In education, school not the only place to start

Eighty-five children (four- and five-year-olds) were the subjects of an experiment. They were divided into four groups. Those in the first group were introduced to a novel toy that looked like a tangle of coloured pipes, and the experimenter demonstrated how to make it squeak, twice.

For those in the second group, the adult showed how to make the pipes squeak once, and then interrupted herself like she suddenly remembered she had something else to do, thus giving the impression to the kids that the demonstration was not completed.

“With a third group,” wrote the Economist in its issue of 28 May – 3 June 2011, “she activated the squeak as if by accident.”

As for the fourth group, she pointed to the toy, saying ‘Wow, see this toy? Look at this!’ but didn’t operate it.

The children were then left with the toy. The experiment with each child would end when the children told the experimenter that they had finished playing with it — the children had been asked beforehand to let the adult know when they were done. If the child stopped playing with the toy for more than five consecutive seconds, the experimenter would ask the child whether he was finished.

Independent research assistants, not informed about the purpose of the study, then watched the videos of the children and recorded (a) how long they played with the toy, (b) the number of different actions the child made upon the toy, (c) the time spent playing with the squeak, and (d) how many of the three other functions the child discovered. Indeed, the toy “had a button inside one tube which activated a light, a keypad that played musical notes, and an inverting mirror inside one of the tubes.”

The first group spent the least time playing with the toy; the fourth group spent the most.

As for the number of actions performed, those in the first group tried out four different actions on the toy; the 2nd, 3rd and 4th groups tried 5.3, 5.9 and 6.2 different actions respectively.

The first group also found 0.7 other functions on average. The children in the other groups discovered more of the other functions (1.2 to 1.3 on average).

The results of this experiment, wrote the Economist, supported the theory that “telling children ‘truths’ about the world helps them learn those facts more quickly. Yet, the efficient learning of specific facts may lead to the assumption that when the adult has finished teaching, there is nothing further to learn”.

Prior explanation might inhibit exploration and discovery, concluded the researchers.

* * * * *

This will strike many Singaporeans as insight that might be particularly pertinent to this place. Our education system is instruction on steroids. I am aware that in recent years, there have been attempts to inject more project work into classrooms, but such efforts are, I suspect, confined to the better classes or better schools, and its benefits pale in comparison with the systemic bias towards instruction and more instruction:

1. With classroom sizes are still approximating 40, teachers find it extremely difficult to adopt a user-driven approach to teaching.

2. With a society obsessed with examination results, too often it’s teaching for testing.

3. With so many school children augmenting their school hours with private tuition, even if schools switched mode to something less rigidly instructional, the fact will remain that a large percentage of learning time from the child’s perspective, will still be heavily instructional in nature, since the very raison d’etre of tuition centres is to get kids to pass exams.

I don’t know where she got the figure, but Teo Soh Lung, a Singapore Democratic Party candidate in the recent elections, called Singapore “a ‘tuition nation’ where 97 out of 100 students have to receive tuition on top of attending school.” (Today newspaper, 7 May 2011, Education the battle cry here, by Cheow Xin Yi)

We should also bear in mind that play is a learning experience too, typically an unstructured, exploratory one. Children learn about other aspects of the world, e.g. the geometry of terrain when zipping around on skateboards, or social skills when interacting with others, in the course of play. Yet by reducing playtime and shoeboxing them into tuition, we once again amplify the instructional over the exploratory.

What emerges out of our educational system? I’ve heard many employers bemoan the fact that Singaporeans, even university graduates, might have depth of knowledge about the subject they’re trained in, but they do not have breadth, do not have lateral-thinking or problem-solving skills, and aren’t very good socially.

From another perspective, as a people, a friend of mine said, we’re a rather uncurious lot. We tend not to question what we see. And adult Singaporeans seem to think that learning is something for kids, not something that is life-long.

And we hope to be a centre for research and creativity?

* * * * *

Heng Swee Kiat, the new Education Minister, told the media that he would be carrying out a detailed study on a selected number of schools in order to obtain “a deeper understanding of what happens on the ground.” (Straits Times Breaking News, 3 June 2011, School is the right place to start: Education Minister)

Mr Heng wants to find out for himself what is happening on the ground and see how to address the various concerns early.

So, he is planning to visit a mix of schools at primary, secondary and junior college levels, each with different strengths.

He felt this would be the ‘right place to start’.

Mr Heng said the school visits would help him understand what has worked well and what needs to be tweaked.

— Straits Times, 4 June 2011, Minister to visit schools after deluge of feedback, by Leow Si Wan

There’s a risk that he’s only going to get half the picture. He will be told the workload is too heavy, and there are too many administrative tasks. But these will likely all hang on the same paradigm that (a) knowledge is something we impart rather than something kids (and adults) discover, (b) success is measured by exam results. Teachers (and parents) are essentially insiders in the system long conditioned by the demands of state dogma, and it is usually rare for insiders to question the paradigm within which they operate. I suspect that unless we question the paradigm, all that can be achieved is tweaking. No thorough re-examination will emerge of what education means. In other words, the same unquestioning of paradigms that our education system produces will serve to leave the educational paradigm unquestioned.

Heng should look outside his box and ask thinkers not connected with education what Singapore society is like and what it should strive to be. He might get surprising answers.

* * * * *

I am reminded of someone who told me of his experience in the United States, where he went to do a course in broadcasting. In the early years of the three- or four-year course, he was carefully taught the “how-to” and given project assignments in which he could demonstrate his mastery of the required skills and art. For his final-year project, however, his project had to meet one simple requirement: it must break all the rules. You don’t flout the rules, you don’t graduate.

How’s that as a stab at a new paradigm?

46 Responses to “In education, school not the only place to start”

  1. 1 Lee Chee Wai 5 June 2011 at 11:21

    “For his final-year project, however, his project had to meet one simple requirement: it must break all the rules. You don’t flout the rules, you don’t graduate.”

    I get the feeling there’s one caveat missing from the above – you have to flout the rules, but *still* make it work :).

    • 2 R 9 June 2011 at 02:06

      not true. most thesis/final projects are judged on whether they can be defended – even if it doesn’t work, you have *still* discovered why it doesn’t work and therefore can conjecture how it *may* work. failure is nessescary in any kind of research work.

  2. 3 SPED worker 5 June 2011 at 13:12

    Thank you for sharing such an interesting study.

    I work in a special school in Singapore and I see the same attitude towards teaching/education in my school as well, albeit to a lesser degree compared to mainstream schools. Even though the children in my school have special learning needs, there is still a significant amount of teaching done in groups, where the teacher basically teaches the children the facts by telling them. Given the cognitive, attention and language ability of the children in my school, most of such instruction is pointless. And yet teachers persist in such teaching methods because, probably because they believe that this is the way to teach children. To some extent, teachers know that their teaching is ineffective, but they will attribute the ineffectiveness on the children’s ability to learn, rather than question the teaching method itself.

    Having observed how education is conducted overseas, I’m a big advocate of teaching children in natural, everyday situations. For instance, let’s say you want to teach a child that we use spoons for eating. The quicker method would be to sit the child in front of you with a real spoon or a picture of a spoon and tell him/her that the thing you have is a spoon and it is used for eating. In contrast, you could teach the child during mealtime. You could prepare something that the child needs to eat with a spoon and serve it to him/her without the spoon. The child, realizing the problem, will have to ask for help, which creates a teachable moment to teach the concept we use spoons for eating. After all, the whole point of teaching the child that spoons are for eating is for the child to use the knowledge in a real-life situation so why not teach a child in a real situation?

    • 4 real and fair 6 June 2011 at 20:48


      guess you are holding a management post in the school.
      it is always easier to say than do.

      just want to say that there is a different between being an observer and a doer. for you to understand how the feild is like. my suggestion is for you to ‘try out’ the teaching role for at least a semester before commenting.

      thank you very much.

      (suggest you watch the show “the undercover boss” that aired recently. hope you get some inspiration from there.)

      • 5 yawningbread 7 June 2011 at 01:29

        You’re just hinting that he might have a different answer if he/she were a teacher. If you disagree with his/her opinion, why don’t you say outright what your views are and how they differ from SPED’s? Why this mode of reply?

      • 6 SPED worker 23 June 2011 at 23:16

        Sorry for the rather belated reply but I felt strongly that I needed to reply you, however late of a reply it is.

        First off, I am not holding a management position in the school. I wished I were in such a position, as then I would have some authority to change the way some things are done.

        Without revealing too much about myself, all I can say is that even though my designation is not a classroom teacher, I do work directly with the children in my school. I teach children too, just not in a classroom. Having studied some developmental and cognitive psychology, I know that teaching by telling facts is not the most effective teaching method given the cognitive, attentional and linguistic limitations of the students in my school. Since the students can’t change their limitations, should we not be the ones to change the way we teach so that they can learn?

        I have seen first-hand how naturalistic ways of teaching can work in special education classrooms when I lived and worked overseas. I think that part of the reason why such methods are not widely employed in Singapore, even in special education settings, is because of the deep rooted belief that teaching means telling facts.

        FYI, I have watched several episodes of “undercover boss” and have often wish management above me came in to observe what is happening on the ground. In Singapore, we are often keenly aware of who is the boss and we are very good at “putting up a show” when the boss pops by.

    • 7 koalarie 27 June 2011 at 06:05

      I like your reply. My daughter’s school is also similar method to teach. Her teacher called it “case study”. I find the idea really good as because of the children’s interest/curiosity that the teacher starts off the case study to get the children’s interest to want to find out more on the answers not just simply by we (parents/teachers) the answers but they to explore and find the answers.
      The kids have learnt tremendously.
      As there is a saying “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, this is excatly what is happening in today’s society in order to survive after school days.
      My child’s teachers did mention that because this is not a textbook style of teaching, they have to explore ways to create opportunities for children to ask for case studies to learn and thus this is really time consuming and always work out of the regular working hours. Still, at the rate of how the children are learning, they find it satisfying.
      So, thank you for keeping your belief on how our education system should move forth as I too have seen the results of this.

  3. 8 tre 5 June 2011 at 13:37

    SDP Teo’s 97/100 figure was from a survey done by the ST years ago.

  4. 9 Another Education Minister - Another New Hope 5 June 2011 at 14:04

    Another outstanding and original article.
    Keep up the good work Alex.

    Singaporeans have to ask ourselves;
    What is the purpose of education?
    Why go to school?

    Heng Swee Kiat?
    Another PAP scholar-elite clone with no training (clue) or background on education.

    The Education portfolio is just a stepping stone on his way to his final destination.
    Future Finance Minister to replace Tharman.
    After Tharman gets promoted to Prime Minister.

    Heng Swee Kiat will do a 6 months review of our education system.
    Then working committees will be appointed to come up with ideas.
    This will take another 1 year.

    Representative members of the public (i.e. PAP clones) will be invited to give “constructive criticism”.
    Heng Swee Kiat will then take another 6 months to finalize his “white paper” on Singapore’s New Educational Horizons.
    A new slogan will appear.

    And then Heng Swee Kiat will be transferred to another Ministry.
    Just before he can be held accountable for results.

    In the meantime, Singapore students will continue to achieve all academic targets.
    Because Singapore tutors can undo and repair whatever damage and neglect is being done to our national education system.

    If you want to find out how useless our education system really is – just ban all private tuition for 3 years.
    Then you will really see the real fruits of our education policy.

    • 10 teacher talk 8 June 2011 at 00:39

      Hear hear. Well said and absolutely true to the core.
      Our educational policies suck BIG TIME and almost all teachers know it. They only keep on piling on new ideas here and new ideas there, thus creating an ever increasing pile of bricks on the shoulders of teachers and students. It had never been about removing, but always more and more.

      Why so stingy in getting only AEDs who actually can’t and don’t help very much in terms of doing real teaching. They are not qualified. Only perhaps glorified relief teachers I say. They should pay good money to get graduates or post graduates for this AED role and a difference in quality would be seen.

      The list of gripes from teachers are long and many, and there is no point in me SPAMing them here.

      So the moral of the story is to shut the F up and just teach. Because nothing really good or noteworthy will come out from the new minister here.

  5. 11 Western Cat 5 June 2011 at 20:08

    I remember my primary school teacher complaining about the lack of time. Now as a teacher, I say the same too.

    Perhaps the solution is more flexibility. Let students take PSLE when they are ready. Or O-levels when they are sufficiently prepared. Allow two attempts, without any stigma.

  6. 12 prettyplace 5 June 2011 at 22:47

    I remember my first semester in Uni,(many moons ago), there was a marketing lecturer, who used to scold students for rote learning and regurgitating the text.
    It was very interesting from what A’levels thaught us here.

    Good article, but I doubt there will be serious change.
    Our system here is simple, if it works, why fix it.
    However, I don’t think it will even work for the next 10 years and there might be some very serious employment problems.

    I fully agree with you, on some serious research to be done both by insiders & outsiders. Then both coming together to compare each others work and find a decent solution. It should include going overseas and trying to figure out other systems as well.
    An open mind by Heng is much needed and new styles must be tried & tested.

    It is the only way possible for mainstream education for all, or in time, I expect better educated or well heeled parents to be given a free reign on their kids education.

  7. 13 Gard 5 June 2011 at 23:20

    I hope that your questioning readers did indeed refer to original Economist article and read so for themselves:

    “The researchers’ conclusion was that, in the context of strange toys of unknown function, prior explanation does, indeed, inhibit exploration and discovery. Generalising from that would be ambitious. But it suggests that further research might be quite a good idea.”

    The presence of these conditional phrases suggest that the researchers, and so should the readers, make an important distinction about the activities and the act of learning and understanding. This is evident in the successful student who ‘break all the rules’ in order to pass, since a student who has not understood the rule, cannot discern the conditions under which the rule would not work.

    Yes, I agree with you that Mr Heng should learn from another (former) minister about the rules of ‘walking the ground’ for ‘deeper understanding’:

    “We thought people were happy and, in fact, walking the ground showed that people were happy with us. But the national mood, the national issues, just swept us… And when we realised (that) it wasn’t just local issues but that national issues had taken priority, I thought it was rather too late,” – Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed, Senior Minister of State (Foreign Affairs).

    And he would have to question some of his assumptions on what he has said about education.

    “Schools can do their job only if students themselves put in the effort and their parents are supportive.”
    (Straits Times, 12 Apr 2010)

  8. 14 Leuk75 5 June 2011 at 23:22

    If we were to draw parallel with other public service units, some common trends are noticeable, namely

    1. Obsessive dedication to standardised protocol / procedures to “idiot-proof” processes
    2. Negativity towards mistakes and failure
    3. Result driven with a standardised set of measuring tools e.g. patient satisfaction surveys, exam scores
    4. Cram as much as possible instructive style in communications

    In essence, our Singapore branding is wired towards efficient delivery, consistency and measurable outcomes. I don’t think it is all bad. Nothing wrong for wanting reliable and consistent service delivery. However if this obsession towards law and order is applied stringently in an attempt to curb inconsistency and chaos, the downside is we lose creativity. We can boast world class air and sea port efficiency and great GCE O level success. However, we are stumped on how to deal with high passenger traffic loads during peak hours since a tight centralise controlled public transport system (= great order and precision) discourages creative transport enterprises (= less control but nimble and flexible).

    Hence the perception of the typical Singaporean worker as being orderly and efficient but weak in problem solving and unable to make a decision without the tendency to seek higher up approvals.

    I am a firm believer though that necessity is the mother of creativity. With a hamfisted ruling power doing all the control, we can perhaps avoid the creativity segment. It won’t last as we can see the rapid emergence of the rest of Asia especially China. Eventually, we will be forced to take big bold steps to remain nimble and competitive. Its the black swan effect. Change will not be gradual but in the form of major steps and those caught unprepared, well…… too bad, you are the weakest link goodbye.

    We just got to keep the feet moving and learn to adapt and survive.

  9. 15 Piper 6 June 2011 at 00:14

    Interesting study. I must read up more about it.

    As an insider of the system, I have a lot of thoughts about our education system. I agree with most of what you said. I thought I’d share two recent experiences.

    Recently, my department has been trying to encourage more self-directed learning through more project work – allowing students to have a bit more freedom in deciding what to learn and to actually be more involved in the development of their knowledge. We’re trialling it with our Sec 1s. I initially thought they students would enjoy this more than having us teachers stand in front of the class and lecture them. However, we have had a number of students come up to us and complain about the lack of actual teaching and worksheets. Why do they have to do their own research? Why can’t we just give them notes? Why are they not doing worksheets? Why must they work out their research question?

    A new teacher in the school was introduced to our attempts to inject more project work and less chalk and talk in our classrooms. In brief, he could not get his head around the idea of letting students discover knowledge on their own and was (is?) quite convinced that the chalk and talk method is the best.

    To be honest, under time pressure and with the need to deliver on results, it’s is always very tempting to fall back onto the tried and tested method of just feeding our students the information they need for the exams. Also, as you mentioned, 40 students in a classroom is rather difficult to manage project work.

    • 16 Ponder Stibbons 6 June 2011 at 09:57

      Yes, Singaporean students expect to be spoon-fed the correct answers. Sad to say, I think this is the case even at the university level.

      It all comes down to students seeing education as a means to an end rather than intrinsically valuing it. They aren’t interested in educating themselves as such; they’re interested in making sure they will have a stable job in the future.

      • 17 Piper 6 June 2011 at 11:38

        It’s not just students – it’s everyone involved in the education system. When the whole education system revolves around that ONE exam and everyone’s performance (whether teachers or students) depend on that ONE exam, education is really a means to an end.

    • 18 Poker Player 6 June 2011 at 11:16

      You can’t blame the students. What you have is a system that is neither here not there. If schools expect students to be interested in activities that are not directly related to preparing them for national examinations, how about the education system and schools leading by example.

      Make exam results less important. Give grades for class participation – grades that count as much as those awarded for examinations. De-emphasize scholastic achievement – not just for school-going children, but for everyone – this is a consequence of accepting what happens in school as a means rather than en end in itself.

    • 20 student 6 June 2011 at 20:53

      As a student,I have to say that this “spoonfeeding” mindset most of us have stems from the pressure to obtain good academic results.As much as we want to discover knowledge on our own,at the end of the day the only thing that matters here is the number of A’s we have on our certs.So learning for learning’s own sake will never be fully achieved as long as it is inextricably linked to academic results.Sorry to say,most students prefer to take the easy way out via “spoonfeeding”

      Don’t worry though,not all students/educators are like that.Some really try to instil a passion for knowledge in their students,who in turn are inspired by these educators’ love and enthusiasm for learning.

      For an education review to be successful,a joint effort by all parties have to be made.Or else it’ll just be a repeat of “teach less,learn more” (which basically amounted to more tuition/supplementary lessons…)

  10. 21 reservist_cpl 6 June 2011 at 00:37

    The Workers’ Party’s Koh Choong Yong had also mentioned this.

    Singapore is very lacking in coolness factor. Part of the problem is not wanting to be cool.

  11. 22 student 6 June 2011 at 01:05

    Hi, I am a junior college student who has recently taken her mid-year examinations in H2 History.

    The syllabus requires us to answer 4 questions which includes one source-based question(SBQ) in 3 hours. There is very little time to think and analyse especially for the SBQ question. Unlike the other essay questions, the student is supplied with five unseen sources on the UN or ASEAN. He/she has to come up with a hypothesis, decide if they challenge or support the hypothesis, then write one paragraph each analysing all five sources, with cross-referencing. In addition to that, a further two paragraphs modifying the hypothesis is required. In total about eight paragraphs, including the conclusion.

    There is really NO TIME to properly analyse all the sources, and the only way you can finish is if you rush through it and regurgitate everything on instinct (which you know, you might MAKE MISTAKES in because you RUSH through it).

    This is completely contradictory to the principle behind SKILLS-APPLICATION because of the short time given that prevents any sort of proper in-depth reasoning.

    While I can understand set essay questions (e.g Who was to blame for the Cold War’s origins) with no unknown material to analyse being finished in 45 minutes. To expect students to produce both quality and quantity without enough time in a Skills-Application question is completely ridiculous and makes a mockery of the so-called ‘creative reasoning’ MOE claims it aims to foster.

    Why must the exam be structured in such a way to put the students under unnecessary time pressure? This is absolutely unreasonable. No economist or historian would ever produce a thesis or statement when analysing material in such a rushed manner! Have you ever seen policies rushed through by governments? Most of the time it is debated for WEEKS or even MONTHS before getting implemented! The principle behind all of that is that things need TIME to be analysed properly. Yet such things are not practised in this education system that is supposed to prepare students for this very same real world!

    This incongruence between the type of skills and situations in reality and in the examination room is an absolute shame on our education system, unless the purpose of our education system is to produce robots excelling in projectile vomiting.

    • 23 Leuk75 6 June 2011 at 06:54

      Here is the lynchpin question: Was there ever a rule saying the grading of a subject should primarily be in the form of a written exam at the end of the semester?

      Alternative methods of assessment can take the form of a term paper where students have to research and present their findings in written form, oral presentations of their reading and perhaps group projects. Sure, some may benefit from getting help from their more avid team mates but it becomes a closer reflection of the reality in the work place and society.

      • 24 Kelvin Tan 6 June 2011 at 23:34

        Do understand that Singaporeans, not just students, demand the following for major exams:

        There must be a bell curve, i.e. you cannot have everyone getting As and Bs. It must also be comparable across different years.

        Secondly, it must be objectively clear why some get A, some get B, and so on for every grade down the line. The B must be convinced that he is a B, likewise for everyone who failed.

        When you understand this, you will realized why written exams, imperfect as they be, are probably the only answer.

      • 25 Poker Player 7 June 2011 at 14:08

        “When you understand this, you will realized why written exams, imperfect as they be, are probably the only answer.”

        In fact, given our exam-oriented culture, a more practical model to follow is not American but French. They have an equally exam-oriented system – their answer is to make exams works as well as possible, not to de-emphasize them. The French baccalaureate predates the International one by more that a century and a half.

    • 26 Gard 6 June 2011 at 12:53

      I’d recommend that you read about other interesting papers by the same researchers of the Economist article.

      In any case, it is regretable the your teacher did not clearly explain to you the purpose and intent of source-based question. But I like to share with you a practical outcome: when a interviewer or boss sputters off some issues for your consideration, you have the mental agility to analyse on your feet and respond accordingly. Would you agree that this is a useful attribute to develop and possess?

      • 27 Rajiv Chaudhry 12 June 2011 at 13:08

        @ Kelvin Tan

        Where do you get this from:

        “Do understand that Singaporeans, not just students, demand the following for major exams:

        There must be a bell curve …. ”

        What authority do you quote to cite Singaporeans as a whole?

        This is another piece of beauraucrat inspired dogma from the MOE.

    • 28 nice 7 June 2011 at 11:32

      I guess that is why the IB progamme is introduced whereby a portion of grade is through continous coursework. It will take crazy guts to revamp the national system =(

  12. 29 Den Gogh 6 June 2011 at 01:23

    “SDP Teo’s 97/100 figure was from a survey done by the ST years ago” said tre (5. June 2011).

    So what’s his/her point? Do you think that is any less true now?

    I believe that the trend would probably have stayed the same or worsened. Our children go to school not for the opportunity to create, play, discover, and explore but to have information downloaded into their brain system. Most of them cannot regurgitate the information accurately and wholly the first time around. Our “education” method of “teaching” does not allow for optimum memory input. Hence, the need for tuition.

    It is a sad, sad manner to be schooled. The worst part? This form of “education” occurs from the time our children enter preschool.

    • 30 jem 6 June 2011 at 11:19

      Er, I think the previous person was replying to Alex when he asked, in the article, where Teo got her statistics from.

  13. 31 Tan Tai Wei 6 June 2011 at 08:34

    You don’t mean this by seeming to say “flout the rules” and be creative or innovative. But it is important to guard against a misreading of it.

    Creativity or innovation is not any moonshot. It means bringing out the worthwhile new, and that presupposes mastery of the relevant subject-matters of the worthy concern with their “rules” of truth and applications. For the worthwhile new can emerge only from within a convention of inquiry. Thus, only good scientists can discover new science. Apples may drop on any number of heads, but only Newton’s could think out the law of gravity when hit! Other heads become stunned only.

    I recall a movie about an artist whose ‘conventional’ pieces were ignored by ‘modern’ critics. By accident, he smeared some paints on canvas, and that ‘piece’ was praised as ‘modern art’ and bought. So, frustrated but having to earn a living, he began throwing at random balls of paint of any colour onto canvas!

    Our government seems not to realise this. Ministers and permanent secretaries change portfolios like moving about musical chairs, as if, just because they have presumably proven their “brilliance” in one subject area, they can be equally brilliant in any other area. It is forgotten that all portfolios involve expert knowledge and training in their peculiar subject matters and skills. One cannot be depended upon to lead in one area without first mastering the related knowledge and proving one’s brilliance at its innovation and applications. And even having proven oneself in one area, it does not mean one can equally so prove again at another.

  14. 33 WL 6 June 2011 at 14:11

    A consistent point raise in some of the replies here allude to the lack of time. I think it has a lot to do with the mental attitude. I suppose after so many years of being in our education system, it is hard for the students to accept anything different. I work part-time at a local institution where “teaching” is done through what is known as problem based learning. Some of you may know that this kind of pedagogy has its roots in medical schools. It is an interesting concept introduced to this institution some 10 years ago. But things often fell apart in class because all these years of being in our instructional school system make the students uncomfortable with this system that emphasizes self directed learning. Students complained about having to do their own research, about the lack of prepared notes and why they have to work with lazy people in their teams. Done properly it is a wonderful system to get the students to think, do their own learning and with other members in their team but getting the students to understand the value of this is quite a tall order. Privately, I felt that most are too lazy to think, not just critically, and while doing their research, skimmed just the surface. Students are always trying to find the easiest way out with the least effort often times at the expense of the quality of their work.

    It is quite imperative that if there is a change it has to be done at a fundamental level, it has to start at kindergartens.

  15. 34 DetachedObserver 6 June 2011 at 15:11


    I suspect that was a bridge too long to be crossed – abandoning a bunch of kids who are used to being instructed formally in a classroom setting to a project where they received no guidance is akin to tossing them off the deep end of the Olympic swimming pool.

    Frankly, the flaws in our education system are probably deeper than anyone has thought, given the pervasiveness of tuition and the focus on obtaining good grades in exams have slanted the entire psyche towards rote learning and fact regurgitation.

    Anyway, we need to close the gaps in the student’s foundations so that they can achieve mastery. I suspect once you do that, a culture of learning and self-improvement from young, creativity and innovation will not be far away.

  16. 35 nitegazer 6 June 2011 at 19:30

    As the saying goes: ‘Teach a man to fish..’ So too in education, rather than being about how much facts and knowledge can be taught to a child, the most important thing a child should learn is learning itself. I feel an education system would have succeeded if it inspires in people the instinct and desire to learn, and the tools to aid one in doing so. And this applies to both teachers and students alike. Teachers should not work with the impression that they are merely handing out information. Each experience with a student is also an opportunity for the teacher to learn more about which teaching methods are effective or not, which brings me to the 2nd point.

    A number of readers have commented on the overwhelming amount of admin tasks to be performed by teachers and I completely agree. Time spent formulating lesson plans and writing aar could be better spent actually planning for the lessons or thinking through approaches. Sadly the nature of red tape is that it cannot be easily removed. If the ministry takes steps to decrease the additional workload on the teachers, I believe it could have positive effects for both teachers and students alike.

  17. 36 Dr Syed Alwi 6 June 2011 at 20:03

    Teachers and schools are appraised based on the examinations performance of their students. Admission into higher institutions are based on examinations performance. With that in mind – parents naturally send their kids for extra tuition classes.

    Dr Syed Alwi

  18. 37 Sunshine 6 June 2011 at 20:36

    I am a mother and I just have a simple suggestion: schools should really stop testing their kids BEYOND their natural age-appropriate capabilities. The kid who tops my eight-year-old son’s class (Primary 2) scores nearly full marks in math each time he sits for an exam – the reason? His parent makes him do Primary 4 papers. I understand this is the same with tuition centres across the island – the idea that if you can do the most ridiculously difficult sums the average kid your age cannot do, you will be at the top of your class, then into the gifted programme, then into a top school…you can predict the general trajectory. I can’t keep track of the countless stories I have heard where half the class fails a paper – to me, something is seriously wrong with the teaching, not the kids when that happens.

    I accept that like adults, children have different abilities, some are very bright, others average. But all children are children at different stages and they shouldn’t be robots programmed to do higher-order sums or language just to beat their peers. The whole thing just sounds absolutely silly to me. But what do I know, I’m just a mum struggling to make it in the system. 🙂

    • 38 Gard 7 June 2011 at 09:21

      “…the ferociously competitive education system is only part of the story. Another is China’s Confucian parenting values, which place a high value on the roles of parents and children within the community.”
      – “Hong Kong’s ‘tiger parents’ face the pressure”, AFP, 5 Jun 2011

      It would seem that Hong Kong and Singapore shares the same situation, although I cannot generalise to other non-Chinese ethnic groups.

      As a personal sharing, I too had the same experience of testing ‘beyond natural age-appropriate capabilities’ (who really decides what is natural?, but that is a different topic). The pressure did not come from the teachers but from the good students who ‘raced ahead of the syllabus.’ It was a competitive environment, but also one in which the good students spend considerable time guiding and teaching the weaker ones because the teachers carefully reinforce with acknowledgement those helpful and generous qualities beyond individual grades. In hindsight, getting students to explain, give examples, simplify ideas to other classmates is a powerful enabler of learning.

      Allow me to advance an assumption (like I said, it’s an assumption): if your love – and the love you demonstrate to your child – is conditional upon the grades on the report card, then you will almost certainly feel like you are struggling to make it in the system. To the child, which ‘system’ ultimately matters more to him? The school system or your system of love?

    • 39 Chen Hongjie 8 September 2011 at 10:01

      The issue here is not that the kid can do work 2 years ahead of students his age, but rather, that despite being able to do that, he is still in a primary 2 class. If he is able to do primary 4 papers, the system should have the flexibility to put him in primary 4, or primary 3 at least. Pity the poor kid, he is capable, but is forced to learn at a slower rate in class, so much so that he has to resort to tuition.

      To straitjacket children into learning at a fixed pace because of so called ‘natural age appropriate capabilities’ is inhumane.

  19. 40 Ex lecturer 6 June 2011 at 21:56

    Education is as complex as life itself.every child is gifted differently. Challenge is to realize his(including her) gift through nurturing him by various ways. Formal education is just one of the methods.parents play a major role while thru are young.Schools shaped and equip them in primary and secondary level. Tertiary education prepared them for adult life.innovative and creative teachings both in formal and informal settings cuts across all levels of educating and bringing out the best in each child.This is the real challenge to our present education system. First and foremost are our educators themselves trained thus?

  20. 41 Dr Syed Alwi 7 June 2011 at 13:33

    The problem is this grand pretence of “meritocracy” ! When policy-makers actually believe that merit is to be measured by performance in examinations – then this is what happens to the education system. If you truly want to think out of the box – you have no choice but to question the concept and premises of the practice of meritocracy. I openly declare that I do not believe in meritocracy as there is no single yardstick – fair to all – that can be used to gauge merit.

    Dr Syed Alwi

  21. 42 Cynical Student 7 June 2011 at 22:09

    I think the Education Minister forgets about how schools love to clean up their acts. Guests of honour are carefully directed through the cream of the crop, through classes meant to demonstrate how we are breaking the ‘rote-learning’ or ‘instruction-based’ paradigm.

    It’s pretty much bullshit IMO since nothing changes and everything goes back to normal once we’re back. And anyone who thinks PW is seriously useful has got to be shitting himself. Most students just treat PW as a pain-in-the-ass to be done, something that you just need that A for, and once it’s over, it becomes just another bad memory of J1. IP tends to love to pretend projects make you explore in learning, but in the end, it becomes just another catch-phrase, and an attempt to force a new paradigm in a system where we just have no idea what to do about lateral thinking.

    Not to mention it just leads to people paying money for tutors to look through their papers or to teach them about chapters of J2 science in advance, so they can sound like they’ve read up to teachers who are blind.

  22. 43 T 8 June 2011 at 12:32

    “on the same paradigm that (a) knowledge is something we impart rather than something kids (and adults) discover, (b) success is measured by exam results.”

    There are several methods through which curiosity is cultivated in the aim of acquiring knowledge

    -Reading and writing
    -Speaking and singing
    -Movies/Film and theatre
    (Documentaries presented in an engaging manner through virtual media, board-and-
    chalk, or otherwise)
    An example can be seen at
    -Board games and video games
    -Sports and experimentation

    The problem is that such natural methods of acquiring knowledge are constrained by the narrow-scope of assessment through examinations as in (b).

    So what may be a fair method that can resolve the impasse between the learning and the assessment as in (b)?

    1) Shorten the phase of primary school to 5 years, and that of secondary school to 3 years. In primary school, all of the above methods of cultivating curiosity will be used in class to guide students to discover what they are interested in. Lessons can be taught in themes encompassing several concepts from one or more subjects. This is so that the main aim is in understanding logics, patterns and links through a multidisciplinary fashion, with rote memory having only a restricted role in learning.

    The PSLE subjects of English, Mother Tongue, Science and Mathematics should shift towards a system assessing multiple intelligences ranging from the linguistic to the visual by the end of primary school. It would be similar to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) but of a broader scope. Using the popular notion of 7 intelligences as a basis, admission into secondary schools can be based on either the best of x out of 7 intelligence scores for general secondary schools or the use of 2 or 3 particular intelligence scores for entering “specialty schools” (e.g. a school catering to dance or another with a department catering to automotive physics)

    2) Every secondary school will have at least a general education component that continues to promote the 7 intelligences in students through thematic/subject teaching. Some may have a specialty department as mentioned above. Secondary school students can switch to and fro general education and specialty “tracks” within and between schools, using their own inclinations and intelligence assessment scores as a guideline for suitability.

    The O/N levels, similar to the PSLE, should shift towards a multiple intelligence assessment rubric. These scores can then be used for entry into Junior Colleges, Polytechnics and other “specialty institutions” such as NAFA and SHATEC. Junior Colleges will mimic Secondary Schools with a mixture of general education and specialty departments whereas Polytechnics should comprise primarily of specialty departments. Both will emphasize more heavily on multidisciplinary approaches and the use of critical/creative thinking.

    3) Wherever possible, grades for quantitative subjects (such as mathematics and physics) may include an individual and class component (e.g 50% individual score + 50% class average) This forms the basis of social interaction for the learning of subjects

    4) Other learning tools may be included whenever appropriate i.e. self-directed learning, play-acting, apprenticeships, seminar teaching, movie-screenings, etc.

    5) For students who are slow and/or late learners, there should be more coaching available for them outside class, preferably by their own peers willingly. This will inculcate the sentiment that education is not a race to the top, but a marathon done together. It is also through this whereby more students with slight to modest learning disabilities can hopefully be co-opted into mainstream education.

    In using a multiple-intelligence assessment system through a myriad of learning methods, there can be a guard against excessive tuition whereby the class/school environment is able to provide learning at a depth and scale that cannot be easily replicated on the outside. Also, there is greater room for experimentation and failure with more available paths to success. And most importantly, the education system will be able to adopt a dynamic nature that is well-suited for the changing aspirations of student cohorts and that can provide a workforce that is passionate, open-minded and resilient towards approaching real-world issues.

    Besides education, the economy and the family should be evaluated in tandem to get a better understanding on what drives student, parent, teacher and employer behaviors and attitudes towards learning and empowerment. The economy should start to shift towards a better balance of industries that utilizes more forms of intelligences, subjects and themes. The family should be looked upon to see where and how inequality in resources, material and otherwise, in the home environment affect personal development and upon doing so, how the needs of the family can be better engaged with through the workplace and school.

  23. 45 Rajiv Chaudhry 12 June 2011 at 12:18

    The answer is to have smaller class sizes (20 or so per class is ideal), many more (and better trained) teachers and to partially privatise the education system (under supervision and proper controls, of course).

    Only with competition and choice can we hope to see an improvement.

    Even then, there is no guarantee we will get it right. In the UK, every successive government that comes in tweaks the state education system, yet UK voters never seem to be quite happy with the results. It always seems to be a work in progress.

    But privatisation and competition is the way to go, to get away from the state sponsored madness in our education system.

  24. 46 Jojo 28 June 2011 at 22:46

    Students will put up a facade when there’s VIP in the class.

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