Being Singaporean,  Bitching

Parents vs the Singapore Education System

1st day of school

As Mr Brown put it, Facebook on 2nd January 2013 was “Kids-Going-To-School-Photos-Book”. Beyond the fact that our local chapter of Facebook users are very much dominated by young parents in their 30’s, those pictures of little smiling schoolchildren also betray their parents’s anxiety towards their children’s new year in school, and the rest of their academic lives that follow.

“Better take photo while my kid is still smiling. Otherwise come March they won’t be smiling any more.”

3 months later

Blogfather Nick Pan already feels the tension, and he makes no qualms about his fears in his blog. Despite his determination not to delegate any of the pressure he feels to his children, he wrote his eldest daughter a sentiment that no doubt carries over to his two other daughters: “We worry. We worry a lot for your studies.”

From as early as preschool, that tension begins to manifest for parents ?all over the nation. My wife and I are no exception, as evidenced here. And it slowly builds from year to year, plateauing at such milestones as primary school registration, PSLE, O-levels, A-levels, and just about every semester of polytechnic/university. For decades, we’ve lived — and flourished –under?a meritocratic education system that saw its golden years in the 80’s and 90’s, but has unfortunately started to turn toxic over the last 20 years.

Today’s schoolchildren literally bend over backwards for their schoolbags, cry over schoolwork that requires their parents to attend classes in order to understand, and then when they finally graduate, they find out that much of what they’ve learned in school doesn’t actually apply in real life. NUS Law Faculty dean Simon Chesterman summed it up best in his article, “Hurdles in childhood give good training”, reproduced in the Ministry of Education website, no less:

“Until now, much of their education was built around being posed questions to which there was a single answer, taught by teachers who knew what that answer was. Extra tuition and parental support ensured that they could provide that answer in exam conditions. These skills are of limited value in law school?or in life?where there is normally more than one possible answer.”

Problems in Life ?Don’t Have?Just One Answer

Chesterman points out 3 failings of the Singapore education system. First, that it drives our children to focus on and excel in specific fields (streaming), but forgets to teach them that there are so many other ways to look at a problem, and even penalises them if they try. So if John has 7 apples in one hand and 8 oranges in the other, easily a Singaporean schoolchild will answer that he’s got 15 fruit, but no one will hazard to point out that John either has really enormous hands, or in just a few seconds he needs to explain to his mother why there are apples and oranges scattered all over the floor.

Failure Is Not an Option, But It Really Should Be

Second, our current system has effectively churned out a good few generations of citizens that are scared stiff of failure. If you ask me, I look at the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jabez Tan (the ex-convict turned entrepreneur that serves up some seriously mind blowing bak kut teh at Jalan Kayu), and I almost want my son to flunk his studies.


Incentives & Disincentives

Third, we are rewarded for what we do right, but we are penalized for what we do wrong (I need go no further than?the fine example our Singapore Sports Council makes of its bottom two S-League teams beginning this year); it’s a de-facto trait of a meritocratic system, and while it puts any individual achievements clearly in black and white and trophies and medals, it robs us of the creative thinking and risk-taking spirit so apparent in our own fathers and mothers who grew up in a time before it all started.

Change: Whose Responsibility?

It has been said, time and again, that things need to change. We’ve been looking to our government as the potential instigators of that change for a while now, but funnily enough, in between trying to instill creativity, risk-taking and innovation into us and?extolling the virtues of the very system that keeps us from being creative, risk-taking innovators, it seems our political leaders haven’t realised they just plonked themselves rather uncomfortably in between a rock and a hard place.

But wait a minute. Can’t we initiate that change ourselves? For?the?same inadequacies raised by Chesterman?– the need to broaden horizons, to learn failure, to breed creativity, innovation and risk-taking — who better to fill the void that our schools can’t fill but us, the parents?

As parents, just having children alone puts us through the very processes that increase our experience in fields not previously taught to us (think identifying poop colours to determine the health of our infants’ digestion). Who among us hasn’t seen failure on multiple occasions (just count how many ex-boyfriends/ex-girlfriends you have)? And creativity? Pffft. I know enough mothers (my wife included) who have attended scrapbooking, jewellery-making and craft-making classes to make up their own “creative” industry. And the biggest, most important risk all of us have embarked on? Deciding to have children in the first place!

We have, on our hands, the very skills that turn the tables on our education predicament. Instead of making our children compatible with the local school system, it is entirely possible for us parents to bring up the same broad thinkers, creative craftsmen, innovators and risk-takers that we already are, a generation that the system needs to be compatible with instead.

Obviously what I’m suggesting isn’t a top-down initiative. Heck, I don’t even consider it bottom-up. It’s very much lateral, because we’re really in as good a position as our parliamentary cabinet to influence our children’s academic future. Really. And it’s so simple; we just teach your kids what you know, about the things that aren’t in their ?textbooks, about picking themselves up after a fall, about thinking out of the box, taking risks and being true to themselves, whoever they may be.

We teach them how to live.


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