Related Posts with Thumbnails

Monday, February 27, 2012

Succumbing to the Enrichment Contagion

I have finally succumbed to the enrichment fever that has gripped parents in Singapore. Since preschool, Singaporean parents who can afford it, send their children to all manner of enrichment classes. These little ones are shepherded from Chinese for Tots to Baby Einstein's Thots. From there, they progress to other enrichment centres where some are taught expository and argumentative writing in Primary 5 and Primary 6, when their school syllabus only tests narrative writing.

My attitude towards enrichment classes had always been that they were extras to be done for fun and sheer enjoyment. I was rudely awakened last year when I realized that Little Boy's exams tested skills and content that school hadn't yet taught, but that others had already learnt in their enrichment classes a year or 2 earlier. Poor Little Boy had to play catch up. We caught up on 3 years of Chinese in 10 months. We caught up on 1.5 years of Math in 4 weeks. Happily, Little Boy has always been about 1 or 2 years ahead of his peers in English and Science. He loved these 2 subjects and I indulged him with a plethora of books around that he could dive into, to enrich himself. Indeed, for Science, he had the entire kitchen at his disposal as well as all manner of odds and ends that he would put together for strange experiments of all sorts.

I had always believed that schools would make it a point to test only what they were able to adequately teach. I now realize that schools test what enrichment centres teach too! Hence, unless I want Little Boy to fail his exams later on, it makes sense to give him exposure to skills and content that he will be tested on (without having been explicitly taught) in later years. I am determined not to fail my Little Boy again in this regard. So, I signed him up for formal enrichment.

In part, my decision was motivated by what I read in the newspapers some time ago. Our Ministry of Education, MOE, has decided to start Teach Less Learn More initiatives in History and Geography classes at the Secondary 1 and 2 levels (America grades 7 and 8). See Straits Times article here - We've all experienced Teach Less Learn More in primary school and we're all still reeling from the unpleasant shock. Teachers give out a project and expect our little 8 to 12 year olds to miraculously KNOW where to get information, how to synthesize information, how to present information.

Give them a project and let them discover. 

That is good and wonderful (and is an approach that should be applauded) except that schools don't provide the required resources (not even proper textbooks) for the children to explore, and learn from. So, either our children learn from thin air or parents like me have to actively search for reading and video materials so that our children can REALLY learn independently.

I fear very much that the same half-baked Teach Less Learn More implementation will happen in the new Teach Less Learn More initiatives at the secondary school level. I fear that come his time in secondary school, Little Boy's projects in Sec 1 and 2 History and Geography, will be graded for his skill at expository and argumentative writing, without the school ever having explicitly taught either. I do know that some secondary schools teach narrative writing and only narrative writing all the way up to Secondary 4 (grade 10). As a result, bright and conscientious students fail GP (the General Paper) in Junior College (American grades 11 and 12). So, I decided to enrich Little Boy in expository and argumentative writing skills in preparation for secondary school. In fact, I know that students at a particular premier enrichment centre, are already learning these skills as part of their enrichment program in Primary 6.

I find it very time-consuming to search for resources and devise assignments with which to help Little Boy learn independently. It's like devising a curriculum for a school with only one student. I thus decided I needed some help. I was introduced to an online American High School catering to American homeschooling parents, and I signed Little Boy up for English I - Introduction to Language Arts. His online mentor (a real person with 30 years of teaching experience) provided him with Anne Hanson's Visual Writing and assigned him the task of summarizing Benjamin Franklin's autobiography I examined the task and materials, and decided that Little Boy had all the resources to independently learn and carry out his task. So, Little Boy read up on the basics of expository writing and then he read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography and  then he began his summary.

Little Boy had so much fun. It was a task that was new enough to be interesting, but not so new that it was daunting. He had help because he could refer to Anne Hanson's book. AND it saved me a great deal of time because I didn't have to source for a writing textbook, nor do I have to mark Little Boy's work. His online mentor does all that.

In addition, I do think practice in expository and argumentative writing comes in useful even in the PSLE because both types of writing are required in answering English comprehension questions, as well as Science open-ended questions. Not only that, the online assignments are of a difficulty that is actually better calibrated to Little Boy's competence in English than the assignments his school teacher gives out. His school teacher prints 3 short columns of newspaper articles, and the task is to write 5 sentences detailing one's reactions to the 3 short readings. When I say short readings, I really mean short. The readings take up a 3rd of a page only.

I find it odd that Little Boy's school assigns such easy homework to students (in the 2nd best class) who need to face the demands of the PSLE at the end of the year, and of whom one expects standards of writing so high that this composition ( scored a mere 28/40 only. Now tell me, is there not a gap between what students are taught to do through assigned homework, and what students must do in their exams?

Little Boy is enjoying the challenge of English I - Introduction to Language Arts immensely. It is a high school module and his online classmates range in age from 14 to 18. Little Boy is only 11. I was never keen to push Little Boy beyond his level because I neither wanted to stress him not hothouse him. I now realise that giving enrichment prevents stress later on (when he will be tested but not taught), and is not hothousing because his school exams do expect that much of him.

I resolve thenceforth to embrace enrichment as part of my parental responsibilities, and do my best by Little Boy. It's impossible to know to what level the exams will test to because as one person put it "The textbook is the base and the sky is the limit". Therefore, I'll just let Little Boy move forwards as FAST and as FAR as he wants to. We may wake up one day to a son who is ready for university far earlier than most OR we may wake up to a son who is just about on par with his peers. There is no way to tell so we'll just do what we can.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Henry Ng Tong Hoi: Property Agent

I tend to be a loyal customer. I've no problems using the same product for 20 years - Imperial Leather Soap, Colgate, Jeypine. This sort of unswerving customer loyalty extends service providers and suppliers too - lawyers, fishmongers and property agents.

For more than a decade, I was loyal to Adeline and her husband, a property agent pair. After a while, we had actually become rather good friends. Then one day, I found out that she had sold one of my properties for 100K less than the price my neighbour obtained for hers in the same month of sale. The thing about Adeline is that she hates to share her commission with another agent. Hence, if a direct buyer offers her a price 100K less than an indirect buyer (speaking through another agent), Adeline prefers to lower price because whilst I earn less she actually earns more.

Henry Ng Tong Hoi appeared just when I was nursing my little broken heart. It isn't easy to get over 100K. That's so much money to someone like me, who won't even buy handbags costing more than $40.

Henry lived in the same condominium as I did, and I often saw him in the pool... or lounging around in shorts. However, when he appeared at my apartment to show it to potential buyers, he would be all properly togged out in office wear. Having been bitten once by a lady called Adeline, I was twice shy about Henry serving his own interests before mine. He didn't try the Adeline Trick.

I think that those who are new to selling properties would appreciate Henry a lot. He takes his job as a consultant seriously. He did the market surveying and arrived with print-outs about market trends for my apartment, which, as I recall, Adeline and her husband never did. He came by to advise me how to present my house - the aircon should be switched off, this clutter should be cleared etc... Actually, I didn't need him to teach me all this because it wasn't the first property I was selling. But I can imagine how those who are new to selling properties would appreciate it.

Next, he proposed and explained his pricing strategy. On my side, I had decided to never trust another property agent again, so I checked up on everything he told me about trends and competitors. It's quite easy to get transaction prices nowadays on the internet especially if you don't mind paying a little. As marketing proceeded, Henry would make it a point to apprise me of every offer that came in... and he never tried to press me to sell at a lower price. Adeline had the habit of pressing down my price expectations.

I really liked Henry. I think I'll stay with Henry at 90181689 for the next 20 years...

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mafia? Triads? Gangs? Groups?

Little Boy sat chortling in the backseat. It was nice to see him laugh like that, his amusement gurgling forth from his throat like mirthful bubbles from his heart.

A little boy in his class somehow decided to start a Group called Insect Pests. The stated mission of the group was to create trouble. Members of this group (all boys) therefore go around playing pranks on other kids and tease prefects. The Insect Pests has an explicit organisation structure. There are RANKS. The higher ranked ones can order the lower ranked ones around. This was made clear to all members when they joined. No one made any noise because they didn't understand the realities of being ordered around.

Soon, they understood. The children in the designated lower ranks staged a rebellion of sorts and were promptly thrown out of Insect Pests. However, not to fear, these originally very nice and agreeable little kids (you really must be very agreeable if you agreed initially to be the lower ranked members of a group eh?) had steel in them. They promptly rallied around each other and formed another group called The Resistance. Aaaaaaah! What an evocative name, somewhat reminiscent of the comedy series, Allo Allo, and France in the 2nd World War. I laughed and said "If they're resisting the Insect Pests, they really should be called Baygon or Mortein." Little Boy thought these were good names and promised to suggest them to The Resistance soon.

The Resistance is organised differently. It has no leaders and everything is done by vote. Aaaaaaah... a democracy. The Resistance has since embarked on an ambitious membership drive. They derived a slogan "Join us. We have cookies." Then, they figured out that kids like Little Boy didn't wanna join because they didn't wanna get mixed up in anything that Teachers would punish them for e.g., teasing prefects and throwing erasers at targets. So, The Resistance developed a Sleeping Member category. All ya gotta do is to put in your name as part of The Resistance so that Insect Pests would be able to see the growing list of names. You need do nothing else. With this understanding, Little Boy said he would join.

Next, to convince the really timid ones, The Resistance said "Join us and we promise that we will protect you from the Insect Pests. This brought some of the more unpopular and mousy children into their fold. Not surprisingly, The Resistance now has more members than the original Insect Pests. The aim now is to poach Insect Pests of all their members.

Wow! Total annihilation of the group!

Little Boy is very amused by all these goings-on. He says he prefers to stay neutral so that he doesn't have to take sides when people disagree. I must say... he has a wise head, my son. The only thing we cannot agree on is what these Groups are. I would ask "So... any new happenings with the mafia war?" and Little Boy goes "Mom! They're not mafia."

He says they're not gangs either, nor triads... they're Groups. Silly boy! Whoever heard of a Group War?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Teaching Resilience by Failing Kids?

In the Sunday Times on 12th February 2012, I came across a piece by Ms Irene Tham on parents bringing children as young as 8 to psychologists. One sentence made me fall off my chair "Psychologists said the problem could be exacerbated by the hothousing that goes on in enrichment classes that parents make their children attend. They go to school already knowing all the answers, forcing teachers to raise the standard even more."

I do wonder if any psychologists really thought themselves fit to pronounce that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is FORCED into whatever course of action, unless the psychologist works at MOE... in which case it becomes an admission of weakness on MOE's part, since it shows it has no strength of character to resist such unhealthy pressures. Next, forced? Really? Someone held a gun to MOE's head saying "Raise the standards of exams beyond our children's cognitive levels or else..."

Given that PSLE tests and grades at skills levels beyond Primary level (and these high level skills are neither documented in official textbooks nor taught in schools), schools across the nation find themselves raising the bar of exams from Primary 1 onwards (with little ones of 7 years). Primary 1 exams contain questions from the Primary 3 syllabus. Primary 2 exams contain questions from the Primary 4 syllabus... and so on. More importantly, much of this material tested is not taught in class. The deep reading skills that Little Boy needs to tackle his English Comprehension paper requires text annotation skills that I myself learnt only in Junior College (i.e., 17 to 18 years) for literature. I myself taught him annotation, not his school. In last year's Primary 5 exams, questions tested Primary 6 content. Little Boy would have failed if I had not taught him things from the Primary 6 syllabus.

One parent, whose child went through PSLE in 2011, made estimates that those who score at the top of the PSLE bell curve can easily cope with Secondary 1 and 2 math material. These kids are invariably enrolled in an external enrichment/tuition program where they learn stuff not taught in their regular primary school, but still tested at the PSLE. (Source:

Another parent shared this "I did relief teaching at a "Band 3" secondary school with PSLE score averaging 23X. There was once I taught Sec 1 math in April to a 5th class (i.e., not the best class). The students in the class told me not to teach the Sec 1 Math syllabus because they already knew it from primary school... that PSLE math is much harder." (Source:

Clearly, the PSLE tests secondary school skills. This has lead to traumatised children at every level of primary school because as yet another parents shared, "Last year in my son's neighbourhood school [read: not top school], the average and median marks for Primary 5 Math were 40+ which means the average kid failed Maths." (Source:

The difficulty of the PSLE has a domino effect that reaches all the way down to traumatise children as young as THREE years old. We have an entire population of Singaporean children who are fast getting mentally unhinged from an early age thanks to the extreme pressures created by the PSLE. At an age where God naturally endowed them with optimism and an inability to see the flaws of the world, vast numbers of children are made to confront a daily reality that tells them they're not up to par... that they're failures.

Why does the MOE have to test beyond children's cognitive levels? Because parents forced them? Because it is enamoured with what the top of the top can do? Because it chases after the accolades Singaporean students get in US varsities? At what price? Let me explain this further with the following analogy.

"One of the most extraordinary features of Mongol society (under Genghis Khan) was the annual winter hunt. It lasted as long as 3 months and was intended to train soldiers for battle and provide food for the entire army. Spread out in a line 100 miles long, the soldiers moved across the steppe, driving all animals before them. Gradually, the ends of the line closed until a circle was formed, with the animals trapped within. At a signal from Genghis Khan himself, the soldiers dismounted and attacked the animals (bears, wolves and tigers) in hand to teeth combat to the death. After facing a charging bear with only a lance and a knife, no soldier will fear human opponents." (Source: History's Great Untold Stories, Joseph Cummins)

Certainly, this technique worked. Those who SURVIVED would have conquered their fears. Those who died have nothing more to fear. They would have died in ignominy and shame. How would you feel if the MinDEF trained our sons with this technique? Is it not barbaric? Genghis Khan was the foremost barbarian after all...

We can see how barbaric this is because we are all very sensitive to physical bloodshed and death. Most people are less aware of psychological bloodshed and death. The system we have works! Singaporean gifted and high ability kids, and the top of the top conquered the odds and go abroad to do Singapore proud in US varsities. They are the Hordes of Genghis Khan equivalent in psychological terms - tough, resilient, confident, smart... you name it.

But what about my Little Boy, whose psyche would have died if I had not found him, rescued and healed him? Can you accept the equivalent of Genghis Khan's Great Hunt in psychological terms? Because that is what every one of our children (minus the top performers) lives through. I know of better ways to build resilience... more controlled... less wasteful... more sophisticated than the methods of the world's foremost barbarian butcher.

And then people wonder why the average Singaporean is afraid to step out of their comfort zone. It isn't that they're afraid to step out of their comfort zone, it is that their comfort zone is so small they can't do much. We've beaten down our children with too many failures that they no longer dare to try. To make this point clear, I have channeled the above excerpt of Genghis Khan's great hunt.

"One of the most extraordinary features of the Singaporean educational system (under the tyranny of the bell curve) was the 4 times a year tests/exams. Each preparation period lasts about 1.5 months and was intended to train children for the PSLE and eventually provide the economy with labour units. Spread out over the nation's schools, students are tested beyond their cognitive levels from P1 to P6. Those whose spirits die in the attempts are labelled "low ability" and "slow". In their 12th year, our society signals the children to take the PSLE. After facing PSLE with only a pen, no student will fear academic challenge. Those who survived continue thereafter to conquer the world and bring glory to Singapore. Those whose spirit died, learn to avoid the pain of failure by never taking risks."

I believe that failure teaches lessons important for success. Yes I do. I am all for letting children experience failure once in a while. After all, I suppose when you lose a battle, you learn to pick yourself up and try again. However, what is the use of punching the very life out of a novice boxer, again and again and again. Everything has a breaking point. Do we want to break the spirit of the next generation of well-educated Singaporeans? We already don't have much spirit left compared to foreign talent.

So, What Solution do We Have?
The SYSTEM must stop playing catch up with the enrichment parents. The SYSTEM must stop rewarding the efforts of all this enrichment by providing kids with enrichment the highest marks. If exams are set such that kids can get 100% without enrichment, many of the kids that do go for enrichment would find it a waste of time. Go to enrichment also 100%. Don't go to enrichment also 100%. So why go? Let those enriched kids who wanna move ahead, skip levels. But keep the tests and exams within the levels appropriate to that level so that more kids can feel good about themselves. The solution is as simple as teaching a dog to pee on the pee tray by reinforcing the behavior with a snack. Don't reinforce the efforts of the ENRICHMENT PARENTS.

We have come to a point where parents and more parents are sucked into this vortex of enrichment. The only solution is for the system to take a stand and stop testing beyond what they teach, regardless of the fact that regardless of the fact that ENRICHMENT PARENTS started this vortex of enrichment.

Our family being whom we are, naturally enriched Little Boy in Science. Science encyclopedia lie around the house. He is give free access to materials for kitchen experiments since age 2. It was fun and we did it for interest. He learnt stuff beyond the primary syllabus. I certainly did not expect that he would need all this enrichment to do well in the PSLE, but he does.

Why must all learning be tested? Why can't we learn because we like to? Parents enrich their kids, but I don't think parents expect that this material will be tested. Unfortunately, it is.

Seriously, no country can make it on the backs of top performers alone. You need a mass of followers who have gumption, drive and spirit. The mental health of the masses need attention, not just the top performers, and the rigour they demonstrate for world accolade.

If this post speaks to you, forward the link.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Japanese Bamboo Flowers

I've always wondered why they call Japanese Bamboo... Japanese Bamboo. They don't look Japanese to me. They're messy and have thick leaves that look not at all refined. Well, now I know why they're called Japanese Bamboo. It's because their flowers look like origami.

The flowers seem to bloom at night. They look like sprays of fireworks against the dark green foliage. In the day time, they retire into buds and look very non-descript. I can't believe my Japanese Bamboo flowered. I think few people have had this happen to them.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Why Singapore Produces Few CEOs

Leadership requires a superior intellect and practised social skills.

In Singapore, we put all our children of superior intellect together into top schools. These little seeds of high IQ are sown on a crowded seedling tray of superior soil and receive different sorts of stimulating  fertiliser pellets to bring out the best in them. The gardeners who give them attention may even have PhDs. This is done because the nation has not enough resources to afford superior soil in every tray, and superior gardeners for every tray.

In the top schools, there are top classes. In the top classes, there are top pupils. The 10 top pupils in the top class out of an entire school of potential leaders are the only ones who FEEL like leaders at all. Leading is a habit born of long years of practice. You develop an unconscious FEEL for it. You learn to lead, through the years, in the presence of followers. In preschool, you figure out ways to get your classmates to do what you want. In primary school, you figure out more ways to influence your peers. In secondary school, you initiate projects and get people to do meaningful things. If you're clever, you FEEL it out and THINK it through. Only the 10 top students in the top class of an entire school of potential leaders develop the unconscious habit of leadership... every other potential leader gets practice in followership instead.

What would happen if some of these potential leaders had been planted into a school where there was a ready pool of followers to practise with... to develop the FEEL of leadership with... people with lesser IQ, who need the guidance provided by another who can think better and faster. These potential leaders would come into their own no?

Every CEO of note in Singapore is drawn from a pool of foreign talent. It cannot be that we are of poor genetic stock to begin with... and thus are incapable of producing CEOs. I offer thus this explanation. We've trained all but the top 10 students in every cohort to be followers, and have thus shortchanged ourselves.

Just because a system feature has been in place since the days of Goh Keng Swee, does not mean that it is robust and good. Education needs 20 years to show results. We should be looking at some of these historical features and question whether they have ever made sense... or whether they still make sense in the current world.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Edibles Edibles Edibles

It takes effort to grow edibles, and they make for an untidy garden. My garden is no good looker. The plants there don't co-ordinate, and they don't have very pretty flowers. They're all grown for food or medicine. The medicinal/food herbs take up a big part of the garden - thyme (a few sorts), rosemary (a few sorts), echinacea, lemon bergamot, oregano (2 sorts), tarragon, sage, lemon verbena, elderflower, chamomile, spring onions, chilli, indian borage, dandelion, dill and a couple of other herbs I dunno what to call them but I know they taste good.

Lemon Bergamot (makes a nice tea and a good topping for fish)

Echinacea (gets rid of flu like nothing else can).

Brinjal (nutritious)

I have no clue what this is but the red buds taste good in salads.

Dill (for fish dishes too)

Then there are the vegetables: lady fingers and brinjals (my favourites), xiao bai cai, bayam, batavia salad, stinging nettle and rocket salad. I think I've got my gardening oomph back!!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Charming Little Boy

Little Boy picked up a frozen pea at the supermarket today. He rolled it between his fingers and then squished it. You know how it is when you squish a pea right? This green pea paste oozes out. Little Boy waved his finger under my nose and I thought it was his booger. So I did what all mothers would do. I suggested to Little Boy to keep it on his finger and bring it home to freak The Daughter out.

Little Boy refused. He said "Mom, I'm not evil."

I retorted "Are you saying I'm evil? What kind of son calls his Mommy evil?"

The cashier smiled widely and so I pressed what I thought was my advantage. After all, I was sure the cashier was a Mommy like me, and would empathize. "See!" I said, "This lady doesn't approve of you calling your Mommy 'evil'". But the lady betrayed me. She said, "Aiya... he made a joke." and then she smiled widely at Little Boy, and almost winked.

I wouldn't let the matter rest, so as we walked to the car, I elbowed Little Boy in the ribs and said that he had scored an unfair advantage because he had charmed the lady with his smile. Little Boy rolled his eyes and grinned and went into contortions trying to explain that he wasn't charming and didn't at all exert unfair advantage with his charms. So there we were poking at each other's bellies when in the midst of a contortion a sprightly Indian man popped up like a Jack in the Box, put his face close up to Little Boy and fairly squealed... "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh! This one is so CUTE!"

After a shocked pause... I smiled and thanked the man graciously for his compliment. Then I turned to Little Boy and said "No charms huh? I rest my case." Still, it was quite a surreal experience. I mean, who actually walks up to 11 year old boys and goes "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh! This one is so CUTE!"

Still... it was a nice thing to say.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Education System UNABLE TO DELIVER the Results It Expects From Our Kids?

"The [Education] minister, however, acknowledged that "we expect much more of the education system than it can deliver". It is thus important for parents, teachers, and the broader society to play a role in the education system, he stressed. (Today Online, 1st February 2012)

Post-script: SPS Sim Ann has since clarified on the Minister's behalf (and in response to the blogpost herein below) that the role of broader society is in values and character education. There was also an acknowledgment that the tuition/enrichment phenomena is of concern, as well as the gap between teaching and testing.

I know it is unfair to take a sound bite out of context but I am intrigued enough to want to seek clarification of what the above sound bite means. What is the role of broader society in the education system? Does  broader society refer to the after school homeschooling parents, the private tutors and the enrichment centres? Is the above sound bite an acknowledgement that MOE cannot, by itself, deliver the results it expects from our children?

Parents expect a lot from the education system because the education system expects a lot from our children. Exams test beyond what is taught... way beyond. Exams test beyond the textbook... way beyond. So does the above soundbite mean that Singaporeans are being urged to accept that the MOE ensures the basics of education, and the enrichment centres (and after school homeschooling parents) will take care of the extra teaching to help the child get to the top? Hence, rich kids with rich parents who can pay the extra fees (or the time to engage in parent coaching) will consistently be at the top of the education heap?

If the system expects less of our children (i.e., tests don't assume that the bright ones will naturally know) then parents will expect less of the system (because no baby is born knowing, and hence we expect MOE to teach to the standards they test to). There is one easy way to reduce parental expectations of MOE. It is for MOE to take testing pressures off parents' children so that the children have time to explore the non-academic and non-competitive aspects of their development. And perhaps, in so doing, become less risk averse... more adaptable... more flexible.

Meanwhile, the MOE can get away with providing textbooks that are full of glossy pictures but thin on content (on the pretext that experiential learning happens in class). If experiential learning there is, why is nothing documented in new media like so... Or do we expect ALL students to retain a lesson after watching a Science experiment in class once? What are textbooks for if they don't even provide sufficient notes for revision? 

Why are teachers all expected to write their own materials or risk having nothing to teach with? What about schools where Teachers don't produce notes or don't share their notes? How to make every school a good school when patches of quality written resources exist in some schools but not others, because such materials are not to be shared?

It is not enough to have good Teachers and good Teacher development. Teachers need educational resources to teach with. It's not enough to hire a good carpenter. He/she must have good tools to work with. If the tagline of Teach Less Learn More, which was in vogue for many years, is to be believed... independent learning on the part of primary school students is required. How to learn independently if textbooks have so little to read... and there are no additional handouts in some schools? What are children to learn independently from, when Teachers teach less in school?

Check out this link too...