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Monday, February 27, 2012

Succumbing to the Enrichment Contagion

I have finally succumbed to the enrichment fever that has gripped parents in Singapore. Since preschool, Singaporean parents who can afford it, send their children to all manner of enrichment classes. These little ones are shepherded from Chinese for Tots to Baby Einstein's Thots. From there, they progress to other enrichment centres where some are taught expository and argumentative writing in Primary 5 and Primary 6, when their school syllabus only tests narrative writing.

My attitude towards enrichment classes had always been that they were extras to be done for fun and sheer enjoyment. I was rudely awakened last year when I realized that Little Boy's exams tested skills and content that school hadn't yet taught, but that others had already learnt in their enrichment classes a year or 2 earlier. Poor Little Boy had to play catch up. We caught up on 3 years of Chinese in 10 months. We caught up on 1.5 years of Math in 4 weeks. Happily, Little Boy has always been about 1 or 2 years ahead of his peers in English and Science. He loved these 2 subjects and I indulged him with a plethora of books around that he could dive into, to enrich himself. Indeed, for Science, he had the entire kitchen at his disposal as well as all manner of odds and ends that he would put together for strange experiments of all sorts.

I had always believed that schools would make it a point to test only what they were able to adequately teach. I now realize that schools test what enrichment centres teach too! Hence, unless I want Little Boy to fail his exams later on, it makes sense to give him exposure to skills and content that he will be tested on (without having been explicitly taught) in later years. I am determined not to fail my Little Boy again in this regard. So, I signed him up for formal enrichment.

In part, my decision was motivated by what I read in the newspapers some time ago. Our Ministry of Education, MOE, has decided to start Teach Less Learn More initiatives in History and Geography classes at the Secondary 1 and 2 levels (America grades 7 and 8). See Straits Times article here - We've all experienced Teach Less Learn More in primary school and we're all still reeling from the unpleasant shock. Teachers give out a project and expect our little 8 to 12 year olds to miraculously KNOW where to get information, how to synthesize information, how to present information.

Give them a project and let them discover. 

That is good and wonderful (and is an approach that should be applauded) except that schools don't provide the required resources (not even proper textbooks) for the children to explore, and learn from. So, either our children learn from thin air or parents like me have to actively search for reading and video materials so that our children can REALLY learn independently.

I fear very much that the same half-baked Teach Less Learn More implementation will happen in the new Teach Less Learn More initiatives at the secondary school level. I fear that come his time in secondary school, Little Boy's projects in Sec 1 and 2 History and Geography, will be graded for his skill at expository and argumentative writing, without the school ever having explicitly taught either. I do know that some secondary schools teach narrative writing and only narrative writing all the way up to Secondary 4 (grade 10). As a result, bright and conscientious students fail GP (the General Paper) in Junior College (American grades 11 and 12). So, I decided to enrich Little Boy in expository and argumentative writing skills in preparation for secondary school. In fact, I know that students at a particular premier enrichment centre, are already learning these skills as part of their enrichment program in Primary 6.

I find it very time-consuming to search for resources and devise assignments with which to help Little Boy learn independently. It's like devising a curriculum for a school with only one student. I thus decided I needed some help. I was introduced to an online American High School catering to American homeschooling parents, and I signed Little Boy up for English I - Introduction to Language Arts. His online mentor (a real person with 30 years of teaching experience) provided him with Anne Hanson's Visual Writing and assigned him the task of summarizing Benjamin Franklin's autobiography I examined the task and materials, and decided that Little Boy had all the resources to independently learn and carry out his task. So, Little Boy read up on the basics of expository writing and then he read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography and  then he began his summary.

Little Boy had so much fun. It was a task that was new enough to be interesting, but not so new that it was daunting. He had help because he could refer to Anne Hanson's book. AND it saved me a great deal of time because I didn't have to source for a writing textbook, nor do I have to mark Little Boy's work. His online mentor does all that.

In addition, I do think practice in expository and argumentative writing comes in useful even in the PSLE because both types of writing are required in answering English comprehension questions, as well as Science open-ended questions. Not only that, the online assignments are of a difficulty that is actually better calibrated to Little Boy's competence in English than the assignments his school teacher gives out. His school teacher prints 3 short columns of newspaper articles, and the task is to write 5 sentences detailing one's reactions to the 3 short readings. When I say short readings, I really mean short. The readings take up a 3rd of a page only.

I find it odd that Little Boy's school assigns such easy homework to students (in the 2nd best class) who need to face the demands of the PSLE at the end of the year, and of whom one expects standards of writing so high that this composition ( scored a mere 28/40 only. Now tell me, is there not a gap between what students are taught to do through assigned homework, and what students must do in their exams?

Little Boy is enjoying the challenge of English I - Introduction to Language Arts immensely. It is a high school module and his online classmates range in age from 14 to 18. Little Boy is only 11. I was never keen to push Little Boy beyond his level because I neither wanted to stress him not hothouse him. I now realise that giving enrichment prevents stress later on (when he will be tested but not taught), and is not hothousing because his school exams do expect that much of him.

I resolve thenceforth to embrace enrichment as part of my parental responsibilities, and do my best by Little Boy. It's impossible to know to what level the exams will test to because as one person put it "The textbook is the base and the sky is the limit". Therefore, I'll just let Little Boy move forwards as FAST and as FAR as he wants to. We may wake up one day to a son who is ready for university far earlier than most OR we may wake up to a son who is just about on par with his peers. There is no way to tell so we'll just do what we can.


Anonymous said...

as always I'm impressed by your commitment to "little boy's" education!

Rachel Tan said...

eh how come you aren't succumbing to the traditional S'porean enrichment classes? :)

petunialee said...

Theanne - Thank you!!

petunialee said...

Rachel - Firstly, Little Boy objected to having even more classes and homework. Secondly, I know people who TEACH in both Mindstretcher and Learning Lab, and I assessed their teaching methodology. Whilst both have strong practices and materials that surpass what I have seen from Little Boy's teachers, they're still premised on teaching and spoonfeeding. Not only Little Boy finds it boring. I do too. Little Boy enjoys self-directed learning and I myself think that it is desirable. This online format gives my son a lot of control. He does as much as he likes to as detailed as he likes. No one watches over his shoulder and insists he pass up homework. When he is busy, he can completely stop... and then pick up again when he has a spot of time.

Also, there is a wider variety of learning to choose from. There is a module on Entrepreneurship... some in Psychology... Ancient Civilizations etc... He is thrilled that he gets to pick and choose what he wants to learn and not have a teacher impose homework.

It's truly a menu of learning for the Renaissance man.

petunialee said...

Rachel - One clarification - he can completely stop only BETWEEEN modules. Once he has started a module, he has to do the consistent work to complete it or I will have to pay for fees for an extension.

Rachel Tan said...

Ah I see. But if the goal's the PSLE, then perhaps the tried and tested LL/Mindstretcher's the way to go?

I don't know; I don't plan to send my kids there, as yet. But you know, the flesh may weaken, and yield to the PSLE fever some day.

(Sorry but the school syllabus at PSLE, is boring. Can't quite run away from it. It's severely limited in breadth. The Singapore educational philosophy has always been that one can pick up breadth easily, but not technical depth and rigour. Remember the age old saying - engineering students can pick up business/arts but not the other way round. I would argue that it may be the case with the content, but different disciplines hone different skills. So geography, history, literature etc gets introduced only in Sec Sch. Stuff like political system/science - one doesn't get a whiff of it till Uni.)

petunialee said...

Rachel - Kekekekeke! I'm glad you understand. Mindstretcher and Learning Lab are still traditional approaches to teaching. They weren't what I was looking for.

You're so right. The goal is not PSLE ... It's secondary 1 & 2. He's so bored with PSLE drilling and grabbed onto this with relish. After I broached the idea, he couldn't wait to start.

Rachel Tan said...

Strange Petunia. Your son reminds me a little, of me.

Part of me wishes to say that he should pursue his interests, reading up on what he's interested in, whether it be anthropology or astronomy. But you know, I dare say this only to kids whose parents cannot afford to send them overseas in future.

I am afraid that the repetitive mugging way of exams carries on till the A levels. 10-year series drilling occurs at every level. And the pragmatic side of me would say that, it's better to learn to grit, bear and accept the system at a younger age, however unpleasant it is.

Rachel Tan said...

Maybe Little Boy will enjoy the IB syllabus and curriculum better than the O/A levels route.

Wen-ai said...

I'm happy for Little Boy's fortune to have you as his mom! You are such a great mom... Little Boy is a smart kid, I'm sure he will do very well in his PSLE in time to come.

Malar said...

You're just an amazing mum! You and little boy are very dertimined people!
I think kids nowadays are really overly stressed..... Sometimes I find it in my son too who is only 5yrs old....!