Monday, August 24, 2015

Look beyond the numbers when talking about the decline in Literature

Today in the Straits Times is an article on the decline of Literature students. It's not the first time they've reported on this and it always annoys me to read about this topic on MSM because they tend to skim the surface without digging deeper. There's no analysis to speak of and they focus superficially on the numbers as if that gives legitimacy to the story.

No doubt, Lit has become less popular but WHY? Fewer kids taking Lit means kids are not interested? More schools offering Lit suddenly means the situation is improving? They interviewed one student who said she didn't take Lit because Lit was hard and they thought that explained everything? Many kids, even in my generation, found Lit hard. That hasn't changed.

1) The more basic flaw when looking at numbers: You can't look at the decline in the absolute number of students taking Lit at 'O' levels over the years and simply conclude that Lit is less popular because the NUMBER OF 'O' LEVEL STUDENTS HAS DECLINED OVER THE YEARS. Duh.

In 2012, 37,267 students sat for the 'O' levels. In 2014 just two years later, the number had dropped to 30,964. All numbers found on the MOE website. In other words, the "worrying drop" in Lit students reported in the Strait Times article over the same period from 6,000 to 5,500 Lit students was just a corresponding drop in cohort size.

Even I, who's hopeless in Maths, can tell you that if you insist on harping on figures, looking at the percentage of Lit students over the total number of kids sitting for 'O' levels would at least be a more accurate reflection of reality.

Do you know why the 'O' level cohort has been systematically falling? Apart from the corresponding fall in birth rates, it's also because from 2004 when the IP programme was introduced, the PSLE top scorers have been siphoned off to IP schools, where kids skip the 'O' levels. The number of students going into IP schools increases every year, hence the 'O' level cohort continues to shrink. And because Lit is typically considered a hard subject, ie only top students would take it, these students are likely in your IP schools, so the potential target audience has already been reduced.

2) The more complex issue: The way the education system is structured locally for 'O' levels is not conducive to kids taking up Lit and this is something I suspect many in the literary world who are trying to promote Lit in schools may not be aware of.

Let me share how 'O' level schools typically work. When you choose your subjects at sec 3, schools often offer only a few combinations. There are no more "Science" or "Arts" streams as in the past because in current day 'O' levels, you have to take at least one Science, one Maths and one Humanities subject. Quite commonly, a school would offer a Triple Science combination, a Double Science combination and a Combined Science combination. To fulfil the humanities criterion, most schools make students take Combined Humanities, which is half Social Studies and half an elective (Lit, Geography or History). In other words, when MSM reports that students prefer Combined Humanities over full Lit, it's not true. For most schools, Combined Humanities is COMPULSORY. The students don't have a choice. (I dare say many students absolutely abhor Social Studies).

So let's do a count of subjects: These would be your mandatory subjects: 1) English 2) Mother Tongue 3) E. Maths 4) Combined Humanities 5) one Science. That's 5 subjects. Many kids are told that if they want to increase their options at JC level, they should take another Science and A. Maths, so that makes 7 subjects. Many students take a total of 8 subjects so they may either choose yet another Science subject (hence Triple Science) or a less common subject (eg. Music, Design & Tech, Principles of Accounts) or another full humanities (Lit, History or Geog). This is where a student can choose to take full Lit as a subject if the school offers it.

However, many kids take only 7 subjects to lighten their workload, especially if they're looking to enter the Poly route (which requires only the calculation of 5 subjects for entry). Some schools even offer a 6-subject combination to help their weaker kids cope. Taking Lit as a subject is not an option for these kids, even if they're interested.

In other words, where would be the opportunity to take Lit? It's all very well to glibly say more kids should take Lit without understanding the constraints of the education system. In my generation, more kids took Lit but it wasn't so much that more kids were interested in it. We just didn't have a choice and we took all subjects imposed on us depending on the stream we were put in.

Whereas nowadays, Lit is usually an option and a small one offered only to students in the better classes. While more schools offering the subject is a good thing, it doesn't necessarily translate into significantly more students taking it up. And with 'O' level grades more critical than ever for entry into competitive JCs and Polys, coupled with the perception that Lit is terribly difficult to score well in, you have your answer as to why Lit is unpopular.

To me, trying to force Lit down the 'O' level track is an uphill task because of the limitations of the education structure. Where I think we can make a bigger impact promoting Lit is among the IP schools. Lit requires analysis and higher order thinking, and on paper, the IP students have the ability. IP schools also have the advantage of not having to put their students through the 'O' levels, so they can focus on subjects that develop the mind instead of teaching to the test. Yet many IP schools don't practise this.

Lesley-Anne was from the IP track. I was constantly frustrated at how her secondary school was narrowly exam-focused, despite IP touting freedom of academic and intellectual pursuit. At sec 3, the students were only offered two tracks: Triple Science or Double Science. In Triple Science (which formed majority of the classes), you had ZERO opportunity to take Lit (or any other full humanities subject). The combination was fixed as: English, Higher MT, 2 Maths, 3 Sciences, Social Studies. If you chose the Double Science combination, you could take one Humanities subject in place of the third science. This was the only option where you could choose Lit.

Lesley-Anne is clearly humanities-bound and she loves both Lit and Geography. But as you can see, her secondary school is so Science-biased (reinforcing the ancient fallacy that Science is superior) that there was no option for her to study both Lit and Geog. The best she could do was take up Double Science and she chose Lit. Oh, there was a very selective Humanities Programme where she could have studied a variety of arts subject but in order to get in, you had to score top marks in all your exam subjects at sec 2 (a large portion of which comprised Maths and Science subjects). Nothing about identifying those with special talent or interest in the humanities at all. What a farce.

The reason Lesley-Anne is enjoying JC so much more than secondary school is that at the JC level, you're allowed to study the subjects you enjoy. I'm not dissing the importance of Maths and Science, by the way. I'm rejecting the notion that they're considered so important that every kid has to study these at an advanced level whereas the Humanities are dubbed the inferior "can't do Science then I bopian do Arts" option.

I don't know if it's the same for all IP schools. I'm saying that there's a lot more potential for Lit to be taken up by students in these schools and if the obstacle is the schools' attitude towards the Humanities, then this is the area we should be looking at. If those looking to promote Lit in schools can engage IP school Principals and teachers, and change their mindset towards the Humanities, we might actually get somewhere in the long term.

And it's not just attitudes towards the Humanities, it's attitudes towards learning in general. As mentioned, IP schools should be focusing on learning more than scoring because that's what eliminating the 'O' levels was meant to do. Yet the legacy of this obsession over scoring dies hard. When Lesley-Anne decided to choose Lit in sec 3, her friends thought she was crazy. They felt she should have chosen Geog because she had topped her class in Geog in sec 2 - go with the "easier to score" option. But Lesley-Anne chose Lit because she decided that she loves Lit more and she enjoyed the lessons tremendously. I guess she had the last laugh because at the end of sec 4, she topped the level in Lit in her school.

It's a nice end to that chapter in her life but my point is that in our education system, there are more obstacles to taking Lit than just interest. The kids have to be very sure, they have to have support at home to go against the grain, because sometimes, the school doesn't encourage it. If kids, parents and teachers continue to view education as a numbers game obsessing over scores, Lit is fighting a losing battle.

Lit opens up our worldview and perspectives, and helps us see how language is used as an artform to influence emotion and shape opinions. Appreciating Lit takes time and that's part of the process of learning. If we are to promote Lit in schools, we need to jolt educators out of their misconception that there's more value to teaching a tangible concept like how molecules work than teaching about the depths of a human soul. We really have to move out of this rut of equating education with training, something I've written about before.

Back to the ST article, when journalists look at the numbers and think they tell the whole story of the state of Lit, they're ironically no different from the Maths/Science proponents. Delve deeper and ask the question why, beyond the numbers and without jumping to conclusion. Lit will teach you that.


Anonymous said...

It seems that Leslie-Anne school allowed only 8 subjects in her yr3-4. In the IP school that my son attends, most yr3-4 students take 9 subjects and a small number take 10. So it allows them to pursue Lit and Geography with double science or triple science with Lit. The 10th subject is usually the 3rd Language, art, music and computer electives. My son himself completed 10 subjects and he is now in JC1.

So I conclude that not all IP schools are as restrictive as Leslie-Anne's school.

monlim said...

Yup, not all IP schools are the same. In Lesley-Anne's school, you can take 9 subjects only if your 9th subject is 3rd language or music or art. Having said that, it's not just the number of subjects one is allowed to take (I personally think 10 subjects is a bit mad!) It's also the treatment of the arts as "inferior" hence there is a general mindset that passes down to the students that taking subjects like lit is unimportant.

PS Is it really that hard to spell Lesley-Anne's name correctly? lol

Anonymous said...

Sorry for misspelt name. I should hv double-checked.

On the other hand, my son feels that at the JC level, the humanities students are given a lot more room to enjoy the humanities given that out of the 4H2s and 3H1s, only one subject need to be a math or science. Whereas for the science student, one H2 subject has to be a humanities subject while the H1s are all humanities namely Project Work, GP and chinese (if HMT wasn't taken at yr4).

And taking 10 subjects isn't mad. It is necessary for students whom at age 14-15, hv keen interest and excel in both science and humanities subjects, and are undecided what they should pursue at tertiary level. They don't find it a strain at all, and in fact enjoyed their academic terms immensely.

monlim said...

Definitely JC has more options for humanities-loving kids, though I beg to differ that humanities students have more room to enjoy what they love. All arts students have to take Maths. Most JCs don't allow you to choose Science as a contrasting subject. This is bad news for kids who don't like Maths. The only way to get out of this is to take KI in place of GP. Whereas Science students can choose from a vast range of arts subjects (lit, history, geog, etc) and most of them take Econs (which to me, is hardly a true humanities subject). PW, GP and Chinese are NOT considered humanities. GP and Chinese are languages, PW is a team collaboration project.

Whether taking 10 subjects is mad depends on the school. For L-A's school, promotion each year depends on you doing reasonably well for EVERY subject (there's no best of), so the kids have no motivation to try subjects they may not be good at just to learn something new, or to tax their workload. I don't know about your son's school but I am skeptical about making generalisations like "they don't find it a strain at all" - I'm sure some kids would struggle to cope. All schools have these kids, from my experience.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that the education system is such that pupils will often opt for other humanities subjects over Lit for the various reasons you mentioned. However, I disagree that all schools place more importance on science over the humanities.

Yes, every top school has a small number of pupils who struggle. These minority are advised to take 7-8 subjects. My son's school makes adjustments to help every person as best as it can, rather than place a blanket requirement for the entire cohort. Admittedly, this group of 10-subject people i was referring to are exceptional learners. Straight As are the norm for these all rounded types. It is so effortless for them. Even if the requirement of counting in all subjects for promos is implemented, including the much disliked HMT, will not be a hindrance for them. A couple of them eventually opted for the Humanities Program because of their love for Liberal Arts. And I am grateful that the school was supportive in allowing them to try many subjects.

My take on Math is that everyone pursuing A levels should learn a basic level of math. It is essential for most university coursework as research work usually involves statistics. Why opt for a science subject just to fulfil the requirement when math skills will most likely be needed for further studies?

PW is a restrictive subject that disallows research on pure science or math. If I am not wrong, it is usually a social study. Which as you know is something many students abhor. But a humanities student with a flair for writing, generally wider read on social issues and ahem 'fluffing' has a clear advantage.

And GP is generally advantageous to a Humanities student as they presumably hv a stronger grasp of the English language.

So yes, I agree that fewer pupils are choosing Lit but no, I disagree that, at least for my son's school, the education system favours the sciences more. I even know of someone, who is torn between Lit n 3rd Lang but wants to remain in the science stream so that he can be a Dr in future, allowed by the school to pursue 5H2s in JC1.

monlim said...

I always hesitate to use the word "all" because few statements are true across the board. I never said all schools place more importance on science than humanities. I was only speaking for L-A's school but I know the education system as a whole (and many parents) still believe in the science is superior mindset. If your son's school is different, then good for them!

Wrt to maths, Maths at JC level to me is not considered a "basic level" by any means. If that's the case, then all those kids who don't make it to JC and don't take maths beyond sec 4 are doomed? As mentioned in my post, knowing maths is important but you can study stats later on if you need it. Won't kill you if you didn't take maths at JC level. I believe this requirement came about again from the prevailing mindset that Maths at any level is somehow incredibly important, even if you have no interest in following up later in your studies.

As for PW etc, I think you are confusing what a humanities subject is vs who would be more likely to do better in a humanities subject. They are not the same thing. People who are good in humanities may be better at writing but doesn't mean that PW then is a humanities subject. Based on this argument, any subject that requires essay writing would be considered humanities. Eg. People who are good in Maths also have a higher tendency to be good in Physics or Econs but none of them are in the same category of subjects.

Anyway, we can agree to disagree. Appreciate your views - thanks for airing them.

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