Dealing with sacred cows in education

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?


5 comments on “Dealing with sacred cows in education

  1. All our first generation leaders inculding Mr Lee Kuan Yew will most probably fail in today’s system if they parent do not send them for tuitions.It is time to get rid of streaming,gifted programme, ranking of school and kpi etc.


    I agree with Jenn Jong and that the ridiculous needs of the PSLE should stop growing like an arms race. Only then will kids enjoy school and truly learn how to learn fror the love of learning.

    The previous reader John Ong is accurate except for the issue of the gifted programme, as the GEP is not an academic streaming mechanism. This misconception should be cleared up. In fact the GEP is full of kids doing non-academic things just like what Jenn Jong is advocating and the MOE is advocating with TLLM. In general, all the extra non-academic stuff that the GEP kids do, probably *distract* them from the PSLE. If you want your kid to be drilled and to do well in the PSLE, you SHOULD NOT have him/her enter the GEP.

    What the system should do is truly reconsider the value of PSLE and stop this constant racheting upwards of its academic content. Do we really want our P6 kid to know Sec 2 level maths and science if its going to kill their love for learning? They will just become unhappy uncreative adults that way.

    The incumbents at MOE (ie. Mr Minister et al) have to take a bold stand with TLLM and stop this craziness from the top down. Tell the parents, ‘no we don’t need you to be in an arms race. There is no point. We are breeding exam smart kids who don’t like what they study. Tell you what… we scrap the PSLE so parents get less stressed about drilling their 7-12 yr olds. We aim instead to instill a true love for learning kids with a good TLLM programme.”. Re: the details of the programme, I’m sure the creative brains in MOE will no doubt be able to figure out. (unless sadly, they too, are simply a product of this arms race and were only good at exams)

    Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein would never have survived in the Singapore PSLE system. And THAT’s because the PSLE has little to do with true genius, passion for learning or the love of discovery.

    Who do you want your kid to be?

  3. I remember my children, when in primary school, they were given 20 words to be tested in class for 10 the next day. When the youngest went to the same school years later, he was given 50 words to be tested for 20 the next day. This was pressure cooker education. I do not know the current method. I hope parents can tell us more about this.

  4. I wrote a note about this ..
    .. summarizing a conversation with Minister Shanmugam.

    A solution requires a complete re-think and change of philosophy.

    If I may quote from one of my references .. “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers. We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”

  5. Good articles written by Yee JJ as well as Richard Lee. Well thought out and articulated.

    Taking the discussion one step further, if social mobility is not properly managed in Singapore, this could easily lead to migratory mobility; hence leading to a brain drain (of Singapore’s biggest commodity – skilled talent).

    Singapore has always been in the forefront of education, and even though we can learn much from systems such as Finland, and also Canada; more thought and research should be put into how to adapt it into what is more appropriate to suit the challenge Singapore, as a nation, faces.

    Parents will continue to strive toward finding what they perceive as the best chance for success in their children’s life. There is little the Government can do to quash that desire, and the extolment of hard work to achieve a better life is what encapsulates the human spirit (if not the Singapore spirit). Unless one ventures into the discussion of educating the parents, which is a different discussion thread.

    Surely there is a balance between a system that produces various talents for the progress of Singapore as a nation; gives our children a solid foundation to pursue careers and stable lifestyles of choice; and eventually happiness. Such a system should take into consideration raw talent that needs to be harnessed and nurtured regardless of financial backgrounds, to provide equal opportunity to all Singaporeans. Shouldn’t more resource be put into more study and discourse of such a topic?

    In conclusion, there is a caveat. Beyond the discussion on the educational system, Singapore has a much bigger question to answer. What are Singapore’s key success factors going into the future? We started as a fishing village, but with strategic geographical location, eventually being positioned as a major port for international shipping lines for trade. After which, we pursued technological advances as a major oil refinery in the region, and then later as a center for high tech manufacturing, then innovation. Each step of the way, we were forced to look ahead and shift our foci, as competition from other nations caught up. Recently, Singapore has been increasingly known for our wealth. This to me is a warning sign. If we do not have the next step of innovation or development, this wealth can very easily and quickly be consumed, or lost (in bad investment decisions); and then what? What legacy can this generation (both in Government as well as the nation) leave for the next generation? Do we have the right balance between foreign immigration against an aging population and deflationary forces? Do we currently have the right infrastructure and correct allocation of resources for a comfortable society, and self-sufficiency going forward? Is the lack of infrastructural support making the high functioning abstain from procreating? (I for one feels that the money from child yielding grants should better be allocated to improving infrastructure for raising children – e.g. more child friendly implements, improving school curriculum and school systems, more educational programs to involve parents with the school systems, etc) With rising cost of living outstripping income growth, the answer is apparently not. These questions need to be answered in tandem with what educational system best suits our nation.

    How do we cultivate the next generation of thinkers and doers to shape a future for Singapore? As our forefathers identified in our early years, the answers lie in education. Let’s get this one right before we lose more Singaporeans in the brain drain.

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