Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Our education system is starting to get exciting!

I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel! Things are coming together nicely and more changes are in the pipeline.

16 years ago, #1 entered kindergarten. It was a popular school and many of the kids came from affluent families. Little did I know that we were in for a shock. Her English teacher made her stand in the corner when she couldn't come up with a word that begins with the letter 'S'.

Something was wrong.

Didn't I send her to school to learn such things? Why was she being tested and punished for not knowing? That was the first inkling I had that our system was too skewed towards testing vis-a-vis learning.

Even more disturbing, one day she finally had the courage to tell me that her teacher had dragged her to the N2 class and got a boy to complete her worksheet in front of her. She felt dumb and humiliated. I pulled her out of the preschool and put her in a church-based kindergarten where the teachers were caring and they focused more on character development.

Since then, moving them through various preschools, primary and secondary schools, I have found that it is not accurate nor fair to generalise.

There will be good systems with teachers or principals who are not aligned. There will also be narrow systems with passionate teachers who go the extra mile to help our children learn.

It is wonderful to see that the early childhood scene has proliferated over the past 10 years as child development research continues to unravel how children learn best. I have found a holistic international preschool for Kate where they play outdoors twice a day and the kids are taught how to resolve conflicts by themselves and learning is fun and experiential.

Unfortunately, that comes to a halt the moment children enter Primary 1. These 6 & 7-year olds are expected to sit in a classroom with 30 other students to learn in a one-size-fits-all system. It's great that there will be no more exams or weighted assessments for the P1s and 2s, and a foray into experiential learning has been introduced, but there is still much room for improving the way lessons are conducted.

While in University, I was curious to know why our classmates had markedly different strengths from us Singaporeans. We were good at researching but they were brilliant at presentations and thinking out of the box. My classmates shared that their lessons were very hands on. If the topic was on gravity, the teacher came into class and tossed balls around. What follows would be an in-depth discussion with questioning and prompts from the teacher to ignite their thinking, instead of spoonfeeding them with concepts and content.

Returning to Singapore and raising my kids with the mindset of an occupational therapist, I asked myself constantly, "what is the rationale behind this activity"? I questioned the purpose of education and looked ahead 20 years because that would be the future landscape my children would be stepping into.

As my 5 kids moved into the primary and secondary levels, I was disappointed that there wasn't a significant difference from our generation. It was only in the past few years that I started seeing the changes gaining momentum.

I was worried that our education system was not equipping them with the right set of skills to get them ready for their future. Too much time was wasted on testing and learning how to answer questions with specific key words and drill methods.

We had to strike a balance with what the schools could not provide and to guide them in the other aspects of education myself.

To be curious thinkers, to dare to try, to fail and try again, to learn to work together, to be creative, to come up with their own opinions and substantiate them, to know that there are different ways to solve a problem, to believe in themselves.

Along the journey, there were times when I had to guard against letting school extinguish their love of learning. It seems that the objective of completing curriculum and pressures of exams which teachers have to accede to outweigh the silent need of the seeds of curiosity to be watered and tended to.

It's good that there have been changes in the exam papers, reflecting MOE's push towards application, but the problem with change at the testing level is that students need to be taught how to think.

It is not as simple as adding thinking questions into the comprehension or Science papers and expecting teachers to be able to draw it out of them. These type of skills we are trying to inculcate are best started even as early as the preschool years and built upon year after year as they move on to higher order thinking skills.

The roadmap drawn out in the School Work Plan looks fantastic on paper, however, to equip the whole teaching force to be well versed to teach children at this deeper level will not happen overnight.

It is not difficult to deliver content. But to get the class to be engaged, to ponder thinking questions and to steer them towards having a fruitful discussion on the topic at hand, the teacher has to be skilled and it takes up a lot more time.

A few months back, I was invited to a small group session with ex-Education Minister Ng Chee Meng and these other lovely ladies. We were discussing how important it was to develop 21st-century skills lest we have a generation of children who are ill-equipped to take on jobs of the future. I asked Minister roughly what percentage of our primary school curriculum is currently targetted at inquiry-based learning and developing such skills? He did not have the numbers but hazarded a guess at about 5%.

I was flabbergasted.

He explained that we have a good system that has been consistently producing strong results. So while they recognise the need for equipping our children with a new set of skills to meet the demands of the future, they need to figure out how to carve out more time without overloading our children further.

How do we free up more time?

Curriculum. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung explained at the Schools Work Plan Seminar 2018 that curriculum has been cut twice, by 30% in 1997 and by 20% in 2005 and is comparable to other countries and further reduction will risk under-teaching. Since curriculum is at its bare minimum, they have to look to other avenues to free up time.

Removing mid-year exams in the transition years of P3, P5, Sec 1 and Sec 3 will free up an extra 3 weeks every 2 years.

From the Work Plan 2018:

"I hope schools will use the time well, for example, to conduct applied and inquiry based learning. In applied and inquiry based learning, our students observe, investigate, reflect, and create knowledge. And that will naturally take up more time."

I am extremely pleased to read this. That is how I have been teaching my children when it comes to any form of knowledge and how we have been educating children in my enrichment centre.

However, in reality, this approach to learning will take up much more time than an extra 10 days per year. Teachers need to brainstorm, create lesson plans, share best practices and implement. It is a good start nonetheless and we are moving in the right direction.

Assessment. Personally I feel that the PSLE should stay because we need a national exam to sort the children at the end of 6 years instead of moving them straight through for 10 years of education. In fact, I find that the 6 years of primary school is the most narrowly defined approach, and it gets better once they get sorted into secondary school and beyond.

Take the tiny sample size of my 5 kids who have finished their PSLE. There is a stark difference in their learning styles, aptitudes, interests and pen and paper academic abilities and it would not be equitable to them if they were all bundled together.

#2 is the most academically inclined of the lot, and placed in a class of 40 or even in a lecture hall of 150, she is capable of learning well. However, #5's learning style is experiential and he has been doing much better this year in a class of 8 where their teachers try to adapt the lessons to suit them. I have observed how the 3 different secondary schools my girls went through offered different niche programmes, learning approaches and pace.

Having said that, the mechanics of the questions in the PSLE and what they hope to develop in our students have to be re-examined.

More importantly, the way the PSLE has evolved to become a stress-inducing high stakes exam has to be unwound and mindsets need to change.

I am all for removing the 2 mid-year exams in primary school and 2 in secondary school as there is an urgent need to carve out more time. There will no doubt be a push back from parents who are afraid they will have no certainty of knowing how their child is faring and it will take time for parents to align with the big scheme of things.

One gripe I have is that too much time is still spent on preparing students for the PSLE. In many schools, preparations start from P5 onwards, and the entire P6 year is geared towards tackling the PSLE by drilling them with an avalanche of past year papers. That is 2 years of precious time that could be used for real learning instead of preparing them to be exam ready. I hope to see the day when these 2 are congruent - where real learning leads them naturally to be exam ready.

Many kids tell me honestly that they study only for the exams, and don't ask them any concepts after that because they have forgotten what they have learnt.

Is that true education? If we measure our education by the yardstick of applicable knowledge, we have failed in our objective, and we have failed our children.

Removing class and level positions. This is a change in line with PSLE scoring no longer being in relation to their peers from 2021. It sends a strong message and will hopefully shift the mindset of parents from competition to learning for learning's sake and to work towards the aim of advancement.

But as Minister Ong said, "the report book should still contain some form of yardstick and information to allow students to judge their relative performance."

This is very necessary because of the wide variation in the standard of examinations set, thus the mark on an exam paper is not indicative.

During #1's P5 year end exam, she scored 50+ for her English and I was very concerned as English is her strong subject. At the PTM, I was told not to worry as she was one of the top scorers and most of the other students had failed.

If schools are able to set consistent standards, and parents can be assured that an A means a child is doing well, a B means there is room for improvement, a fail means he needs extra help or hasn't put in much effort, and so forth, then we can make sense of their marks. But if a score of 58 placed her in the top 85% then we do need the percentile of the cohort as a gauge as it paints a clearer picture. 

Joy of learning. Minister Ong says "They must leave the education system still feeling curious and eager to learn, for the rest of their lives."

This is a lofty goal. It is sad how children enter preschool bright-eyed and full of ideas, yet they leave P6 either as robots churning out good grades or with their zest for learning squelched.

Several reasons contribute to it. High parental expectations, an overload of school work plus tuition, non-inspiring curriculum in the upper primary years, and teachers. At the end of P5, #5's Science teacher told me, "You need to get him to conform. Don't ask so many questions. Leave all that for secondary school. It's time to wake up and focus on the exams. He is a bright child with so much potential, but look at his grades." The irony is that he loves Science, and has been doing well in it, except the year when he was in her class.

At the same discussion, his male form teacher agreed that the PSLE was important, but he assured me not to worry as he feels that #5 will go very far in future, with his innovative and creative flair, natural leadership ability and eagerness to help his peers. He asked if I would be sending him to an international school as that would suit him better.

With MOE trying to do what's best for our children, parents also have a part to play in this equation. New initiatives are rolled out to resolve problems or to enable. We have a choice how we want to react and respond to new policies.

We need to shift from teaching to the test to focus on learning to learn.

In the coming years, there is bound to be more changes, and I will be worried if there isn't! We need to take a broader overview instead of being myopic. It starts with us parents who need to be comfortable with change. The world is changing rapidly and we will be overtaken if we don't stay relevant.

I'm reassured to see that MOE has been planning ahead instead of being complacent as we are consistently top of the charts in international rankings. I am certain that together, we can do it! We will refine our education system into a truly world class system, and educate a whole generation of resilient learners who are not afraid to chase their dreams and have the skills and ability to do so.

Equip them right and let them fly. I have never placed emphasis on their results, only on the process of learning and #2 is testimony that they haven't been short-changed. We were overjoyed to hear that she did really well for her A level prelims. Her home tutor called her in for a meeting and her name has been sent up for a PSC scholarship as she has not only managed to achieve stellar results but has held a full spectrum of leadership roles over the past 2 years in JC.

By equipping her with the right skills, perseverance, and support, she is ready to go far. I'm sure the rest of them will find their strengths and purpose and soar in their own time.

Tertiary Education. I am not worried even for my kids who are the round pegs in this square system. There are so many exciting courses in the polytechnics and local universities that they are having difficulty choosing just 1. And they don't have to. It will be a lifelong journey, and our role is to guide them with wisdom. So long as they continue to want to learn and to improve their skills, the world is their oyster.

School Stories:

#1 - When your son gets into fights in school
#2 - My son the loan shark
#3 - So kids can't play once they start school?
#11 - How #2 topped her level in English
#12 - DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 - Tuition - First line of attack?
#14 - Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 - First day mix up!
#16 - The day I forgot to pick my son from school
#17 - No more T-score. Now what?
#18 - Tackling the new school year
#19 - She did it, without tuition.
#20 - So who's smarter?
#21 - Why I do not coach my kids anymore.


~ www.mummyweeblog.com - A blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

2 comments:

  1. I concur with what you say. My child is now 7 years old and in P1. He is so full of curiosity about the world around him and he loves science. He willingly picks out books about animals and chooses youtube shows about science to watch. He wants to be an inventor. I worry that the rigid school curriculum will dampen his enthusiasm for the subject. I also had a pre-school teacher tell me that he talks too much and should question less... this is disturbing for me...

    The changes are in the right direction. Our kids spend too much time on preparing for exams. True learning should make them be exam-ready as you rightly pointed out. However, the changes would also have to come from parents too. I read with dismay how some parents are turning to tuition centres and tutors to make up for the lack of mid-year exams to calibrate their kids' "exam-readiness". I hope these parents are the minority...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Angie,

    Yes, these are the innovative kids which our system is unable to cater for at the moment, yet ironically, these are the same traits they hope to develop in the student population!

    There will always be parents who will cling on to what is tangible that they can understand. It doesn't really matter, and in time, as more and more parents start to be enlightened and swing over to the idea of real learning vs test taking, things will move along nicely. All the best to you and your boy, and don't forget that your encouragement has a huge influence on him and never let that fire of curiosity burn out!

    ReplyDelete

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