Monday, March 25, 2013

Does this spell the end of literature?

Last month, there was some debate on the drop in number of students taking Literature at 'O' levels from 16,970 in 1992 to just 3,000 in 2012, and whether this signals a decline in appreciation of the humanities among students. You can read the news article here.

While the drop in numbers sounds terribly alarming, I always hesitate to take numbers at face value. Instantly, two "BUTS" came to mind:

1) BUT: Wouldn't the decline also be due to the drop in number of kids taking 'O' levels?  Today, with the IP and other alternative educational pathways, many kids no longer take 'O' levels.

2) BUT: There are more 'O' level subjects these days, compared to 20 years ago. Wouldn't the increase in choice automatically dilute the number of kids taking any one subject (except for compulsory subjects)?

MOE's reply shed more light.  With reference to my point 2), it seems that the drop happened most drastically at the 2001 point when Combined Humanities was introduced.  This is a social studies subject with an elective of Lit, Geog or History and became a popular alternative to the other pure humanities subjects - Lit, Geog and History.

With regards to point 1) though, it's still a little hazy. MOE reveals the percentage of sec 4 cohort that took Lit in 1992 (47.9%), 2001 (21.8%) and 2012 (9%) but it's important to note that a percentage of the Sec 4 cohort not the same as a percentage of the 'O' level cohort.

A drop in 'O' level Lit does not necessarily translate into an equivalent drop in kids studying Lit at sec 4. In many IP schools, Lit is a compulsory subject for sec 4 kids as they take Language Arts (which is a fusion of English and Lit).  For the IB programme, Lit is compulsory all the way to year 6.

Typically also, even from the 1990s, Lit has been considered the more challenging humanities subject (because it requires critical thinking and language skills, not something you can mug for it), so it is usually reserved for the more academic classes (usually the top science and arts classes).  If you postulate that these kids are now likely in the IP track at secondary school, then it's no surprise that Lit has fizzled out in the 'O' level arena.

Beyond the numbers

Nevertheless, it's hard to deny that the number of students studying Lit (whether at 'O' levels or not) has declined.  Perhaps not as drastically as the numbers suggest but still undeniable... and that's sad.  I won't bother to write all about the importance of Lit since I'd already done so previously.  Besides, I came across this passionate Facebook post by Joshua Ip, which laid out all the points very convincingly.  It's a little over the top (there's a little bit of theatre in every true blue Lit student) but the points are pretty solid and more substantial than any argument I'd read in the mainstream media.  Plus it's a highly entertaining read, which reflects well on his Lit background.
This decline in Lit is not just about Lit alone. Looking at the bigger picture, it reflects the persistent worldview that the humanities in general are the poor cousin to the firmly footed maths and science.  After 20 years, the triple science combination is still considered the most prestigious in your sec 3 choices. In some schools, only the "top" students are offered the combination. In Lesley-Anne's school, there's no real humanities combination - you either take triple science or double science. Double maths is compulsory.

Moving on to 'A' levels, this bias continues. The 'A' level syllabus now requires you to choose a contrasting subject to create balance, ie science students have to take at least one humanities subject and arts students have to take at least one science subject.  In theory, this is great but in reality, I find the practice flawed.

If you're in the science stream, you can choose from a long list of humanities subjects, eg. 3rd language, Geog, Lit, History, Music, Art and Econs.  I always felt that Econs was such a miscategorisation.  It's nowhere remotely near a true humanities subject that encourages the broadening of worldviews or right brain thinking.  It's about statistics and trends, and the analyses are more akin to the scientific type.  That's why many science students choose Econs as their contrasting subject - yet another "pragmatic" choice.

Whereas if you're in the arts stream, you're pretty much limited to one contrasting subject - Maths.  Don't believe me? Most JCs don't offer science subjects as a contrasting subject, meaning that if you don't like maths, you're pretty much screwed.  It also sends a very clear message - the most important subject in the Singapore education system is MATHS MATHS MATHS.

Don't misunderstand me, I acknowledge that maths is important.  However, I find this obsession with maths baffling. The maths proponents tend to play up the pragmatic value of learning maths but honestly, most people will never apply the kind of maths you learn at 'A' levels.  If you want to focus on pragmatics, I would have thought it's more important to learn about human geography (urban planning!) or human biology (understand your body!).  I suspect this practice is again linked to scoring - Maths is one of those subjects with the highest percentage of distinctions at 'A' level so it's attractive to JCs looking to raise their overall scores. 

Quality not quantity

I was chatting with a teacher friend recently and he mentioned that he happened to see one of his sec 3 student's Lit essays. He was perturbed to see it littered with grammatical errors that were not corrected by the teacher.  Upon questioning, she replied "Miss W said in Lit, we're not marked on grammar, only based on the points we give."

Stab a knife through my heart now, won't ya.  Is that how we're addressing the difficulty to score in Lit, by reducing it to a factual content subject?  I don't think the teacher recognised the irony of it - that a subject supposed to test your critical thinking and arguments is awarded marks according to a marking template.  Instead of embracing the humanities, we try to turn it into something more scientific.  And when English ceases to matter in English Lit, well... I've no words.

I was so appalled by this that I checked with Lesley-Anne if it was the same at her school.  Thankfully, she shared my disbelief and said no, her Lit assignments are marked on both language and content, where original arguments are valued.  Phew.  So maybe it's just that school or that teacher.  I hope and pray that's not how Lit is marked at 'O' levels these days.

It's a sad state of affairs.  It's the belief that education in Singapore is still primarily about scoring.  There's a lot of talk about holistic education, creativity and critical thinking but the truth is, so many educators, parents and students are still stuck in the old mindset that education is about amassing facts and A's.

Lesley-Anne had this to say: "The problem is many students are still learning things in isolation, so they don't understand the relevance of what they learn beyond the narrow confines of that subject. Even English becomes relevant only to the English subject in school. So many things in the world are linked.  When we are unable to see the inter-connectedness of different issues, we miss the big picture. How then can we innovate and solve problems?"

I love how a 15-year-old can have the wisdom to see this truth where many adults cannot. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, March 18, 2013

SUP-er family fun!

If you're looking for a fun and meaningful family activity these March holidays (or maybe June), then here's an idea for you: Stand Up Paddling (SUP).

What's that, you say? Well, it's a new water sport that has hit Singapore shores and is quickly gaining momentum.  My very good friend, Isabelle, took the plunge late last year by quitting her job and setting up her own business, the Stand Up Paddling School in Singapore.  Completely borne out of passion, she started this with no fanfare and little marketing but within just a few months, she has already gotten unsolicited airtime on radio and magazine coverage.  News of good stuff spread quickly!

Isabelle invited us to try it out and always game for something new, we accepted her invitation last December.  When I say "we", I mean Kenneth and the kids.  I didn't go cos I can barely swim and knowing how to swim is a prerequisite.  Besides, somebody has to hold the camera, right?

The SUP School is located at Tanjong Beach, Sentosa, which is an ideal location as the waters are cleaner and calmer than at East Coast beach.  Plus it's gorgeous and far less crowded.  There are also parking and fantastic shower facilities right next to the beach.

First, you start with a lesson on land - how to paddle, where to stand, etc (there's the lao ban niang with the Santa hat).

Then you carry your board to the water.

And off you go!

They took to it like fish to water. I think we were all pretty surprised - we thought it would be quite a challenge trying to balance on the boards, but it wasn't.  Within 15 mins, they were on their feet and soon learning tricks like jumping and turning on their boards.  I must say, being at Tanjong Beach is a huge advantage.  There's an idyllic little lagoon which is very conducive for beginners to gain confidence before they venture out.

These are a couple of shots Isabelle took from her vantage point on the board. Don't my kids look pro?

My kids really, really enjoyed it.  Lesley-Anne said she could do this forever and Andre had so much fun he was begging to go back. We had plans to go SUP-ing again these March hols, unfortunately our schedules don't allow it.  But it's definitely on our to-do list.

SUP is not only a fun activity, it's also a healthy one - some people do this as a keep fit option, since you need to utilise lots of muscles, esp the core, for balance.  Highly recommended, if you're looking for something new to try out as a family.

You need to book in advance. Call Isabelle Malique-Park at 9638 5565 for appointments or check out the details on her website

Monday, March 11, 2013

More books for boys

I've been getting requests for book recommendations for boys so here are three series you can check out.

The first is an author I recently discovered - David Walliams.  If your son likes Roald Dahl, he'll like this guy cos it's written in a similar style. It helps that Quentin Blake is the illustrator for both Dahl and Walliams - that guy makes a book instantly appealing!

Walliams' books include Mr Stink, Billionaire Boy, Gangsta Granny and Ratburger.  Theoretically, they're not a true series - just books in the same style by the same author.

I would estimate the reading level of the books to be about 9-11 years old but they're fun for any age. 

The second series is a long-time favourite of mine - the Nicholas books by Rene Goscinny.  If you love the humour of the Asterix comics, you'll love Nicholas.  Both are written by the same author and follow the same guileless style of comedy.  In fact, Nicholas reads almost like a comic in prose form.  The stories are about a French boy, Nicholas, and the scrapes he gets into with his school friends.

The books were published in France more than 40 years ago, but they're still funny today.  When I was young, I used to borrow these from the library and I feel they're keepers.  Andre loves them, he still re-reads them sometimes. It took me a while to hunt down the hardcovers (these were the original versions).  I think they're gradually being phased out and replaced with soft covers.

Reading level is also about 9-11 years old.

Finally, we have The Great Brain series.  This is another time-tested series that I grew up with.  Written by John D. Fitzgerald, it's a semi-autobiography that tells of John and his adventures growing up with his brother, Tom aka the Great Brain. Tom is a conniving genius with a great love for money and is always scheming to swindle the neighbourhood kids.  Set in Utah in the 1900s, these stories tell of a simpler time but are still engaging and pretty much timeless.  

I collected these over many years, hence the disparate versions.  Sure that he would dislike the books, Andre started reading them reluctantly only upon my insistence.  To his own surprise, he grew to love the characters and really got into the books.  When he was on the last book, he actually lamented, "Why didn't the author write any more?", as if 8 in the series wasn't prolific enough.  

I estimate the reading level to be 10-12 years old.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Those Miserables adults

When Les Miserables was finally released as PG-13, we brought the whole family to catch it at the cinema. Les Miz has long been Kenneth's and my favourite musical since we enjoyed it on West End many years ago.

The movie didn't disappoint (except for Russell Crowe who was like a wooden American Idol contestant trying not to get his notes wrong).  As for Anne Hathaway, gosh. She really lived up to the hype. That voice, those eyes and the gut-wrenching emotion - totally deserves her Oscar.

Anyway, I emerged from the movie theatre, red-eyed and heart-wrung.  A few days later, my friend Lilian asked me at which parts my kids cried cos her teenage son Brian remained stoic while she wept throughout. Upon questioning my kids, I was absolutely floored when both of them replied they didn't shed a single tear! Lesley-Anne said she felt touched at many parts but not enough to cry.  In fact, Andre looked at me astonished and said, "hah? you mean you actually cried?"

Not weep even for poor Fantine? Thou art heartless souls!

I was grumbling about how emotionless my kids were to another friend when she offered an alternative explanation - kids tend to be less moved by movies/books because they have had limited life experience and therefore can less identify with human situations, especially adult ones.  She recalled how when she was young, her mum would sob uncontrollably over some tv drama while she and her brother would cringe as they passed her a box of tissue.  Now, my friend's the one who blubbers in front of the tv!

Orrnnhhhh.  It makes sense. I remember in my first job, there was only one married-with-kids colleague in my department.  Ever so often, she would bring up some news article of kids being killed in accidents or dying of illnesses with horror and tears in her eyes while the rest of us would look nonplussed and think, "yeah, it's sad but so are lots of other tragedies in the world."

It's only when I became a parent myself that I fully understood the extent of her feelings.  In other words, when adults watch Les Miz, we absorb the full emotional onslaught in relation to our knowledge and experience of life, whereas for our kids, it's probably just another sad story of emo, dysfunctional adults who can burst into song at perfect pitch even when they're dying.

So my kids are not heartless afterall. Phew.

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