Tuesday, 8 October 2019

What the PSLE is REALLY about

It's the aftermath of the PSLE season, and once again, amidst the relief, rejoicing, tears and disappointments, the tough Math paper is in the spotlight.

Reminds me of similar scenes over the past decade, where we were in the thick of things with 5 kids having gone through their PSLE.

Their classmates cried and complained about how it is so unfair, how their teachers or tutors did not teach them well enough. My kids, on the other hand, were unfazed. Not because they nailed it, but because they expected that in an exam paper. Questions they could do, and questions they couldn't. Nothing unusual, nothing to cry about.

When results were released, it was all much ado about nothing as the T score was based on a bell curve. In fact, the tough papers favoured those at the top end. During the years where the papers were not that extreme, the next band of kids were also able to score well, and the differentiation becomes blunted.

However, what has changed over the past decade is not so much the fluctuations in the difficulty of the PSLE papers but how the actual questions easily surfaced on the internet and how the response of parents is amplified via social media.

It is not necessarily a bad thing, because this does help to open up dialogue; parents and experts can weigh in on the issues, which helps everyone to ponder and make sense of where we are, especially at this juncture of our education system where things can no longer remain status quo.

I can definitely see why some parents are upset at the unreasonably tough few questions.

Parents and children have invested a huge amount of time, effort and money to ace the exams and they expect to be duly rewarded.

One of my kids went to a top primary school. She was baffled how a friend consistently scored 100/100 for Math even right up till the prelims and assumed he was extremely smart. When they finally asked him, he replied, "I have Math tuition twice a week and my mum makes me do 5 hours of Math every single day. I've seen all the questions."

Jaw drop.

I MADE my kids go to the playground every single day. Yes, even during their P6 year.

It wasn't just him. There was a whole bunch of kids trailing close, scoring 90+ for Math at the P6 level.

It's a chicken and egg situation.

Certainly, the standard of the PSLE wasn't so tough in our time. Many of us adults aren't able to solve today's PSLE questions. What happened between then and now?

Tuition happened.

Today's PSLE is essentially testing 2 things:

1. The child's academic ability

2. The family's resources and priorities

Parents who have spent exorbitant amounts such as paying $200 an hour for premium tutors are up in arms with the twist in the exam papers.

Because when the goal post shifts, you cry foul. Understandably.

But the BIGGER question is...

Is it STILL, in 2019, the right thing to have only a singular focus, which is to direct all our energies and resources into pushing our children towards getting perfect scores by rote learning and repetition?

Or do we need to rethink the purpose of education in today's climate?

IT IS TIME that the GOAL POST HAS TO SHIFT.

I suppose MOE is trying to throw these highly tutored kids off a little, in an attempt to suss out kids who have flexibility of mind vis a vis a robot like regurgitation of concepts without the ability to apply to new situations.

MOE is taking baby steps towards gearing our curriculum and testing methods to be more aligned with what is needed in the 21st century, including skills like problem solving, creativity, adaptability and resilience.

But many parents are confounded, "Why set such killer exam papers to begin with? It is demoralising to our children. Shouldn't we be testing what they have been taught?"

Let's imagine a hypothetical situation where the PSLE were to test what they have been taught and there are no unexpected tough questions. If every student emerges with As, we wouldn't be able to get a clear indication of the strength of each child.

But why is there a need to distinguish one child from another?

Truth is, we need to sort them to provide for them better.

The reality is this. If you take a snapshot of any primary school in Singapore on the day the PSLE results are released, it could have kids ranging anywhere from 150 to 280. Yes, even the top schools. That is a huge range, and on a practical level, a school wouldn't have the bandwidth to cater adequately to every student.

We need to roughly sort each cohort of approximately 40,000 students without stigmatising them with labels. And allow fluidity in the system for a child to level up if he decides to put in the effort, to accommodate late bloomers and level the playing field.

We have a world-class education system, and the goal post has been stuck in a spot that has served us well until now.

We need to recognise that it will be a grave disservice to our children if we keep resisting change and refuse to shift the goal post simply because that was the only way we knew how to play the game.

THE GAME IS CHANGING, like it or not.

As we celebrate our bicentennial year, it is an apt reminder that while we have achieved so much, we cannot afford to take all that for granted and to stagnate. We need to step up to prepare our children for their future.

The world is changing rapidly around us. We do not have the luxury to rest on our past successes. We have come so far as a country because of the foresight and resilience of our founding fathers and a shared vision of a better future.

We are at the top of our game internationally, but our success didn't happen overnight. Similarly, if we do not adapt to change, the slide will happen too quickly and we wouldn't know what had hit us.

My 2 older girls are already in university. I have waited with bated breath (until my face turned blue) to witness the change in our education system to one that is more relevant and applicable as the global landscape continues to evolve at breakneck speed.

It has taken MOE almost a decade with behind the scenes work to get to the beginning of real change which we are starting to see.

Honestly, I am very excited to be a part of this new phase of education reforms (ok, more like gradual steps) and walk with Kate on her journey.

I can feel the tide shifting. A few years ago, when parents find out about my "tuition as the last resort" stand, they pat me on the back and say, "Wow, I wish I could be courageous like you and give them a carefree childhood but it's quite impossible."

Today, more parents are telling me that they believe in equipping their children with the right skills and the right attitude, and tuition can come much later.

The comical refrain I hear at my talks is, "If other parents are not going to give their kids tuition, I won't either!" And everyone laughs.

We need to take a step back and look at the big picture.

Are we preparing our children only for the PSLE or for life?

In real life, you can prepare all you want for a pitch. But at the crucial presentation, you may be thrown a curveball. How do you handle it?

Panic? Focus on how unfair it is? Complain?

Or are you able to stay calm, keep trying and not give up?

As parents, we have a lot of control in how we are shaping our children's outlook on life.

We can guide our children to reflect that if they have prepared well, have done the exam to the best of their ability, then both parent and child should be satisfied.

I know I'll be overjoyed if every single one of my kids can do that for every single exam or task they attempt! Such a great attitude.

And whatever the results or failings, learn from it and move on.

We cannot afford to be myopic because by the time it is stark in our faces, the landscape would have shifted so radically that we are lagging behind on the world stage.

We have come so far. We have a good work ethic, rigour and discipline.

Where our children fall short at are skills like analytical thinking, critical thinking, problem solving, adaptability, communication, having the confidence to pitch their ideas, having initiative, an innovative and entrepreneur spirit, being able to learn independently, yet able to collaborate and work as a team and lead others.

I am glad MOE is casting its sights firmly on the horizon, and slowly but surely moving their ginormous ship in that direction.

It's time for principals, teachers, parents and students to be aligned. We are all sailing that same ship.

The PSLE should be a check-point, to roughly allocate our children to the right secondary schools which suit their learning aptitude and interests.

In our zeal to push our children ahead of the game, have we unwittingly magnified and distorted the meaning and impact of the PSLE into something so unnecessarily frightening for our children?

It has turned into a monster of a high stakes exam. Let's slay this monster, together.

The chill parents can't do it alone. Neither can MOE (they say it's one step forward, two steps back. No prizes for guessing who is pushing back!) Seriously, everyone needs to come on board.

If we don't let up, something will. And woe to us if it's the mental health of our children. At a national level, the anxiety, depression and suicide rates are something that should be a concern of every stakeholder involved.

Are we raising a strawberry generation or do we want to raise a generation of resilient children who are able to define and chart their own successes?

Let us not miss the forest for the trees.


About MummyWee

Michelle is an Occupational Therapist by day and mum of 6 by night. Besides the already very demanding job of managing 5 teenagers and one 6-turning-16 tween, she is also Founder of The Little Executive, a nurturing centre to develop children in their 4Qs to survive today's volatile world. She also makes time to volunteer with children and the elderly in her community.


PSLE results: Good or bad, what do you say?
Why we went on holiday just before the PSLE
Why a co-ed school was the wrong choice for my son

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.

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