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!


Rachel Tan said...

It's Independence Day (right, not ours but still...) and Youth Day today!

This is a nice post to remind me that half the time, it doesn't matter! Does it matter if the kiddo scored 85 instead of 75 for SA1 Chinese? Probably not, so hey parent me, take a chill pill then plod on.

Also, it is true that once you reach university (for most Faculties) and / or the work place, well, you are pretty much up ending up at similar places as those who may have done as well as you academically, or not. And really the direction and trajectory of a person's life is very dependent on one's values and outlook and not always the grades.

Oh the thing about studying overseas...anecdotally, I don't think the overseas allure is as strong as in the past. I've met many local uni students now whose parents volunteered to send them abroad, but they choose to stay, because home is well, more comfortable. The educational offerings at local unis now are also, very good if you are asking me. There exists still a cultural difference in the environments at overseas unis vs local unis, but as far as programmatic quality and offerings go, I think the local unis have come a long way.

Keep writing!

monlim said...

Rachel: Agree with you re: the local unis. I feel that the main value in overseas unis is the independence and cultural exposure of living in a different country. Programme-wise, I really don't believe the local unis are inferior in any way. In fact, most of the local unis have far better facilities and support than the overseas ones.

Perhaps some people still believe that having the overseas uni brand name offers better employment prospects but again, that's really limited to the type of course and university. Considering the amount of financial investment, unless $$ is no object or you have a scholarship, it really doesn't make sense to go overseas for some programmes. As you say, often, these graduates end up in similar places and tracks at the workplace as someone who did less well academically.

Truly, reason to chill indeed!

Rachel Tan said...

You are right Monica, on local unis providing better facilities and support. In local universities, students are so well supported that there is sometimes a dependent or crutch mentality and a sense of entitlement - from 'help me with my CV' to 'find me a job' to 'get me my overseas stint' and the list goes on.

However, I got to now say I am concerned that students are so comfortable in Singapore they are losing their sense of adventure, and perhaps, hunger. There is a huge learning experience being in a foreign city, dealing with landlords and looking for a place when you are 20 (happens a lot in NYC and London as you don't get school accommodation after the 1st year), having to buy your own groceries and plan your meals etc. If one really wants a job in the US or UK post graduation, then yes I think there is value to studying there.

On balance, I do acknowledge the strength of our local unis and how far they have come. They try very hard. I also value the overseas experience, though I don't think the type is with the academic programme or the university, but other learning aspects. There are so many pathways that young people can choose from.

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica,

Sadly, hindsight is always 20/20 AND many a time, many of us need to go through the shit ourselves to see the light. Your well-meaning piece may even garner responses like, "Ahbuthen, her own daughter scored straight As what, easy to say now lah, ask the girl not to study so hard in the first to get the straight As.."

The problem is - Education in Singapore is an arms race. So hard to get a ceasefire, to ask others to set down their arms and you do the same too.

On working hard, how much is too much? Everyone defines it differently.. i guess

monlim said...

Anon: I'm hoping that I can at least assure some parents who want a balanced life for their kids that they're doing the right thing.

L-A studies hard but from my blog, readers will know she always went with her interest and never did things for their own sake. That's also why I sometimes blog about obstacles and set backs when they happen, so people know it's a process, not just at the end when everything has been resolved. But people will always believe what they want to believe, so to each his own!

Mel said...

I agree that most of the kids will end up in the same local universities and workplaces eventually, whether you scored 230 or 260 at the PSLE.

Yet, why do people want to go to "branded" schools so badly? Your article gave me food for thought, since I have a son currently in Sec 3 in a "branded" IP school, and a daughter taking her PSLE this year.

This is what I concluded: while the destination will ultimately be the same for at least half of his PSLE cohort, the journey to the destination will be somewhat different.

I can see how my son has blossomed in secondary school, and I believe it has something to do with the school culture and the friends he has there. There are plenty of opportunities to explore other things (because of the IP), and the school really believes in the holistic development of the child and practices what it preaches. At the recent PTM, i was told not to worry about his grades, but instead, take pride in the fact that he is doing well in CCA while managing to maintain his grades at slightly above average with no tuition, and being in boarding school.

That said, he is a naturally bright child, and has always had a very balanced life throughout (we are the type who do not believe in sacrificing vacations, playtime, competitions, novels etc just because the PSLE is happening), so IP was a good fit for him.

If a child has to slog and do exam papers 3 hours a day, with parents nagging left/right/centre to do homework, just to get the kind of score to go to an IP school - then i say it is not worth it, because they will continue to have to maintain that kind of life in IP, for another 6 years (not sustainable!) - and probably still end up in the same universities/workplace.

My point is, every parent must know their child, and choose a school that is suitable for him/her, so that he/she can shine and thrive in those growing up years. No single school is right for every child.

monlim said...

Mel: Definitely, fit is very important when it comes to choosing a school. The trouble is most people want a "branded" school because they think it will somehow bring greater chances of success, which isn't true. In fact, some of the more sought after uni courses (local mostly) actually place a quota on certain schools so if you're in the top school but not among the top performing students, you're actually at a disadvantage.

In addition, I don't think all IP schools offer the same holistic development. Lesley-Anne's secondary school was IP and I was quite unhappy that it obsessed over academic results. Holistic development was a lot of lip service. Many neighbourhood schools do offer lots of opportunities and perhaps kids have a greater chance of being able to shine instead of being lost in the crowd. So it still depends on the school and the child in the end.

Mel said...

Hi Monica,

Yes, i agree there isn't a greater chance of success. It's the first time I've heard about the "quota" though...

I think your daughter goes to the same IP school (girl version) as my son. Interesting to know that the attitudes differ at the secondary level. Will wait to see what happens in Year 5/6. :)

Also agree that neighbourhood schools do offer opportunities too, and kids can shine there as well. I personally know of a girl who failed to go back to her affiliated school (she was devastated) but moved on to a neighbourhood school and is currently excelling on all fronts.

kt said...

Dear Monica

It was really a pleasure meeting you & Lesley Anne at last weekend's Readfest :)

Thank you for another great post! I always drop by your blog to seek "balance".. it's so easy to lose our perspective when we try to cope with the system with our kids.

Just want to share that your book on the PSLE was like a "wake-up" call for me - the PSLE is NOT everything! It used to be everything for the first 4 years of my daughter's primary school life because we know it was going to be stressful and we tried to help her cope better. But last year, at P5, we began to see the tradeoffs. For one, we didn't give her the time and space to explore beyond the textbook.

The system demands much from our kids and I don't think it's going to be any easier in the years to come. It's really up to us parents to have the courage not to follow the herd mentality and know when to say "It's good enough"!


monlim said...

Karen: It was lovely meeting you too and thank you for dropping a comment!

Very glad to hear that the book helped you. May you have the courage to continue to give your daughter a balanced life. It's hard to relax when everyone else is chiong-ing but I'm sure you and she will be thankful for it in the end :)

Tammy Chu said...

Thanks for your (reassuring!) post. My eldest is in P1 and I'm already wilting under the scaremongering comments of parents further down the line. But in my heart I don't want to tradeoff all the good stuff for an extra few percentage points either!

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