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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Teaching Resilience by Failing Kids?

In the Sunday Times on 12th February 2012, I came across a piece by Ms Irene Tham on parents bringing children as young as 8 to psychologists. One sentence made me fall off my chair "Psychologists said the problem could be exacerbated by the hothousing that goes on in enrichment classes that parents make their children attend. They go to school already knowing all the answers, forcing teachers to raise the standard even more."

I do wonder if any psychologists really thought themselves fit to pronounce that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is FORCED into whatever course of action, unless the psychologist works at MOE... in which case it becomes an admission of weakness on MOE's part, since it shows it has no strength of character to resist such unhealthy pressures. Next, forced? Really? Someone held a gun to MOE's head saying "Raise the standards of exams beyond our children's cognitive levels or else..."

Given that PSLE tests and grades at skills levels beyond Primary level (and these high level skills are neither documented in official textbooks nor taught in schools), schools across the nation find themselves raising the bar of exams from Primary 1 onwards (with little ones of 7 years). Primary 1 exams contain questions from the Primary 3 syllabus. Primary 2 exams contain questions from the Primary 4 syllabus... and so on. More importantly, much of this material tested is not taught in class. The deep reading skills that Little Boy needs to tackle his English Comprehension paper requires text annotation skills that I myself learnt only in Junior College (i.e., 17 to 18 years) for literature. I myself taught him annotation, not his school. In last year's Primary 5 exams, questions tested Primary 6 content. Little Boy would have failed if I had not taught him things from the Primary 6 syllabus.

One parent, whose child went through PSLE in 2011, made estimates that those who score at the top of the PSLE bell curve can easily cope with Secondary 1 and 2 math material. These kids are invariably enrolled in an external enrichment/tuition program where they learn stuff not taught in their regular primary school, but still tested at the PSLE. (Source:

Another parent shared this "I did relief teaching at a "Band 3" secondary school with PSLE score averaging 23X. There was once I taught Sec 1 math in April to a 5th class (i.e., not the best class). The students in the class told me not to teach the Sec 1 Math syllabus because they already knew it from primary school... that PSLE math is much harder." (Source:

Clearly, the PSLE tests secondary school skills. This has lead to traumatised children at every level of primary school because as yet another parents shared, "Last year in my son's neighbourhood school [read: not top school], the average and median marks for Primary 5 Math were 40+ which means the average kid failed Maths." (Source:

The difficulty of the PSLE has a domino effect that reaches all the way down to traumatise children as young as THREE years old. We have an entire population of Singaporean children who are fast getting mentally unhinged from an early age thanks to the extreme pressures created by the PSLE. At an age where God naturally endowed them with optimism and an inability to see the flaws of the world, vast numbers of children are made to confront a daily reality that tells them they're not up to par... that they're failures.

Why does the MOE have to test beyond children's cognitive levels? Because parents forced them? Because it is enamoured with what the top of the top can do? Because it chases after the accolades Singaporean students get in US varsities? At what price? Let me explain this further with the following analogy.

"One of the most extraordinary features of Mongol society (under Genghis Khan) was the annual winter hunt. It lasted as long as 3 months and was intended to train soldiers for battle and provide food for the entire army. Spread out in a line 100 miles long, the soldiers moved across the steppe, driving all animals before them. Gradually, the ends of the line closed until a circle was formed, with the animals trapped within. At a signal from Genghis Khan himself, the soldiers dismounted and attacked the animals (bears, wolves and tigers) in hand to teeth combat to the death. After facing a charging bear with only a lance and a knife, no soldier will fear human opponents." (Source: History's Great Untold Stories, Joseph Cummins)

Certainly, this technique worked. Those who SURVIVED would have conquered their fears. Those who died have nothing more to fear. They would have died in ignominy and shame. How would you feel if the MinDEF trained our sons with this technique? Is it not barbaric? Genghis Khan was the foremost barbarian after all...

We can see how barbaric this is because we are all very sensitive to physical bloodshed and death. Most people are less aware of psychological bloodshed and death. The system we have works! Singaporean gifted and high ability kids, and the top of the top conquered the odds and go abroad to do Singapore proud in US varsities. They are the Hordes of Genghis Khan equivalent in psychological terms - tough, resilient, confident, smart... you name it.

But what about my Little Boy, whose psyche would have died if I had not found him, rescued and healed him? Can you accept the equivalent of Genghis Khan's Great Hunt in psychological terms? Because that is what every one of our children (minus the top performers) lives through. I know of better ways to build resilience... more controlled... less wasteful... more sophisticated than the methods of the world's foremost barbarian butcher.

And then people wonder why the average Singaporean is afraid to step out of their comfort zone. It isn't that they're afraid to step out of their comfort zone, it is that their comfort zone is so small they can't do much. We've beaten down our children with too many failures that they no longer dare to try. To make this point clear, I have channeled the above excerpt of Genghis Khan's great hunt.

"One of the most extraordinary features of the Singaporean educational system (under the tyranny of the bell curve) was the 4 times a year tests/exams. Each preparation period lasts about 1.5 months and was intended to train children for the PSLE and eventually provide the economy with labour units. Spread out over the nation's schools, students are tested beyond their cognitive levels from P1 to P6. Those whose spirits die in the attempts are labelled "low ability" and "slow". In their 12th year, our society signals the children to take the PSLE. After facing PSLE with only a pen, no student will fear academic challenge. Those who survived continue thereafter to conquer the world and bring glory to Singapore. Those whose spirit died, learn to avoid the pain of failure by never taking risks."

I believe that failure teaches lessons important for success. Yes I do. I am all for letting children experience failure once in a while. After all, I suppose when you lose a battle, you learn to pick yourself up and try again. However, what is the use of punching the very life out of a novice boxer, again and again and again. Everything has a breaking point. Do we want to break the spirit of the next generation of well-educated Singaporeans? We already don't have much spirit left compared to foreign talent.

So, What Solution do We Have?
The SYSTEM must stop playing catch up with the enrichment parents. The SYSTEM must stop rewarding the efforts of all this enrichment by providing kids with enrichment the highest marks. If exams are set such that kids can get 100% without enrichment, many of the kids that do go for enrichment would find it a waste of time. Go to enrichment also 100%. Don't go to enrichment also 100%. So why go? Let those enriched kids who wanna move ahead, skip levels. But keep the tests and exams within the levels appropriate to that level so that more kids can feel good about themselves. The solution is as simple as teaching a dog to pee on the pee tray by reinforcing the behavior with a snack. Don't reinforce the efforts of the ENRICHMENT PARENTS.

We have come to a point where parents and more parents are sucked into this vortex of enrichment. The only solution is for the system to take a stand and stop testing beyond what they teach, regardless of the fact that regardless of the fact that ENRICHMENT PARENTS started this vortex of enrichment.

Our family being whom we are, naturally enriched Little Boy in Science. Science encyclopedia lie around the house. He is give free access to materials for kitchen experiments since age 2. It was fun and we did it for interest. He learnt stuff beyond the primary syllabus. I certainly did not expect that he would need all this enrichment to do well in the PSLE, but he does.

Why must all learning be tested? Why can't we learn because we like to? Parents enrich their kids, but I don't think parents expect that this material will be tested. Unfortunately, it is.

Seriously, no country can make it on the backs of top performers alone. You need a mass of followers who have gumption, drive and spirit. The mental health of the masses need attention, not just the top performers, and the rigour they demonstrate for world accolade.

If this post speaks to you, forward the link.


Anonymous said...

Your son is very fortunate to have you as his mother...with your ability to teach!

petunialee said...

Theanne - Little Boy is mine. I can watch over him, yes? But there are so many many children out there who have inadequate support at home, emotionally and enrichment-wise. If my son has difficulty, I dread to think of what life is like for those kids.

Rachel Tan said...

Nice piece, Petunia. I feel as strongly against the enrichment mania as much as you do. Alas I am no hero(ine) and have succumbed to enrolling my kids to a couple of classes. I do not wish to blame my insecurity or kiasuism on the system, but yes, the written school syllabus and textbooks are easy to navigate; however I cannot keep up with the exam demands.

The textbooks and syllabus are almost a joke. One can possibly pass the PSLE if one depends solely on textbooks. And that's about it I think.

I am not sure whether making the PSLE conform to standards prescribed within the syllabus and textbooks is the solution. With an easier exam, students will then be differentiated on their careless mistakes.

Perhaps, the problem is way more fundamental. The system is determined to make the PSLE count for too much. It's an extreme form of differentiation and streaming. You have a hierarchy of secondary schools each with different cut off points, and the hierarchy is reinforced in the public's perception.

And the differences in the quality of education and experience are stark depending on which secondary school one ends up in.

The PSLE becomes a sentence, a stigma - not very healthy in my opinion. I think we need to rethink the role of the PSLE. Although the Minister is repeatedly emphasizing that there are no dead ends in education, we on the ground know it better. Who makes it to the cream Faculties in the universities? Who makes it to the top US/UK schools?

There are many pleasant and unpleasant ways to develop resilience, fortitude and determination. It needn't be through the PSLE trauma. The PSLE in its present incarnation is at best a pyrrhic victory, and what good does it do the majority who have been bruised and battered in the process?

petunialee said...

Rachel - I think we need to communicate with the powers that be the view from the ground, else, they only have the highly placed educators to talk to, who themselves haven't BEEN on the ground very much.

Rachel Tan said...

I think you're right. This is what I can't reconcile with - the powers all have children who are going through the system.

That said, educators and administrators have a stake in the system; they created it, they're part of it and they are largely employed by the MOE. Well I guess we are freer to speak our minds? And to assess the situation with a different lens and more objectively? I like to believe so, heh.

petunialee said...

Rachel - Many of those in power aren't married. Those who are, are men. They leave it to their wives. Others of those in power have grown up kids. They've lost touch completely.

My Sinfonia said...

Case of the dog wagging the tail or tail wagging the dog.

petunialee said...

Sinfonia - I ain't quite getting ya...

My Sinfonia said...

the system setting the pace or the parents setting the pace. Maybe the question to answer is what is a good education?

petunialee said...

A good education is certainly not all brain... but we have gone into a FRENZY of raising academic standards!!

Wen-ai said...

A very good post! Recently the Straits Times published 4 maths questions from P2 and P4 standard, and I almost fainted?!?! Geez... it's insane!

petunialee said...

Wen-Ai: I wish there were a STOP button to press somewhere.

edith said...

My girl is in P4 this year, I am wondering how much more changes will be implemented when she hits P6. The current basic and foundation method is already worrying many parents during a talk that I attended.

MyLife said...

My boy is P4 this year, before reading your blog, I did my research and had enough of the sytem here. My girl is P6 and totally stressed preparing for her PSLE. Hence, I pulled my boy out and schooled him overseas in an environment that will enrich him not only education, religion and also life skills. Gone are the days where we as parents learned it the hard way. These days children have little life skills and stare at the books all the day. I'm glad I broke my mindset at last and set my boy free for his own good.

petunialee said...

MyLife - I can so relate to that!!

petunialee said...

MyLife - Would you mind to leave an email (which I won't publish). I need a bit of advice.