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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Stupid, and Loving It

Why is the PSLE So Difficult Despite Reduced Academic Content?
Yes, it is true that topics have been dropped from the PSLE syllabus. MOE has trimmed academic content to make space for students to learn to think and reason. I've said it before and I will say it again. The current version of the PSLE cannot be aced with drilling and rote learning. The difficulty of the PSLE lies NOT in the quantity of topics or facts covered. The difficulty of the PSLE lies in the following...

(1) the thinking and reasoning skills tested for those topics still remaining in the syllabus

(2) the large class sizes that prevent effective teaching of such skills in too many mainstream schools (especially if you aren't in a GEP centre that spills over GEP methods and materials to mainstream)

(3) the lack of quality pedagogy (textbooks, computer access, library access) in mainstream schools to teach these thinking and reasoning skills

(4) the lack of primary school teachers who can themselves think and reason well enough to teach these skills 

Here is an analogy. Instead of mastering basic skills for 50 dishes...
(1) chopping
(2) slicing
(3) washing
(4) storing

... our children now need to show mastery in in more complex skills for ONLY 25 dishes...
(3) braising (temperature control... water monitoring... mastery of pressure cooker... thermal pot... casserole in oven)
(4) roasting (temperature control... fan speed... differences between convection oven and conventional oven)
(5) baking (blah blah blah...)
(6) barbecuing (blah blah blah)
(7) broiling
(8) cuisson sous vide

Skills can only be learnt through sufficient practice and individualized feedback.

This has resulted in many mainstream parents falling back on private tutors and tuition centres with small classes, where teachers can and do provide the individualized feedback so necessary for SKILLS mastery. This has resulted in successful schools co-opting parent involvement in a very extensive way. Schools who turn out good results at the PSLE have an important core competency. They analyze each child's gaps and expect/hope that the parents are rich enough... educated enough... to bridge these gaps. 

Our Own Education Limits Our Kids
The problem with modern day Singaporean parents is that we are too educated. Unlike our own parents, who often received only a primary school education (and therefore wouldn't dream of coaching us), many of us are tertiary educated. We think that with a university degree... a polytechnic diploma... we should be able to master and teach the PSLE. This is not true. Our tertiary degrees are useless.

Like it or not, us parents, we grew up in an era where rote-learning gave us results. Some of us were lucky enough to have experienced university abroad but how many of us? Most of us feel quite overwhelmed by the current PSLE because a whole chunk of it tests reasoning skills that are

(1) are not documented in the textbooks
(2) are not modeled in videos
(3) are... errr... very simply, not documented
(4) WE were not taught

Overwhelmed, we scramble to learn with our kids in order to teach them without realising that our slow adult brains are actually LIMITING our kids ability to learn. It is a well-researched finding that older brains drop in fluid intelligence. Our children possess more fluid intelligence than we do. We don't learn new things as fast as they do. If we insist to first learn so that we can teach, then we actually are slowing them down.

Every time I play computer games with my son, I am reminded of how fast his brain works. He often takes in the situation and devised a logical solution before I have even understood the parameters of the puzzle before me. He is young and his brain is young. He is therefore FAST.

Sometimes, it is more effective to give up, sit back and admit that vis-a-vis the current requirements of the PSLE, our university degrees are about the level of the present day primary school requirements. As far as modern standards are concerned, parents should just admit that we're no more than Primary 3 educated.  If we can accept how stupid we are, things become way less stressful... and way more motivating for our kids.

How so?

So, What Can Parents Do, To Help

Coaching Chinese Whilst Being Chinese Illiterate
From Primary 1 to 3, Little Boy had a live-in Chinese tutor (Grandma) who taught him religiously from the textbooks. Yet, his grades in Chinese dropped steadily. Now mind you.... back when Grandma was young (back when PSLE was rote-learned), she was a star tutor whose clients numbered the Who's Who of the then MOE. Grandma's expertise limited Little Boy.

From Primary 4 to Primary 6, Little Boy had no Chinese tuition. Helpful and concerned Moms on the KiasuParents Forum messaged me and warned that I would regret. "Brave" they called me... but I knew they were thinking "foolhardy". Little Boy skipped all his Higher Chinese Language classes in school because I wanted him home by 1.30 pm. Yet, Little Boy passed Higher Chinese Language at PSLE... whilst other children with 2 types of Chinese tuition did not.

You see... I used computer technology to empower him to learn on his own. See HERE. I exposed him to rich and high quality material and left it to his natural child's ability to figure things out. His grades in Chinese moved towards the middle of the class rankings. 

Teaching Phonics Without Spending Time
I taught myself to read watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company. So when it came my children's turn, I didn't do cards and stuff. I bought some Phonics computer games, taught them to operate a computer mouse and turned them loose to figure things out.

Coaching Science Without Learning Science
I'm not crazy about Science. Little Boy taught himself Science by Googling and Youtubing.... writing reports and creating presentations for me. He found experiments that he wanted to do and it was my job to buy him what he needed. Then, he would teach me. I confess that I probably retain about 10% of what he taught me but that's fine. I am not the one taking PSLE.

During the school holidays, to get him out of my way whilst I worked, I would drop him at The Singapore Science Centre and sit at McDonalds to type my reports. When he came out of The Science Centre, I pretended to listen to his new learning and discoveries. "Hmmmm... really! Wow! So why does water droplets form on the cold glass of milk again?"

To ace the current PSLE, with its emphasis on HOT (higher order thinking) skills, the children need to be allowed to FIGURE THINGS OUT. That's what HOT skills are all about. The current PSLE tests your kids' ability to figure things out for themselves. When Little Boy explained the Whys and Wherefores to me, he had to research the facts and put them together with logical reasoning to develop an explanation that I could understand. If he could explain simply enough for me to understand, it meant that he had reasoned through the topic very well indeed.

I knew little about Science but I have been well trained in logical reasoning and analysis.

It was this messy and unstructured exploration of the world around him that gave Little Boy his A* in PSLE Science... and we didn't even do any Science Assessment books. The current version of the PSLE is designed to be taught amidst in a rich and living context. The exact kind of multi-sensory context that stimulates every one of the child's 5 senses and through such stimulation, helps retention and activates Higher Order Thinking processes.

Counter-Intuitive Response to Falling English Compo Marks
Little Boy's compo marks in end-P4 were reasonably good. In early P5, they dropped to borderline again. My first response was NOT to get him to write more. My first response was to increase the difficulty levels of his reading materials. From January of Primary 5 to June of Primary 5, we did no writing at all. Instead, we put in place an aggressive reading program.

This exposed Little Boy to rich and varied reading stimuli that activated Higher Order Thinking Processes. He had to figure out good writing from the complex stimuli. It was only after 6 months of Reading Acceleration that I attempted to structure his unstructured learning by isolating specific writing techniques for him to use in his compositions. By then though, he had already developed an intuitive grasp of good writing elements and it was easy for him to understand how to do them. He had seen them done so often whilst he read.

It's not enough to read voluminously. It is important to read voluminously at the right difficulty level so that the brain has a chance to activate the Higher Order Thinking Processes to figure language out.

Petunia is Stupid
Throughout my children's younger years, I celebrated my own stupidity. See, if you're stupid, then you'll be happy with anything your kids can do. Your happiness at their clumsy efforts encourages them to do more... practise more. The more they practise and do whatever (from piano to flute to science) the better they'll be. And then it's a matter of being unafraid of choosing material of higher complexity. Don't be afraid of complexity. Children are smarter and better at handling complexity than we think... or than adults can.

We make our children stupid by breaking things down for them.

And now, from pretending to be dumb, I realise that I have really become dumb because Little Boy knows so much more than I do in Chinese, Science and Math. He can do far more than I can in Chinese, Science and Math. He knows almost as much as I do in English because we race neck to neck when playing Hangman. I still have an edge in expository and argumentative writing though!

It's quite worth it to be the Family Bimbo if it means you don't limit your children's potential.


Blur Ting said...

I love this post. I'm going to share it on FB!

CS said...

Like this post and your analogy esp to someone like me who loves cooking and baking but no time to spend on my interest now trying my and our best (with my gal) to equip our.skill through practicing of skill and balancing our expectation towards next year psle.


CS said...

Like this post and your analogy esp to someone like me who loves cooking and baking but no time to spend on my interest now trying my and our best (with my gal) to equip our.skill through practicing of skill and balancing our expectation towards next year psle.


Wen-ai said...

Family Bimbo... haha. You are too modest, Petunia! You are like one of the smartest persons I know!

lynklee said...

Thanks for sharing. Am hoping that when it comes to my girls' time some years later, pri sch might be less of a strange unenchanted forest.

Petunia Lee said...

Ting - Oh yes! Please share!

Petunia Lee said...

CS - I'm glad this post spoke to you.

Petunia Lee said...

Wen-Ai: Looking smart ain't quite the same as being it! Hahaha!

Petunia Lee said...

lynklee - Thanks Toddles for dropping by!

lynklee said...

happy to reconnnect!

mummyof3 said...

Thank you for making this so clear. I am beginning to discover the ins and outs of the system a little late in the game. My girl is in P5 this year and up till now she has been fairly independent and has done well on her own without our help or tuition (save for enrichment classes for Higher Chinese, we are chinese illiterate). I also have a P3 boy who does fairl well (so far) in Eng and Maths and Science but is struggling in Chinese.

So in your opinion what are the students from a normal mainstream school that is NOT a GEP centre to do? How are we who don't have the HOT skills to help them? Is Learning Lab or the like the way for us then?

Is there time at P5 to learn and discover these skills on their own time?

For my girl who is in one of the top classes I don't worry so much as they do some higher order stuff. But what abt my boy who ended up in an average class though he is not average in any of his subjects (he is well above average in EMS and well below average in MT)?

mummyof3 said...

Hi again Petunia

I am very intrigued by your method of helping Little Boy with his compo writing skills by first increasing the difficulty levels of his reading material. What sort of reading and genres did you expose him to at P5? I want to do the same for my girl. She is an avid reader and writes reasonably well. She often gets top marks in English (including compo) but I want to challenge her and bring her to the next level. She enjoys writing and so do I so I'd like to to help her pursue her interest and discover her talents in this area.

Is there a particular reading list you would recommend we pick from? I've been exploring amblesideonline and fiar for the classics and also her own school's reading list.

Thank you!

Petunia Lee said...

In P5, Little Boy read stuff like... Sherlock Holmes (unabridged)... Democracy: Its oirigins and definition, Churchill's Unnecessary War... 1421:The Year China Discovered the World... 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance.

In P5, I don't dictate to him what he should read. I censor instead his choices. No sexual content. No books below a certain reading level. No witches or black magic.

He chooses his own readings otherwise so I am not sure I can advise actual books.

mummyof3 said...

Thank you for sharing! Heavy going stuff indeed. My girl is definitely into lighter fiction though I try to do some QC.

Another question, or enquiry rather. I'd like to know more about your English Enrichment Class. I clicked on the link but your post is no longer there. I take that to mean your class is full? Any chance you will start another one?