There has been much talk recently about Character and Values-based education after it was first announced by new Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat. On Tuesday, a little more details were announced at the first Character and Citizenship Education Conference : http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1164029/1/.html.
In Monday’s Straits Times, it was reported that schools will be brainstorming to look at how CCAs can be further harnessed to develop character (“Schools look at using CCAs to teach values”, ST Nov 7, 2011 Page A9).
CCAs are certainly good places to start in. I have fond memories of my school days when I started becoming active in ECAs (now called CCAs) from upper secondary and especially in junior college. Back then, schools did not strictly limit the number of ECAs we took. I had three formal ECAs and two informal ones in college. I also took part in various competitions as well. It was through these activities that I developed self-confidence. I had gone through primary school and the early part of secondary school as a quiet person, conditioned to think I was in school only to prepare for examinations.
Looking back, my confidence in being able to take on new and varied challenges started with my ECAs. I learnt how to deal with responsibilities when these were entrusted upon me. Perhaps for this reason, I have been willing to contribute actively to my alma mater, serving in various capacities over the past 22 years because school was where I discovered myself.
I would like to see CCAs playing more important roles in schools. A problem I foresee is that school environment is no longer the same as before. I took six subjects at junior college (Four ‘A’ and two ‘AO’ level subjects) back in the 1980s. Today, top students are taking up to 13 Academic Units at the ‘A’ levels. I know of many schools who allow students only one CCA and a second CCA on exceptional grounds (e.g. becoming a student councillor). Being active in the schools scene in various capacities, I have sat through award presentation ceremonies at many top schools over the past 11 years. I have seen the number of subjects being offered by top students rising. I hear of schools pushing top students to take more subjects to stand better chances of winning scholarships.
CCAs are often for winning awards, not for participation. I know of schools that have dropped popular CCAs because they cannot win awards or competitions at inter-schools or national levels. I had written on this to ST Forum before (Change This Attitude – School sports is about winning, not passion ).
I spoke about hyper-meritocracy in my maiden parliament speech. The education reforms started by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee in the 1970s has been good and necessary for their times. However, we have increasingly stretched the academic reforms to tighten the pressure on schools and on parents to churn out elite academic performers, as if it is the only thing that matters in life. In our eagerness to measure results, we count awards won, forgetting what CCAs can do for the learning process. We rank schools by academic performances to push for measurable results. Schools feel pressured to deliver hard academic numbers and can end up drilling students for examinations rather than educating them. Schools will tend to fine-tune their offering of CCAs, not based on students’ interest but based on expected performance at competitions. We had the “Teach Less, Learn More” initiative promoted even by the Prime Minister, but its effects have been muted under this hyper-meritocratic environment.
Eminent education thinker, Sir Ken Robinson spoke of having an agricultural approach to education rather than manufacturing. He urged educationists to take a more nurturing and less structured approach. With a manufacturing mindset, we assume a linear path, promote conformity and batch people together. With an agricultural mindset, the process is more organic and harder to predict. We provide all the ingredients and right environment and let each plant develop itself. The outcome is not always easy to predict. In his book, The Element, Sir Ken Robinson also spoke about how people began to excel when they found their passion in various areas.
For character and values education to work, whether through CCAs or through incorporating into other subjects, we must take a long and hard look at how we have shaped our educaton system into the highly stressed and elitist current state. It will be useful to reflect if we have become too examination-centric and awards-conscious because of the need to measure results so precisely. As long as we continue to measure schools the same way we have done so in the past, I am not certain if much will change.
Some areas I like MOE to look into are:
1. Allow a greater variety of CCAs in schools, even those CCAs that schools cannot win at the highest level. Provide the budget to support this as schools often say they limit the CCAs offered to those they can win awards in because of limited budget to offer more CCAs. Create more sports competitions at the school level and other forms of competitions and events not at the highly competitive levels. These will allow students to experience teamwork and the joy and agony of victories and defeats.
2. Review the examination culture. Perhaps a good place to start will be at the ‘A’ levels, since most of the top 10% of each cohort would soon be on the integrated programme system, bypassing the ‘O’ levels. Is it necessary to push students to take so many subjects? Would it not be better to let students take more CCAs if they wish to, instead of more Academic Units? We need to ask why more subjects have become necessary. Is it to feed into a competitive scholarship system? If so, should we review our scholarship culture and criteria for award of scholarships?
We also need to help students and parents understand there is more than one way to succeed in life. I had written to ST Forum to applaud Raffles Institution student Stefanie Tan quitting school to focus on playing tennis professionally. We can review the schools culture and government culture to encourage different ways for people to find their passion and succeed.
3. Broaden scope of education. I like to see a broader based education that increases the breadth of learning. Subjects that are more ambiguous and subjective, such as literature and history should not be avoided by schools for fear of pulling down overall grades. Such subjects also lend themselves better to incorporating in character and values compared to hard sciences. I recall being moved by my literature book, “To Kill A Mockingbird” and learning about the wicked ways of the world through “Animal Farm” and “Great Expectations”. Stories to learn values can also be incorporated into language lessons from a young age, and teachers equipped to deal with the issues covered.
In my parliament speech, I had also suggested incorporating political education from secondary school. I was referring to understanding our constitution, about role of the president office and about other essential aspects of our democracy. We need to embrace ambiguity in the 21st century because we will face an increasingly uncertain world. Values education can also be incorporated into political education as we help students understand and appreciate diversity in views.
4. Review the teacher-student ratio. While this has been reduced to 30 in a class for primary 1 and 2 classes, it is still 40 or more students per class from primary 3 to secondary 5. Teachers often find themselves spending a lot of time controlling the class rather than teaching. With large class sizes, it is difficult for teachers to spend more time with individuals to work on imparting values. Having dedicated mentoring time where form teachers can be one-to-one or in smaller group settings with students will also be useful. However, with current administration workload and large class sizes, this is difficult to achieve.
5.Review the way we measure and rate schools. Currently, the schools appraisal exercise is rather onerous and time consuming. The way schools are ranked and the type of information published of schools have a bearing on how they behave. I understand a review is underway to simplify schools appraisal, and I hope it can result in positive changes for a more conducive and nurturing environment. We should find ways to reduce unhealthy stress for both students and teachers so we can channel the energies towards creating positive platforms for Character and Values-based education.
I support Character and Values-based education. We need people of good character and strong resilience to steer us in this new millennium. We need strong values to guide us in an ambiguous and constantly changing new world order. I hope to see the education environment being changed to ensure these can be properly realised.