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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Singapore's Royal Jelly Education

Royal Jelly is what bees feed the bee babies that are destined to grow into Queen Bees. Larvae fed Royal Jelly grow into Queens. The same larvae fed honey grow into Worker Bees.

I received a series of WhatsApp messages last night from C ranting about Royal Jelly education in GEP and IP. The royal jelly in Singapore education is the set of Higher Order Thinking (HOT) skills that characterize the Gifted Education Program in primary school (that prepares one for the most difficult questions at the PSLE)... and the Integrated Program in secondary school (that prepares one for the most difficult questions at the A levels). The logic supporting the heavy focus on HOT skills GEP and IP experience is that these are smart kids who CAN handle HOT skills, whilst lesser children can't. 

Now, I don't doubt that kids come with different intellectual capabilities, and different talents. I have taught enough kids to be well aware of this. What I doubt is how accurate the system is in streaming our children for differential feeding (based on the results of one IQ test at Primary 3 or one major exam at Primary 6).

The different feeding in turn leads to kids in GEP and IP being given maximum chances at (A) choice opportunities in top schools, (B) choice scholarships and (C) choice spots in Medicine and Law Faculties. The excerpt below is taken from an article by Sandra Davie in the Straits Times of 29th November 2012, entitled "Time to Redefine Academic Success"...

"The Government needs to examine why parents are not buying the argument that there are many paths to success and every school is a good school. I took the opportunity to ask the parents eyeing IP schools, such as Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls' Secondary, why they were not convinced. One of them had done an analysis of the Overseas Merit Scholarships given out by the Public Service Commission. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of those receiving the scholarships came from the IP schools.
His son wants to study medicine, so again, the resourceful parent went to talk to a relative of his, an RI alumnus, who is studying medicine at the National University of Singapore. The second-year student confirmed that quite a few of his classmates in medical school were former schoolmates. I referred to students from the lesser-known junior colleges and even the polytechnics making it to medicine, but the parent was quick to point out that it was so rare for polytechnic graduates to qualify for medicine. No wonder, when they did, they made the headlines in the newspapers."

The GEP Royal Jelly
Like I said, I question the accuracy of the classification - GEP and mainstream. In 2011, the PSLE top scorer (Yasmin Ziqin Mohammad Yusof) was NOT from GEP even though the PSLE exam tests HOT skills that are extensively taught in GEP (and to a far lesser extent, in mainstream). Yasmin Ziqin Mohammad Yusof mentioned that her mother resigned from her job in Primary 6 to teach her the most difficult questions of the PSLE (aka, the HOT skills). Clearly, this girl had external school access to a Royal Jelly education via a highly educated mother. It also helped that her father could afford the fees at The Learning Lab. Was Yasmin misclassified as non-GEP? What if her Mom were uneducated and her father earned the equivalent salary of the PRC bus drivers who went on strike?

Where would Yasmin be today in mainstream education without an educated Mother and wealthy Father? No wonder I went through 2 years wondering why schools test what they don't teach! The PSLE tests GEP stuff that 99% of the cohort can only get to learn OUTSIDE school!!

In one particular year, in the not too distant past, the top scorer in Nanyang Primary School was a non-GEP child. Her mother explained to me (rather bitterly) that it was tuition that had helped her child because mainstream classes in Nanyang Primary do not get the same kind of teaching as GEP. I rather think that this gave Nanyang Primary School some food for thought and may have encouraged the school to spill GEP methods and materials over to more and more of their mainstream classes. There is nothing wrong with this. Any responsible school would do the same. I, the school, possess the methods and materials. Why withhold these from students who could benefit even though not labeled GEP?

Whatever GEP parents might say about PSLE drilling that helps non-GEP children do better at PSLE, some facts can be verified.
(1) Fact 1: GEP curriculum is heavy on HOT skills.
(2) Fact 2: PSLE's most difficult questions test HOT skills.
(3) Fact 3: Mainstream teaching hardly emphasizes HOT skills.
(4) Fact 4: I know for a fact the schools like Nanyang give their GEP kids loads of PSLE practice papers to do in P6... after building a good foundation in HOT skills.

These drilling practices PLUS the HOT skills training give the GEP a clear advantage at the PSLE. Now, if a GEP child cannot handle the PSLE as well as a mainstream child DESPITE having been fed all this Royal Jelly, then there is a good chance the GEP child was wrongly identified.

Based on a SINGLE IQ test, judgment is made about our children's ability to handle HOT skills? And then the 2 groups of children are fed different curriculum material as if the SINGLE IQ test is the last word in child capability (that can justify feeding some children more HOT skills and other children less)? And THEN both sets of children take a common exam that clearly puts one group (taught HOT extensively) at an advantage over the other (taught HOT sparingly).

What makes things worse is that the GEP children have a largely frictionless path into schools like RI, where it appears, that 42% of the cohort is GEP. Given that GEP is 1% of the whole country's cohort... 42% in a single school is a shocking over representation considering that there is ample evidence that the single IQ test DOES misclassify.

Next, the GEP has been around for 20+ years. One wonders how many movers and shakers today hail from GEP. If very few, then why is it that 42% of RI (the school that traditionally produces leaders of the country) is GEP? Should not RI have greater diversity in student population so that it can produce future leaders that understand the populace?

Some claim that despite the low economic returns of 20 years of GEP, the program is still worth funding because gifted children are special needs children, like those in Pathlight. Has RI become a GEP special needs school on par with Pathlight?

Why do we put so much faith in one IQ test to the extent that we would feed 2 groups of students vastly different intellectual input? IF the PSLE has evolved towards HOT skills, why is not EVERY mainstream school properly equipped with the wherewithal to teach HOT skills to those who CAN manage even if they're not labelled GEP?

The IP Royal Jelly
In my discussion with C on IP, I found myself on the other side of the divide. You see, The Daughter went to an IP school in the days when there were few IP schools. In my passionate exchange with C, I found myself saying the exact same things to defend IP that GEP parents say to defend GEP.

I said, "IP focuses a great deal on higher order thinking skills but the A levels are far more structured. IP students have difficulty adapting to the prescriptive (read: model answers) style of A level testing. IP doesn't drill the students. That was The Daughter's experience."

I can almost hear a GEP mom say "GEP focuses a great deal on higher order thinking skills but the PSLE requires drilling, and the kids have difficulty adapting to the prescriptive (read: model answers) style of PSLE testing. GEP doesn't drill students."

Then C wrote this on WhatsApp "If the A levels is HOT skills heavy, then it'll be an uphill battle for O level students exposed mostly to LOT (lower order thinking skills) to bridge the gap to HOT skills, in the run up to A levels. However, it is easier for those exposed to HOT skills in IP for 4 years, to dumb down slightly to the drilling required for A levels in the run-up to the exams."

And that is so true.

I had to concede that C had won a point in our discourse. The Daughter received a good IP education in HOT skills that formed a critical foundation for her to achieve excellence in A levels. Nearer the A levels, she was drilled. Dumbing down was not a problem at all. And mind you, based on PSLE t-score alone, there were plenty of students who scored far higher than The Daughter... but these students could not handle HOT skills well enough to do well at A levels. Some of these PSLE high scorers performed rather poorly despite getting a surfeit of HOT skills in the years of IP. Is this an instance of misclassification into IP using PSLE scores? Who/what to blame? That A levels requires drilling that IP doesn't provide?

That is not true you know, a fair bit of drilling does take place nearer to A levels.

The Illusory Promises of Streaming
It was not too long ago when MOE explained that streaming was to ensure that every child was taught to his/her ability. The PR line was "Develop each child to his/her highest potential".

Does streaming really do that? Let's look at some counter examples.

The PSLE aggregate determines access to HOT skills education. What about the child (without tuition) who scored a high A* in Science but A in the other 3 subjects? This child could well possess the innate talent for Science that predisposes him to HOT skills in the Sciences but too bad... this child will never be able to develop his innate potential in scientific inquiry to the fullest because he will be shunted to a non-IP school.

It seems to me that streaming makes teaching easier, so that Teachers have time to write reports and devise lesson plans that are only good for audit purposes because no one uses the lesson plans. Now that the School Excellence Awards have been done away with, perhaps the teaching service will now have time to REALLY be student-centric. Right now, Teachers are stream-centric or class-centric. Not in the least student-centric. The only ones who are student-centric are parents and private tutors.

Little Boy was a 90+ student in English, Math and Science in P4. He went into the 2nd best class because he was more than ordinarily poor in Chinese. In the 2nd best class, he was taught as if he were 80+ in every subject. He was taught above his ability in Chinese. He was taught below his ability in the other 3 subjects. The teaching was not at all student centric. It was class-centric, and it was class-centric in such a way that not a single child in there had his/her learning needs met. Every child in the 2nd best class had at least one REALLY strong subject and 3 above average subjects. They were all taught as if they were only slightly above average in all 4 subjects.

Within the GEP, children also have different abilities in the different subjects. The GEP crams every child with HOT skills in all 4 subjects. SUGGESTION: Would it not be better to identify children with giftedness in each subject and pull them out for specific niche classes, rather than put them together and cram them indiscriminately like geese for foie gras? Meanwhile, these gifted children can still benefit from fulfilling and learning-rich social interactions with kids in mainstream.

It has come to a point that even GEP/IP kids feel like losers because they fear they can't measure up in their subjects of ordinariness.

That streaming helps each child to his/her ability is an illusion. In truth, all it helps is make teaching lazier because Teachers can tell themselves that they are fulfilling the needs for a particular group of students when actually the coarse-grained streaming fulfills very few individuals' learning needs indeed.

Student-centric? How to be student-centric in classes of 40?

(1) Every primary school should be well-equipped to teach HOT skills (small classes and GEP materials) even if they are not GEP centers.

(2) Every secondary school has IP and O levels so that the permeability between the 2 streams is maximised allowing for misclassifications to be easily addressed.

(3) Do as Hri Kumar suggests. Remove GEP DSA into top schools. GEP kids (with their surfeit of HOT skills teaching in small classes of 25) should compete with mainstream (who get precious little HOT skills teaching) for places.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Travelling Mom's Breastfeeding Story

For Moms who have to travel for work, whilst breastfeeding, here is a most inspiring story. Many women find it difficult to breastfeed whilst at home. Like... why doesn't my boob fit my baby's mouth? Why is there NOTHING in this fat boob? Oh gee... I have nothing in TWO fat boobs. Ohhhh... I wish I had four boobs.

It's full what! Why is nothing coming out?!!

Hey twit! My boob is not made for chewing.

This Mom managed to breastfeed whilst traveling. The only thing I can say is "Wow!"

Monday, November 26, 2012

How Does NYPS Do It?

I am not sure how far it is true but I am told that 47% of Nanyang Primary School's (NYPS') 2012 PSLE cohort scored above 250. This means that almost HALF the school places in the top 10% of the entire country's PSLE rankings. Get your child into NYPS and you stand a 50% chance to make it through to the top 10% of the country's PSLE rankings.

Indeed, 43 children from Nanyang Primary this year scored above 270. In the majority of other schools, NO ONE scores above 270. The 2012 mystery top scorer with 285 is from Nanyang Primary School.

MOE might say that these FANTABULOUS results accrue to students from Nanyang Primary School's Gifted Education Program... and lesser mortals in other schools cannot hope to replicate these results simply because the kids are not as bright.

I can concede that perhaps the 270 and above scores come from the GEP cohort. But what of the 250+? Let us also bear in mind that NYPS is only one of 10 GEP centers (and the other GEP centers did not produce such FANTABULOUS results with their gifted children). Indeed, there are even some GEP parents who assert that GEP kids are not MEANT to do well at PSLE because their days are filled with esoteric learning NOT tested at the PSLE... and that GEP centres DO NOT drill their kids. I know for a fact that NYPS GEP kids get practice paper after practice paper to help them prepare for PSLE.

It is clear that NYPS is doing something marvelously right. The question is what.

Friends with children who go to NYPS tell me that parent involvement is important. Teachers will easily co-opt parents' help. Teachers will provide analyses of strengths and weaknesses, brief the parents thoroughly... and in this manner, they harness parents' time and resources for the improvement of academic results. There is nothing wrong with this since the curriculum is so advanced that no one seriously expects teachers to teach everything anyway. NYPS merely faces this fact head-on and leverages on it. In Little Boy's school, the teachers give practically no parental guidance at all. Emails go unanswered and teachers more often than not fail to reply to requests for guidance. It has happened so many times that I have quite given up asking Little Boy's teachers for help.

It helps that in NYPS only 4 in 10 students hail from HDB precincts. The other students are drawn from financially comfortable homes that surround the school. Homes that easily cost at least $7 million dollars for a somewhat humble abode. Errrr... humble for the neighbourhood. In such a context, parents CAN afford both a Stay-At-Home Mom AND specialised external teaching to step into the gaps that the school has kindly highlighted. Of course, not every parent in NYPS has wealth and time. I do know a few such parents from NYPS. The only thing then, for them to do... is shrug their shoulders and accept that they, as parents, are unable to add value to their children. Just too bad, I guess.

It also helps that being a GEP centre, the school has access to the Gifted Education materials and teaching methods, which it flows over to its own mainstream high ability classes. This could account for the fact that 47% of the school scored 250 and above.

The formula comes in 3 parts: School Exam Analysis to Guide Parents X Parent Involvement & Resources X Spillover of GEP Materials. The formula is multiplicative. If any part is ZERO, the show stops. Rich parents can't do much without school analyses. School analyses won't be useful unless parents have the resources to help. Without GEP methods and materials, the high ability would be denied material that would make a difference in the last 10 marks or so of each PSLE paper... so no amount of analyses and parent wealth will make a difference.

Of course, Petunia's formula may just be conjecture. What is clear however, is that schools are not same good academically. NYPS does do something right... especially since all the schools along the Bukit Timah belt have access to wealthy parents, but don't produce similar results. The formula is not as simple as parent wealth alone. It cannot be that the school plays no part at all in such fantabulous academic results. Of course, people will say that there is more to education than academics. I believe that too. Nonetheless, academics are key to a host of downstream perks such as...

(1) EESIS scholarships
(2) Entrance to top schools with delicious learning opportunities
(3) Post A level scholarships earned from the delicious learning opportunities from top schools

In short, there is a fair amount of short and long term monetary gain that arises from getting children into NYPS at the tender age of 7. Parents who are prepared to forego the chance at top notch academic results also need to have the emotional discipline to forego all the money their kids could enjoy... and the emotional discipline to tell themselves "I know that I am making choices that deny my child access to money and prestige. However, my child is worth more than an aggregate."

It takes parents with character to not play the game, knowing that certain choices (that have little to do with child ability) will bring their kids wealth and glory. It takes some steel to not play the Parentocracy game KNOWING that the one that will be denied opportunities and wealth is not oneself... but another person - one's child.

NYPS' results are all the more striking in that their mainstream cohort was not picked for entrance into the school by IQ. These are children of alumni... and the children of families who live near the school. Unless one can draw a strong correlation between Family Wealth and Children IQ (as well as alumni status and children IQ), then the stellar results must be due to something the school does right.

Can other schools learn from NYPS so that children of similar ability in other schools will not be denied the opportunities that exist downstream (scholarships and such....)? Perhaps, it may be necessary to tweak with scholarship eligibility criteria to account for the fact that there are students in OTHER schools who are very deserving but having NOT benefited from regular doses of academic steroids, score less well at the PSLE.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Little Boy's PSLE T-Score

In the early morning, concerned friends were already asking for Little Boy's PSLE t-score. I tried to dial down everyone's expectations. "Hey... I am seriously considering a lovely school near my place called Yishun Town Secondary.", I said to stunned silences, "If Little Boy does not do as well as you expected, please still make sure he feels like a worthy individual".

When we climbed into the car in the late morning, I remarked tenderly "If you don't do as well as you had hoped, I will still love you."

And Little Boy replied cheerfully "I know Mom!"

I didn't know that parents could accompany the kids into the hall to collect results so I dropped Little Boy and went off with the day's newspapers to get me a coffee. The voice that came over the phone squeaked excitedly about being invited to his friends' house and that please may he go... please... and that I wouldn't need to drive out and fetch him home later because he is old enough to go home on his own. 

In that entire tirade, he hadn't once mentioned his PSLE results. Sigh! I rolled my eyes at my coffee and asked "Aren't you gonna tell me what you scored? Aren't you coming to the coffeeshop to at least show me your results slip? You can't just pop off like that and leave me here! That's so rude!"

Little Boy came by in a whirlwind, thrust his results slip at me and some greenish sealed letter. Little Boy said, "We were told not to open that till we see our parents. But now I have no time. Let's open it together when I get home tonight?" Clearly, PLAY was vastly more important than PSLE.

Little Boy did somewhat better than his sister at PSLE, despite being in a school with poor teaching support and materials... AND he had no tuition. He also did well enough to take French as a 3rd language. Of all the news released yesterday, I think Little Boy was most thrilled about French. He'll have the opportunity to learn something that he has been bugging me to teach him since forever.

We're relieved and happy. I didn't quite want to write this post at first. However, a good many blog friends (and a few people that I have never met) have emailed me and it seems rude not to at least share a little. However, there are many reasons not to publish Little Boy's t-score here. Firstly, Petunia supports MOE's blackout on PSLE results (errrr... not that Little Boy scored anywhere near the top scores). Secondly, Little Boy is not comfortable that a whole world of faceless netizens be clearly in the know of his actual t-score. Thirdly, (unlike The Daughter at A levels) Little Boy is not the only boy in our circle of friends taking PSLE, and we don't want to make too much of his t-score because it makes no sense to make this or that other child (whom we also love) feel less worthy because of one silly number. 

Agree With Shanmuguratnam
I quite agree with Shanmugaratnam that the fine differentiation of PSLE t-score is unnecessary. Do you know that the t-score is differentiated to SIX decimal places? It's quite different from the A levels where you get As and Bs. The PSLE t-score makes stark the inconsequential difference between 2 kids with 265 and 266. The latter being more worthy than the former. It has long been well known to Human Resource professionals that performance appraisals that rank order staff OPENLY, will stimulate high levels of inter-individual competition. We usually institutionalise such a manner of staff appraisal in companies where no one needs to work in teams... e.g., used car salesmen. In an increasingly interconnected and complex world, problems need teams to resolve. I believe the power of collaboration (not competition) is the way forward.

The PSLE End-All
And I can't help but think that there are children who did very poorly indeed. The lowest score this year was an unforgiving 43 printed on a results slip like a death sentence knelling "You are a loser. You have the lowest score. You'll never amount to anything in life". What kind of monstrous mind 
(1) devised the PSLE aggregate, 
(2) prints the highest score 
(3) AND the lowest score on EACH results slip
... to break the hearts of little 12 year olds?

Has anyone thought of how the child will feel... who gets 43 ... and sees also, on the same paper that he/she has the LOWEST score of the whole country? Now, you seriously expect that child to believe that PSLE is not an end-all? Bear in mind too that the child who got 43 probably doesn't have loving and attentive parents to counsel and comfort him/her. The little 12 year old is all ALONE staring at the 43 that is HIS own score, AND the 43 that is printed in the bottom right hand corner, next to the words "This Year's Lowest Aggregate Score".

Fear Motivates
The majority of kids and parents are not kiasu because there are top scorers they will never hope to match up to. The majority of kids and parents compete tooth and nail because no one wants to be at or near the 43 aggregate. Fear is an effective motivator. However, it warps the spirit, destroys the joy of learning new things and causes burnout. 

PSLE T-Score... a Non-Event
This X'mas and CNY, we intend to treat the PSLE t-score as a non-event. It's over. It was a vastly unpleasant 2 years of stressful learning and unnecessary competition engendered by a fine-grained student appraisal mechanism. We don't have fond memories of it. That Little Boy emerged relatively unscathed is every reason to not rub salt into the wounds of other children.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Future Ready Child

I promised E. to write posts on how to develop a future ready child. This is the 3rd part of 3 posts. The previous posts are...

(1) The Problem With Fulfilling Academic Potential
(2) The Problem With Fulfilling Academic Potential (Part 2)

Actually, somebody else beat me to writing up her plan to develop a Future Ready Child, and she put her thoughts down very eloquently HERE. I felt encouraged just reading her wisdom so clearly stated. For me, in this blogpost, I would like to address some classic patterns in parent-teen relationships and how one might manage the relationship in such a way as to create a continuity between the truths of the past and the truths yet to be.

Lee Kuan Yew's Hard Truths
With all due respect to Lee Kuan Yew, a man to whom I and many others owe a lifetime debt of deep gratitude, he made the mistake of assuming that the truths of his lifetime would continue to be the truths of our lifetimes. To preserve his legacy, he instituted robust socialization programs that would ensure that every politician he inducted... every civil servant he invested, would hold in their heads the mental models of his hard truths. I am not saying that his hard truths have become totally irrelevant... but the world has changed and the external contours of his hard truths no longer fit as well without some adaptation.

For example, meritocracy was (and IS) an important value but past interpretations of meritocracy involved looking solely upon academic results as a proxy indicator for merit. That worked in the past because ...

(1) MOE did not expect parents to teach kids at home

(2) Academic standards had not risen so high that children have bandwidth for little else except studying (leading to huge lacunae in character and values development)

In view of the above 2 conditions, the contours of how we interpret meritocracy within our society needs to change. We cannot afford to define merit in terms of pure academic performance anymore because academic scores now reflect Parentocracy (the ability of parents to teach kids at home)... and since parents now have to teach numeracy and literacy, they have no time to teach values and character. Lee Kuan Yew was too successful at socializing the sacrosanctness of Meritocracy into those who inherited his mantle. Meritocracy was not to be at all questioned... not even its external contours. As a result, the leaders trained at Lee Kuan Yew's knee missed a new Hard Truth staring them in the faces.

The Daughter and I
I don't know where I obtained the insight from. I just knew when I woke up one day that I must not assume that my values (in the form I hold dear) would take the same shape in her time. I suppose that was a bit of God breathed wisdom that came to me in the night. Anyhow, I knew needed to give my teenager space to interpret our family's values sensibly for the world she evolves in... amongst her friends... in an environment alien to me... which I increasingly lost track of as she grew up and went to places I could not go... met people I did not know.

So I sat her down and gave her permission to challenge me. I explained that the world as I knew it isn't the world that she knows, and that if I preached something that made no sense, she should challenge me. As a Mommy, I cannot help preaching. By giving her permission to challenge my wisdom, I opened a way to bridge my world and hers. It was our first step towards the equal footing she and I enjoy today. Slowly, I began to understand her challenges and her world... and increasingly, I saw the sense of how she approached and handled issues in ways that I would not at first have agreed with. Sometimes, she didn't bother to explain nor challenge me. She went ahead to do what she thought best and then she explained after. I accepted that too.

She started a business delivering supper to other kids in her hostel. I believed that she was undercharging and could not accept that she would put in so much time into a business that only just broke even. After all, the value of a profit-driven business is in the money it makes.

She explained... and I saw that it made sense in her context. And that was that.

I am happy that she has developed keen judgment about her context, and I am even happier that she stays true to the values of our family, but in a way that makes sense to her and her world.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Problem With Fulfilling Academic Potential (Part 2)

Part 1 is HERE. I was talking to my friend Blurting, when I found an answer to my questions in Part 1.

My conversation with Ting got me thinking about an interesting nugget of Japanese history. In the Edo period of Japanese history, the Tokugawa government structured the society into 4 classes. At the top, were the samurai (the ruling class). Next, came the peasants (who lived in villages and produced goods). After that, came the artisans. Last, were the merchants, because they produced no wealth at all.

The Samurai: A Past Tale of Riches to Rags
Why were the samurai top of the heap?

In the era preceding the Edo period of Japanese history, Japan was at war. There was civil war and there was war with foreigners, who tried to settle in Japan. The samurai played an important role in wartime because they protected commoners and secured territories. Many privileges were thus granted them at the start of the Edo period. Wise men of that time structured society for the needs of that time, and gave thus to the samurai, generous yearly stipends that would keep them in style, for doing nothing but spar with weapons all day.

The Edo period was a very peaceful period in Japanese history. Arts flourished and consumption increased. The art of war became just that - a prestigious art with no practical value for that time.Fighting produced no wealth in peace time. The samurai lived off the taxes on what the peasants produced. The peasants were illiterate and so they allowed the merchants to take a larger share of the profits when trading goods.  As the years went by, it was the lowest of the 4 classes that became the most wealthy. Within 5 generations, merchant houses arose to organise trade and hold legal monopolies. The law prevented these merchants from living a lifestyle on par with the samurai but on the other hand, with inflationary pressures, the samurai (on their measly stipends) could no longer afford to maintain the lifestyle the law required them to have. There were many impoverished samurai floating around at the end of the Edo period.

Within 5 generations, the samurai had the carpet pulled from under their feet. Their society saw no more utility in paying them well for excelling at Fighting, for the sake of it. But how is this relevant to Singapore and academic success?

Academic Talent: A Future Tale of Riches to Rags?
In the 1960s, we had a relatively uneducated population. Systematic numeracy and literacy education provided a path to success. Foreign companies invested in Singapore and gave our newly numerate and literate populace good jobs, good salaries... aka wealth. Standards were low so home grown companies could not compete on the international arena. Entrepreneurs in the 1960s were numerous but few made it big because general standards were low. The path to success was to be an academic samurai. Academic prowess lead to wealth.

In the year 2012, things have changed. Social parameters have drifted and at present, a chorus of voices can be heard from all corners explaining that academic success is not everything. Lately, people are even saying that scholarships should not be awarded on grades alone - HERE. Perhaps the tide is turning and in the next 20 years or so, academic prowess will no longer be a ticket to wealth? Will we then see many impoverished academic samurai in the years ahead?

Consider further, the following.

In the year 2012, standards in Singapore have risen tremendously. Our entrepreneurs going out into the region now possess a certain reputation called the Singapore branding. Times have changed and the merchant classes are poised for success. What do these entrepreneurs need? They need creativity, risk appetite, incredible amounts of EQ... on top of some level of literacy and numeracy.

More than 10 years ago, the Singapore government had identified creativity and entrepreneurship as the way ahead. Schools were tasked with teaching students how to think and be creative. The PSLE exam went from tropospheric to stratospheric to positively errrrr... ionospheric in difficulty. All in the name of testing creativity on paper. Unfortunately, you can't LEARN creativity on paper. Hence, school teachers were exhorted to TEACH LESS so that students could LEARN MORE. Meanwhile armies of tutors rose up out of the ground like Cadmus' army of old and strove to teach creativity with paper and more paper. I don't think the students became more creative. They just practised more and more and more to the extent that by the time the exams came around, they were already familiar with what MOE had intended to be tests of creativity.

So... at the end of 12 years of schooling, our kids are just really really good academic samurai.

Then along comes Ting's children. To understand her kids, you need to understand Ting. She is an amazing woman with boundless energy. Singlehandedly, she brought up 2 boys. She cooks. She cleans. She makes cakes for her friends' birthdays. She runs a business that pays for all the above and more. The one thing Blurting could not do was what Petunia did to help Little Boy do well at exams. As a result, Blurting's boys struggled through school. Happily enough, Blurting is the sort of Mommy who loves her boys as they are... and focuses on what they are able to do. Through thick and thin, Ting believes in her kids - HERE.

And Ting dropped a bombshell into my pool of contentment. She said "When push comes to shove, my kids have the skills to make money from their hobbies. They are good with people. They are not arrogant because they have not tasted academic success too much to become proud. They are kind to animals and people. They are numerate and literate. They know the value of money and have had experience earning it in various ways."

I can truly believe that Ting's kids will make it good in the years ahead. They're both self-starters and voracious self-learners. There is no tuition for hobbies so the boys had to hustle to learn the breadth and depth of what they loved to learn. These are not the sort of boys who wait around for people to give them a job (give homework) and tell them how they will be appraised (marking scheme). These are the sort of boys who will know to hustle for what they want.... and when push comes to shove, they will demonstrate the spirit and will of Mother Ting, a non-grad, rebellious as he**, Boss of her own company.... with enough success to pay for a private condo apartment, a huge car, holidays abroad and visits to posh restaurants. That's Ting. With a massive dose of EQ to go along because you CANNOT help liking her.

Ting and her boys have the sort of never-say-die spirit that I so admire in the people of the Vietnamese Mekong Delta HERE. These are people who make something out of nothing. They are people who will survive when the academic carpet is pulled from under their feet. I can't tell for sure, but I suspect that our society is no longer willing to handsomely remunerate academic samurai for being good at Studying (for the sake of it)... hence the carpet is already starting to move from under our feet.

About Me and My Little Boy
I took a long hard look at my Little Boy and wondered. "Will he have the skills to make it in the world when the academic carpet is pulled from under his feet?" I think I am proud of myself. We lost only 3 years to the PSLE paper chase. Before that, we explored life in all its richness from cooking to guerrilla farming to selling French fries at 10c PER fry to schoolbus mates. Going forward, I will strive to emulate Ting's parenting style, and go easy on the academics and heavy on character and life skills.

At the end of the day, it really is all about the money no? I'm taking an educated bet that academic prowess will become an obsolete path to success in the years to come. This is already happening in Korea. I need Little Boy to be numerate and literate... and then I need him to learn to be like Ting's 2 sons. And that should ensure that my Little Boy will know how to hustle up a living for himself in his world of the future, no matter what carpet is pulled out from under his feet.

Little Boy wanted to start a rabbit farm and sell baby rabbits to pet shops. That was BEFORE my lunch with Ting so I offered him the choice of academic courses with an online US high school. He picked 2 modules... World Geography and Economics. When he's done with that, I think I will help him start his rabbit farm.

We prepare our children for the world they will live in.... not for the world we parents came from. In the next post, I will address how I have been preparing my kids for a future that only they will know.

Part 3 of this series of posts is HERE.

The Problem With Fulfilling Academic Potential

This post is not about parents who stress their kids to perform beyond their ability. This post is about parents with kids who CAN handle academic material beyond their years. Like mine.

For the past many years, loving parents have gone the step of enriching their children's academic ability by challenging them with more complex academic material whenever they see that their kids are ready to move ahead of their peers. Why not eh? After all, the child is capable and it is every parent's desire to help their children fulfill their potential. Besides, there are definite advantages to encouraging academic precocity.

(1) Firstly, schools have a habit of testing advanced material without having taught any of it because they believe that every school exam must have the ability to discriminate at the very highest levels of performance (never mind if the highest levels of performance weren't taught by teachers in class). A child who has been exposed to material beyond his years (outside of school) has a good chance of topping the class. Hey... if my child can handle advanced material, why not?

(2) Secondly, such successes build confidence and self-esteem. So hey... if my child can handle advanced material, why not? Who doesn't want a confident child?

Besides, topping the class naturally leads on to stellar PSLE results which lead on to a place in a top school, which lead on to all sorts of learning opportunities (university Professor mentorships... international competitions of all sorts... international field trips... highly competent teachers with PhDs or who graduated from internationally renowned universities). Get into a top school and the smorgasbord of learning that stares you in the face is like Sunday champagne brunch at Clifford, The Fullerton Bay Hotel. The children earn their place in their Learning Buffet by being top scorers academically, in the same way adults earn their place in their Food Buffet by being top earners in their profession.

You know, before Little Boy hit Primary 4, I was a parent who baulked at exposing my kids to academic material beyond what the Teacher was teaching or had taught. What for? I told myself. They'll get around to learning it anyway, no? And my kids should be bright enough to understand what Teacher teaches in class without my interference.

Instead, I wanted my kids to get involved in housework... do chores for me... start small businesses... wash the toilet... practise guerilla gardening... play tricks on adults and each other... bake cakes... cut carrots. For me, schools were there to teach numeracy and literacy. It was up to me to teach my children how to cope with life in general - do housework, learn to get along, have a sense of humor, honor nature and the environment, be clean and live in clean surroundings.

Little Boy learning to cook.

Little Boy learning to value "courage against all odds" by pretending to be David against Goliath.

Little Boy learning to respect nature.

Little Boy learning the value of manual labour and clean milk bottles, even though we had a dishwasher back then. Little Boy had a cute round head with sticky out ears.

I realised in Primary 3, when Little Boy scored at the bottom of his class, that his exams tested material from Primary 4 (sometimes Primary 5). So I began to teach him material in advance. Little Boy had no problems at all with the accelerated teaching. He kind of just chomped through all that I gave him, and then asked for more. There were few, if any, spots of indigestion even though some material (e.g., Chinese) required long hours of chewing. I no longer asked "What for?". I jumped in and did what I could to get him up the class rankings. He eventually made it up the ranks to 2nd in class and even won an Edusave award last year. Clearly, Little Boy CAN handle the challenging material.

However, he had no time for his chores. He had no time to clean his room. He had no time to help with the dishes. He had no time to weed the garden for me. I had to be very creative with his time management (e.g. he lunched in the car on the way home, whilst listening to Chinese audio tapes) in order to give him Sundays off to play, and Friday evenings to watch Big Bang Theory with the family. He certainly had no time for the echinacea business that I gave him to run as his own. Holidays were spent covering material in advance or catching up on the years we had wasted on grooming him in every other way but academic. The Daughter, at the same age, made UDS1500 on a now defunct business called GiftAChineseName. We have deleted her original website but I was still able to find some traces of it on the internet HERE.

But Little Boy had no time. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, he had no time for anything EXCEPT academic pursuits because even Mommy Petunia, who scored in the 98th percentile of global GMAT norms could not score more than 28/40 for Little Boy's English compositions. Undoubtedly, it was still the top mark in class... but...

NO TIME to grow in any area but academic.

With the PSLE over and done with, I have time to reflect. Did I do the right thing by Little Boy? Should I have helped him aggressively to tackle his academic load knowing that if I didn't give him time... and help, he would do very badly at PSLE and begin to think himself lacking in academic talent... suffer blow after blow to his self-esteem? Indeed, I told myself that if I had a younger child, I would start EARLY to teach in advance. How early? Oh well... as early as my child can take it. Is that wrong? What do readers think?

I have some thoughts of my own after talking to my blogger friend Blurting, but this post is getting too long...

Continue reading - HERE.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sericulture and Silk Embroidery

Did you know that Vietnam produces very high quality silk? I didn't. Growing up, I had thought of Vietnam as an abjectly poor country ravaged by war. Their reality was far removed from mine and when we met Vietnamese people abroad, they were generally somewhat marginalized - refugees trying to make good in life. 

In short, not impressed.

My jaw dropped right down to the floor on my first day in Hanoi. Take a walk in the tourist traps of Singapore and you will find loads of cheap plastic trinkets that are mere excuses for gifts and souvenirs.  Else, you're looking at branded shops where a handbag costs as much as some people make in 10 years. Take a walk along Hang Gai Street in Hanoi and you will be floored by the quality of merchandise at very reasonable prices. To be sure, the cost of living is low in Vietnam and this explains the affordability of many items... but it doesn't explain the plethora of quality locally produced products from silk dresses to silk embroidery to carved jadeite to oil paintings.

A calendar (in French) of buffalo horn and rosewood.

A set of poker cards in buffalo horn and rosewood.

This is clearly a highly evolved culture laid waste by 2 unjust wars that spanned 30 years. I begin to think that the Vietnamese spirit a redoubtable one... and the Vietnamese soul a beautiful one. Petunia takes pride in NOT being a shopper. Things I like and find beautiful are generally too expensive for my penny pinching ways. So I admire and walk on. Things that I don't mind paying for, are generally not worth paying for anyway, so I smile politely and walk on. This time, in Vietnam, Petunia outdid herself shopping whilst dragging her dropped jaw along the streets of Hanoi.

Highly skilled embroidery artisans

This too is a piece of silk embroidery. I was stunned by the sunlight shining through the trees. How does one make embroidery that looks so life like? I swear you can almost walk into that forest hanging on the wall because the piece is humongous. About 12 feet in height and 6 feet in breadth. It really felt that I could walk in and lie on that carpet of embroidered silk flowers.

The haul of Vietnamese silk dresses that fit my expanded waistline. Oh why didn't I buy more?!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Salt Boats

Cockles and Fried Fish

Bonding Over Rice Wine

The Coarse Salt

Khoa, our guide looked out into the distance and said "Would you like to go over there and see the salt boats?" Nothing in his everyday conversational tone prepared me for the experience ahead.

Our boat pulled up alongside the small fleet of 7 river boats all tethered securely together to form one huge floating platform. This gave them stability on the river and one could walk on the boats without feeling the motion of the waves too much. Also, these families care and share everything so one can imagine soya sauce bottles being passed around... plates of fried fish... and it wouldn't be easy to pass things around from boat to boat if the boats floated separately.

All I expected to do was to snap a few pictures of the mounds of coarse salt. To be polite, I waved at a smiling lady in purple samfoo. She is the matriarch... the oldest on the boat and the one that all defer to because of her seniority. It seems to be that she rules the roost with smiles and laughter. Before long, she waved us over so that she could see us up close too. I suppose we are as much curiosities to her as her salt boat was to us. We had an easy conversation facilitated by Khoa, who translated. After a bit, a vibrant looking fellow all sinew and tanned leather from the sun appeared with a bottle of rice wine. He invited us to his boat for a drink.

We were hesitant. We're almost teetotallers you see... not very much into alcohol and it was 9am in the morning but I thought the man looked hurt when we declined... so, against our better judgment, we climbed onto his boat. A while later, the whole group congregated on his boat... a plate of boiled cockles appeared... a plate of crispy fried fish... soya sauce augmented with chilli. It was delicious!! These are the simple foods the villagers obtain from their land teeming with fish and bursting with every fruit and vegetable imaginable... plus some unimaginable ones. The cockles are the sweetest I have ever tasted. Small but sweet.

For some reason, I was reminded of a fireplace in a brightly lit room, with my feet lost in a deep plush carpet and the warm chatter of coffee conversation. Different décor here on this boat, but same feelings in the heart. It was an experience that money cannot buy. You cannot buy that kind of welcome and warmth. They expected nothing from us, these simple folk... but treated us to the best they had to offer. We left them with a Singapore $2 note that had value not as money but as a curiosity they could bring home and show the families at home. In a Singapore where parents teach their children to get ahead no matter what... and that ends justify the means... in a Singapore where those who are at the top fight tooth and nail to get even higher, caring not at all for those less fortunate... I don't think you can find people like these anymore.

At one point in the conversation, mention was made of the China-Vietnam territorial disputes. They worry, these people, but they smile gently and shrug off the future uncertainty... "We, the Vietnamese are good fighters. We will join the army and protect the motherland." They say it with confidence, after all, they've been protecting this land for thousands of years and beaten opponents vastly more powerful. They say it as if that's the most normal thing in the world to go to war. It's amazing.

Thank God for people like that... the humble salt of the earth. This then, is what Vietnam is really made of.

The boat folks sell coarse salt. Anyone who wishes to buy raw sea salt can get in touch with Khoa. The boat folk don't speak English so Khoa would have to translate. Khoa can be reached at (0084) 987 485 984 too.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Making Pop Rice

We went to see someone make pop rice today. A very instructive experience. I think the kids will enjoy this science lesson immensely. Watch the video and then ask the kids to research how each step in the process works.

Questions To Ask Your Kids
(1) What is used? Husked rice or unhusked rice?

(2) Why does heat cause popping?

(3) How does the man separate the popped rice from the black sand?

(4) How does the man separate the rice husks from the popped kernel of rice?

This short activity will teach your kids how to search for information - a critical learning skill.

Making Rice Wine
The next photo shows a rice wine distiller. The rice is cooked and then fermented in the blue pails. The liquid ferment is placed into the kettle on the right. Heat causes the alcohol to evaporate into the metal pipe leading into an urn filled with cold water. The alcohol condenses inside the pipe and comes out the tap at the base of the urn

Questions to Ask Your Kids
(1) Draw the cross-section of the apparatus above and clearly explain on the drawing what is happening inside the kettle, the pipes and the urn.

(2) Why does alcohol evaporate faster than water?

(3) Why does the alcohol turn back into a liquid when the pipes are cooled with cold water?

I wish I had brought Little Boy to Mekong Lodge earlier. There is no better way to learn the PSLE Science syllabus than watching these cottage industries at work. Firstly, the equipment is simple to understand. Secondly, seeing Science at work is vastly more effective learning than reading Science guidebooks.

Brick Kilns

It's terribly difficult to start up anything in Singapore. Firstly, rental costs are high. Secondly, staff costs are high. Thirdly, there are so many government regulations. On the one hand, I suppose one can better be assured of quality. On the other, the Singaporean mindset is the get-me-a-job kind, rather than I start-my-business kind.

We visited a cluster of houses with brick kilns in their backyard. Again, the machines are self-designed and bespoke built by the local mechanic - someone who is really good with machines and contributes to his whole village in his own way. And honoured for his talent. Each house owns 2 kilns and a motorised mould that spits out long columns of moulded clay that are cut with wires and then laid out to dry in the sun. The families take turns to run their kilns. When their own kilns are down (because kilns need to rest for 2 weeks before the next firing) they go over to the neighbour's house to help with the neighbour's kiln. For free. Again, we have the Crane and Turtle in action.

The lady moves the lever from left to right to cut the column into short lengths. To preserve her back, they've dug a hole for her to stand in. This way, she does not have to bend over all day.

Blocks of clay are fed into the moulding machine.

The motor that powers the moulding machine. Can you see the huge clay urn next to the green bucket? That's for cooling the engine.

Clay bricks dry in the sun for 2 days.

Clay bricks are baked in the kiln for 7 days and 7 nights. Family members take shift work to shovel rice husks into the kiln. Temperatures from burning rice husks can hit 700 Degrees.

The Boss

Fuel: rice husks

Huge mountains of rice husks to feed the hungry furnace

The burnt husks are sold as fertilizer to farms around. Nothing is wasted.

Sugar Factory

The Vietnamese amaze me with their can-do spirit and share-ful culture.

The rural people on the Mekong delta keep saying they're poor but to me, they seem very wealthy indeed. Their lands are fertile and their rivers teem with life. Now that peace has come to Vietnam and the Vietnamese can raise chickens, ducks and a mind-boggling variety of fruits and vegetables, life looks happy on the Mekong Delta. Each family finds its own way to contribute. This one raises fighting cockerels. The other is good with ducks. Another makes great fish sauce. Yet another makes sugar. These mini industries produce with a hodge podge of machine parts that are put together by those with a rudimentary education... but they work well. We had visited a large scale sugar plant in Mauritius, which was completely automated. The farmers on the Mekong delta don't have the financial muscle to build such factories but they made do... and prosper thereby.

The 73 year old ex-Vietcong soldier and boss of the sugar plant.

This man has 7 kids... even more grandkids and a few great grandkids. He smiles broad and talks loud. I like him because he said my son looks handsome. After winning the war against the Americans, he settled on the Mekong delta and designed his own machinery to extract sugar cane juice. The vats of boiling juice are manually tended by his ample family... many sons and many daughters plus all of their kids. I am told that people often do that... the village mechanic will make machines to your design. If you have an idea, people in the village contribute their expertise to turn your idea into reality.

Our tour guide is dreaming of a thriving rabbit farm. He told us "I learnt how to care for rabbits from people in my village. Here... you only need to walk into the neighbour's house and ask a question. They will help, because they know that another day, they will need help and you will help them." The value of caring and sharing is what makes life rich in the Mekong delta. There is no such thing as patented process and intellectual property. Here, they teach each other how to live well and work smart... and then, it is up to the individual families to work hard and innovate upon what they have learnt, and share in their turn. This is the Crane and Turtle in action

The fresh sugar cane juice boiling.

The heat is supplied by burning rice husks

Huge mounds of rice husks

The sugar cane juice condenses into a delicious thick syrup that cools into huge cakes. I couldn't help it. I bought half a cake (2.5kg) of this delicious unrefined sugar.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Garden of Eden: Day 1

This looks like Bali... but it isn't. It's way better. My experience of Bali has been 5-star international chain resorts put together with impeccable taste and offering every Western dish or convenience so that Westerners can taste exoticism without really tasting it. This resort is unmistakably Vietnamese. Vietnamese music fills the air in its al fresco restaurant. None of the waiters can speak English. 5 white dogs have the run of the property. They are quite stand offish but seem to adore a poorly dressed man in slippers, who strides along the paths, seeming to command the loving respect of every person he passes. The white dogs, especially the pups, scurry after him as fast as their legs can manage and look up at him like he is their everything. I had been trying to charm the pups with food but they remain resolutely in love with this man in the picture below.

The Boss

You see... he's the Boss... and he is the worst dressed of all those working in Mekong Lodge. Trust the pups to know who is the boss eh? It just goes to show that when you're a man of substance, you dun need nice clothes nor Rolexes to command respect. And love. 

The staff who work here are serious and responsible. I suspect that in this farming community, he has his pick of the talent in the farming communities around here. Personal recommendations and connections will ensure that those who work for him come with stellar character references from the gardeners who work the soil to the ladies who clean the rooms. Here, I am guessing that the gardeners command higher pay than the waiters. The gardeners are chosen for skill and experience. What they know how to do, the waiters may not know. This shows. The gardens here are stunning that I want to walk in them forever.

 External View of a Room

Beds With Mosquito Nets

Big White Dog (this one is decorated with disused keys on its collar). It looks like a very happy one.

The Pigeon House

Staying in The Mekong Lodge is a whole new experience of resort living. Guests have their program planned for them. It feels a bit like visiting a friend who went to great lengths to search out the local sights and sounds that would please you... and then made every effort to organize, get tickets, pay up, arrange transport. You need not worry about a single thing. Not even money. The costs are very reasonable indeed and you only need to sort out the money at the end of the stay. I think the Vietnamese are too genteel and polite to be crass about money. Of course, one has to pay for all this but as far as possible, discussion of money is kept to a minimum. 

There are no swimming pools in the resort. Nothing else but a stunning garden, an al fresco area, pigeon coops and lovely rooms. But there is not a minute of boredom because we have a full program and feel spoilt silly... really spoilt silly. This morning, we went on a boat ride through one of the many small waterways that cut through the Mekong delta. We had a local guide called Khoa who was warm and very knowledgeable. He recognised all the plants and explained in depth the farming practices. I do so respect people who know their stuff. Later, we visited a family who owned a small farm and reared fighting cockerels. Yet later, we went on a bike ride along the small paths of the village.

Later in the afternoon, we will visit a brick factory... a sugar factory... and we will end the night with a cooking class. Ohhhh... readers of Petunia's blog, you all must come here one day. It is really unlike any other resort I have ever been to, no matter how expensive.

A cluster of snail eggs... these eggs hatch into the snails below that cause major damage to crops.

These snails can grow larger than my fist and eat everything... even plants that are considered too tough to eat.

At 10.30am, children end school and go home to work on farm chores. I love the girls' high school uniforms.

Fishermen on the Mekong River

A fighting cockerel.

Sediment dredged up from the flood waters to fertlise plants

A hen with her chicks

A duck with her ducklings

Khao, our guide

Banana flower salad for lunch - yummy!

Elephant ear fish - yummy!

3 meals are provided. You don't get to choose what you eat. There is only Vietnamese food. But I am not complaining. Everything is good. Breakfast breads are baked on site every morning and the produce is locally sources. If you want to experience a bit of real Vietnam rather than an artificial resort where everything is French and Italian food, this is the place to be.

The staff are incredible. This is the only resort in this patch of rural backwaters. They know they each have a responsibility to make things work because everyone else's jobs depend on them. They take pride in what they do... and when Little Boy did not eat the banana flower salad nor the fish, they asked if it was because they had not cooked well enough.

They took it personally... like we were guests in the home of friends. There is a sense that everyone owns this place because the prosperity of this resort will bless all their families. How rare such an attitude... and I REALLY don't think the staff have KPIs to meet.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Tailor at Hué: What a Woman!!

I couldn't believe that an embroidered silk dress could be made to measure in 4 hours for SGD30. Pure silk. I briefly considered buying the whole shop to resell in Singapore but then decided that I might not enjoy selling dresses, no matter how silky. So I settled for 3 tailored dresses instead.

The lady tailor is pregnant with her second child but like all Vietnamese we've met, she works hard. I have not encountered a single beggar in Vietnam. People tout their services and wares... and can be irritatingly persistent but they don't expect something for nothing. This lady made all the clothes for TWO shops all by herself. Clearly, a very industrious mother and wife.

I first ordered one dress but liked the workmanship so much that I ordered 2 more dresses. She completed all 3 within 24 hours. Wow! Vietnam is a very wow place, I think.