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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Getting into the Mood for PSLE Math and PSLE Science

Little Boy's 69/100 for PSLE Math Prelim set me thinking... especially since a parent who attended one of my workshops a while back, had shared with me some time ago that the new PSLE Math tests "thinking skills". In other words, the most difficult questions are set with a twist that requires the child to explore the problem from different angles. They are deliberately set to test what psychologists call divergent thinking. "Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Divergent thinking typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing manner, such that many ideas are generated in an emergent cognitive fashion. Many possible solutions are explored in a short amount of time, and unexpected connections are drawn." (quote taken from here).

Effort is made to construct a PSLE Math Paper that includes questions that no child has ever seen before in order that NO child can answer the questions from EXPERIENCE ALONE. Our 12 year olds MUST use divergent thinking to solve these problems.

Necessarily, to be well-crafted, the PSLE Math paper must be able to differentiate the VERY VERY poor students, from the VERY poor, from the RATHER poor, from the average, from the good... As such, there will be questions in the PSLE Math paper that VERY VERY poor students can solve too. This is because if every question were pitched at good students, the VERY VERY poor students and the VERY poor students would both get zero... and then, the exam is unable to differentiate the VERY VERY poor from the VERY poor.

Hence, a large portion of the PSLE Math paper tests ONLY convergent thinking. "Convergent thinking emphasizes speed, accuracy, and logic and focuses on recognizing the familiar, reapplying learnt techniques, and accumulating stored information." (quoted from here). A large portion of the PSLE Math paper can be perfectly handled if the child gets in enough practice and keeps his Math reflexes well oiled and possesses enough problem-solving templates that he can quickly match what he already knows to the question.

The Need to Be Mentally Ambi-Dextrous
However, the MOST DIFFICULT parts of the he PSLE Math paper tests divergent thinking AND convergent thinking. The most difficult questions require the child to generate many possible solutions (divergent thinking) before homing into one solution and implementing it with accuracy (convergent thinking). To be MERELY good at PSLE Math, you need strong convergent thinking skills.  To be EXCELLENT at PSLE Math, you need strong divergent thinking skills and convergent thinking skills.

The thing to note is this. Some research evidence SUGGESTS that...
(1) people good at divergent thinking tend also to be careless and sloppy (though not all careless and sloppy people are good at divergent thinking). Think Steve Jobs when he was a hippie.
(2) people good at convergent thinking tend to be careful (ummm... necessarily so because the very definition of convergent thinking includes accuracy)

In a way it's a little like left hander and right hander. Most people are right handers (let's just say "Convergent Thinkers") and some are left handers (let's just say "Divergent Thinkers"). The only problem is that to do well at the PSLE Math, we need the children to be mentally ambidextrous (i.e., good at BOTH Divergent and Convergent thinking). Little Boy is naturally a divergent thinker. At his most relaxed, he glosses over details and tends to approach issues (not Math papers) from what we have noticed to be STRANGE angles. For example, he questioned "Why do we wear clothes? It wouldn't hurt anybody if we all went about our lives naked. " Another time, he was able to give me a Malthusian perspective on the CRAZY education system we have, without ever having read Malthus. Little Boy is able to see everyday problems from odd angles that generate interesting insights which would never occur to what we like to term more "normal" folks. Listening to my boy chat himself to sleep can be quite interesting.

Unfortunately, Little Boy is also very careless. So, he loses Math marks to carelessness.

How Mood Affects Convergent and Divergent Thinking
Now, it's been many years since Petunia has known the following...

(1) negative mood facilitates convergent thinking (and vice versa. See here.)
(2) positive mood facilitates divergent thinking (and vice versa. See here.)
When I sent Little Boy into a Math exam, I gave him specific instructions to think SAD thoughts. The sad mood helped him with his carelessness (i.e., his convergent thinking improved).

What I did NOT realize was that the sad mood I kept urging him into, interfered with his divergent thinking and ability to quickly see multiple perspectives. In the exam conditions, when a problem appears that is unfamiliar, Little Boy feels anxiety. This locks down EVEN MORE of his capacity for divergent thinking. This lead to the following odd situation. When he got his exam paper back and was able to think under more benign conditions, Little Boy could solve all the problems he could not solve in the exam!!

Therefore, I shall now begin to instruct my son to do PSLE Math Paper 1 with SADNESS in his heart and some tension.... and approach PSLE Math Paper 2's last 4 questions with relaxed levity (hmmm... think of something funny). This sounds like a recipe for bipolar disorder, but never mind... let's try that out in the next week or so and see if it works eh?

Too Much of the Same Practice Drills Reduce Divergent Thinking
What is more, too many practice papers with the same predictable questions, reduce Little Boy's ability to think divergently. He gets locked into the predictable drills and gives predictable answers. I think I've gone overboard in giving him Science practices... even though I don't give him anywhere near as many Science practices as Chinese. He surprised me at the last practice by giving a predictable answer to a cleverly made Science question, with a twist. Since the Science question comprised an interesting twist, the predictable answer was wrong.

This was a pity because Little Boy had in the past been marked wrong for engaging in too much divergent thinking for Science, even though the Teacher agreed that the question was ambiguous and could have more than one answer. However, the answer key didn't have that answer so it was wrong. I taught Little Boy to choose the Expected and Most Predictable answer he was able to generate. He did that for me in the recent cleverly set exam practice... and I had to mark him wrong.

The predictable answer was not the best answer this time, when most other times, it has been.

So... our poor kids. When they go out on the limb and get divergent, they're told that there is only one answer and it must be accurate (i.e., they must do convergent thinking) and when they toe the line and engage in convergent thinking, they're told that they must learn to think (i.e., divergent thinking).

I am hoping that PSLE will be better set and marked than school papers because I AM going to use the next few weeks to prime my son for divergent thinking (which I have unknowingly suppressed for the past few years in order to get the THE right answer that is in Teachers' marking scheme). Thankfully, I still indulge Little Boy's penchant for divergent thinking in non-PSLE areas... and so, it should not be too difficult to get him going there for PSLE.

To begin with, we've stopped doing Science drills and gone over to the library to just borrow any science-related video... just to open his brain to possibilities and stimuli. No more Science drills for us!!

Do MOE's Schools Teach/Test/Reward Divergent Thinking?
Some psychologists have developed cognitive exercises to help the brain learn divergent thinking. I have not observed anything like these in schools. So... my answer will be "no". Our schools don't teach divergent thinking. They expect that if you're smart, you'll naturally know.

The schools DO test divergent thinking. The most difficult questions in the PSLE Math paper test divergent thinking. The inference questions in the PSLE English comprehension paper test divergent thinking. The opinion questions in the PSLE Chinese comprehension paper test divergent thinking. The open-ended Science questions test divergent thinking.

Strong divergent thinkers see things from a DIFFERENT perspective. But their new angle makes sense, can be logically argued and gives insights. There should be multiple correct answers to divergent thinking questions. People should be rewarded for seeing things differently... and still logically... and reasonably.

However, when it comes to marking, schools tend to mark divergent thinking questions as if they were convergent thinking questions. If the answer is so fresh and different, then it must wrong, even if it is perfectly reasonable. If it isn't in the marking guide, it is wrong.

I conclude therefore that schools don't really know how to teach divergent thinking. They don't teach it explicitly. They do test it. And then they mark it according to the norms of convergent thinking. There is a right answer and if your answer doesn't match my marking guide, it is wrong... inaccurate.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Pretty Petunia Pig

Dr Ksi who runs a thriving surgery here, gave Petunia Pig a makeover. I am sooooooooo pleased! Watch me boogie alluringly with handsome hunk back-up dancers!!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Feeling Micromanaged

The Husband has never paid much attention to the stuff I do. I have such varied interests that I guess he finds it hard to keep up with my constantly shifting focus of attention. For many years, I surrounded myself with books on herbs.  I made The Husband eat all sorts of stuff. I diagnosed his ailments... told him what was wrong with him... brewed him strange and exotic teas... AND once, put him in hospital. Poor dear!

Then, I went nuts about gardening. I made my own fertilizer with chicken shit, yoghurt and milk which perfumed the whole house quite unbearably for him. I sourced far and wide for exotic seeds and plants ranging from the Australian lemon myrtle (which I found could not compare to our local limau purut)... and to the za'atar. For a time, I was the proud grower of St John's Wort, Sting Nettle, Dandelion, Milk Thistle, Chamomile, Za'atar... plus lots of other strange plants. It was fun figuring out how to get these non native plants to thrive in Singapore. The Husband put up with having to lug my heavy bags of soil. He put up with my strange delight when seeds arrived for me in the mail. He watched with forbearance whilst I imposed upon friends and relatives, brazenly asking for little plant purchases. I brazenly made people wash away the soil, wrap the roots with cotton and seal in ziploc bags for me. He stood watch as I climbed over fences to obtain cuttings. If it was jungle terrain, The Husband went in and got my cuttings for me.

All this he did with an absent-minded and indulgent air because well... if it kept his energetic (and ever in need of stimulation) Wife occupied, it meant I left him mostly in peace. In his head probably meant that it kept his psychological wellbeing in one piece.

Then I began to take an interest in Little Boy's grades. The Husband raised one eyebrow when I made Little Boy Memorize-Recite Chinese Compos for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week for 3 weeks. He raised his OTHER eyebrow when I decided that I would teach Little Boy Math because well... everyone knows Petunia has trouble counting from 1 to 100. And he tried to raise his THIRD eyebrow when I announced that School Was an Unnecessary Hurdle to Little Boy's Academic Performance. He remonstrated with me for a bit but since he is a busy man and can't enforce anything at home (since he isn't home much), Petunia pretty much did what she wanted and got Little Boy to stay home to self-learn everything from Chinese to Math. After a while, when Little Boy's grades climbed up to top of the class, The Husband got used to the unorthodox Petunia Parenting Methods. See, it just goes to show that humans can get used to anything and that normality is a state of the mind.

Then I began to monetize myself. I developed a Positive Teaching Seminar for Lower Primary Parents. I began to do parent coaching. I wrote a book.

And now, The Husband WON'T leave me alone.

What I now do really interests him. He comes home and requires a detailed report on what I have done in my day!! He wants to know if the latest orders have been sent out... how much cash I collected... what I did with this customer's email... whether the next new product is on track for launch... when the next Seminar will be. I hate it when he wants to know whether I have packed the latest orders in envelopes. Ok... ok... I know I asked him to help me with the accounting... and he is just doing the best he can. But he is SUCH a bossy accountant!!

I also dislike that when I asked him to buy me a remote slide changer... he exuberantly went and got me a remote keyboard... a remote mouse and a remote slide changer. Then he foisted it all upon me with a pleased smile of a proud parent that said "See... I support you in every way. I give you everything you want and more. Now, you have to work hard."

I begin to feel like a child whose parents fork out thousands in tuition fees expecting me to deliver results. It doesn't help that Petunia considers laziness a virtue... and that every child has the God-given right to play. No? Petunia is not a child? You wanna bet?

I showed him Chapter 3 of Petunia's Book on Structured Choices, but I don't think he got the hint. Then I tried a more in-your-face strategy. I reminded him that it's MY business and he should jolly well mind HIS. But that didn't work either. I think I will run away like this boy here. Hmmmmmph!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Unknown Artist

University Town at NUS is lovely to walk around in on weekends. Lots of things happen around there all the time. A small choir practiced in the midst of the trees on the grass verge. They filled the air with humansong that floated up 9 floors to The Daughter's apartment. The Daughter was anxious to shoo us out of there so that she could spend time alone with The Boyfriend cleaning her apartment. Wow! Such romantic domesticity, right? I didn't mind. It sure beats having ME clean her apartment, which some Mommies actually do!

Anyway, whilst trying to get out of the Romantic Couple's way, I spotted a pair of frames holding batik artwork. I've been looking all over for a piece to hang above our daybed in the master bedroom. Nothing sang to my heart except something I saw in Israel which I then decided I didn't like all that much because it was ummmm... rather pricey.

The pair of batik pieces strummed something to my soul.  The young man agreed to sell me his work at the price of an Unknown Artist. See how cute The Unknown Young Artist is smiling at me? I can close my eyes and imagine him in Pampers. You know you're getting old when you look at men in the prime of their youth and try to imagine them smaller, shorter, rounder and also in Pampers.

He explained that his Mom would not allow him to throw his life away in art. So, he is obediently doing a Chemistry major in order to find a job. He also explained that he is part of the University Scholars' Program (clever boy!) and that the work I had just bought had won a prize at an NUS Art Competition. He gave me the write-up to go with the work.

A symphony of colors meet. This mirror the vibrant interactions between people. We are from different backgrounds. Some of us enjoy the serenity of water, quietly delighting in the coral lined walkways of NUS. Others prefer the spontaneous fire of light and life. Between this dichotomy... these diametric opposites, we find the space to meet. We embraced and learned. And our colors mixed and swirled together in harmony.

I don't much care for the words. I have no words for the space in my heart that resonates with his colors. You can find The Unknown Artist here. If you like his work, buy one and give a promising talent some encouragement.

The piece he sold me is getting framed along with Theanne's painting and another done by my Mother-in-law. Together the 2 paintings will form an installation called East and West Women at Home. Right ho... the works aren't like world famous eh? They don't cost a lot. But together, they have great meaning for me. Theanne is a retiree who lives in Florida. She paints beautifully. My Mother-in-Law is a retiree in Singapore. She paints beautifully. Both are strong and beautiful women who have left me a piece of their soul. Their paintings express strength, discipline, elegance and creativity in diametrically opposite East-West styles.

I can't wait to get the paintings back from The Framer's!!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Green Gazpacho

Gazpacho is a tomato based vegetable soup originating from Spain's southern region of Andalucia. It is a refreshing soup for the summer months. I loved what I had at Serenity last weekend and decided to make it at home.

I found a recipe for GREEN gazpacho, which I had never heard of. It's made of avocado, spring onions, chicken stock, lemon juice and raw garlic. It was creamy, with a tinge of lemon. It was cold and took the edge off the sun. Dip hot crusty garlic bread in and feel the hmmmmmm... when creamy meets crust and hot meets chill. Ummmm... even here, I contrived to put in Little Boy's dosage of astragalus by hiding it in the chicken stock.

I'll be making this again.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Preparing for PSLE Oral (Picture Description)

When I helped Little Boy strategize his approach towards PSLE Oral (picture description and conversation), I realized that most parents and teachers used the following...
(1) vocabulary lists
(2) sample written scripts
(3) sample written scripts with words taken out so that it doubles up as a cloze passage
(4) homework requiring children to write out scripts

No one, it seemed believed in oral recordings, whether of
(1) positive models of good picture descriptions OR
(2) student performance

To a psychologist like me (even one who does not specialize in Learning and Education) this made no sense. The cognitive processes underlying speech are not the same ones as those that underlie oral comprehension. Click here for more details. Indeed, the parts of the brain that process written words are different from the parts that process spoken words... which are both different from the part that produces speech. See here.

To me, preparing for PSLE Chinese Oral Picture Description by reading and writing scripts didn't make sense. If you have read the above 2 links given above throughly, you will realize that it won't help in your picture description even if you READ your script out loud because reading out loud uses different parts of the brain than producing speech from thin air. If you view the brain as a muscle, the reading and speaking use different muscle groups. Would you prepare for a swimming test by running everyday? The PSLE Oral tests mental skills, not knowledge. The moment I see the word SKILLS, I think MUSCLE. You must USE the right muscles to get the right skills.

I must commend schools that actually do produce vocabulary lists and scripts. It takes effort. Little Boy's school did not give out ANY vocabulary lists nor scripts. I sourced around oral scripts and vocabulary lists from friends' schools. Little Boy used them as references when he was stumped for vocabulary... but he did NOT spend the bulk of his time studying nor memorizing them.

Here is what I did with Little Boy.

Identify Resources of High Quality
Grandma and I pored over the Chinese Language Oral Resources in the bookstores and picked 2 books of written resources. We compared the standard of these written resources with these videos from Henry Park Primary School. It seemed to me that the resources we purchased were nowhere near that standard. Grandma decided to enrich one of the books with better vocabulary. We also liked the stack of scripts provided to us by a Chinese tuition teacher recommended by a Mommy of a GEP boy who has (1) Chinese Compo tuition with ANOTHER tutor (2) 3 subjects tuition at Mindstretcher (3) English Creative Writing classes (4) Math Olympiad enrichment. This Mommy pointed me to many extremely good resources and the Chinese Tutor she recommended was a treasure trove of high quality Chinese resources. Her PSLE Chinese Oral Picture Description scripts were the Pièces de Résistance in our valiant efforts to help my Potato Son (see definition of Potato Son here) get to top 3 positions in class in Chinese Oral quite consistently.

Make Digital Audio Recordings
Once we had identified the resources we needed, Grandma made digital audio recordings of each script. These scripts were intentionally pitched at as high a level as we dared. A music teacher client of mine explained it thus... music is a language like any other. To get good in music, the child must first LISTEN to music... and not just listen to simple no-brainer music that he/she is capable of playing. The child must listen to GOOD music of far greater complexity than what the child can produce. We wanted Little Boy to listen to good stuff... even if we knew he would not need to produce at as high a level.

Listening and Producing
Then, we set aside 10 full days where we did nothing but Chinese picture description... all day. It was complete immersion for 10 days. Little Boy listened to the audio recordings as many times as he wanted (usually 2 or 3 times) before he started to verbalize his own picture descriptions. At the start, he tried to reproduce what he had heard but since it was impossible to memorize everything that he had heard, Little Boy began to insert phrases he already knew from having memorized-recited-written them from PRC model compositions. See here for details. He produced his own original work even whilst he made use of the phrases he heard from the recordings.

He recorded his own productions. If he wasn't happy, he would start again and re-record. If he wanted to, he could go back and re-listen to Grandma's recordings. Then, he tried again and recorded himself. Once happy, he and I listened to his recordings carefully and critiqued them. Then we re-recorded... until we had produced something we thought rather good. We looked out for the following...
(1) Describe the situation
(2) Venture a guess as to the time of the day... day of the week... explain why this guess...
(3) Verbalise the physical location of the activity cluster in the picture (i.e., top left... bottom right). It is acceptable to use these terms in Chinese Oral but not in English Oral but that might change. You don't know what the SEAB will throw at you to outwit you and throw your kids off. PSLE isn't really about whether your kids are ready for secondary school but whether SEAB can set exams that nobody scores 100 at.
(4) Describe every person's physical appearance (i.e., silver-haired old man... balding middle-aged man... disreputable youth... elegant young woman... woman in Malay costume... man in a suit... man wearing shorts)
(5) Describe people's attitude where possible (i.e., mischievous, naughty, sad, cheerful...)
(6) Describe their actions.
(7) Pass a moral judgment on their actions.

Automating the Cognitive Processes
We were able to do 3 pictures in one day. At the end of 10 days, we had gone through 30 different scenarios (i.e., bus stop, traffic, library etc...). In each scenario, Little Boy was exposed to the names of all the different items... he learnt them and remembered them well because he had previously gone through the arduous Potato Chinese™ brain exercise. But as you can see, knowing the names of objects in the picture is only a small part of what one needs to know. One needs to ALSO know...
(1) descriptors for physical appearance
(2) descriptors for attitudes
(3) vocabulary to pass moral judgment

One also needs to be able to DO the following...
(1) Speak loudly
(2) Speak expressively, co-ordinating facial expression and content of verbalizations.
(3) Make eye contact

Happily, with practice, Little Boy made it easy for himself to recall a pool of phrases to describe physical appearance and attitudes. We made sure we threw away descriptors that appeared often in assessment books found at Popular bookstore. Every other child in Singapore would have memorized those. We made sure we collected and hoarded expressions that were evocative and unusual... so as to impress the examiner with good expressions of the rare sort. Often, we found these from model compositions written by PRC students for China's equivalent of the PSLE.

With practice he developed automated cognitive processes for the recall of the necessary phrases. This reduced the quantum of the unfamiliar to a minimum. At the exam, he only needed to cope with unfamiliar object names. He found strategies to circumvent objects he had no term for... by wowing his Teachers with fabulous descriptive vocabulary. All that talking to the computer and listening to himself gave him automated speech reflexes too. It gave him good control over tongue and throat muscles.

Don't laugh. This is important.

My son got tongue tied in English picture description (a language he is highly competent in) but he spoke like he had verbal diarrhea for Chinese picture description. In English, he said he knew what to say... but his muscles froze (and he kept wanting to say descriptors in Chinese because these were more easily retrieved). This is odd for a boy who speaks only English at home. After our Chinese practices, his Chinese speech reflexes were more automatic than those he possessed for English). For natural introverts like Little Boy, who don't speak much on a daily basis, tongue and throat control is NOT a given.  In short, one needs to step through every part of the Chinese Language Oral exam in vivo (including spontaneous recall of words... throat and tongue control etc...) and not expect the child to ace the exam from just reading and memorizing scripts and lists of vocabulary. He managed to top the class in SA1 of Primary 5 Chinese Language Oral.

We were AMAZED... as was his Teacher.

The best thing though... was that after these practices, Little Boy became way more confident in speaking Chinese to his Grandma. He also lost his phobia of speaking Chinese to strangers. He did develop some degree of true competence in spoken Chinese because he had to keep on speaking it... recording himself... listening to himself and comparing his speech with a very good positive model - Grandma's recordings.

He really LEARNT something and became familiar and comfortable with talking Chinese.

Coping With Unfamiliar Object Names
This was where the various vocabulary lists and scripts from various schools helped. Just before the actual PSLE, Little Boy went through every single picture in his files, wrote out and shouted out (shouting is important so that the words stimulate the auditory centers of the brain) to himself the names of unfamiliar objects on the picture. There weren't many unfamiliar objects because he had been practicing these pictures in the week just before the school's oral exams ever since SA1 of P5. From one exam to another, since P5, Little Boy learnt more and more.

Timing Is Everything
We spent 10 full days in March-April of his P5 year on 30 different picture descriptions. By that time, all the major muscle groups in his brain had stepped through the whole PSLE CL Oral experience. It's like riding a bike. Once the muscles develop a memory for bike riding, they don't really forget. The skills can get rusty but one does not truly forget. From that time on, we would set aside the 5 afternoons on the week JUST BEFORE his school orals to oil the muscles and get rid of the rust. It didn't make sense to keep on doing this all year because there were other subjects to worry about. Getting in some intensive practice the week before any oral exam (using the same audio-recordings and making audio-recordings of Little Boy's speech productions) was enough for us.

When PSLE Orals came around, we did that again... one week before. For the 2 days before the exam, we played. We relaxed. We allowed the brain to steep in the intensive practice from the week before. We rested to husband energy. On the day of the PSLE Chinese Language Oral, there were no object words in the actual PSLE Chinese Oral Picture that he did not know.... and he did his best... and he was happy with what he did.

It is Parents' Job to Teach
PSLE Chinese Oral is over for us. Little Boy's school did nothing like this for us. Parents, you have to help your children. Classes are too large in mainstream schools (at 40 per class). Teachers have no time to really bring your Potato children to such levels of true competence using IT. In our experience, Little Boy's Chinese Teacher made very little use of computers. It was mostly chalk and talk centered around the textbook which is useful in perhaps 25% of the entire PSLE Chinese exam (inclusive of oral and written). The assumption is that if your child evolves in a Chinese speaking home, then he/she will do well in Chinese without such teaching from the school.

That is true.

However, Potato Parents should not despair. There are ways to help our children. We can and we must, because many schools cannot cope with teaching to such high levels of PSLE performance, and thus, do not. If this post was useful to you, please do me a favor. Facebook Like it below. You will still remain anonymous. All this does is that the link to this post will appear on your Facebook Timeline for your friends to see.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

PSLE Starts Today

It has begun.

Little Boy takes on his very first PSLE challenge today - the Chinese Language Oral. Over dinner last night, he had a word with his father, "Tomorrow, I will be taking PSLE Oral. We should not leave the house too early, but we also should not leave too late. 6.15am is good. It would be good if you can wake up by 5.45am, not 6... so that no one gets anxious in the mad scramble to get to school on time."

When I put him to bed, he showed me his mobile phone, wrapped and labelled with his name so that he could safely surrender it to his Teacher before the exam. He asked me if he should bring his normal schoolbag or a smaller one. In the end, I think he chose the normal bag because he just felt more comfortable carrying it. It's nice to have familiar belongings with you when you have to go for a big exam.

By the time I zombied myself downstairs this morning, Little Boy was up, dressed and checking his entry proof and student ID. He said he did not want breakfast because he wasn't hungry. I suppose his body was running on adrenaline? I insisted on a light breakfast because the brain burns sugar better than fat, and so it would be good to take a bit of a chocolate danish and a mug of Milo to ensure a ready store of sugar for his brain to burn.

At 6.10am sharp, Little Boy pressed the remote control to open the gate. He had socks and shoes on. The Husband took the hint and rushed himself, whilst Little Boy stayed calm and quiet. We've been through so many exams together that he knows he has to keep a tight rein on his emotions.

At 6.15am, they were out the gate. Oh please God... help him today. He has worked so hard and been such a good boy. He cannot do this without You. So please... please, help my son.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

69 Marks for PSLE Prelim Math

The highest mark for Little Boy's PSLE Prelim Math was 85. The second highest was 73. Little Boy brought home 69 marks together with the news that many people failed. The Teacher consoled the class, saying that it was a difficult paper but that the top 2 classes would still do well relative to other classes in the school.

The question I am asking is this. Is this paper indicative of actual PSLE standards? Is this paper pitched at the levels of the best schools in the nation? If the answer to both questions is "yes", then Little Boy is likely to do rather poorly for Math because he had had no exposure in class to questions of comparable difficulty. And we thought that practicing on past year Top School papers (which Little Boy has no problems completing, except for one particular year's paper from Nanyang Primary School) was sufficient.

Clearly not. I am told that his PSLE prelim paper was even more difficult that the one from Nanyang Primary.

The little fellow (called N) who had scored 85, has a Math tutor who was happy to leverage upon the boy's innate talent for Math to stretch the child way beyond the work done in class. One needs both talent AND practice. Little Boy has talent but I was merely contented with standards of the status quo. Not kiasu enough, you see. I thought enough is enough and wanted Little Boy to play more in the sun. Who would have thought that his school would set a paper some notches more difficult than even the Top School papers? So, how much is enough?

I was on the phone with a GEP Mommy 2 nights ago. She was horrified that in one of her daughter's tests, only ONE child out of 25, passed. Failing has become the norm. I don't agree with such teaching methods. Failure is extremely demotivating in some situations... and it is NOT because the child is not resilient. Don't blame the child. Resilience can be developed. People are not born resilient. There are some situational psychological factors that need to be controlled/manipulated before failure can be used to motivate in a healthful manner.

We are 1 month away from PSLE. What is the point of stressing the children thus? Little Boy is quite happy with his 69 marks because the best students have all scored in the low 70s and high 60s. The average students... have failed. Imagine the tense emotional situations at home. Think of the stressed parents.

On my part, I felt my heart sink to the pit of my stomach. Momentarily, I felt a whiplash of anger that I almost did not catch as it flicked out to hurt Little Boy, who was himself trying to maintain his emotional balance. I walked away instead. I refuse to play this game. It is too late to gain more competence and exposure to stretch his capability. To begin with, I will need time to source for questions of such extreme difficulty. There is no way to do this without signing up with an enrichment centre, because we don't have a Math expert at home. The questions in even the most difficult of Popular's assessment books are easy for Little Boy. Where is there time to evaluate and register and practice? All it will do is stress Little Boy.

At this point, stress is something we can do without. I've deliberately slowed the pace at home so that we have calm energy. So... it's just too bad. If what we have done is not enough, then Little Boy and I will dive for cover and I will use my body to shield his smaller one. I will feel all the pain, the anger, the disappointment and the fear... but I will shield his psyche from all this so that he can stay calm and feel confident.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Serenity and The Daughter's Rite of Passage

No one realized what a momentous occasion it was when The Daughter packed a smallish suitcase and moved into her apartment at University Town in NUS. Other parents turned the event into an occasion. They had a "leaving home" celebration. They drove their daughter down to University Town and helped them settle in. Petunia and The Husband treated the occasion like school camp. We dropped her at University Town and that was it.

We had our leisure to repent because as the week wore on, reality hit us. The Daughter doesn't really live with us anymore!! She's all grown up and was going through a rite of passage into adulthood. She was living on her own.

So... I hustled the whole family over to Serenity for a celebration. It was REALLY expensive. They've REALLY raised prices. I am not sure I'll go back but since we were there, we ate... and it was good.

Meat Balls

Seafood Soup


Tuna Roll



Part B of Combining Motivation Strategies: Emotional Connection, Structured Choices & Challenging Goals

Most parents are afraid that if the child is allowed to choose his/her own goals, the little tyke will end up choosing the easiest goal possible. In this post, I will attempt to show how a combination of strategies can ensure that the child will choose challenging goals... instead of the easiest goal possible.

This post is the SECOND in a series of posts on strategy combination that will guide parents towards helping their children choose difficult goals above easier ones. You can find the FIRST post here. This post is written to complement Petunia's Book, which only explains each motivation strategy in isolation, not in combination.

Provide a range of Structured Choices wherein the most difficult goal is still only of moderate difficulty for your child (not for YOU... for your CHILD... see the goal with the eyes of your child). Ensure that the goal choices you provide are designed in such a way that if he/she succeeds at the most difficult goal choice, it automatically means that there is no utility in working on the more easy goal choices.

For example, in a sub-unit of a Math assessment book, I noted that the questions were provided in order of difficulty, with the most difficult at the end. I gave Little Boy the choice between the last 3 questions, the 2nd last 3 questions and the 3rd last 3 questions. I explained that I expected him to evaluate his own abilities and to make a wise choice between the 3 sets of 3 questions. "Choose the difficulty level you can comfortably manage. You know yourself better than I know you," I gently urged. 

As almost an afterthought (this is IMPORTANT... try and look absent-minded and casual when you say this), I also said, "By the way, if you can comfortably do the last 3 questions, don't waste time on the other 6. However, if you cannot manage the difficult questions, then do the easier ones first, and the difficult ones later. If you finish earlier than expected, go and play, ok? "

This means that the child has a discreet (and subtly communicated) incentive to choose the most difficult questions he/she can manage... in order to do less work, and play more. Since even the most difficult goal choice you gave him earlier, is still quite doable, you've set your child up for success even though he had just chosen the more/most difficult of the 3 sets of questions given him to choose. 

Upon succeeding, your child will certainly feel rather happy. Intensify his pleased mood by pumping through the Emotional Connection large volumes of happiness and approval. Smile... show your joy... drop everything and play with him when he is done. Commend him for having chosen challenge and conquered it.

This creates a clear association between the emotional resources you pump through the Emotional Connection and the fact that he chose to take on challenge. He knows that the joy that came through from you to him came about because he had chosen to do the most difficult something he could manage. 

Subconsciously, the child wants to experience that rush of pleasure that came through the Emotional Connection again. The next time around he is more likely to willingly choose the more difficult questions even if you don't provide any discreet incentive in the form of play. He would want to choose challenge simply because he wants another dose of joy to come through your Emotional Connection. If your Emotional Connection is weak, it stands to reason that this part of your recipe will fall completely flat.

At this point, we aren't finished yet. We still need to stabilize this nascent tendency to choose challenge... by turning it into a habit, and an essential part of the self-concept. However, I will not blog about this here because Mommies/Daddies who have read Petunia's Book, will be able to strategise on their own how to achieve this.

I think!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Part A of Combining Motivation Strategies: Emotional Connection, Structured Choices & Challenging Goals

Petunia's Book does not document the effects of combined strategies... well... at least, not explicitly. The careful reader of Petunia's Book will be able to discern from the anecdotes some sense of strategy combination. This post is written for those who've read Petunia's Book. I want to show how motivation strategies work TOGETHER (as a recipe) to achieve the effects we want. Individual strategies have limited effectiveness. Mismatched strategies completely WON'T WORK.

Most parents are afraid that if the child is allowed to choose his/her own goals, the little tyke will end up choosing the easiest goal possible. In this post, I will attempt to show how a combination of strategies can ensure that the child will choose challenging goals... instead of the easiest goal possible.

First of all, there needs to be a robust Emotional Connection between adult and child. 99.99% of the time, this Emotional Connection transmits clean emotional energy to the child... so much so that the child grows to rely on this emotional sustenance as an important resource when the going gets tough. This ensures that your child views this resource as necessary to his wellbeing. You can tell when your child is dependent upon the emotional sustenance you feed him when like Little Boy...

(1) He is sensitive to even slight changes in your mood. When a lot of clean emotional energy is pumped through the emotional connection (over a long period of time), the bandwidth of this connection increases. This means that reductions in emotional energy can be easily discerned... as compared to an emotional connection that has been so withered by emotional toxin, that very little emotional energy (of the clean or the dirty sort) can get through.

(2) He is anxious to re-establish the flow of emotional energy through the Emotional Connection whenever you withdraw into yourself and temporarily stop being his source of clean emotional energy. Little Boy often asks me "Why do you look moody today?" when I frown a little over an interesting work challenge... or when I am not pleased with someone else. Or simply, when I am tired.

(3) He asks for you to be near him when tackling challenges. Little Boy plans his work schedule around my availability. On days when I have to go out, he plans fun and motivating work. On days when I am home, he plans tedious and highly difficult work like memorizing 2000 word Chinese Compositions. If your child chases you away when there is work to be done, it means you're not managing the Emotional Connection well.

(4) He gets a shock whenever you feed anger through the Emotional Connection. In Singapore, we grow to expect clean, pure water from our taps. None of us are prepared to defend our households against the event of sewage water flowing out of our kitchen and bathroom taps. None of us have the defensive habits to guard against the hurt (diarrhea and stomach upset) that contaminated water can wreak upon our families and ourselves. Similarly, Little Boy has come to expect clean and pure emotional energy from me. On the very rare occasion when I DECIDE to pump a high volume of Mother Medusa anger through our Emotional Connection, Little Boy has no psychological defenses against my anger. The shock and pain for Little Boy is so great that he NEVER repeats the behavior that brought on Mother Medusa. I don't have to hit him. The psychological pain inflicted is sharp enough. Do note that I make a DECISION to pump anger through the Emotional Connection. It is almost never out-of-control anger.

(5) If YOU'RE angry, no one else but YOU can console your child. When Petunia is displeased with Little Boy, it does not matter what Grandma, Grandpa or The Husband says to comfort him. I am the only one in control of the Emotional Connection I share with Little Boy and since he is dependent on MY energy, it is MY good pleasure that counts... and no one else's.

The above 5 points has the following implications. Firstly, a robust Emotional Connection can be used to punish a child by withholding the supply of clean emotional energy OR by a decision to feed intense angry energy through it. Secondly, overusing the Emotional Connection to hurt the child is NEVER a good idea. All you will achieve is to stimulate the child's psychological defenses against you... weaken the Emotional Connection that you share... and eventually, lose any influence you might have had over your child. Thirdly, once the child learns that the Emotional Connection has the RARE potential to hurt as well as the COPIOUS potential to nurture, the child learns quickly to try and manage the Emotional Connection by brainstorming the various ways to make you happy.

When you can get your child to the point where he is keen to make you happy... it is time to add the next ingredient to your Motivation Recipe. Since this post is getting long enough, the next ingredient will be the topic of my next blogpost here.

Delaminating Glass Panes

Our sliding doors are made of laminated glass. Each pane of glass is actually 2 panes of glass stuck together, back to back, with a piece of clear laminate. If anyone crashes into the glass door, the laminate will hold the glass pane together preventing severe glass cuts from slivers of glass projectiles that could fly into eyes and cause cuts. Unfortunately for us, we were given glass panes that were of rather poor quality and thus, the 2 panes of glass are detaching themselves from the laminate. The architect informs me that this is a process called Delamination.

Together, the 2 panes of glass stuck together are 11mm thick. Separately, each pane is only 5mm thick. Separated from each other, they are very fragile. The whole pane of glass loses its strength and could even crack merely from strong winds. Obviously, in the process of cracking, sharp slivers of glass will be projected all over.

For those of you who will be building your houses, please ensure that the glass manufacturer provides a warranty of at least 10 years on your glass. Don't make the same mistake we did.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Lazy Thursday Afternoon With A Difference

The Husband was pleased to announce last night that he had been able to take leave for Friday so that we could have 4 whole days of family time from Thursday to Sunday, making it a National Day long weekend. Then he looked high and low for The Daughter.

"Where is my daughter?" said he.

He wasn't happy to discover that The Daughter had chosen to not to come home for the National Day long weekend because she had settled in comfortably into an apartment with her friends, and wanted to stay there. To tell the truth, the expression on The Husband's face was like of one bereft. Ever since The Daughter was born, she has spent public holidays in the warm embrace of our family. We've lived with her since she was a chortling baby through her chatterbox toddlerhood and her petulant teens. There were always four of us.

Now, there are three.

I had thought that the one prone to Empty Nest Syndrome would be me. I arranged to have Motivation Genome occupy my time and energy. I hadn't expected The Husband to feel the Empty Nest keenly too. After all, he is more than busy with his work. I suppose it's because the family is so tiny. With one child flown the coop, we're at 75% manning levels eh? Things will get worse before they get better I reckon. It won't be long before we're down to 50% manning levels... before the children get married and give birth to Little Ones that'll up our manning levels somewhat.

So yes... it's a nice National Day afternoon... but someone is missing that makes the daybed look very empty indeed.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Astragalus and Echinacea on PSLE Standby

Astragalus is a herb we call "bei qi" in Mandarin or "puk kay" in Cantonese. US clinical studies have found that this herb increases the white blood cell count in the blood stream. For more details, see here. A sick child was a great deal of work for a harried young mother who needed to report to full-time work everyday. My feverish children needed frequent sponging and their incessant cries cracked my night's sleep into slivers of broken rest. Things would get worse when The Husband fell ill too. The Husband's ailments translated into bad temper and overall grumpiness that was hard to manage because he questioned and criticized my every attempt to make him feel better. I hated nursing The Husband even more than I hated nursing my kids. At least my kids obeyed me. The Husband was, and still is, an extraordinarily uncooperative patient.

I had every interest to keep the germs at bay just so that I needn't nurse a Man-Bear with a Sore Head.

Back in those days, I ran a tight ship at home from my cubicle at work. The week's menu was planned on a calendar. I matched up every single vegetable and meat in the fridge, with a dish on the menu... such that by the time Saturday night came around, the fridge was exactly empty. Once I discovered the research on astragalus, it was quite easy to ensure with exact military precision, that the whole family drank Petunia's Astragalus Soup every Monday morning.

Frequent visits to the doctor downstairs became a thing of the past. Instead of 4 visits a year for each of the 4 of us, we each visited our dear doctor once in 2 years only... on average. This was quite an achievement considering that Little Boy attended preschool where we know germs of all sorts get passed around.

Next, I discovered echinacea. Armed now with both astragalus and echinacea, we've stopped visiting the doctor for flu altogether. Astragalus strengthened our immune system so much that we hardly fell ill. And now, when we do, echinacea pretty much gets rid of it within 2 days or so. Astragalus raises white blood cell count so that there are enough soldiers to fight off germ intruders. Echinacea enhances the intruder alert system such that more white blood cells are mobilized in less time. Echinacea is most effective during the initial stages of an infection because that is when the infection is slight and therefore the body is not yet fully alert to the Still Small Threat. If we take echinacea early enough, the flu goes away without really settling in.

Working now from home, I am afraid I run a far less tighter ship than I used to. Planning has become a thing of the past. I do stuff whenever I feel like it because now, I can. What with having to sell books and giving talks... I haven't felt like making Petunia's Astragalus Soup for 3 months now. With PSLE in exactly 51 days from now, I realized yesterday that I had better start beefing up Little Boy's white blood cell count. Just in case.

I made a batch of Petunia's Astragalus Soup this morning with four different kinds of veggies as well as pork collar and dried anchovies. We will all drink that soup tonight and turn into Popeye the Sailor Men! The recent echinacea blooms from the garden have also been lovingly cut and dried... and put away in the freezer. This is just in case Popeye the Sailor Men need some extra PSLE punch in exactly 51 days.

Time to run a tight ship again.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Getting Me a Smart Phone

Smart phones and data plans used to be the last word in style.

I have recently understood that smart phones and data plans have now become basic productivity tools for a modern woman keen on getting things done quickly so that she can proceed to getting other things done quickly. The first iphone could not forward sms-es and so I dissed it. I held on to my basic phone that cost about $48 WITHOUT plan. I re-sold the iPhone that I bought when renewing my plan, not once, but twice.

It was nice to rake in about $2500 and keep it in the bank. Let other people revel in style and chic. I prefer $2500 of cold hard cash. *Rub Hands*

But as I sat there at breakfast in the luxe cafe of a hotel in Tel Aviv skyping my kids, they wanted to view the breakfast buffet spread. I looked like a real klutz introducing each platter of Israeli breakfast to my laptop screen. Someone helpfully commented "Why not use an iPhone?" Oopsie! I don't have one because I sold mine brand new to turn a profit.

Then people started giving me MMS-es that I could not view and almost everyone has asked me if I have WhatsApp, and they're always shocked when I ask "What's that?" But what really got me was Waze. This app gives you real time updates on the traffic situation right down to whether the Police Officer standing by the road with his speed detector machine is handsome or not.

For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to have iPhone Lust.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Run-Up to PSLE

We're done with PSLE Prelims. It has been a relatively muted affair for us thanks to the family policy of NOT studying during the exam period. It takes a lot more discipline to NOT study during PSLE prelims than at any other exam. I've been able to stop obsessing about Little Boy's PSLE by plunging myself into my business - Motivation Genome. Little Boy has been spending hours playing Wabble (i.e., online Scrabble). He has plunged into this game with great gusto, researching obscure 2 letter words that give you high scores... and equally obscure long words that don't sound like words. For example, I was advised yesterday that OXYPHENBUTAZONE is the highest scoring word in the game. Placed correctly, this gets you 1790 points.

Make that word happen and the game is over for your opponents.

Little Boy is also trying to teach himself html programming. Whatever that is, it has to do with creating webpages with lines of code. This is something that The Husband and Little Boy seem to contort themselves into ecstasy about, whenever they catch each other at it.

The result of all this extra-curricular activity is that Little Boy is reasonably relaxed for his PSLE prelims. The only hint of nerves seems to be his heavy insistence that I put him to bed at night. "Mom," said he, "I'm not on edge. I'm just somewhat nervous. It's easier to fall asleep when you're next to me."

To tell the truth, I am nervous too. A small ball of tears almost rose up through my chest to gush out from my eyes when Little Boy announced that he couldn't do the last 2 questions of his Math paper and he only half attempted 3 others. Little Boy knew no one in the top 2 classes who successfully solved the last 2 problem sums. The Teacher had consoled the children saying that it was a difficult exam and that the top 2 classes would still fare well relative to the other classes.As long as you are better than your friends, it's good. I wonder how those in the bottom classes feel now. Perhaps they're so used to not solving so many Math questions that they've stopped trying... stopped hoping... accepted that they're stupid.

The PSLE isn't a test of how ready you are for secondary school. It is a test of how much stupider one is than the smartest PSLE kid of that year. It's The Intellectual Gladiators' event of the year and the victims/stars are our 12 year olds. If you don't get what I mean, watch the movie The Highlander.

Oh well... I took the opportunity to engineer a psychological soft landing for Little Boy. He has worked so hard and so long for 19 months. If he does worse than what he expects, I would hate for him to conclude that he "is not one of the smart ones" again.

So I pointed to his Math prelim exam and told him "If you don't do as well as you wish, know this. It is not because you are stupid. It is because Mommy was not kiasu enough to pour money into Math Olympiad training for you from P2 onwards. It was because I was not kiasu enough to bring you all the way home to take part in GEP testing just so that you could stand a chance of benefiting from small class teaching of 25 students/class.

I could have pushed you above and beyond but I held you back because man shall not live by Math alone (and because I so hate having to compete tooth and nail... in our family, let's prize collaboration more than competition). If you don't do as well as you wish, it is also because you did not have access to the kind of knowledge and material provided by specialized enrichment centres. However you do at PSLE, you can be proud you did it on your own and even if you don't succeed there, you will have the character and the skills to succeed in life. As long as you stay confident in your own abilities."

I don't care how well he does at PSLE. I am already proud of my son

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Confused Milo

This post is for Open Kitchen Concept, a long time blog reader. She misses Milo, you see.

Milo has this thing for slim young women with long hair and oval faces. If he sees one of these jog past during our walkies, he stops in his tracks... his jaw drops, his tongue hangs out... and his whole expression changes into one of goofy wonder. When she comes near enough for him to see her, his whole expression changes again into one of gentle bewilderment. Who is this person who looks like Milo's Love (i.e., The Daughter) but isn't Milo's Love? Will she be as nice to Milo as Milo's Love is wont to be? Is it really NOT Milo's Love? Maybe I should go smell her. With that, he promptly tries to take off after the young lady to try and effectuate some Crotch Familiarisation. This freaks people out no end so I have to hang on to his leash.

A slim Mommy came by who had long hair and an oval face. If you saw this Mommy, you wouldn't believe that she has 2 kids. Ohhhhhhhhh... to look like that after 2 kids!! This is the first time in my experience that Milo didn't bark at the stranger standing on the other side of the gate. He cocked his doggy head left... and then right. He couldn't make sense of this woman because she looked soooooooo much like The Daughter. And he missed The Daughter a good deal because she was away in China.

I invited the Pretty Mommy inside the gate. Milo stuck his nose up the back of her skirt. After getting scolded, he decided that it might be more appropriate to stick his nose up the front of her skirt. So he did that. Of course, he got scolded again. I seated Pretty Mommy on the wicker chair at the patio. Milo stared at her, sniffed her, licked her elbows and her knees and THEN, he tried to climb on her lap!!