Friday, June 8, 2012

Education stress - whose fault?

In a recent media interview, Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat told parents that they had to accept new methods of teaching to prepare children for the future.

Rightly or wrongly, I was disappointed. Not because I don't agree with him but because it would appear that he missed the point. I don't think parents are anxious so much about the new methods as the fact that we seem to be constantly chasing an upwardly moving (and evolving) target. Stress over new methods is simply a symptom.

Incidentally, I thought it was funny that he used algebra vs the MOE method of maths models as an example of old (bad) vs new (good). I'm a big proponent of maths models myself but come on, it's essentially two different methods to solve the SAME problems. We're not actually teaching our kids how to solve new problems so I don't see how it better prepares them for the future. And by the way, someone should tell him that maths in secondary school reverts to algebra. Nobody touches maths models after p6. So much for continuity.

What I was disappointed with was that instead of addressing parents' anxiety, he seems to put the blame squarely on parents.

After I wrote my letter to him last year, I received some comments saying that parents are at fault too for being kiasu and myopic. I've never denied that. I've always maintained that our society does not exist in a vacuum and there are usually many contributing factors to any breakdown in a system. So I will now state categorically that I believe parents are at fault too.

In an interview for a Dan Rathers tv documentary, I was asked why Singapore parents are so involved in their kids' education, I told them it's a cultural legacy. If there's a common thread among Asian parents, it's our focus on education. Truth is, we all have some degree of the Tiger Mum syndrome. Some parents might protest, not true! I'm not one of those kiasu ones! I would like a less stressful system so my kids can enjoy their childhood and not mug all the time.

But from speaking to many parents, I know that most of us still want our kids to do well in school and by well, I mean just that little bit better than others. Most of the time, parents are stressed because they feel their kids are not keeping up with others. Ask yourself how often you've grilled your kid on how his other classmates did. I'll use my own example - when Andre gets 68 for a maths exam, if I find out that the class average was 50, I breathe easy. If the class average was 80, however, I go into panic mode.

It's no coincidence that the most academically competitive countries are Asian - China, India, Japan, South Korea and you can add Singapore. Asian countries also typically ace international maths and science tests, practically sweeping the top 5 in the TIMSS 2007 maths test and science test. The results don't even include China which didn't participate in the test.

Asian parents focus on academics no matter where they are. In Western countries, the Asian geek stereotype with parents who scorn any grade lower than an A didn't come about by accident. Asian parents just push academics harder. We can't help it, it's in our blood.

I know quite a few parents who are living overseas and tell me oh, it's so relaxed there and that's how education should be, about discovery. See, we're not kiasu. Here's what I think: sure, it's partly because the Singapore system drives kiasu behaviour, but maybe it's also because in the Western countries, it doesn't take that much effort for their kids to score well. It's certainly not because Western kids have lower IQs, it's just that they simply don't care as much about grades as we do so they don't put in as much effort.

Asian kids routinely top the honour rolls and sweep the academic medals overseas, sometimes without that much extra effort (I'm comparing to Singapore). It could be just a little parental coaching at home. If our kids can perform well, of course we can relax and not ply them with assessment books or tuition!

Whereas in Singapore, EVERYONE cares about grades. So it's a big fat competition and when our kids come home doing worse than others, we feel pressurised to do something about it. Hence, tuition. Assessment books. More tuition. Yes, even the parents who say they don't want to join in the ratrace. The very same "relaxed" parents overseas when they return, start piling their kids with assessment books and enrichment classes. So my suspicion is, when parents say they don't want a tuition society, what they mean is they don't want others to go for tuition so theirs can go for less tuition.

I personally know parents who publicly denounce the system, complain about the elitism of the system, and then quietly try to pull strings or beat the system to get their kids into branded schools (while sending their kids for tuition in all subjects).

Gasp. Am I actually agreeing with Heng Swee Keat that the brouhaha about the education system is indeed, all parents' fault?

Not exactly.

I find that our system, along with most Asian systems, is bad for kids because it exacerbates the competitiveness for reasons not related to education. Historically, our system has been a pragmatic one, stemming from our need for economic survival and it would seem that MOE is unable to relinquish this crutch.

My guess is, the Singapore education system is about identifying the top 1% for future leadership roles and training the remaining 99% to be hamsters to run the economic wheel. That's why the traditional focus on hard skills like maths, science, engineering and economics. Even when we claim to embrace sports and the arts, there is still a pragmatic angle to it - show us the medals.

The system used to work one, two generations ago when getting a steady job was the key consideration of many Singaporeans but today, nobody wants to be a hamster. We all want our kids to be the top 1%, hence the cramming and the scrambling. The few brave souls who initially refuse to be caught up in the hamster race find themselves at the bottom of the ladder and quickly realise that it's not such a fun position to be in. Inadvertently, they succumb to pressure and join in the race.

If our educational goals are really to identify talent and train individuals for industry, while raising standards so we can sell the system to our foreign counterparts, then no wonder our education system is the way it is. The excessive emphasis on exams, the long school hours to perfect exam skills, the setting of ridiculously complex questions and the constant haranguing of kids for not keeping up. I've always felt that my kids go to school not to learn but to perform. I've mentioned this before - education in Singapore is treated like a business entity.

Some schools still reveal class and level positions, causing those at the bottom to go into a frenzy to claw their way up. Many schools stream the kids every year from p3 into classes according to how well they performed the year before. The PSLE is scored based on your comparative position - it's not about how well you do but how well you do in relation to others. Our system encourages competition, not collaboration.

And why not? If the objective is to identify talents and boost standards, then it's in MOE's interest to ensure that parents continue to shoulder the responsibility of raising their kids' capabilities via tuition, assessment books, etc. It passes on part of the burden of education from the state to parents.

I've often spoken about Lesley-Anne's difficulty with maths. She's in sec 3 now and her maths teacher starts a new topic every couple of weeks. He goes so quickly that she can't keep up and she can't understand his method of teaching. When the class doesn't perform to his standards for the exam, he scolds them for not revising. Mind you, this is an SGBE class of extremely dedicated students who live to do well in school.

For the SA1, Lesley-Anne had spent almost as much time studying for this one subject of maths as her other subjects put together. Yet, she flunked her A maths exam miserably. On her paper, her teacher wrote, "REVISE YOUR WORK!" Bo pian, I got her a tutor. After looking at what she was learning, the tutor said she was learning stuff that's taught in A level maths. Lesley-Anne asked, "what on earth do they teach at A levels?" He replied, "oh they include some Further Maths."

Crazy, I tell you, crazy. She's forced to take up an advanced subject that she clearly has neither interest nor aptitude in (A maths is compulsory in her school), and to add to that, it's accelerated. What is the point of this? Why are we obsessed with knowing MORE of everything NOW? I'll tell you why. It's so that at A levels, the kids would have learned more than they need to know to ace the exams and the JC can claim their 80% distinctions. It's also why the school encourages all the kids to take Maths at A levels. They're openly told: "You should take it, it's easy to score."

When we went for the Parent-Teacher Conference, Lesley-Anne's form teacher looked at her report book - Distinctions for English, Literature and Integrated Humanities - and said, it's very clear where her strengths lie. Then she showed us the failing mark for A maths with concern. We shrugged and said "It's ok. We knew she was never going to be a mathemetician."

At some point, we need to stand our ground and realise that we are the ones who have our kids' best interest at heart, not the system. As Ken Robinson said years ago in his epic Ted talk and in this interview with Guardian, schools kill creativity because they're primarily there to meet the needs of industrialisation, not, surprise surprise, the needs of your child.

Our system evaluates each child according to a set of narrow academic scores and if we do not prevent our kids from internalising this flawed assessment of themselves, we run the danger of grooming individuals with either a misplaced superiority complex or deep-seated insecurities.

I usually like to remain hopeful but in Singapore's case, I get the impression that MOE thinks the system is generally working fine. And let's face it, if they think it ain't broke, they ain't gonna fix it.

So in the end, it's still up to us parents to make the difference. Accept the inevitable that while your kids are in the system, they will have to roll with the punches. Just be there to create as much balance as possible and know that you can have a more profound influence on your child than any school or system.


Benjamin said...

Can't post on Facebook because I only got to know of this through Sengwai who commented on your post.

Another friend of mine on Facebook posted this question recently:

Fill in the next 2 numbers
(Primary 1 maths question)

The answer is 26, 42. You can spend some time thinking about it. My friend commented that it was "Fibbonaci" but I pointed out that was not possible unless another 1 was inserted in front.

But you know what? I'll bet you that 99.9% of people in the world will never need such abstract thinking in their careers; this level of analysis is only useful if you're studying Math as an academic. Yet people like to use the ability to solve such esoteric questions like some kind of nonsensical badge of honour.

If you were to take the 10 richest people in the world, I'm pretty sure nonsense like this was never a critical step in their path to success.

The problem is that we obsess about these "badges of honour" as if they somehow reflect our ability to succeed in life. This utterly nonsensical, but it remains a fact of life especially when it comes to the middle class where grades and the ability to solve abstract problems are somehow correlated with potential value to a company. Such thinking is nonsense. Reality is not bound by man-made abstractions; the abstractions are merely a model of the real world, and a strong ability to handle such abstractions does not mean you will automatically be successful.

But what is perhaps more annoying is that you even need the f***ing badge of honour in the first place. Society does well not simply because of a few individuals, but through the contributions of everyone working together for the bigger picture. As long as you are in an honest profession, why must the glamour of the job matter so much? Artificially forcing yourself to be better than you can actually be simply distorts reality and makes it more difficult for society to choose the right people for the right job.

The crux of the problem really just lies with the attitudes of people. Instead of personal glory, people should start thinking about how they can improve communal glory. You don't have to be good at everything, just good enough to contribute back to society. That's all that should really matter.

monlim said...

Benjamin: The Asians have a long, long history of putting scholars on a pedestal, just look at the Chinese. So what you mentioned about the glorification of intellect and ability to solve abstract problems, goes way back and is a mindset we haven't been able to shed.

A friend of mine was in the gifted programme back in China and he was relating how in China, they only have gifted programmes for math and science (back to pragmatics). He says to this day, even as an engineer, he has yet to apply anything he'd learned in calculus. He wishes he had learned more languages so he can communicate better instead.

I think there needs to be a balance between what develops the mind and what is useful for society. Certainly, as you've said, we need not be good at everything and our kids should not be judged how valuable they are based on this.

Anonymous said...

On Lesley-ann's A-maths for secondary school and that P1 maths question from the previous poster - oh man, stick a fork into these kids, it's not going to make them go any faster or higher. Have the educators not heard of meaningful scaffolding in learning?? It seems to me that they want the kids to make gravity-defying leaps.

With my own kid, I find myself having to cover the basics constantly in order for him to complete his homework - from hanyu pinyin to punctuation to long division. I remember a time when we are taught these systematically in school over a period of time, but now it seems the some schools gloss over the basics and leap straight into 'creative writing and problem solving'. But how can they when they don't even have a firm grasp of the basics??

monlim said...

Anon: I agree the kids these days don't have a good grasp of the fundamentals as the schools are too eager to rush them into the mind-olympic questions. Eg. I find the kids these days have such a poor grasp of grammar, it's appalling.

It's an issue of trying to raise standards at the expense of real education. We really need to go back to basics.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica, I presume your child is in an IP school. Most of the kids take up H2 Maths at the jc level, hence it is important that you do well for additional math at the secondary level. However, if she still have problems after 2 years, it may be better if she takes H1 math instead. Usually, the pure humanities students have a lot of problems in H2 Maths.

monlim said...

Anon: Everyone has different strengths and I don't think the school should just assume that everyone will be taking maths at A levels. I'm pretty sure L-A will be dropping maths altogether after sec 4 :)

Anonymous said...

Hi mon! It's true that schools should not assume, however, most students do end up having to take math at A levels. Everyone has to take up a contrasting subject so there isn't much choice. I'm not completely sure but I think it's either math or KI for arts students. And the accelerated math curriculum at secondary school really does help when you're in JC. It makes it much easier to catch up during those fast-paced lectures (:

Upper secondary math is quite a big jump from lower secondary math. I'm sure L-A will do better when she gets used to it! :)


Anonymous said...

Hi Monica, I don't think it's possible to drop math altogether in jc from past experiences as a jc student. Whether you take arts or sciences, math is still unfortunately compulsory. More so if your child is in the top 5 jcs.

livetogive said...

wow... Further Math for Secondary kids... what has our education system becomes? Monica, I'm glad that you have a good tutor helping L-A now.

monlim said...

M: Aarrgh, are you sure maths is compulsory at JC? That's terrible news for L-A, gotta suffer another 2 years! I know she has to take a contrasting subject but I thought she could choose from the sciences, eg. bio or chem.

monlim said...

livetogive: thanks for the concern. I really didn't want to but will be too cruel to let her keep failing, right? :P

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica,

I totally agree that our kids "go to school not to learn but to perform". It is so sad cos during my time secondary school was all about learning and I had so much fun in school. Now my child leaves and 7am and comes home at 5pm or sometimes 6.30pm. What is the point?

livetogive said...

Monica, in most school, to facilitate "efficiency", students don't really have a choice for their subject combinations, despite they are allowed to choose. For example, in Raffles Institution, due to "timing conflict" (I don't understand their timing conflict....they have their own definition), a bright art student was not allowed to take Geography, a subject which he has lots of interest. He was forced to take econ and did relatively badly for it. He got a "C" grade for his econ A level.... Hence, it is almost for sure that L-A would be forced to take Math for A level (unless you bang the principal's table or able to make the society aware of their inflexibility). A real educator should have a heart for the students, rather than emphasis on efficiency.

monlim said...

livetogive: Ugh, that's bad news. Putting logistics ahead of curriculum is a case of wrong priorities. Even back in my time, we were allowed to choose odd combinations (I was the only one in my JC with that particular combi) cos the classes are modular. I don't see why this can't be done today.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica, am a big fan of your writing. Fully agree with you. I have 2 girls. One is in RGS and the other one is in primary 1. When I first heard that primary 1 kids have no exam, I was thrilled! But reality is different. With the amount of topical tests, there are more assessments than before. Some of the topical tests have the same format as the SA and CAs. The teacher still continues pointing out the weak areas of your child. The strong areas are never mentioned. Its only when the child excels in her exams, the strengths are pointed out. Sigh...

monlim said...

Anon: That's why I view with suspicion any announcement that says "no more exams!" or "cut in syllabus!" There's always a way to put in more stress to compensate for the so-called "easier" or "lighter" workload.

And yes, SG teachers are notorious for picking on the weak areas. Even when they tell you your child is good, they can never resist adding a "BUT..." :P

Anonymous said...

Yeah..Getting the feeling that it is old wine in a new bottle.

If we are serious on revamping the education system, we should do away with PSLE. Let the kids continue in the same primary school until O-Levels. The child is mature enough to handle national level exams at this age.

I would also love it if secondary schools release the kids at a fixed time every day. No house practices should be held after school hours. If they are so important, the school should find time within school hours. CCAs should be optional and should be offered to everyone who is interested in joining them. My daughter got into a CCA she loves and is good in but what about those who were forced to get into a CCA they have absolutely no interest in. Isn't it better to pursue something they are interested in on their own? Why should the school plan for them?

monlim said...

I would also love it if we did away with the PSLE but in today's context, I don't think it's possible cos MOE will be faced with the problem of deciding who gets to go to the top schools.

Thing is, this is a problem that was created by MOE in the first place - streaming kids so narrowly that the top 1% goes to this school, the next 1% there, etc. It's unhealthy and unnecessary, and now it creates an artificial form of scarcity so that everyone is clambering to into a few schools. To me, the ideal is the top 10-20% get spread out in a few schools, or in fact, some top students across schools in Singapore. This encourages better socialisation and doesn't isolate one group of kids in an ivory tower, fostering elitism.

Anonymous said...

Dear mon,
Thanks so much for speaking for us, i m a tired struggling mum trying to help my p6 child cope with psle. I share the same sentiments as you with rgds to the difficulty of the exam questions nowadays. I was tutoring for the past ten years and have witnessed the drastic change in the exam questions and am very disheartened to teach ESP the math and sci subjects. It has gone to a stage where hb and I can't solve the problems and also trying to understand the "math language". During the parent teacher meeting, the teacher commented that dd is v weak in math, needs more practice, but she's alr practising round the clock. She got a 61. Now, to fire fight psle,we have no choice , but to resort to letting her go for math tuition.
When we read seab s reply that math is not getting tougher, I really wish that they are speaking the truth.

I also have a p4 dd taking sci, she got a 60. Hb asked the teacher why set such a difficult paper, her reply was, so that they ll be ready for psle., when we checked dd's worksheets, it's a farcry from the sa1 questions. It's quite obvious that she's not training them to answer according to psle std answers. Again, maybe resort to tuition, or mum has to first chew and swallow the answer key in order to teach her to tackle exam questions.
I am a silent reader of the ksp forum and totally agree with all your posts.
Once again, thanks so much for speaking on behalf of all those who are exasperated, trying to run the psle race with our children.
Hugs. God bless, Betty

monlim said...

Betty: Hugs to you too! I fully understand what you're going through. Everyone is accelerating and blaming the reason on something else, while parents are being dragged along and MOE claims nothing has changed.

Either our kids are getting dumber or standards are being pushed up. Which is the more likely reason? All I can say is, do encourage your kids, you sound like you understand the need for balance. In the long run, your kids will have a healthier self-esteem and thank you for it. All the best!

Anonymous said...

I read an article similar to your post before! Although it seems abit out-dated but I know this comes from the an American who stayed in Singapore for a period of time. (I'm still faithfully following your blog. Love your post as usual!)

~ my

Anonymous said...

I read an article similar to your post before! Although it seems abit out-dated but I know this comes from the an American who stayed in Singapore for a period of time. (I'm still faithfully following your blog. Love your post as usual!)

~ my

monlim said...

MY: Thanks for the link! Yes, Americans love the way our parents and kids are so self-motivated in education, half the battle won! But I love that Tharman acknowledged our system does not test well, crucial aspects like creativity. Hopefully the change will happen at some point.

Winston Tay said...

Hi Mon. Great, great article.

I don't know about now, but I dropped Maths during my A-level tenure (I wasn't from a JC, though, I was from a Pre-U Centre based in a secondary school). Even back in 1993, it was quite detrimental to career prospects to not have Math in your A-level cert.

Subsequently having done web design work where a fair bit of Math knowledge is involved, I realized day-to-day Maths involvement at a higher-than-average level still banks in on what I learned in Sec 2. Bear with me, I'm making my point now.

It was at that realization that I stopped seeing education as a pursuit of scores and academic excellence and seeing it for why it really should be: a pursuit of knowledge.

I'm a dad now, and I Know this is a mindset I want to pass down to my son, that it isn't about the marks you get, it's about what you learned. To me, the issue you raised is a self-propagated problem brought about by other self-propagating parents creating a societal stigma. But the ones that see no sense in the paper chase have to be brave enough to make their own call despite what the environment says.

The good news is, I'm a writer now, and all the math required in that career path is counting how many 20-cent coins it takes to buy yourself a kopi.

monlim said...

Winston: "It was at that realization that I stopped seeing education as a pursuit of scores and academic excellence and seeing it for why it really should be: a pursuit of knowledge." - absolutely. Thanks for speaking up, it's rare for us to hear from dads here!

I don't write off maths at all, in fact I just posted 2 articles in defence of maths. What I reject is the rigid mindset that any one thing is a blanket good for everyone. As for the number of 20-cent coins to buy a kopi, all I know is the number is increasing :D

Edmund said...

Since the late 1990s, our leaders love Jack Welch (Former CEO of GM) and his [in]famous bell-curve of identifying good people by forcing all his staff into the Bell-Curve (can be 10%-25%-30%-25%-10%) as he believes no matter how the staff can be, eliminating the 'worst' would bring in competition and replace them with the better ones .. He was never shy away from labelling even good workers as 'lowest 10%' and thus the eventual intro of 'eliminating' tools such as KPIs.

His approach is cold (treating everyone as an item waiting to be upgraded) but in the name of competition, it wiped out compassion, loyalty, passion, moral values and commitment; as the one thing that matters is to be in that top 10% to make the most worths and profitability (Moeny Takes It All).

Since the intro of Jack's management philosophies into Singapore system (from top down across all sectors especially in Public Servcies), it is a mutated "East-meets-West" when Asian parents always wanting to give their children the best + the Western's "You'd better to be the Best or Nothing" ...

Thus, over the years, with the concerted efforts of educators (many of them calling themselves as CEOs instead of Principals) , politicans and kiasu parents, we are what we are today !!!


monlim said...

Edmund: Agree, I absolutely abhor the ruthless Jack Welch approach. Stressful enough for the workplace but totally destructive in education.

loveourchildrennow said...

Like your reader - Benjamin's point. That such abstract thinking is unnecessary for most people. Actually it does not bother me, that my sons may not be able to answer such questions, but it does bother me that I have to tell them - that it's ok not to try to do well. We want to encourage our children to do their best, score full marks if they can, but these standards are so high, and so irrelevant, that I feel it is unfair and ridiculous to demand of them. So I find myself conveying the impression that it is ok not to work so hard. How terrible.

I really like your point about our education system trying to produce the top 1%. I agree with you, you got it right there, I feel the same too. Also about your point that "it's in MOE's interest to ensure that parents continue to shoulder the responsibility of raising their kids' capabilities via tuition, assessment books, etc. It passes on part of the burden of education from the state to parents."

I am reading this post, after having read your latest one about LA's maths results. So it tells me that in this case, the school's expectations may not be wrong - that LA can in fact, make the mark. But somewhere down the line, the implementation went wrong - the teacher was unable to teach her so she could make the standard.

It is a complicated issue, isnt it? But you have great clarity of thought, it's enjoyable following your thinking process.

monlim said...

LOCN: I'm v flattered that you're reading my old posts and taking the time to comment. Thanks so much!

Parenting is such a balancing act, isn't it? I get what you mean about telling our kids it's ok not to be able to answer some questions and hoping they don't take it to mean that they didn't have to try.

Blogging helps bring clarity to my thoughts too. At the time when I wrote this, I had no idea how L-A's maths would turn out. Now that I know she's capable of managing it, it's comforting to read an old post and know that we made the right decision. But then, hindsight is always 20-20!

loveourchildrennow said...

Monica, what you write about are things which are close to my heart. I agree with you in many areas.

I blog too, at but my style is slightly different, so I don't get the chance to "talk" the way I am doing on your blog. The discussions you have here are very measured, and I receive a lot of new insights, so I enjoy it :)

monlim said...

Thanks for letting me know - I just took a peek and realise you have a PSLE kid too!

All the best to him, from the few posts I read, I'm sure he'll do you proud :)

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