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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Guest Post by M

After reading my post HERE, M was sufficiently moved to write a very long comment. I kind of expected this because we had had a sort of discussion some days earlier where we disagreed about my rather positive view of the latest MOE changes (banding PSLE T-scores and making every school a good school). Blogger wouldn't publish her comment because it was too long. So here it is... a sort of rebuttal to my post. I write "sort of" because I do agree with many of M's points, and I do hope that MOE will address them by and by, as it pursues its journey along this new shift in philosophy and approach.

I've shortened some of M's sentences and rearranged some of the syntax but by and large, the words below belong to her.


Singapore education system is doing a wonderful job in imparting academic knowledge. However, in term of teaching the right mindset, proper character and moral values, attitude, behaviours, life skills, it has failed miserably.

I kinda disagree here. Judging from the quality of teaching that goes on in MOE schools, I would say that the Singapore education system is good at making PARENTS AND ENRICHMENT CENTRES impart academic knowledge.

Look at the increasing large number of young and well-groomed and yet unhappy Singaporeans with very little drive to solve any problem they encounter, preferring to complain and blame everything and anything as if the whole world owes them a living. Government is now reaping the whirlwind with rapidly declining supports from these people who don’t appreciate what the government has done for them. This is partially government’s own doing because they have emphasized material comforts and academic excellence at the expense of character building, and many others in schools.

Classes Of 40 Are Not Conducive To Teach Less Learn More
“Teach less and Learn More” is a good way for teaching thinking skills (such as Creativity & Innovation). However, it is impractical with a big class-size and inexperienced/incompetent teachers. It is not possible to introduce “teach less and learn more” with such a big class size of 40 students. In a big class of 40, it is not possible to allow the sufficient interactions among students required to effectuate Teach Less Learn More! These are 40 young children with different characters and some even have behavioural problems. Also, the competency level in 1 subject can vary significantly from one child to another.

GEP Have Classes Of 25 But Normal Stream Has Classes of 40
It is really bewildering that MOE sees a need to have a smaller class size of 20-25 students to conduct the GEP program but can’t see a need for a normal-stream class! It makes it worse when the students are being taught little but are tested on a wider coverage/depth (and those who do well are those who have tuition outside and who covered more and in more depth or those in GEP who do so as well).

Entrance Into Top Schools Decided At Primary 3
I am struck by an obsession to pursue academic excellence for most Singaporean. The PSLE has become “the new O level" where competition for entrance to top JC/IP schools has shifted down from the O level to the present PSLE. Some told me it is no longer PSLE but currently Primary 3 GEP selection exams, with the introduction of through-train IP schools where once a kid get into GEP, he will be exempted from competition to get into top JC (no need to compete based on his PLSE and O level results). As such, many parents (I heard that it is an alarming number) pack their kids with lots of tuitions/enrichment classes. Parents are eager to get their kids into GEP to reap the benefits and advantage bestowed to GEP kids. I don’t have exact figure, however, the booming tuition/enrichment centres/industries tell me that it will not be a small percentage. In fact, even the bright students (GEP students) take tuition too. I once saw a junior minister waited outside of a popular enrichment centres for his GEP son!

Are the Horrendously High Standards Necessary?
Just look at current PSLE papers, it is almost Sec 3 to Sec 4 level of the olden days!  Is there a need to load primary schools’ kids with so difficult and high level contents?  There is obviously no benefit as the young has missed out many good opportunity for other development!  If GEP program is successful after 30 years, we would have at least a Nobel-prize nominee (not to say a Nobel-prize winner)!  Education in Singapore context has become nothing but just academics to the extent of training a robot.

This is where I disagree with my friend C. I do think the high standards are necessary.

Do Top Schools Get More Money?
Why now kids are trying to squeeze the selected few top IP schools?  Why these top IP schools are doing so well?  I believe this is because these schools got extra funding and support from MOE for many attractive programs.  For example, when they take in 1 GEP kid, they get extra funding.  This funding that make some schools have extra fund to further develop their programs and make them better.  All these yummy programs should be available in all secondary schools instead and should not be limited to a few top secondary IP schools.  This is a vicious cycle, and makes kids even more eager to squeeze into these few top IP schools.  Also, these kids once entered the IP schools, don’t have to compete using their O level to get into best JCs!  See, these are reasons parents die die must hot-house their kids when young so that their young can reap benefits from all these priority and privilege (and extra funding).  Hence, competition is very keen at young age because the Education system protects the privileges/benefits of those who did very well at young age (PSLE/GEP) and it has very little room (was told 8A1 in O level are unable to get in!) for those late-bloomers to get into the Top schools. 

If Every School Is A Good School Then...
If MOE and government really believe in making every school a good school in its niche area (at least if they really want to try, this is what PM Lee has urged us to take his word for it), they should treat all schools equally, and treat all students equally (instead of like GEP kids got extra funding, IP program kids can get into best JCs without competing based on their O level results etc).  All these make the schools unequal, and hence how can every school be a good school when the actions taken by MOE already said otherwise (some schools got extra funding, better curriculum, better teachers etc because they are richer and have more money!).  Why in the past, parents are fine with their children going into any of the top 20 secondary schools, but why now they are not fine anymore and will only be happy if their kids get into the only few top IP schools? 

Don't Drive On A Narrow Road!
Instead of maintaining a very narrow road and tossing with all sorts of constraints, to even hold the steering wheel steady (a very good chance to hit a bump and then topple), why not expanding the road to many lanes of highway to cater for students with different talents and abilities at the same time teaching the right mindset, values, attitude, behaviours, life skills which are more meaningful in life?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hold Steady

Hold Steady To The Narrow Road
Have you tried steering a car along a narrow country road buffeted by strong cross winds? It is a massive effort to even hold the steering wheel steady. This was my experience when at the age of 19, my French friend let me take the wheel of her car. She was somewhat drunk. The narrow road had no street lamps. I wasn't even sure HOW to get us home.

I guess the Singapore government feels somewhat in this situation at present.

During the National Day Rally, our government has sketched the outlines of a strategic directional shift in country governance. True.. some people are not happy because they believe it is a shift of ever so infinitesimal proportions.

"You call this a big change?" they wail... sniff... scoff.

Whilst I agree with these naysayers, I also think that it matters how far along this new direction we will be traveling. A shift of 1 degree left of North, traveled by 10,000 km would put us very far away from the place towards which we were once heading.

I am happy with this 1 degree shift. For now. I would like to see how far along this road we can travel without shifting BACK.

Keeping the Bread Dough Together Governance
Some time ago, I wrote a post entitled Relating Bread Dough and Government Policy. The central idea in that post was that government policy needed to CONTINUE to spur the well-endowed CITIZENS (intelligent, rich, successful) to do well, and BEGIN to support the weak CITIZENS (not so intelligent, poorer, not as successful) so that they can level up. In this way, the whole society (the bread dough) moves up together without splitting into Rich VS Poor (two blobs of bread dough).

Maybe I am naive but I do find the strategic intent of the National Day Rally speech very encouraging. I'm not for a 180 degree shift in direction wherein we completely rid ourselves of top schools (oh dear... this sentence will rub a very good friend the wrong way). I am for ensuring Primary schools are ALL good (hmmm... tough promise to keep).  If we had no top schools we would press down standards at the top. The high performance delivered by the best and the brightest should be maintained. If we can maintain our standards at the very top and level up the poorer performers by a lot, the gap between them will narrow. It will never disappear but it will narrow. Hence, the children will not split themselves into 2 separate communities - the Smart Elite VS Stupid Masses.

I am not for pressing down property prices. I am for ensuring that even the poor can afford HDB flats at least. This ensures that the wealth of those who have wealth is maintained, but the poor stand now a fighting chance to get comfortable. The wealth gap will narrow. Hence again, Singaporeans will not split themselves into 2 communities along the fault line of Rich Elite VS Poor Masses.

The Narrow Middle Road Pleases No One
This sort of strategic direction is quite like traveling along a very narrow road. You're not going the direction that the RICH and SMART want... and you're also not going in the direction that the POORER and LESS Smart want. The result is that the government is buffeted from the left and the right.

I have only ONE encouragement to give my government - "Hold steady!" If you do, and we make it to the 10,000 km mark by 2016, we will thank you for it.

My Worry
I hope that the government is sincere. It's hard to believe in its sincerity after so many years of talking to a wall... and hearing echoes return from far yonder that sounded nothing like what we called out over the canyon divide to our government on the other side. For example, as far back as 2008, parents have been giving feedback to MOE about insufficient textbooks. Since 2010 (at least), we've been asking for a Finland-Singapore education collaboration. The Population White Paper went through parliament like a fireball through a hay barn, crisping every obstacle in its way, and lighting raging fires outside the barn. Wasn't it just last month when PM Lee revealed to the international press that he wanted more billionaires in Singapore? It certainly doesn't help to hear Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam declare that government policy played no role in the rising inequality. I don't know about other areas of governance but I do know that the Teach Less Learn More policy directly contributed to the fact that students in top schools mostly come from comfortable homes.

So... I am cautiously happy. Only cautiously so. A one degree shift in direction travelled for 10 metres won't change much.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Kindle Reader & Kindle E-Books For Children

This post is written for the parents (of Dr Pet's English Enrichment but other parents may also find it interesting). Hopefully this will help encourage your children to read even more and even faster. The Kindle has a built-in dictionary. This saves the child a great deal of time and prevents a fair bit of tedium resulting from having to flip the dictionary every so often.

Side View of Kindle in its Case. I bought a jacket with a stand and a cover to protect the glass screen. Kindle jackets are sold separately. Some are HERE. I've also seen some really pretty ones on sale at Challenger in the local malls.

Front View of my Kindle. 

My Kindle Out of Case

Which Model to Buy for Children
Mine is a simple Kindle that retails at US$69 HERE. I would recommend either the simple Kindle (cheapest) or the Kindle Paper White HERE (2nd cheapest) for children. Both are dedicated readers. This means you can ONLY read books off them. I would just go for the cheapest model and buy two. Why?

(1) If the children carry these to school, they'll see rough use, and might get lost.

(2) Kindle Paper White has a built-in light which the simple Kindle does not have. If your children LOVE reading then Kindle Paper White encourages them to read in the dark. If you don't mind this then it's ok. I did mind.

(3) Unlike hard copies, the Kindle library cannot be physically shared. If you have only one Kindle, then only one child can read at any one time. All the other books already inside the Kindle cannot be read at that time. Amazon Kindle allows users to download each Kindle book into a maximum of 6 devices. Hence, if you've more than one child then it may make sense to get TWO Kindles.

Why Kindle E-Books?
(1) These books travel well. 1000 books can be stored in a Kindle. Imagine carrying 1000 books onto a plane or in your schoolbag.

(2) There is a built-in dictionary. Children save time and avoid the tedium of flipping the dictionary.

(3) Kindle books tend to be cheaper than hard copies.

(4) A lot of Christian literature is FREE on Kindle if you know how to wait for and look for the free promotions that come around.

(5) Kindle books are delivered to my laptop IMMEDIATELY. I can buy any book and receive it in 5 seconds - the time required to download it onto my laptop.

Amazon Does NOT Sell Kindle Readers To Singapore
See HERE or HERE for how to buy a Kindle Reader without having to pay the marked up prices that local retailers charge.

Amazon Will Block E-Book Downloads If They Detect That You Are Located in Singapore
See HERE for how to get around that.

You will need a VPN. I use this VPN provided HERE. An US$8 subscription has lasted me 2 years and I still have not exhausted the US$8. The VPN is a US server that allows you to download Kindle e-books through it. This makes it seem that you are in USA, and Amazon will then not block your account.

Please be careful. I've had my account blocked before and it is no fun to get it reinstated.

iPAD Has A Kindle App
If you so prefer... the iPAD has a Kindle App. You can download this in a jiffy and then follow the instructions HERE to buy your Kindle books. However, I don't like this because...

(1) The iPAD screen light interferes with my sleep cycle. The strong light wakes me up and then after reading, I can't sleep, when usually reading relaxes me well enough for me to sleep better.

(2) The iPAD has too many other distractions and I lose control over the way my child uses his/her time. Up until P6, I still exert a strong influence over my child's schedule. Instead of nagging a child to do work, schedule the work instead. Reading was part of our schedule and I could not afford to have my child sneak off to play computer games on the same device.  In Primary 4, I planned with Little Boy. This modeled for him how to plan. In Primary 5, Little Boy planned. I okayed his plan or asked for revisions. In Primary 6, Little Boy planned and I mostly okayed, because by then, he was really good at planning. In Sec 1, I don't bother to approve his schedule anymore.

(3) When everything is on a single device, other family members have to wait to read whilst someone else is playing a game. Our family reads a lot and we are often reading at the same time. Having to wait around for your book to be available can turn a child off.

Short Note About Planning & Scheduling
By the time they reach Sec 1, my kids know how to do a TWO Year, ONE Year, 6-month, 1 month and weekly plan. They know how to account for CCA competitions and school holidays. This means that by the middle of Sec 1, my son has looked at his syllabus for Sec 1 AND Sec 2.

He knows what will be covered for each of the CAs and SAs up until end of Sec 1. He doesn't wait for the Teachers to teach because at some points in the year, he has so much training that he has no time to study. He reads up ahead on his own and studies at HIS OWN pace, not the school's. For example, over the National Day weekend, he refused to vote Yes for going to Chiangmai because he had already planned to complete a first read-through for his Chinese syllabus up to the end of the year. This means that Little Boy can miss lessons (to train to compete in 2 CCAs) and still score at the top of his class in 3 subjects.

Happily, in his secondary school, Little Boy also has very supportive and loving teachers.

For Sec 2, he has incomplete information. However, based on what he knows, he takes steps to work ahead in subjects such as Math, which he finds too easy in Sec 1. He also asks his Seniors for information about the following year's challenges. Once in a while, I might ask a question such as "When are your competitions next year?" and from there he already knows that he needs to plan his work around those peak CCA training periods.

Good planning and scheduling is ultra important for performance. In the corporate context, it's no different than doing an external environment scanning and building projected environmental and competitor changes into one's strategic and tactical business planning.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Nothing Box

To understand this post, you have to watch the video first.

The Nothing Box has become The Husband's favourite excuse for anything and everything. 

Me: Hey! There were 2 bowls of bak chor mee and 2 bowls of soup and a plate of steamed chicken on TWO big trays. I would have appreciated some help?

The Husband (looking up from his newspapers): Oops! I was in my Nothing Box.

Me: Whut?!


Me: This is not the right drink. I wanted the one with lemongrass. This one has no lemongrass. It has lime.

The Husband (eyes wide): Oh... I must have been in my Nothing Box again!

Me: Grrrrrrrr...


Me: This pair of your shorts is lying on the floor?

The Husband: Errrr... Nothing Box?

Me: Aaaaaaaargh!

I hate that Nothing Box of his! How does one put something in a Nothing Box?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Every School A Good School. Really?

In 2012's National Day Rally, I got up to switch off the TV at the moment when I heard PM Lee assert  that every school is a good school. "He's talking rubbish!" I muttered miserably to myself. Then, to comfort myself, I went to read a trashy novel on my Kindle.

This year, in 2013, PM Lee's speech was quite a bit more balanced. First, he said...

But What Exactly Was PM Lee's Point?
"I believe we can make every school a good school, and we have done a lot of that to ensure that every school provides a good education for the students. We give them the resources. We give them the good teachers. We emphasize values. And we've made a lot of progress towards this goal." 

It was good to hear this. Instead of boasting that the MOE had already reached the goal of Every School A Good School, he communicated an intention to work towards this goal. Later though... he slipped this into his speech...

"Every school is a good school…" 

I rolled my eyes at that point. Really? After the OSC, he's still telling us that every school is a good school? He then continued to say...

"We want every school to be good... I push MOE very hard to give the schools the resources, the good Principals, the flexibility and the authority to teach students according to their students' needs to make the system work. So… we want every school to be good. …" 

Ok... so now he's gone back to framing it as a desired goal. I had some trouble ascertaining WHAT he was trying to say. He seemed to be contradicting himself. So, is every school already a good school or not?

Then, he went on to say the following...

"You may have good grades because your children happen to be bright but you may not be doing anything for them. They may be just educating themselves. You may have children who are not so naturally talented but a good education will improve their performance and make a big difference to them."

Gee... he had just described Little Boy's primary school years. My son educated himself because his teachers taught him so very little indeed. They tested him hard though... and failed children liberally. The difficult exams lit a bonfire under the backsides of both children and parents. Only 2 children in my son's class had no tuition - Little Boy and someone else. The other child's mother was a tutor herself.

In the absence of good quality teaching in his primary school, I learnt to be grateful for the tough exams. At least those showed me what the REAL demands of the PSLE were, and so, I could help my son to reach towards those standards.

So hmmmm... he does understand what my son went through after all. He does acknowledge that some poor children have in the recent past been shortchanged by their schools, and have had to "educate themselves."

Whilst waiting for things to improve, this is at least comforting. No longer is he (nor MOE) trying to pretend that a problem does not exist by pointing to how successful our students are in the PISA rankings.

Then PM Lee said...

"But at the same time we are continuing to upgrade the quality of every primary school. MOE has asked me to say this again... and I say this with conviction. We are doing this. You can take it in faith from me that I am going to invest in all of the schools, and whichever school your child gets into, we are going to try and do our very best for him."

So ok... I get it now.

He was DEFINITELY saying that quality in schools had room for improvement and he was DEFINITELY promising to make an effort to ensure that schools will be good. No longer was he telling us that all schools ARE good, as if one mortal man's assertion can re-make reality. There is a willingness to see a real problem (some schools have horrible quality issues, ranging from prostitute-loving Principals, to a dearth of teaching materials, to teachers who mark compositions with a single tick only). Certainly, he has framed the problem sensitively so as not to hurt (nor shame) those who have worked hard at MOE all these years. At least, there is a promise to do something about the problem.

If one assumes that his idea of investment is not just hardware (i.e., more swanky buildings) but also software (i.e., robust and dynamic online teacher sharing platforms, stronger oversight of teaching and marking quality, better textbooks, better access to high quality learning resources, innovative teaching practices to bring hands-on skills practice and individualized feedback to each student despite the large numbers of students in each class, perhaps smaller classes, loving and affectionate teaching culture) then yes, this promise is a reassuring one.

It is still only a promise at present. This is a very challenging promise to keep. It is only a little less challenging than Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee's feat of building a metropolis out of a swampy island (and making Singaporeans out of a mosquito people). Do you wonder if the MOE can succeed at keeping this promise? 

I wonder too.

PSLE T-Score
Most people welcome this change. I do too.

With this change, as long as the PSLE T-Score is kept confidential FROM the schools also, the top students will naturally disperse across the top 10 schools. With this rough grained indicator of academic excellence, it would be harder for parents to see which school takes in the best students academically. Parents of top students will learn to choose from the top 10 schools for their ethos, not just cut off points.

Over time, there will no longer be an over concentration of talent in NYGH, HCI, RI and RGS. The top 10 schools have a diversity of ethos and culture. Schools will choose from students with rough-grained similar results, for ethos fit, not just academic results.

Each top school will thus have a wider range of academic ability. This builds relationships between students of differing ability... allows for greater diversity in each school.

In the long term, having a mix of students in each school will decelerate the process of social stratification along the lines of money, power and education. In the short term, it tempers the heavy competitive pressures of the PSLE. Parents won't need to feel embarrassed over a 2 point difference in PSLE T-Score between their children, and insist on pushing their children ever onwards and upwards academically against their children's interests.

Schools can also breathe a sigh of relief. They'll have the space to focus on areas of education aside from academics.

However, it wouldn't do to keep the PSLE T-Score away from parents only to release it to schools for SCHOOLS to pick students by PSLE T-Score. I hope that isn't PM Lee's intent. Doing so will make the competition even keener because parents and students will be competing blind.

Between the promise of Every School a Good School... and a change to PSLE Grading, I think the promise of Every Primary School a Good School is way more powerful in ensuring equal opportunity than doing away with the PSLE T-Score reporting. I won't make light of the significance of changing PSLE grading, but I think it is a far less important and far less difficult change to implement than making every primary school a good school.

I rejoice for the change in PSLE grading. I am hopeful but somewhat skeptical that MOE can succeed at making Every Primary School A Good School. I don't think it's impossible. I rarely think anything is impossible. It'll take a lot more than resources to do this.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

More About Little J (aka Pimple)

The first post I wrote on Little J, can be found HERE.

Little J's Diagnostic Compo (done for the purpose diagnosing his strengths and weaknesses)
Every single time I pass by the enormous school field, I am sadly reminded of a terrifying experience with a serpent. I encountered danger face to face. That particular day was a wonderful afternoon in May. My friends and I decided to play football at the field after school, but little did we expect, our day would soon be ruined.

Singularly uninspring right?

What Little J Wrote in December 2012 (8 months ago)
One sunny morning the sun rays were shining on the ground, like spears being thrown at the ground. The charming birds are singing. The blue flowers were blooming beautifully .The bees were buzzing busily. The bushes were dancing in the lovely wind. I could smell the sweet nectar from the flowers. There were two boys watching two girls playing badminton. They were having fun as it was one their favourite sports.

This is somewhat more evocative. It was a decent piece of writing for a child at the end of Primary 3.

What Little J Wrote For His School On 27th July 2013 (2 Weeks Ago)
It was a bright and sunny day. The breeze was gentle as it blew against my school uniform. I smelled the fresh air after it rained a few hours earlier. I heard the laughter of children outside the school, telling each other jokes. We had just returned from a learning journey to Little India.

This was quite a bit worse than what Little J did for me in December 2012, 8 months ago. For a boy almost nearing the end of Primary 4, this is quite a DISGUSTING piece of work! He explained to his Mother that the topic was uninspiring, as if that was a good excuse. Right ho! I did bad work but it's not my fault. It's the school's fault for giving me an uninspiring topic. Anyway, Mommy and I refused to accept it. We both conspired to work on this stubborn boy HERE. After my feedback given on 3 Aug and a nice long break on National Day weekend, Little J produced the following.

It's enough to knock your socks off!

What Little J Wrote For Dr Pet On 17th Aug 2013 (today)
Dripping in golden colors, the lofty trees blazed with shades of red and gold. Fallen leaves of many colors carpeted the capacious ground. Piled upon the dew, covering the grass, the crusty brown leaves whirled magically around in a circle, like a tornado sweeping expeditiously the beautiful park. The mystifying colours of the sun shone dazzlingly onto the pile of leaves, glistening brightly. The smell of the ocean breeze blew over their square shoulders and bare necks. This gave them a tingling sensation that everyone gets in the beginning of autumn.

I have come to the conclusion that Little J is a volcano disguised as a pimple. There is so much latent potential in this little one. It really is all about EFFORT! EFFORT! MORE EFFORT! I shall no longer call Little J by his name. I will henceforth call him Pimple... until such a time when his potential explodes into plain sight.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

GRUB At Bishan Park

The restaurant is called GRUB. It looks like nothing much in the middle of a beautifully landscaped park garden, but queues are long! This said, it's not crowded in the way a mall is crowded. There is plenty of fresh air and space especially during the long wait.

Waiting our turn (45 minutes)

Enjoy the view and chill out whilst waiting. It wasn't too bad a wait because we could chat and explore the gardens. There are also deck chairs.

Chocolate Pot with Chilli Crumble (the spicy and the creamy do a passionate love-hate thing on your tongue... very addictive sensations!)

Panna Cotta

We had the Pork Burger (highly recommended)... the Hamburger (beef) and the Crispy Fish Burger. All 3 were excellent. I'm not into carbo and desserts but readers must try the Chocolate Pot. It's good quality chocolate that went into the making... bitter and not to sweet but creamy and rich. The panna cotta is good too, with passionfruit purée. Most places use raspberry so the passionfruit was a nice change.

We spent about $20/person.

Monday, August 12, 2013

OceanSpoon Dining Inside Sembawang Country Club

A bit lacking in coconut milk

Piping hot and very umami.

Best dish! Very crispy sweet and sour pork.

Delicious prices

OceanSpoon is the name of the restaurant

See! Not many people even on weekends!

Stunning view of a golf course.

It's hard to avoid crowds in Singapore, especially in recent years with the population explosion. With my low immunity, it has become important to find oases of UNcrowdedness. Malls and such are to be avoided. The stink of tropical sweat from a thousand bodies lurk in those air-conditioned spaces. There are people, people and more people everywhere! Half of them jabber in languages unfamiliar to me.

It's a grand thing that I live in a part of Singapore that has always been relatively sparsely populated. The green spaces are disappearing however. Condominiums (3 of them) have mushroomed within 1km of my home, in the past one year. The green lungs are slowly disappearing one by one. It's challenging to find a place that a person with low immunity can go to... places where the next person is 10 m away, not 10 cm away. It's hard to eat out because good restaurants are always crowded and empty restaurants are empty for a reason.

It's hard to have to stay home all the time (to avoid catching every flu and sore throat floating about in the malls). I do so like dining out.

The Husband brought me to a charming eatery (open to the public) that is part of the Sembawang Country Club. See HERE. It's al fresco dining and since it's newly opened, few people are even aware that it's there. The prices were as delicious as the food... and the ambience was fabulous, with a stunning view of a golf course. If you're ever in the area and looking for a place to have lunch or dinner, this restaurant is value for money in a way VERY few places are in Singapore.

Prices of dining out have become exorbitant. It's hard to get decent restaurant food for anything less than $30/= per person... and sometimes, even at $80/= per person, the food is bad (all you get is ambience and nice cutlery). With the passing of our best hawkers, the quality of Singaporean food (sold by restaurant chains and made in centralized kitchens) is dropping faster than Galileo's lead ball. So I was REALLY thrilled to find every bite a delight, whilst breathing in fresh air from a golf course that looked like England had come to Singapore... and able to make free conversation because the next family was seated about 10 m away.

I paid $13 per person for a weekend dinner.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Never Too Early To Start

I saw this in The Straits Times a couple of days ago and I thought it might be interesting for some blog readers with children still in preschool. Undoubtedly, Science lessons start in Primary 3. If you wait until Primary 3 to give your children exposure to Science, you'll always be behind the curve. Start them off with these toys. They're just toys so there is no need to get all serious and boring.

Just let them play?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Operant Conditioning

This article first appeared in the magazine, Singapore's Child.

Most people know about the famous experiment done by Pavlov in 1901. Pavlov rang a bell and then fed the dog. Very soon, the dog associated the sound of the bell with food. It would salivate at the mere sound of the bell, even if not given food. Following in Pavlov’s footsteps, another less famous and highly unethical experiment was carried out on a baby of 8 months. The researcher, John B. Watson placed the baby on a mat atop a table. A white rat was placed on the same table. Naturally, the baby reached out to play with the rat. Whenever the baby touched the rat, the researcher made a deafening sound. This sound frightened the baby so much, that it began to cry.

These actions were repeated several times.

Eventually, the baby demonstrated a stress response at the mere sight of the white rat, even without the deafening sound.

Both these experiments taught the field of human motivation about Operant Conditioning. It is possible to condition people to dislike neutral things, using negative operant conditioning techniques. It is even possible to condition them to like unpleasant things, using positive operant conditioning techniques. I have successfully used positive operant conditioning techniques to get my son to like reading and love exam time. I have taught mothers to use positive operant conditioning techniques to get their children to like memorizing and reciting Chinese compositions. Indeed, this same operant conditioning technique is what helped my husband decide that he likes coming home early from work.

There is only one activity more tedious for Singaporean children than memorizing and reciting a Chinese composition. It is to memorize and recite a Chinese composition that is 4 years above the child’s current reading level. Yet, I know a young girl, aged 7, who went from hating to loving the activity so much that she gets upset if her mother forgets to do recitation work with her. How did we (her mother and I) achieve this? Through positive operant conditioning, we succeeded at infusing a hated task with the positivity generated by something else.

In the case of my son, who hated to read, I conditioned his attitude towards reading by pairing reading with the exhilarating experience of shopping and happy-hug-alone-with-mommy time. We made trips down to the bookstore where he sat on my lap and we read to each other. Don’t underestimate the well-being a child feels by merely being able to sit on Mom’s lap. We carted home books that he chose without coercion from me, and he thrilled to the joy of owning new possessions. We always went for ice-cream afterwards. Till today, my son associates books and bookstores with warmth, cosiness, the joy of buying new things and the creamy goodness of Haagen Daaz ice cream.

In the case of the 7 year old little girl, who hated Chinese recitation, her mother conditioned her attitude by pairing the memorization-recitation process with happy-hug-alone-with-mommy time every Saturday morning. This little one is a middle child of three children hungry for Mom’s attention. Her mother works full-time. Getting one hour of undivided Mom’s attention every weekend was like Winnie the Pooh reveling in a new pot of honey every Saturday morning. These feelings of well-being infused the tedious task of memorization-recitation with pleasantness. As a result, the little girl very much enjoys memorizing and reciting Chinese compositions.

Think about it for a while. There are teenagers who willingly memorize K-Pop songs, not knowing a single word of Korean. Let’s stop to examine what motivates them to work hard at such a tedious task. There are groovy dance moves and catchy music. There are pretty girls and beautiful dresses. There are drum beats and disco lights. All this multi-media stimuli combine to raise the heart beat. This make our teens feel vibrant and alive. Now, take away all that multi-media stimuli and ask your teen to memorize the same piece of text in an unknown language, printed on paper. Meanwhile, you yell at her every time she gets a small syllable wrong. You would be effectuating Negative Operant Conditioning instead. It won’t take long for your teen to shudder at K-Pop.

It is useful for parents to be aware of both Positive and Negative Operant Conditioning. This ensures that you avoid unknowingly performing Negative Operant Conditioning on your child. In a recent case I examined, a parent confided that her 5 year old hated writing. Upon further diagnosis, I found that this parent was stressed by what she knew were the high demands of Primary 1. She loved her son and did not want his self-esteem to suffer unduly in Primary 1 as the class dunce. The fear that this parent felt translated into emotional contagion that infused a neutral writing task with negativity every night. No wonder her child ran away at the sight of a pencil! The parent was engaging in highly effective Negative Operant Conditioning without knowing it!

How many of us are skilled at Negative Operant Conditioning, without knowing it? How many of us successfully condition our children to hate schoolwork just by being anxious and jumpy?

I advised that the parent calm down and get rid of her own fear. In getting rid of her own fear, her interactions with her son during the writing task would be less tense. However, controlling fear is easier said than done. Clearly, the parent herself associated writing with school stress. Therefore, I next advised that they begin to practice butt-writing instead of hand-writing. Since the parent had never before done butt-writing, she had no prior negative associations. This made butt-writing a neutral task in the parent’s psyche. As long as it was butt-writing and not hand-writing, the parent’s psyche no longer associated writing with school stress. It became easier to control parental fear vis-à-vis her writing and school stress. Next, butt-writing has an almost buffoon-like and slapstick quality. You stick your child’s butt into the tray of poster paint and clear a large expanse of floor (that won’t absorb stains) for him to shuffle his butt around on. It lends itself to tumbles and laughter. All this gets the heartbeat up and infuses the task of writing with positivity. After that, one might progress to nose-writing. When the child is familiar with the alphabet and enjoys forming letters, then hand-writing is a natural step forwards. By then, the act of writing would have undergone sufficient Positive Operant Conditioning.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Stuff Yourselves Silly?

The Daughter has started ANOTHER small business. What's with her and her businesses? When she was 9, she started GiftAChineseName whilst we were living in the USA. She did brisk business by translating American names in Chinese and presenting them in Chinese calligraphy atop a pretty picture. Later on, she dabbled in a supper delivery business at her apartment block.

Now, she has started a Jalan business HERE.

For a fee, she brings tourists around Singapore to foodie places. There are some really interesting places like the TCM bakery where Chinese medicinal herbs are incorporated into breads and buns. At the moment, she is offering to bring people around for free on the condition that they sign into TripAdvisor to write a recommendation.

So... if you feel like stuffing yourself silly with the best of the best Singaporean street food, leave here a note on her website HERE?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Little J... oh Little J

One of my best writers failed his composition in school.

His mother was as devastated as only Mothers who love hard, can be. I know that feeling well for having felt it before when Little Boy came home bottom of the class in Chinese and Math.

I thus instituted a new policy at the enrichment centre. On the weeks that the children had to do a school assigned composition, they were NOT ALLOWED to do Dr Pet's weekly assigned composition. The children were encouraged to do the school assigned composition and hand it up to Dr Pet for marking.

I didn't see any point in having children do TWO compositions in a week. More compositions a week loaded onto a busy child simply means TWO bad compositions instead of a single excellent one. Children learn NO SKILL at all from having done two bad compositions. Indeed, they pick up bad habits of poor focus, undue hurry and extreme carelessness. Children learn plenty from doing ONE excellent piece of work. They feel proud of that one masterpiece.

I also wanted to understand why some of my better writers did poorly for school compositions. I wanted to know if there was something wrong with the way I marked.

Last week, Little J passed up a composition done for school. It was A.W.F.U.L. It was singularly the most awful piece of work that I had ever seen from Little J in a while. It was a piece of work so POOR that one would have thought he had learnt nothing from me since I first taught him in December 2012. I pulled out the composition that he had done for me the week before last. The difference was so stark that I wondered if it was done by the same little boy. I failed him for the first time in months.

I expect his school teacher would too.

Little J's mother asked him why he gave such poor work. Little J shrugged nonchalantly and said "School compositions are a whole lot less interesting than Dr Pet's compositions. Dr Pet gives us pictures about princesses and warriors and pirates and aliens... and even James Bond. The school's compositions are so boring to do."

It made me sad that Little J was so selective in producing quality. He was such a good writer but he would never get anywhere if he wrote well only for me!! And so, this post is for Little J.

God gave Dr Pet a talent for teaching children English. Of course, there are nice children, and NOT nice children. There are children who focus well, and children who don't focus well. There are children who are naughty and children who aren't.

Now, do you remember that when you first came, you couldn't focus and you were ever so naughty. You were EVER so naughty! You were so naughty that it kept me awake some nights as I thought of how VERY naughty you were. You were so naughty your Mother sobbed as she spoke with me on the phone.

SO naughty!

Imagine if I told God this "Dear God, I am NOT going to put my best effort into teaching Little J because he is so very naughty." If I hadn't put my best EFFORT into teaching you, a naughty little boy, would you today have become the good little boy you are today? Similarly, if you don't put your best EFFORT into your school compositions, they would never become interesting compositions. You have cursed your own work from the start.

God in all his perfection doesn't look for perfection from Dr Pet. He looks at the purity of heart and spirit towards my work. Like every other human on earth, Dr Pet makes mistakes. Like every other child who writes, Little J will make mistakes. I understand that... but I also know when you have not given me your best effort.

Believe me. I know.

In the book of Genesis, the difference between Cain's offering to God and Abel's offering to God lay in the notion of "best effort". Cain gave his best EFFORT to God. Abel gave LESS than his best effort.

God rejected Abel's work of his hands.

God makes it very clear that he expects our best. It doesn't matter whether it's a school assigned composition or a composition Dr Pet assigned, you are still bound to give your best effort. It is not the school's job to give interesting compositions for you to do. It is YOUR job to take the talent in writing that God gave you and make an interesting composition out of a boring topic. Just like it was my job (and your mother's) to give our best effort to make a good boy out of a naughty one like you.

And look at the WONDERFUL child you have become.

I wonder what God would say if I dared tell him that I didn't feel like teaching Little J properly because Little J was naughty. I wonder how sad Little J would feel if he learnt that we had given up without trying to help him become a good boy. I wonder... if that poor boring composition had feelings... how it would feel to know that Little J didn't even give it ONE small chance to be a good composition.

Besides, Dr Pet does give out boring topics too. All the topics planned for September will be quite quite boring indeed. I do hope you'll make them interesting for me to read.