Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Let's talk about sex, baby

Yesterday, The New Paper ran a story about how some NUS orientation camps have become increasingly sexualised. Some of the activities the kids had to do were just plain disturbing. Even when I was in NUS yonks ago, there was a tendency to push activities down the boy-girl route. I remember in the NUSSU camp, a musical chairs game where the boys were the "chairs" and the girls had to sit on their laps. That was as far as it got though and considered mild by today's standards, if the news reports are anything to go by.

But more than the games themselves, which are horrible enough, what's even more appalling to me is that the students who organised these games didn't see what's wrong. In this article, there were students who said some girls just like to complain, accused them of being narrow-minded, or said they could simply sit out, what's the big deal.

It IS a big deal. And it bugs me to see that 21-year-old men who have served NS and considered adults, are unable to see that trivialising rape culture and objectifying women are NOT OK. It reminds me of those frat parties in the US where your alpha males and females will subject noobs to demeaning activities so they can belong to a club. I suspect it's the same here - just a small group of individuals looking to boost their own egos and power by humiliating the freshmen. It's called bullying. Why should someone, who joined an orientation camp to get to know more people and the university, have to choose to sit out of doing a cheer? Just because someone thought it was funny to put in dirty words? By the way, that's not adult. That's extremely juvenile.

Part of the problem I feel, can be attributed to the woefully lacking sex education programme we have in Singapore. Unless you have enlightened parents who tell you what you need to know at home, you're going to learn nothing in school. Or at least, random bits and pieces that you struggle to make sense of yourself, usually in whispers among friends. In sec3, Lesley-Anne had a sex ed session in school. This was the video shown: a girl wanted to sleep with this guy who, unbeknownst to her, previously had unprotected sex with a prostitute. Both of them lie side by side on a bed fully clothed. They go under a pink blanket and emerge 2 seconds later, still fully clothed and not even touching each other. Voila! Two weeks later, they both have HIV and are going to die.

When Lesley-Anne told me about this video, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It's ludicrous beyond belief. What is the message we're sending to the confused kids? "You can have sex in 2 seconds without taking off your clothes!" "Sex leads to death!" "Pink blankets are dangerous!"

Lesley-Anne's teacher tried to make the session more educational by allowing for questions but the students were too afraid to ask much. One girl finally asked "How does it work?" (meaning sex). Unfortunately, the teacher thought she was trolling and didn't answer the question.

So here's the thing: why do we assume that kids know how sex works? Oh sure, most of them know the dictionary definition but how can that even be enough to address the messy and complex issue of sex? For example, the definition for oral sex is "to sexually stimulate orally". For a long time, Lesley-Anne thought that meant talking dirty or kissing. When you think about it, it does sound logical. How would you know what it was if nobody explained it to you?

By the time the students hit JC, the school assumes (wrongly) that the kids would know the mechanics of sex, so once again, sex ed is focused on the dangers of STDS, complete with graphic images meant to make the students wince. In fact, the talk Lesley-Anne attended harped on and on about the dangers of sex, how you can get pregnant, get all kinds of diseases and how even tests for STDs can be false negatives! By the way, it's so ironic that her JC principal at other times tell the students that it's their responsibility in the future to "go and procreate for Singapore".

This skewed form of sex ed means that most kids only have a vague idea about sex and are afraid to ask since the message they've been receiving is that it's dangerous and downright wrong. I feel that in Singapore, MOE is pressured to preach abstinence, either by religious groups or proponents of the "Asian values" camp. Hence, sex ed here is very moralistic and focuses on STDs instead of real information.

I think we've gotten all muddled because we're unable to distinguish between values and fact. Abstinence is a value. It is a choice to be yielded by the individual. It should not influence information-giving. I find it terribly parochial how some people feel national messages and programmes should only provide information in line with their own values. I especially take issue with alarmists who think teaching children about sex is encouraging them to have pre-marital sex. Aiyoh. That's like saying since I advise my daughter not to walk in alleyways after dark, I don't have to teach her how to defend herself. In fact, I shouldn't teach her cos that would make her want to go out walking after dark!

Do parents honestly think that in this age, they can realistically enforce abstinence by withholding information? When kids can't get information from official channels, they turn to unofficial ones - mostly friends (who are equally in the dark) and well, porn. And that's why you have student orientation leaders who think it's fun and perfectly ok to simulate rape and ejaculation, and get girls to lick cream off a boy's bare chest.

Sex is such a multi-faceted issue and the level of ignorance (coupled with the raging hormones) among our youth is simply trouble waiting to happen. Schools have the opportunity to educate students about sex - properly, responsibly and factually...and they're not doing that. We need to teach our kids what sex entails, how it affects them physically, emotionally and mentally, and also very important related concepts such as consent. Not constant fear-mongering.

As parents, it's up to us to cultivate the values we want in our kids. Honestly, if you're afraid that your child will engage in pre-marital sex once she knows more about it, then perhaps it's time to examine why the values weren't that well embedded at home in the first place. On the contrary, good sex ed teaches you how to value your body and yourself, and treating others with respect. That's a good thing and that's what we need for our kids.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reforms in PSLE scoring - good news for most

Finally, after much anticipation, MOE has released the new grading system for PSLE, to start in 2021 (meaning that those in p1 this year will be the first batch to be affected).

How it works is that scores for each subject will be calculated on 8 bands or Assessment Levels (ALs) as follows:
Source: MOE
Very simply, your PSLE score will be the total AL score for all four subjects. Eg. if you score AL2 for English, AL1 for Maths, AL 4 for Science and AL5 for Mother Tongue, your total score will be 12. It's very similar to how the 'O' levels are calculated, ie A1 for a subject = 1 point, B3 = 3 points and so on. For PSLE, the minimum score is 4, maximum 32.

The scores will then be used for secondary school posting. The better your score, the higher up your queue number is to select your school.  Which stream you will be eligible for depends on your total score as follows:

Source: MOE

A Step in the Right Direction

1) This banding scoring style is long overdue. From the time this move was first mooted in 2013, I've written about how the fine stratification of the PSLE t-score is meaningless and only serves to exacerbate the kiasu culture among parents and students, to chiong for every last mark. Banding sends the message that whether you score 91 or 99, you're considered equally high achieving in that subject.

Some people are curious as to why the AL bands don't all have a similar range of marks, eg. AL2-4 have 5-mark ranges while AL5 has a 10-mark range and AL6 a 20-mark range. After all, someone who scores 45 marks in a paper (a fail grade) can hardly be considered of the same achievement level as someone who scores 64 marks, even though they would both fall under AL6.

I've always felt that the PSLE is less of an ability gauge and more a school placement device. If every school was equally in demand, the PSLE would simply need to test if a student understood the fundamental concepts for each subject. If yes, then congrats! Off you go to secondary school. But that sort of Utopia exists only in Sesame Street and we're more like Harry Potter - everyone wants to go to Gryffindor and nobody wants Slytherin. Hence, my gut feel is that the ALs are carved out as such to facilitate school placement. In other words, whether you score 45 or 64 marks, it probably has less consequence on the range of schools available to you (because fewer people are vying for one or two particular schools).

2) Another major change in the scoring is the departure from t-scores to raw scores. I'd previously written in detail about the brutality of using the t-score in PSLE. The t-score calculates your score in relation to others'. While it's more efficient in determining placement for school posting, it encourages unhealthy competition because the more people you beat, the better you score. At that tender age when we're supposed to be nurturing kids, the t-score sends the message: To hell with helping my friends. Winner takes all. Kinda like the Hunger Games.

Raw scores, on the other hand, reflect individual effort and ability, not in comparison with one another. In other words, just do the best you can. However, banding based on raw scores means that many kids are likely to share similar scores, unlike in the past where your t-score can be differentiated down to decimal points. So MOE felt the need to impose three other criteria for school placement, in case of ties. These are (in that order):

2) Citizenship
3) Choice order of school
4) Balloting

I have to admit, I chuckled when I saw the last criterion. To me, that's like MOE subtly giving kiasu parents the middle finger. You see, I can just imagine how vexed MOE must feel, that every time they try to introduce a different initiative to create a more holistic system or level the playing field, some parents will find innovative and extreme ways to game the system. Take DSA, IP, niche schools, etc. By introducing balloting, getting into the school of your choice could come down to pure, dumb luck. Hah! Try getting around that!

Let the Angst Begin

As mentioned, I feel this change is long overdue and it's good overall. It's more holistic and kinder in its assessment of students' abilities. However, as with every announcement about changes in the education system, there is bound to be anxiety among parents, often due to the uncertainty.

One group would be the ones whose kids are consistently top performers and gunning for schools like RI/RGS/HCI/NYGH. Suddenly, a perfect score may not guarantee entry to these school. If these parents are protesting that it's "unfair to deprive a perfect scorer a place in a top school", may I be so bold as to suggest that the changes are necessary precisely because we need to change this sort of narrow-mindedness. For the better of society, we really need to move away from the prevalent mentality that 1) some schools are superior 2) because a kid beat another by 1 mark in an exam paper, he's somehow more entitled to go to that school.

A school is a conduit for learning. If a child is that good, he can do well and receive fantastic opportunities anywhere. In the past couple of decades, we've seen how the narrow funnelling of top scoring kids into a handful of schools have led to a proliferation of young adults who are completely oblivious that the world doesn't revolve around their middle-income families, paper distinctions, high end tuition centres and overseas stints. While this new scoring system may not completely solve this elitist mindset, it is more likely to spread the top scorers across a wider range of schools, allowing for better integration and socialisation.

Other parents might be concerned about how to choose schools, now that choice order is a consideration. For the first year at least, there will be a lot of uncertainty since there is nothing to refer to. If my child scores 12 points, which school should he pick as first choice? Or if my child scores 4 points, how many other kids scored the same? Should he opt for a less competitive school just to be safe? It's anyone's guess, really.

Even after the first year, we might not have a clear idea what the cut-off point for each school is. Since the points are now based on raw scores, not t-scores, the distribution of total scores for each year can vary quite a lot, depending on how easy or difficult the papers are. In fact, if MOE wants to play puppeteer, they can theoretically adjust the difficulty of the papers to affect the results. For example, set very difficult papers to restrict the number of 4-pointers or very easy papers to flood the market. Such manipulation will need to be handled with care though, because it could drastically affect the proportion of kids qualifying for the Express stream, for instance.

If they want to be extra sneaky, they can also "tweak" the raw scores, the way they've been doing for the current PSLE scoring. Whether you get an A* or A today is supposed to be based on raw scores (eg. 91 marks and above for A*) but in reality, the grades for each subject are based on a bell curve drawn by MOE. I'm wondering if they will resort to this down the road if the results deviate too much from projections. Anyway, these are all speculations. I suspect they will observe the workings of the system and adjust it as they go along.

Good...But Faster Can?

So yes, there are some kinks to work out and that's probably why MOE is taking so long to implement it. If I have one criticism of the initiative, it's that it will only be rolled out in 2021. Considering this was first announced in 2013, that's 8 years to implement what is a relatively straightforward system. MOE says they want to give people time to get used to the new system. I think they're being too kind. That's giving parents another 8 years to find ways to game the new system and chiong for DSA harder than ever. If it were up to me, I'd say rip off the band-aid and get over the pain quickly.

There are two gaping loopholes which I feel MOE needs to review quickly with this new announcement, namely the DSA scheme and MT exemption. While they were both implemented with good intentions and have their uses, again that hasn't stopped some parents from exploiting them purely to get into branded schools.

The stress that I commonly hear people complain about our education system is both a result of the system and parents' attitude. Changing the system itself isn't enough unless we change our mindsets, but at least we move away from rewarding and hence reinforcing kiasu-ism. For that, I would say we're on the right track.

Monday, July 4, 2016

What's the tradeoff?

Lesley-Anne will be starting university come end July, so naturally, the conversations over these past few months tended to include university selection and who's-going-where among her friends. Since Lesley-Anne attended one of the branded JCs, there might be some perception that most of her school mates would be studying overseas.

This turned out to be untrue. By far, most of the students I know are enrolling in local universities. In fact, some of Lesley-Anne's super bright friends, previously from GEP, top schools, etc, will be studying in exactly the same university and course as their peers who came from neighbourhood schools/JCs and didn't score as well as they did in the 'A' levels.

Why I bring this up is because I wanted to highlight how pointless this grade-chasing game is. Some parents are so hung up about their kids getting straight As that they have spent the last 12 or more years packing their kids to enrichment classes day and night, piling them with assessment books, etc, believing that the pie is so small that you have to do everything in your power to edge everyone else out. The truth is, many of these straight A students will end up in EXACTLY the same place (university-wise and at the workplace) as the less academically inclined students because, guess what - university applications and the workplace don't draw the line as myopically as these parents do in their heads.

Speaking to my friend who teaches at a JC confirmed my hypothesis. She says the kids in her mid-tier JC practically kill themselves volunteering for every possible community project and leadership opportunity, mugging till midnight, basically living their two years like a zombie, thinking all these extras will somehow matter in their university or scholarship application.

At the end of the day, for 95% of these kids, they won't. That's the kicker. The kids who get enrolled in the most sought after programmes are truly a minority and often, these are the kids who already have what it takes (I like to call it that extra spark). All the padding on your CCA is unlikely to make a difference. Even more so for those want a scholarship to study overseas - the success rates are miniscule and even straight A students with a fantastic portfolio often get rejected.

I'm not saying our kids shouldn't try and should just give up. It’s not a bad thing to try and do well in school and take on extra curricular stuff. The trouble is the lack of balance. It seems like the motto among some Singaporean parents (and students themselves) is: "If there's something worth doing, it's worth overdoing." Let's be honest - there's always an opportunity cost. What I see being sacrificed includes sleep, play, a social life, and important intangibles like curiosity, a love of learning, values, and time and the ability to think beyond what is given in a textbook. Do we even realise the enormity of the tradeoffs?

Some parents have the warped sense that the school years are a sacrifice and pre-payment for the reward they hope to eventually get. In the end, these formative years have become so detestable for our kids that they're exhausted and can't wait to be done with school. I find that very sad. The school years form an important part of the journey of life to be experienced (and ideally enjoyed). Our kids should be able to look back at them with fondness, not relief that they're over.

From my own experience and talking to others, I hope to reassure you that a lot of the chiong-ing is unnecessary and probably not have that much of an impact on the eventual result as you think. Work hard, but don't over-burden yourself to the point where you sacrifice physical, mental and emotional health. It's not worth it.

Today especially, on Youth Day, I hope we can remember that youth is a time when we should be celebrating vitality and discovery. Don't rob yourself (or your kids) of this very pivotal part of life. It's a time to experience and to be cherished. Happy Youth Day!

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