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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Permission To Fail Exams

Smelly Boy approached me with a strange request in August 2014. He asked whether I would be ok if  he failed his end-of-year exams. It really is the oddest thing. Smelly Boy has always had a somewhat considered attitude towards misbehaving. He actually thinks through bad behaviour and makes a conscious decision to misbehave, based on a considered cost-benefits analysis.

Other kids misbehave on the spur of the moment. Smelly Boy is in control. He misbehaves after a considered decision.

Cost-Benefits Analysis of Punching Someone
In Primary 1, he considered punching a P2 school bus friend because that child spent the better part of the 1 hour journey calling the Little P1s "babies". We laugh but see it from Smelly Boy's perspective eh? What an insult! It is enough to make a little boy see red, paw the ground and charge with head lowered, and horns ready, to gore the erstwhile taunting adversary.

Not my son.

He stayed his hand, came home and raised his proposal for general discussion at the dining table. No, we did not give him permission to punch his friend. As a family, we were able to think up another solution.

Cost-Benefits Analysis of Disobeying His Teacher
In Primary 3, Smelly Boy did a roaring business selling caterpillars from our orange tree. He charged 50 cents per caterpillar and it was a full service contract that included fresh leaves top-up every 2 days up until the caterpillar had turned into a chrysalis.

His Teacher announced generally to the class, "School is not a mall. You are not allowed to sell and buy caterpillars in school." His Teacher also assigned a Journal Writing Topic for the weekend, "Do You Think The School Should Allow Children To Sell Caterpillars In School?"

Smelly Boy came home and discussed with me, "Mom, what do you think of selling caterpillars at the school gate?" Then, he presented his Cost-Benefits Analysis to me. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Sounds reasonable."

Predictably, it was not long before his business at the school gate was shut down too, but not before my son learnt to compute his business revenue using Excel. Unfortunately, he had no costs column to report. Else, he would have learnt how to tot up a Balance Sheet in Primary 3.

Cost-Benefits Analysis of Failing His Exams
So it was that in August of 2014, Smelly Boy came to me with his considered proposal of failing his exams. The long and short of it was that he wanted to...
(1) learn coding (i.e., write software programmes)
(2) build a flying machine and a 3D printer

When he was done with his Cost-Benefit Analysis, I decided to support him in his misbehaviour, with a slight change. I asked that he Just Pass, instead of Fail. I told him that he did not have to strive to top the class, but he had to pass every subject.

Pay-Off From Choosing To Pull Back On Academic Excellence
The decision paid off spectacularly because one thing lead to another. Predictably, his end-of-year exam results were poor. However, the machines he invested time in building from August 2014 to November 2014, earned him a coveted place in an industry-driven research competition. The things he learnt as he researched his hobbies and learnt deeply about things not included in the school syllabus helped his team develop a good product. Of course, it wasn't easy to get a place in the programme. Hence, the other boys in the team were really quite good at this sorta stuff too.

They won an award for their industry research.

Straits Times article, published 27 July 2015: HERE

Zaobao Article

Moral of the Story
I guess it is ok sometimes to trade academic results for some Unusual Learning Opportunity. I do think many of our young people make such decisions. The thing about Smelly Boy is that he will discuss such decisions with me, knowing that I will be open-minded enough to support him if the Cost-Benefits Analysis is sensible.

I don't expect Smelly Boy to be top of the game in every area all the time. I do expect him to know how to prioritise and throw out stuff wisely.

Perhaps other parents have highly gifted/talented children who can learn interesting stuff as well as excel academically. My Smelly Boy is just your normal kid. If I expect everything, I will get nothing. The only way I can help him achieve anything interesting is in the wise management of his time and energy resources.


Anonymous said...

How can you say your kid is average when after learning something, he went on to win a big competition ? Being modest to this extent makes really average parents with really average kids feel like ____.

Will you support him again to just pass and invest his time in yet another project if he had not done well in this one ? Do you have any stories of trading academic pursuit for unusual learning opportunity that only led to a learning journey but not any award winning stuff ? On hindsight sharing, have you doubted it may have led to a time waste ?

Petunia Lee said...

Hi Anonymous... when I gave him my permission to NOT study for his end of year exams, we (he and I) had no idea that there would be an opportunity to take part in that research competition.

I figured that since he was only in Year 2, flunking out somewhat would not matter. It was not PSLE nor was it A levels. End of year Sec 2 was not an important exam. In comparison, learning to code and learning to build some interesting machines from scratch seemed MORE important to me. Coding is a critical life skill. Learning to learn without being taught explicitly by a teacher is another critical skill.

On hindsight sharing, I never doubted even for a second that it may have been a waste of time. My view of a true education goes beyond marks or awards.

Up until the time the papers reported it, we had no idea that there was even an award at the end of that research journey. We had thought it was a school research project with a stringent selection criteria. We did not know that it was a research competition. We did not know that choosing to do badly in the end-of-year exams 2014 would earn him a spot there.

We made a decision (Smelly Boy and I) in August 2014 because we assessed the actual quality and density of learning inherent in (1) learning code (2) building 2 machines from scratch... and thought that rote-learning masses of exam-focused material was very poor learning in comparison with (1) and (2).

In the past, Smelly Boy has done plenty of things like this that waste time. You don't embark on building a flying machine nor a 3D printer without having done plenty of such "waste time" projects in PRIMARY school (even as we stressed about PSLE). So, yes, all through primary school, we wasted time and no one gave us any award.

However, Smelly Boy learnt. He progressed from building simple machines to complex ones. At the start, I indulged him because it was his way of de-stressing. I wanted him to experience moments of joy and happiness and self-determination, instead of spending all day doing worksheets. Later, in Pri 5 and 6, I realised that such "waste time" stuff taught him many things that the worksheets failed to teach.

Petunia Lee said...

I still think he is a pretty average kid. The difference is in how I manage his limited resources AND in how I allow him opportunities to explore his passion. Even average people can excel in an area of deep passion.