Education Minister Ng Eng Hen mooted the idea a few days ago of reviewing the weighting given to the second language in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). This is a national set of tests given to 12 – 13 year olds on completion of their first six years of schooling. The PSLE currently tests children on four subjects: English, Mathematics, Science and a second language, which the ministry calls “mother tongue”.
This subject has been dogged by controversy for years, the result of politics trumping pedagogy. Stemming from the Singapore government’s tendency to see every citizen through the prism of race, it has in most cases assigned a second language to the child based on the colour of his skin. No consideration was given to the linguistic and cultural environment of each child’s home. Then it was compounded by a one-size-fits-all curriculum that simply assumes people as homogenously “mother-tongue”-speaking at home, when the facts scream otherwise. This went on for years with dissent dismissed by “we know best” bureaucrats and ministers.
In the last 5 – 8 years, baby steps have been taken to modify the curriculum, taking into account the fact that increasing numbers (a majority, I believe) of children now come from either English- or Singlish-speaking homes. the way one teaches a language depends hugely on the environment the learner lives in.
Yet, at primary school level, the PSLE still sets a uniform bar for all pupils; whatever the curriculum, whatever one’s starting home environment, all are expected to reach the same proficiency. Is that realistic?
The PSLE exam is critical to determining the next schooling path for the child, so enormous pressure is piled onto the child to do well. Not only is the test uniform, the weightage for the four subjects is the same: 25 percent each.
Minister Ng has now recognised that no two children are the same. They come from different environments and they have different gifts. How do tests respond to that?
The answer does not lie in tweaking the weighting of the subjects. Whether one proposes that the second language be 10, 20 or 30 percent, there is still the one-size-fits-all problem.
A more flexible system is needed. For example, of the four subjects, the three in which a child does best can be given 30 percent weight each. His weakest subject gets 10 percent. Such a method will not condemn a child just because his talents are not in one area.
Yes, it will mean that a child who is weak in, say, English, will end up relying on Mathematics, Science and his second language to get a similar score as another child who, weak in his second language, relies on English, Mathematics and Science to compute his score, but what’s wrong with that? It does reflect our commonsense view that these two children probably have similar abilities, albeit reflected in different languages.
But it will beg another question: How do we follow on with these two children in secondary school? It seems to me then that a more wholistic approach would require secondary schools to customise subjects and curricula to children based on their differing abilities in various subjects.
In other words, we need to move to a mixed menu secondary school system, rather than stick to the hierarchical system of “gifted stream”, “normal stream” etc that we currently have.