TODAY newspaper did a feature of “Teach Less, Learn More”(TLLM), interviewing parents, educators and policymakers. There were mixed responses, with some supportive and some skeptical if TLLM was working at all.
It touched on something I felt strongly about, so even in danger of repeating my earlier stated points and proposals, I decided to write a piece to add my views to the debate.
TLLM itself is a useful concept. It encourages educators to look at how they can teach in a less didactic way. There are many ways to enourage learning and to cater to students of different learning styles. Having been an active participant in the local education scene in the past decade, I had the privilege of being involved as service provider to schools in implementing TLLM ideas. I could see schools and educators trying to implement new ideas and to try meet the objectives of TLLM.
The main challenge facing educators is in the system that they need to implement TLLM under. While MOE may have been encouraging new ideas for teaching and learning, initiated holistic assessment and even done away with the need for examinations in primary 1 and 2, there has been no change made to the PSLE, the big sacred cow in our education system, as well as other deeply ingrained practices of branding, ranking and streaming.
The stakes are high. Our education system fundamentally believes in streaming students into the pathways appropriate for them. It is done not just once but at fairly regular intervals from the age of 9 so that students are ‘properly matched’ to their performance levels. There’s a strong belief in selecting the cream of the crop and putting good resources to develop them. This has led to a highly competitive culture.
While there are other sorting exercises earlier such as for Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and for subject banding, the first major examination that determines the pathway for each and every child is the PSLE. With the way branding and ranking of schools have been promoted, parents are no longer happy with just having their children into any school for express stream, or even into just any Integrated Programme school. They believe, and not without justification, that being in the top schools will enhance their children’s chances of landing scholarships and top government jobs in the future. A friend whose son is in Raffles Insitution told me, the system is like a black box. You get your child in and somehow the Raffles black box will figure its way of securing the child a safe pathway for the future. He will be on his way to a top professional job or scholarship. Life will be good, at least financially. My friend believes his job is to get his children in and let this black box work its magic.
Parents who are sufficiently endowed will figure ways to get the better of the system. If schools teach less, they tuition more. If there’s no examinations at primary 1 and 2, some parents will buy past year examination papers or send their children for testing by tuition centres to make sure their children are on top of their peers. If being in the GEP gives their children an advantage to enter top independent secondary schools regardless of PSLE score, some will find a way to tuition their children into the programme. If the textbooks and notes the school provide are deemed insufficient, parents will find a way to get the best resources targeted to generate the required PSLE results. Indeed, when speaking to a group of highly aware parents about our education system, one mother brought along a big bag of highly preferred materials (alternative textbooks and multimedia materials) that certain top primary schools use in place of textbooks. These materials were shared with her by other highly involved parents who know where school-provided resources and methods are lacking in, and what they must do to get the results.
Over the years, this has led to an inflation of grades for those who have the means to get the better of the system. National examiners will then figure ways to throw some challenging and even ‘beyond syllabus’ questions into high stake examinations to differentiate the really high performing students. Those without the means may find themselves trying to catch up in large class sizes of 40 or sometimes even more students.
Holistic assessment sounds good. Many primary schools have already implemented it. It is a useful way to gauge the child beyond academic grades at key examinations. However, when it comes to the PSLE, it is no longer about holistic assessment. It is no longer about creative thinking. It is about getting the results that will put you on the correct end of the national bell curve. All that will be decided in a matter of a few days in October and over a couple of hours per day.
All schools would have by now tried varied and their own interpretations of TLLM. A good number of primary schools are already on interesting programmes like Programme for Active Learning (PAL) at the lower levels and holistic assessment either at selected levels or throughout the schooling period. But when it comes to the primary 6 level, everything else is put on hold. A typical neighhourhood school may stop all teaching by June and from term 3, drill primary 6 students daily for the PSLE. A friend whose two sons completed primary education at a top primary school told me the school had already covered the syllabus by the end of primary 5. For the entire primary 6 year, it was all about PSLE preparation – endless revisions, drills and mock tests.
It was with these in mind that I proposed during the Committee of Supply debate in March to start experimental schools that through train from primary 1 to secondary 4. Given the deep seated culture of high stake examinations and branding of schools, it will be impossible to change the system overnight across all schools. Hence, I think a practical way to examine this issue is to allow certain school groups who are already doing primary and secondary programmes to through-train for these 10 years. There will be plenty of opportunities to work out creative TLLM programmes, holistic assessment and character and values development without being interrupted by the PSLE. To avoid putting excessive pressure on parents wanting their children to be in these experiemental schools, we can avoid involving the top secondary schools in this phase of the implementation. Students wanting to be in these top secondary schools will still go through the PSLE. Students in the through-train experimental schools should be discouraged from taking the PSLE to avoid them taking these schools as an insurance for secondary schools. These schools simply shouldn’t prepare children for the PSLE. Parents who send children to these schools must subscribe to the education philosophy of the school for the important 10 years of their children’s education.
I believe there are enough parents wanting such schools. And if we can show positively that students are no worse off at the end of the 10 years’ journey, we can start to seriously look at whether the PSLE is really that important and if a more major revamp of the entire education system should take place.
There are calls for rethinking Singapore, for sacred cows to be sacrificed if necessary. There are many sacred cows in the education system. How many of these will be looked at objectively and critically?