering a reward system, we're teaching our children that doing the right thing entitles them to a payoff. Take away the reward and there's no more motivation to be compassionate, tell the truth or stand up for others.

Ironically, by offering rewards for character, we are weakening, not strengthening the message that character is important.

In an attempt to be fair, I looked up MOE's response to the issue. This was part of their official statement:
"The Edusave Character Award will recognise a small number of students in each school who are exemplary in character, and who can inspire others as role models. For instance, these may be students who have shown resilience and have done well despite their difficult circumstances."
See, I understand that MOE's intention is good. But I can already predict how this will play out. Because the scheme depends entirely on the teachers to identify the good kids and the acts of good behaviour, in the end, the rewards will go to the usual suspects - the prefects, the popular kids, the teachers' pets (usually the ones who do well academically).

I'm not saying that all these kids are necessarily brown-nosers, some of them are truly good souls. What I'm saying is that these kids have already been given ample recognition in their schools. They don't need further motivation. The ones whom we've missed all along - the rowdy boy who patiently cares for his ailing grandmother or the mousy girl in the corner who helps her friends without advertising to all and sundry - these are the kids who will continue to be overlooked.

Basically, we're not enlarging the pool of kids who will be recognised, we're just rewarding the same pool of kids more. As my friend Lilian said, at this rate, some of those prefects would have amassed enough cash to go to Europe by the time they graduate from p6.

Limitations of CCE lessons

Instead of an award, what I think we need is an overhaul of the Civics and Moral Education (CME) classes (now renamed Character & Citizenship Education or CCE). Right now, these lessons are a joke. In the first place, these periods are usually usurped for examinable subjects. Every year, I can count on my kids bringing home their CME textbooks and workbooks clean and untouched.

Even in the odd instance where there is a CCE lesson, the kids find it incredibly boring. First, for some strange reason, the lessons are taught in Mother Tongue. And we are all familiar with the very moralistic Chinese stories. Listening to the teacher drone on about filial piety or patriotism will hardly inspire you to be a model of good behaviour.

I think what MOE needs to realise is that character education cannot be confined to one period in a week, it has to be a pervasive part of the school culture. Otherwise, it's as effective as the self-proclaimed Christian who goes to church every Sunday and then acts in an ungodly manner for the rest of the week.

Added note: Lesley-Anne just informed me that for her CCE class, she has to write essays in Chinese based on values taught in the class. And her conduct grade is partially based on how well she writes the essay! Doesn't the school find this odd?

There are simply limitations to learning character from a lesson in the classroom. Most kids already know what is good behaviour, the challenge is translating the knowledge into action. The only effective way to build character is to experience, to share, to do.

For example, Lilian's sons attend an international school overseas. The school regularly organises community service trips to places like Operation Smile and Habitat for Humanity where the kids help out in a very direct way. These trips are not free (in fact, they're quite costly) and you have to apply for them, not everyone who applies will be successful. The message is that helping others in need is not just part and parcel of life, it's a privilege.

Compare this with our system where kids expect to get CCA points for community service and now, cash rewards. What kind of characters are we hoping to develop?

Moving character education out of the classroom

I have two suggestions for character education in schools:
1) Instead of the textbook lessons on CCE, make them hands-on, community service sessions. Each school, level or class can work with a specific organisation (can be welfare, social or environmental) for this. Eg. if the class adopts an orphanage, every week (or once in two weeks), the kids would visit the orphanage to help out for an hour or so.

It's a win-win situation - charity organisations prefer regular volunteers to those who just show up every Christmas or CNY. The volunteers form bonds with the residents and there's continuity in whatever project is being carried out. For the kids, the benefits are tremendous. The sense of fulfilment and gratification in being able to directly help somebody cannot be overstated.

Research shows that kids who perform community service tasks from young have a much higher tendency to continue them into adulthood. Imagine the impact of every school-going child performing a hands-on community service task every week - to the recipients, to society and to the kids themselves.

2) Schools these days organise myriads of overseas trips for students. But I notice that all of them are for the sake of experience and learning, again me, me, me. Why can't we also include in the offering, community service trips like the ones I mentioned above?

If we say character education is important, we need to back this up in our school programmes. They can't be compulsory of course, but they would send the message - go overseas and make a difference in someone's life.

Sure, some parents may feel why must we spend money for our kids to give back but this is precisely the mindset we want to change.
Some people may say character is not just about community service. Of course not. But I feel that in Singapore's context, compassion, empathy and kindness are what's most urgently needed. The other character traits like diligence and resilience are too closely affiliated to achievement for my liking - we already emphasise too much of them. Want to build diligence? Why, just do a few more assessment books.

Singapore has always said we want to create a gracious society. We need to put our money where our mouth is. It takes all - parents, schools, society. As it is, I'm appalled some parents have complained that the 6-hour minimum requirement for community service for secondary school students is too much. We need to reverse this me-mentality. It's a slippery slope and I'm afraid we've already started on the slide downwards.
"Character is the result of two things: mental attitude and the way we spend our time." - Elbert Green Hubbard


Lilian said...

As I said the other day, you're brave!

Wonderful suggestions but you know how it is, if you don't make it compulsory, Sg parents are likely to discourage kids from spending their precious time (already so tight due to tuition, school work, ECA etc) on these activities. If you make it compulsory, it kind of defeats the purpose. Mindset has to change if this is to be successful. Schools have to decide if they really want to build character, or it's all just talk & at the end of the day, it's the accolades, glory and academic results that count.

Most of the trips/community svc Brian has done since joining ISB will never count towards his school records. Many Singaporeans would think it's stupid to waste time & money doing this. I have a friend who when newly arrived from Singapore would ask me why Brian was wasting his time going on H4H or OS or Ecotrips, she truly believed community service is a waste of time, and all that matters is academic results. Thankfully, her views have changed. The teachers here truly believe that out of class activities are extremely important to do, and are part of a full ISB experience. So it has to come from the top, what the school ethos is. I don't know if it should be a top-down right from MOE approach. I know other international schools which do not have such extensive service learning programmes, and where kids only get to go on Operation Smile and H4H during the last two years of school (IB years, I'm guessing cos this is when they fulfil their CAS hours). In ISB, kids start doing these from Middle School, years before the hours are ever counted.

It doesn't mean that doing all these will make your kids an angel at home, Brian is as mouthy as you can get. But I think along the way, kids who are exposed to a myriad of experiences including how less fortunate people live will feel more humbled, and realise it's not all about Me, Me, Me. Many clubs are also student-initiated, there are clubs for stray dogs, for orphaned babies, for street boys, kids with cerebral palsy, kids with cancer...some might think it's Rich People's Guilt, ie, the well off folks do their little bit so they can feel better about themselves. But these kids actually want to do something, want to make a difference, and most importantly, believe they can.

(cont'd in next comment)

Lilian said...

(cont'd from above)

This is a letter from a former ISB student, I think what she said underlines how a school can shape kids with the direction it takes. She had seen a video about the school's flood relief efforts and wrote:

"The video made me so unbelievably proud and I just had to share that joy with anyone who would listen/watch. ISB was a pretty great place to go to school. My classmates were intelligent, well-rounded and pretty darned compassionate....You were crazy if you weren’t involved in some school organization, both community service and for leisure.

When I went to live in Cincinnati for my senior year I met some cool people but they didn't come close. I didn't realize how ISB had shaped me as a person until I had a taste of something else.

I am aware that the participation and academic excellence was ingrained in us from an early age at ISB with the goal of being the most appealing college candidate possible. By total accident, somewhere along the way, we ISB students genuinely began to care about all that. We wanted to get straight As in school. We wanted to make positive changes to our community. We wanted to spend our Fridays doing community service and staying late at school every day to be in a play, practice for a band concert or be on a team."

Not all kids will want to do this, and that should be fine. But for those who really want to do something, schools should provide an avenue for them to do so. It could be through being more open about new clubs initiated by students. L-A, with her love for animals, should be able to form a club with her friends in school that works with abused animals. For this to work, it has to be mostly student-initiated, with school providing the support structure. And as I said earlier, mindset change, less focus on Golds, wins, stellar results etc, cos community service will never count towards that kind of KPI. It shouldn't.

Rachel Tan said...

Great post Monica; MOE is reading this, I hope?

monlim said...

Lilian: The overseas community service trips can't be compulsory for obvious reasons. But I do believe that if at primary schools, kids have the weekly community service sessions like I suggested, something will stick. I mean, you can't do community service every week for 6 years without it being a part of your psyche, right?

Then at secondary school, I'm sure they will be more open to such trips. Right now, there isn't even the option and even if there is, it's so alien to both the kids and parents cos community service is not in our day to day vocabulary.

Like you shared, when kids are involved extensively in such activities, they start to adopt the mindset that this is the natural order of things. And I do feel that shaping the mindset of kids is the way to go. With parents, it's a lot more difficult cos they have such ingrained ideas, esp if they've grown up with the dog-eat-dog mentality. But if the kids come to accept that giving back is the thing to do, they can hopefully influence their parents.

I think the kind of exposure Brian is getting is priceless and society as a whole will benefit from it. Also agree that student-initiated clubs for their own pet causes is the way to go. But first, the schools have to change their mindset that support should only be given to CCAs that bring in medals!

Anonymous said...

Mon, you have said exactly my piece. MOE never fails to amaze me with their simple formula. To me, the reward is in the volunteering itself. When the kids volunteer, they would be rewarded with great gratification of being useful and able to help the less fortunate. Of course the adults can eventually express their joy over their ability to mature over such experiences and give them some form of recognition to endorse their contribution but this should be an after thought, not an incentive to be placed upfront to draw them to serve. If more and more kids are doing willingly after seeing the joy on the faces of those who did earlier, they would be drawn to it. I always believe positive energy attracts.. Money is the worst energy I have ever known...period.


monlim said...

QX: I think it again comes back to the obsession with measurables, that if you want to make something important, you must be able to make it tangible. It's such a narrow, frog-in-the-well mindset.

If we ever want to cultivate a gracious society like Japan, using money would never work.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica, I have been followIng your blog ever since the famous note to Minister Heng.

I'm a an educator myself n yes, the need to measure things does drive me nuts.

While the ministry might look at issues from multiple angles but I felt that there's always an angle that's missing. And that's the heart.

I believe that I'm called to touch the heart of a child first then the mind. But this can't be measured within the time that the child is in the school.

The result might show up in his latter years.

In fact I feel that the teaching profession needs to reorientate and focus on the basics.

The relentless pursue for grades has reduced the profession to one that focuses on the exterior and neglect the interior (heart).

monlim said...

Anon: Thanks for sharing, it's great to know there are teachers like you who understand the need to touch the hearts of kids. Ironically, isn't that what MOE has been promoting with their teaching ads? Unfortunately, it's not coming through in the policies. I do hope the authorities will realise this and make the necessary changes soon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica,
I am also an educator working for MOE, my students are over 16 years old.

I agree with you that it is not right to give cash rewards for good character.

However, I do not think it is necessary to do community service by going to orphanages or overseas trips. Kids may forget their experiences very quickly once they are back home.

Kids can always learn to help each other. There will always be some weaker or poorer students in school, and it is more important for kids to learn to care about those who are close to them. For example, the smarter kids can share about how they study, and give one to one coaching to the weaker students. They can also give their old textbooks to younger students. Those kids who have received help can do something to repay their kindness. Character building should be part of everyday life.


monlim said...

Saffron: Agree that character building shd be part of everyday life and definitely kids should learn to help one another.

However, in our hectic system where schools are already cramming in supplementary classes to try and cover the syllabus, realistically if the "help" is not part of the structured syllabus, I suspect teachers and students won't give it time of day. Academics will still always come first. Hence, my suggestions to include it in CCE.

And my experience with such overseas trips is that kids don't forget these quickly, they often make such a strong impression that they stay with them for life.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica,
My kids are in a neighbourhood primary school and they don't need to attend supplementary classes. Perhaps MOE should ensure that all schools limit these classes. Character development can be incorporated into every subject. I am a polytechnic lecturer, and I can assign 10% of the final marks of each module for the purpose of grading the attitude of each student in class. I told my students that if they are kind and helpful to others, they will score high marks for this component.


monlim said...

Saffron: I totally agree that teachers should try to incorporate character building in every subject. Actually, there are lots of learning opportunities for these that happen everyday, and it's up to the teachers to spot and make the most of these opportunities.

However, this really depends on the conviction of the teacher and is hard to enforce. Eg. when there are instances of theft, some teachers will just punish the entire class which I feel doesn't reinforce the message that stealing is wrong (it just sends the message you have to not get caught!)

So there's the ideal and the reality. Hopefully if the importance of character is emphasised enough, it can be part of the everyday culture of the schools.

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