Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"What do you think I think?" The absurdity of exam questions

Andre's year-end examinations are coming up and I was looking at his work as he was revising for History. I saw one of the questions in a worksheet:

"The Gupta Dynasty was known as the Golden Age of India because of its scientific achievements. Do you agree? Explain your answer."

According to the model answer provided, he's supposed to write the statement "I agree..." or "I disagree..." and give supporting reasons. Which makes perfect sense. But then came the kicker: after giving all the supporting reasons, he's then supposed to write the opposite statement of what he gave earlier, eg if you previously said you agree, now you had to say "However, I don't agree..." And THEN give all the supporting reasons for this statement.

I was perplexed. I checked with Lesley-Anne and found out it's true for her school too. Basically for such questions in History, you're supposed to say you agree and then say you disagree. If you only say one part, you will fail because you'll get at most half the marks, according to the marking scheme. (I know! I'm only finding this out now!) Incidentally, I think this is the O level format for History and/or Social Studies.

Qualifier: I have no problem with exam questions that ask for both sides of an argument. I understand that they want to ensure the students have studied all aspects of an issue, which is all well and good. My quarrel is with the way the questions are phrased. They seem to ask for your opinion but actually, they couldn't care less what it is.

I find that in the past decade or so, we've seen a lot more "what do you think?" kind of questions in exams, right down to the primary school level. If I were to hazard a guess as to why, I think it ties in with MOE's constant mantra that they want to groom "thinking" and "life-skills", not just book-smart muggers. So they decided to move from "what do you know?" to "what do you think?", to try and get students to give their views beyond what is provided in the textbooks or exam passages.

However, as is always the case, it boils down to execution. And in true Singapore style, everything has to be recorded regimentally into a marking template, down to the number of points for each key word, so that nothing will be left ambiguous. By which time, there is no room left for any opinion that doesn't fall within the "acceptable answers" pre-determined by the marker.

Eg. in primary school English comprehension questions, those "what do you think?" questions always make me snort. Maybe when the kid first starts school, he naively thinks, "oh! I can write what I think!" Then he quickly wises up when he finds that his "I think Aminah is dumb because she gave her money away." was marked wrong because what the teacher really wanted was "I think Aminah is kind because she gave her money to someone."  In other words, they don't give a flying bumblebee what you think. It's really "what do you think I think?"

Same with this History case. By all means, ask to see both sides of the story. But if that's what the marker wants to see, then just ask, "Explain why the statement is both true and untrue." Don't couch it in a "I wanna know your views!" kind of question and then fail the student if he gives his views, even with supporting arguments.

My point is that looking at the way the exam questions are designed, I suspect we're nowhere closer to grooming creativity and thinking than we are 10 or 20 years ago. The questions have changed but the mindset hasn't. As long as MOE feels that it needs to assess "thinking" or "creativity" via a structured template (don't we just love our KPIs and our numbers!), we're back to marking for content, which was the Singapore syllabus of old. Because honestly, if you truly value thought and opinion, you cannot start off by having a pre-conceived idea of what that opinion should be.

Lesley-Anne recounted how her Integrated Humanities class (which is something like a social studies cum history subject) was in an uproar because of one exam question:

"The government has to play the main role in the alleviation of poverty in China. Do you agree?"

Like in Andre's case, the students knew they had to give both sides of the story, ie say you agree and then say you disagree. So for the "I disagree" portion, many of the students wrote a statement along the lines of "I disagree because people play the main role in the alleviation of poverty in China." The students who did thus, even with all the supporting arguments, failed or barely passed the paper. Apparently, this statement is considered WRONG. You had to say "I disagree because the government doesn't play the main role but the supporting role to the people in the alleviation of poverty."

Note that the supporting arguments given could be exactly the same in two papers, except that the statement is different. But one was deemed to be a fail grade, the other an A grade. The teacher's rationalisation was that the main point is the government so it had to be mentioned in the statement.

The commotion came about because the students in Lesley-Anne's school rightly saw how illogical the marking scheme was. Nowhere in the phrasing of the question was it clear that the government was the main point (I too, thought the alleviation of poverty was the main point). Again, the only explanation I can come up with is our system's relentless obsession with the need to differentiate the kids. It reminded me of that recent primary school science question a mother posted on Facebook. The teacher in that case, defended the question by saying it "differentiated the A students from the A* students".

I'm absolutely positive that it doesn't. In both cases. To the teachers: what you've succeeded in doing is create a wider range of marks, if that's what you deem "differentiating". But don't kid yourself into thinking it actually picks out the brighter students. Unless you define "bright" as someone who possesses magical mind-reading abilities.

Neither of the examples I've cited does anything towards creating more thinking individuals. Quite the opposite. They probably create more confused individuals who are constantly being told that the way they think is wrong. The skill that is assessed and reinforced here is not thinking or creativity, it's the ability to guess and tell someone else what they want to hear. What do you think I think.

I wonder if some academicians have been in education for so long that they have lost the plot. I keep hearing how our education system has to evolve to be relevant to life but from these two examples, I really doubt the markers have any clue what skills are important in real life.

In real life, your opinion matters. In fact, if you were to state "I agree" with something and then follow that up with "I disagree", you'll be told, make up your damn mind already. In real life, it's important to know how to make intelligent arguments and back up your views. Not mind-reading. Not second-guessing. Not meaningless hair-splitting of semantics.

Make education more relevant to life? Yes. But first, understand what's really relevant in life.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Media dinner at Crystal Jade Steamboat

During the September school holidays, I was invited to attend a media dinner to review the newly opened Crystal Jade Steamboat Restaurant. My first response was, "Huh? But I'm not a food blogger!"

So as it turns out, I'm a "lifestyle blogger". Wah, I didn't know blogging about education comes with such perks! "But what if I don't like the food?" Apparently, that's ok too. No compulsion to say only good things. Honesty is best. Well then, who am I to turn down such an opportunity?

So Kenneth and I gamely turned up at Crystal Jade Steamboat Restaurant at Zhong Shan Mall (at Ah Hood Road). There were two media tables set out. We were on the table with the Young Parents deputy editor while the other table was for the food bloggers. Here's the difference between food bloggers and non-food bloggers: When the food was placed on the photo-taking table, the food bloggers whipped out their fancy SLRs and hybrids.

We shyly took out our three-year-old Canon S90 compact. The food bloggers fiddled with their big lenses. We fiddled with... the macro button. In our defence, the Young Parents deputy editor at our table didn't even bring a camera.

No need lah, the organiser provided food shots like these:

Why bother with getting the perfect shot? We're here to eat! So on with the food then...

Our tasting came in two parts. The first part was the steamboat (duh). You can order two different types of broth - we were given the pork bone soup (which is the most popular) and the tom yam soup. All the soup bases are simmered for more than 12 hours with fresh ingredients.

I'm not into spicy food so I can't tell you how I liked the tom yam soup base but the pork bone soup was extremely tasty.

We were served a variety of steamboat ingredients one of them, the assorted meat steamboat set ($32.80), with beef, lamb, kurobuta pork, chicken, bean curd, golden mushrooms, vermicelli and various types of cabbages.

I loved the pork and the beef especially - super tender and juicy. Oh before I forget, you go to the centre of the restaurant where there is a dizzying array of sauces and you pick your favourite (or mix and match). The one I liked best was the sweet and sour chilli mix.

We also tried other steamboat ingredients like the prawn balls, meat balls, fish balls and squid balls ($6.90 per serving). All are handmade and have a complex flavour that you don't get with the typical factory made ones.

Eg. I loved the prawn balls. You can actually taste the bits of prawn and they were deliciously juicy. The meat ball was also pretty good, considering I don't usually like meatballs. I think it's the water chestnut bits that give it a delightful crunch. Of the four, the one I liked least was the fish ball - I thought it was too mushy and didn't have enough bite.

Then came our second part of the dinner. Apart from steamboat, the restaurant also serves ala carte Cantonese and Teochew fare, great for the supper crowd (the restaurant opens till 2am daily). We had the salted pork bone & dried vegetable porridge ($9.80/small serving),

the grilled tilapia with preserved vegetables ($32.80),

and the  sauteed chicken with dried chilli & onion ($18.80/half chicken, $32.80/whole chicken). This comes in three levels of spiciness and as mentioned, since I'm not much good with spicy, we went with level 1.

Of the three, I enjoyed the chicken best, much to my surprise. It's very tasty, like a cross between mala and kung pao chicken. I imagine it would be a great comfort food in the wee hours of the morning, with steamed rice or porridge. 

All in all, I think the food here is pretty credible and a nice change from the usual offerings at other restaurants. Honestly, I thought the prices were a little high but you really do get quality ingredients. When I first tasted the steamboat soup, I thought, "uh oh, very salty. I'm going to be thirsty all night tonight." But as it turned out, I was not. Which tells me that the flavour came from all the ingredients, not salt or MSG. Wholesome food, great for families.

When we were there, the restaurant was packed. For a new restaurant in a less commonly known area, that's amazing. I guess Singaporeans know a good food place when they see one.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pre-orders for my book!

Here it is: pre-orders for my book, The Good, the Bad and the PSLE! I'm offering this as a service to my readers because some of you have indicated to me that you would like my autograph. I really appreciate the support very, very much.

The pre-orders start now up to Thur, 19 September only. Sorry if this sounds restrictive but I need to consolidate the numbers so that my publisher knows how many to cater for.

The deadline applies to payment as well. Only payment received by 19 Sep will be treated as confirmed orders and payment is via POSB transfer, no exceptions. I know this is starting to sound pretty regimental - I apologise for that but I really (x 1,000) dislike dealing with administrative matters and if I don't make things very clear, I'm almost certain I will muck all the orders up!

So here's how it works:

1) if you're keen on pre-ordering the book, send me a private message on the Of Kids and Education Facebook page (again, no exceptions, sorry! Hard for me to track if you start emailing me at different addresses. Please don't email me at my personal address or send your particulars over at this blog's comments page).

2) I will let you know what account to transfer the money to. Each book is $18. This includes registered mail.  If you would like to buy more than one (sent to the same local address), deduct $2.50 from each subsequent book. Eg. if you're buying 2 books, that's $18 + $15.50 = $33.50.

3) Once you have transferred the money, email me again with the following info:
  • Name under which you transferred the money (it's an optional fill-in box for online transfers) or the transaction reference no. (for ATM transfers). I can't stress the importance of this enough. Without this, I'll have no idea who sent me the money!
  • Your mailing address
  • Whether you would like me to sign your copy of the book and if so, who I should make it out to.
4) I will confirm receipt and send out the books as soon as I receive them, which will likely be in early/mid-October. I will update this post again when I've sent out the books.

Just as a reference, the book will be sold at bookstores from mid-October at $19.15 (incl. GST) each. In other words, you're not getting a significant discount buying from me due to registered mail (and probably not significantly earlier either). If you don't want my autograph and are not in a hurry, you can probably get it cheaper from the bookstores during the end of the year when some of them *ahempopular* tend to have 20% storewide discounts. Just sayin' :)

Monday, September 2, 2013

Cover update on The Good, the Bad and the PSLE!

A couple of weekends ago, I was invited to the Epigram Books Pop Up Store sale as one of their would-be authors. The picture on the left shows their range of one of my favourite notebooks ever, the Notbooks.

It was also pretty exciting for me because my book cover was on the wall of Epigram Books' soon-to-be-released titles.

And yes, I'm sharing with you, dear readers, the confirmed cover of my book "The Good, the Bad and the PSLE"!  Can you spot it on the wall?

Here's a closeup:

Isn't it hair-raising? I absolutely love it! I know some people may think it's too off-the-wall but I think Epigram Books did a fantastic job of conveying what the book will be about. It's funny and eye-catching but yet charming in its own way.

Signing the poster:

And here I am with Ruth, the Managing Editor of Epigram Books who's also the editor of my book.

I can't wait till the book is launched! The planned launch date is mid-October. I'll be opening up for pre-orders sometime next week.

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