Monday, April 29, 2013

Oh, to be bored

Recently, I was invited to a Singapore Conversation session on education and while I was there, I was asked to give a soundbite for an MOE video that's to be produced for teachers and staff.  There were many things I could have said but in the end, what I chose to say within the 2 minutes or so was the importance of letting kids have their free time.

This topic just happened to be topmost on my mind because Lesley-Anne was reading up on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and she became all excited when she came to Article 24: Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.

"I wish my school knew this!"

When Lesley-Anne first started secondary school, she was full of anticipation.  By the end of sec 3, she was physically and mentally exhausted.  Don't get me wrong, it's not that she doesn't like her school.  It's because her schedule had become so intense she barely had time to breathe.  It's not just lessons. After school, if there wasn't some supplementary or enrichment class, there would be CCA.  If it wasn't CCA, it would be some excursion or project discussion. When there's the rare occasion that there's nothing on or a holiday coming up, you can be sure the teachers would pile the students with extra homework.  If the students protest, they're often told not to be lazy or have better time management skills.  School holidays are a sham. There's never one where my kids don't need to go back to school for something or the other.

CCA is almost on par with schoolwork in its demands.  In sec 1, Lesley-Anne was super psyched to be in band. She got to learn a new instrument and perform in a musical group.  It was fun.  By this year, she had grown thoroughly sick of it. Why?  Band practices are 3 times a week, 3 hours each time.  When the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) draws near, rehearsals intensify to almost everyday.  The pressure placed on the band for SYF is intense. If they miss out on a Distinction, there is much hue and cry.  The students feel the loss keenly and the school demonstrates its disappointment by cutting the band budget.  Even during non-SYF years, the band is expected to put on school and other performances, again the justification for intensive practice.

This trend is not just for band, obviously. Lesley-Anne tells me that many students in the school choir over-practise to the point that they suffer vocal cord damage and have to go to the doctor to have a tube inserted into the throat to heal it.

Doesn't this strike anyone as ridiculous? I find that our culture is fixated on the maxim that if something is good, it's better to keep doing more of it. To the point where something that used to be fun and interesting becomes detestable and downright unhealthy.

We are grooming a generation of jaded kids.

I recently read a BBC News article on the importance of boredom and enforced solitude for creativity.  Through interviews with authors, artists and scientists, Dr Belton, an education researcher found that free time allowed people to tap into their latent creative energies.

If this is true, then it perhaps partly explains why Singapore seems to have so much trouble in this respect.  Our kids barely have enough time for rest, let alone time to be bored.  When Lesley-Anne was very young, about 3 or 4, I used to see her sitting on her bedroom floor, just staring into space. I never knew what she was thinking about, I like to imagine she was in some childhood fantasy land, maybe with flying teddy bears and talking dolphins.  She doesn't have time to daydream anymore. Today, when she has some free time, she catches up on sleep. She has learnt the art of sleeping anywhere - at the desk, on a cushion, on the bus.

My friend, Lilian, was recounting to me how at the International School in Bangkok, the students get to try out a diverse range of interests throughout their school life, eg in photography or music or art, and some emerge to be fantastic talents in these areas.

My belief is this: it's not that Singapore kids don't have talent, it's just that they don't have the time to discover them. Their schedules are so packed with academic work that any such activity is considered extra and comes out of their own time. Curriculum time seldom allows for non-core subjects, except in a cursory manner.  Typically, by the time the kids have finished studying, CCA, tuition, etc, they're so tired the last thing they want to do is fill their remaining time with more stuff.  All they want to do is veg out in front of the tv or computer because it's a shutting down mechanism. (Note that tv and computer time does not constitute boredom and does not increase creativity).

If children here are musical or sporting talents, chances are it's because their parents invested resources and made their kids carve out time to bear out these talents.  That's why I'm sometimes a little sceptical about the DSA scheme.  Although it tries to be more holistic by recognising talents other than academic, it focuses only on the end result and doesn't aid the nurturing process.

The truth is that passions and skills in areas like the arts and sports take time to develop.  It starts with exposure, discovery, and trial and error.  Then gradually, the child will come to see if he has a passion in it before the honing of the skill.  The process is slow and it requires an extensive amount of time, something our kids don't have the luxury of. Because of the DSA, some parents are pushing their kids to accelerate their artistic and sporting potential for the sake of admissions at pri 6. When we rob the kids of the natural process of creation and development, we risk killing the passion because the objective becomes a pragmatic one and it all becomes too much, too soon.

I feel strongly that schools, teachers and parents alike have to recognise the value of letting kids have their time and space.  What I said in the MOE video was that teachers (and parents) have to stop thinking that whenever the child has some time, they have to fill it.  At some point, we've got to realise that filling time doesn't improve learning, it impedes it.

Less really is more.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Life isn't fair. What do we do?

Here's a hypothetical situation:

3 students have to do a group project together. They agree on what each person has to contribute.  However, what ensues is this:

Student A doesn't do her part and disappears throughout duration of project, appearing in time only to put her name on project.

Student B doesn't really know what's going on, puts in a half-hearted effort that anyone can see is badly done.

Student C does her part and being a conscientious student, chases the others who don't respond. She now has the dilemma of wondering whether to take on Student A and Student B's share of the work, or just let the whole group flunk.

This is actually a very common scenario, I hear it from parents all the time (especially parents of kids like Student C).  As we all know, the world is made up of all kinds of people, so I'm not too surprised that this happens in schools.

What I'm astonished about though, is how frequently, if the group eventually scores a bad grade, the teacher will tell Student C that it was her fault, that she should have made sure the other two handed in the work.  The reasoning behind this logic is "that's what happens in real life, you have to make sure the work gets done. Real life isn't fair, get used to it."

I have a big issue with people who love to spout the "life isn't fair" cliche, as I often find that they're the ones perpetuating the belief.  I have an even bigger issue when that person is a teacher.  We all know life isn't fair, no argument there. And it's also true that when kids grow up and become adults in the working world, these are the challenges they will face.

However, the role of teachers is not to give our kids a dose of reality by reinforcing all that is bad about life and about people.  For example, we know facing failure builds resilience but that doesn't mean we set our kids up for failure. I saw this quote the other day that really shouted out to me:
“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”
~ L.R.Knost
There's a gulf of difference between preparing kids for real life and training them for it. One teaches you how to deal with rats in the rat race, the other teaches you how to be a rat. The trouble is these days, we have become so obsessed with making sure that our kids are able to survive in the competitive landscape, that the focus of education has shifted from educating to training.  The former teaches you to be a better, more knowledgeable version of yourself.  The latter gives you skills to survive, to come up on top.  If your goal is the latter, it means that you only play to win, usually at the expense of someone else. Winner takes all.

That's where I feel many teachers and parents trip up.  I've heard anecdotal stories of parents who teach their kids how to get ahead by thinking only for Numero Uno.  If you have to lie on an application form, hide books, shove to get to the front, prey on the kindness of others, by all means, as long as you can get away with it.  After all, that's what life is like. It's a dog-eat-dog world.  It's called being street-smart. Life isn't fair.

The problem with this approach is that if everybody does this, nobody wins and society sucks big time.  Out of all the excuses, the lamest justification I always hear: "Everyone's doing it.  We have no choice!" That's right, another fantastic lesson we're teaching our kids - how to assign blame so we don't have to be responsible for our actions.

Back to project above - what did the students learn? Student A learns that you can do nothing and get away with it. Student B learns that it's ok not to try to try harder cos you can always ride on somebody's coattails.  Saddest of all, Student C learns that it really doesn't pay to be conscientious.  In fact, she's probably considered naive and stupid.

As parents and teachers, we need to understand that our role is to groom human beings who can make society better, not take advantage of it.  If kids don't learn about doing the right thing, how will they know this as adults?  The kind of messages we're sending to our kids is directly related to the kind of society we're creating.  We can't really complain about the moral decay of society if we're teaching children that they survive better if they leave their ethics at the front door.

We need to go back to basics and walk the talk.  Reinforce actions that demonstrate the age-old values of diligence, honesty, compassion and responsibility.  Show them that you can and should be kind in an unkind world.

Life is unfair. All the more we should try to make a difference.

Monday, April 15, 2013

More about introverts

This post is sort of a part 2 to the previous post.  The latter was too long so I decided to split it into two posts.

Some of my friends have told me that I sound forceful and forthcoming online, which seems surprising as I'm an introvert. I think that's part of the misconception of introverts, that we're quiet and docile, even in our outlook on life.

Being an introvert doesn't mean we don't have strong views. It just means we don't like to express these views in a room, in a loud voice, to a large audience.  In this sense, social media has given introverts a channel to express their opinions from their private space without the brash confrontation that is normally expected in a social setting. In other words, social media has given introverts a voice.

I can't tell you how many times I've been surprised when I meet people I've only corresponded with online, who debate topics intelligently and voraciously, only to find them quiet and mild-mannered in real life. 

In Susan Cain's video, she mentioned Dr Seuss who wrote all those fabulously tongue-in-cheek, over the top children's books.  He's a shy person in real life and didn't want to meet his fans because he was afraid they would be disappointed to see that he wasn't as charismatic as the Cat in the Hat.  Jack Nicholson's character in the show "As Good As It Gets", was a writer of popular, swash-buckling romance novels but in reality, he was a crotchety, old man with a bad case of OCD.

However, I hasten to condemn introverts to be stuck behind their pens and computers because that's a pretty limiting concept. As an introvert, I detest public speaking but as Susan Cain proves, this can be changed.  Lesley-Anne used to be extremely uncomfortable with presentations but since they do so much of it in school, she's more more at ease doing it now. Like with most things, it just takes practice.  I don't expect it ever to be the preferred activity of introverts but at least it can become one which doesn't paralyse you. 

Finally, here's a funny but very apt cartoon description of introverts.  Introverts are not unsociable folks but any prolonged social interaction can sap our energy. When I'm around an extrovert who can't stop talking for too long (especially a loud one), I often find myself getting increasingly irritable, physically exhausted and feeling like I need to crawl into bed and go into "recharge battery" mode.

It's not that introverts are social hermits, we just prefer more private and intimate gatherings.  I love going out with close friends, having a long catch up over a cup of coffee.  Kenneth, an extrovert, enjoys going to corporate events where he can meet new people, widen his social circle and chat with every Tom, Dick and Harry.  For me, making small talk among strangers is incredibly boring and more work than fun.  That's the part about being a PR practitioner that I hated most.   

So if you're an extrovert, that's something to take note of, especially if you have an introvert spouse or kids.  Be nice to your introverts today!

Monday, April 8, 2013

The power of introverts

I am an introvert.

Today, I embrace this but for a long time in my life, I've felt that it was a shortcoming. I was always envious of extroverts like Kenneth who can take the stand, speak off the cuff and command the crowd without going into brain freeze or feeling like they're gonna throw up.  If I am booked (reluctantly) for a public speaking event, I have sleepless nights and count the days till it's over.

An introvert friend of mine who's super bright, shared with me that in school, she would almost never raise her hand even though she knew the answers. She would fight an excruciating internal battle just to have the courage to volunteer information, by which time, some other less inhibited classmate would have beaten her to it, causing her to berate herself for her inaction.

I empathise completely.  When I was in sec 3, I was picked by the teacher to represent the class in a vocabulary competition. I turned it down because it was to take place in the hall in front of the entire school. Horrors. When the event took place, I was safely in the audience, quietly giving all the correct answers in my head, with mixed feelings.

It was therefore such an enlightenment to me when someone sent me a TED video last year featuring Susan Cain.  She had written a book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" and the video addresses the same topic.  It basically talks about the importance of introversion and how we should recognise its value instead of fighting it.  Do watch it, it's eye-opening.

Sharing her own story, Cain got the message growing up that somehow her introverted style of being was not ideal, so much so that she even became a Wall Street lawyer instead of a writer because she wanted to prove that she could pass off as an extrovert.

At work, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions even though they may actually be smarter and more likely to deliver better outcomes because they listen to other ideas more readily instead of "putting their own stamp on things".  We hear it all the time - Asians systematically lag behind their American counterparts in climbing the corporate ladder because the former prefer to work quietly behind the scenes (except perhaps for the more vocal Indians), while the latter, among the most extroverted personalities in the world, impress with their presentation skills.  In school, emphasis is now placed more on presentations and group projects instead of individual work - again the bias towards extroversion.

Cain goes on to explain how the world may be losing out simply because this bias causes us to suppress introversion which is critical to creativity.  She's not advocating that we all become introverts or that introverts are superior, rather that it's important to have a balance where we can come together to exchange ideas while still retaining the space and time for solitude and reflection.

Cain's message resonated strongly with me. In my corporate life, I accidentally ended up in public relations and marketing which often conjures up a gregarious, outgoing person, something I am not.  Where other PR personnel might attend social functions, meet as many people as possible and make their presence felt, I shied away from such events and preferred to take the personal approach, fostering deeper relations with each person. To me, the best compliment I ever received from a journalist was that I was "real".

However, when I was working at a polytechnic, my boss told me, "you seem to be rather introverted for a PR Manager".  He might as well have substituted the word "ineffective"  for "introverted" because that's what was implied.  I resented somewhat that my personality trait could predicate how well I did the job but a niggling part of me thought that maybe he was right, that I was inferior because I wasn't an extrovert. Not surprisingly, I left soon after.

Compare this with another boss - the one I had at the SSO - who being an extrovert, didn't comprehend my fears but accepted it as just a quirk that could be overlooked in light of my other qualities. In fact, she cleverly managed this to her advantage. She would undertake all the public speaking engagements if I would do everything else. I happily accepted. Win-win.

Why am I sharing all this?

Because as parents, I feel we're often guilty of the same bias towards extroversion, to our own detriment.  I used to keep telling Lesley-Anne, an introvert, to "speak up" and volunteer more for leadership positions. While I believe it's more than ok to nudge our kids out of their comfort zone, at some point, I realise that I was merely projecting my own wishes for her not to be an introverted as I am.  The danger with this is that our kids start to think that their introversion is a deficiency and try to force themselves into the extroversion mold instead of making the most of their introversion gifts.

It takes a good balance, as mentioned by Cain. I still want Lesley-Anne to step up but I also acknowledge that there is more than one way to be a leader.  Instead of say, trying out for student counsellor (which thrusts one into the limelight), she signed up for a community service stint to give tuition to needy kids.

Encouraging our kids to embrace the leadership style most fitting with their personality traits is by far, the most constructive way to go and leads to a healthier self-esteem because it plays to their strengths.  Ultimately, as Cain puts it, the world wins.   

Monday, April 1, 2013

Up to my eyeballs...

Warning: Graphic content ahead!

As part of her biology practicals, Lesley-Anne  had to dissect an eyeball to examine the different parts. The students were told to buy a mammal's eye because it's closest in structure to the human eye.  Most kids came with pig's eyes.

First, they cut away the muscles and fats surrounding eye, making sure not to sever the optic nerve.  Among the muscle, there should be a rigid portion which is eyelid.  According to Lesley-Anne, what's gross is that some of the eyeballs still had eyelashes still attached to them, so you can't really escape the notion that it's a real eye.

Once the eyeball is clean, they take a scalpel and carefully scrape at the side of black portion until the thick transparent layer (cornea) has a small hole.  Then they gently squeeze the eye until a blackish liquid emerges.

When the liquid is removed, a pair of small scissors is inserted into the hole to widen it.  That's when they have to squeeze very hard to remove a glob of white gel (vitreous humour).  This is what keeps your eye shape.  What also comes out is the lens which is a hard, transparent ball that looks like a glass bead.

With the inside of eye now empty, they must cut a sample of cornea and then make 2 incisions on side of eye.  It can then be turned inside out for the students to see inside of eyeball.  The inside surface is black and looks like it's stained with ink.  Amidst the black, there is a white spot that is linked to the optic nerve - that is the blind spot.  Near the incision, there is a portion of the inner surface that is black but streaked with whitish lines. This is the iris, the lines are radial muscles that control pupil dilation.

You paste the different parts on a labelled grid and as Lesley-Anne says, then you wash your hands a lot.  LOL.

This is a photo of the eyeballs prior to dissection, taken by her friend.

Last year, Lesley-Anne had to dissect a pig's heart.  She says the heart isn't as disgusting cos can psych yourself into thinking you're just handling a piece of meat. The eyeball, on the other hand, seems to follow you.  Even as she was relating the process of dissection, I felt squeamish and Andre kept saying "ewwwwww!!" as he covered his eyes as if protecting them.

On the other hand, at least an eyeball has no blood.  For the heart, the students had to spend a lot of time washing the blood clots out of it.  Anyway, Lesley-Anne says she'll much rather dissect an eyeball than a cockroach.  I totally agree.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...