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.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.
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.
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