This post makes comment ONLY on Primary Education.
Cycle A: Symptomatic Solution Is To Test Thinking
This is the short cut to ensuring that our primary school children learn to think. Simply test thinking. If you test thinking, the primary school kids MUST learn to think in order to do well in the thinking tests. This way of developing thinking skills in primary school children does not require much resources. You only need a few intelligent people to design a new testing format.
However, its effects are powerful and immediate. When primary school children do poorly at exams, parents step in to help. Tutors and specialised enrichment centres step in to teach the primary school children to handle the thinking tasks tested by the primary schools and the PSLE.
Thanks to the lucrative rewards of being a private tutor or a private enrichment centre, the resources here are limitless. Where there are insufficient intellectual resources locally, overseas educators come here to set up shop. If you have money, you have the means to buy the kind of teaching that will help your child do extremely well in the Thinking Tests.
This cycle accelerates and gets worse over time because there is no limit on it.
Cycle B: Fundamental Solution Is To Teach Thinking
The fundamental solution to the stated problem - "Children must learn to think."... must surely be Teaching Children to Think. If it is indeed a Ministry of Education and NOT a Ministry of Testing, then surely it must approach the problem by focusing on Teaching and NOT Testing.
However, that is easier said than done.
In Dr Pet's Enrichment centre, there are 12 in a class. There are TWO teachers. The Student:Teacher ratio is 1:6. We take pride in ENSURING that the kids think their way through the syllabus even if it means their learning has to slow down. At the ratio of 1:6, we find it just about manageable. Just. There is no way I and the co-facilitator can cope with even 1 more child in each class.
To teach the children to think, we approach the syllabus using methods that requires small class sizes.
If you want to teach kids to regurgitate material then classes can be 40 strong. All you have to do is to chalk and talk. The children will listen and remember. However, if you wish to teach the children to think (i.e., analyse, evaluate and conclude/create) then you do need time to chat with each child and provide personal guidance to redirect their analysis, poke holes in their evaluation and critique their original creation. How will you do that for 40 primary school children in a class?
Primary school children are not like secondary school children. They CANNOT work independently in groups. An adult must facilitate. How will you do that for 40 primary school children in a class?
Yes, some classes are 30. That is still too big.
Cycle C: Large Class Sizes Prevent Teachers From Teaching Thinking
The traditional large class sizes of 40 (or even 30) are still double the class size of the GEP classes (at 15 paxes per class). Teachers know that they cannot teach what exams test. This can take away job satisfaction, pride and create stress because you know that you need to do the impossible.
It is easy to underestimate how far seeing children improve because of YOU, can create pride and satisfaction. Our teachers do not have as much pride and satisfaction as they could have because they know that they are not alone in contributing to a child's learning. Unless they are in schools where the students hail from disadvantaged homes, teachers know that the children have access to tutors and parent coaching.
Teachers resign. Young people think twice about becoming Teachers.
As Teachers leave and others do not join, it is hard to get enough Teachers. With insufficient Teachers, classes remain large everywhere except in the GEP because Teachers are scarce and therefore only the brightest deserve the highest quality teaching.
This cycle also accelerates. The only thing that limits it is Higher and Higher Teacher Salaries.
Cycle C Resists Cycle B
Any efforts to teach thinking in Cycle B is neutralised by the momentum of Cycle C.
Burden of Teaching Thinking Shifts To Cycle A
As more and more private sector, parent and free tuition resources are poured into Cycle A, this cycle accelerates and carries more and more of the teaching burden.
Cycle B, The Fundamental Solution, Stops Turning
Capability and effort to teach thinking in Cycle B, entirely stops.
What Is The Right Thing To Do?
Very often, the right thing to do comes at a price. This situation where children need to attend school and go for tuition (ranging from free tuition by the CDAC, Mendaki and Sinda OR high end stuff like The Learning Lab) is child abuse on a national scale.
I am upset that in GE 2015, none of the politicians, whether PAP nor the opposition mentioned the well-being of our children. Singaporean children are not happy. Why should they attend school AND tuition? Why cannot classes be smaller so that Teachers can cope and be able to teach to the standards the schools and the PSLE tests to?
It is normal for Singaporean children to work till 9pm every night AND all of Saturday and most of Sunday. There is school and there is tuition. Kids do half day in school and spend another half day at tuition. They do HW for 2 sets of teachers.
It isn't just child abuse. It is also the fact that kids from disadvantaged homes with no access to good teaching bought by good money from the tuition industry, cannot rise above their circumstances. That is a tragedy, no?
So, what is the right thing to do? It may be hard. It may be costly. But, is it the right thing to do?
Children do not vote and so they are politically expedient? How can an entire nation stand and look at the inhumane work-life imbalance of our children and not feel any heartbreak?
Can we please have smaller classes so that we can put the tuition industry out of business?