We Should Encourage Reading In School

The National Library Board (NLB) recently launched the National Reading Movement, a 5-year comapaign which kicked off with a 2 month pledging drive to encourage all to Read More, Read Widely and Read Together. A few days ago, my boys brought home from school a sheet of paper. In it, parents were urged to attach a picture of us reading together and write a short reflection on reading as a family.

My boys go to a neighbourhood school and apart from the sheet of paper that they brought home, the school also initiated a program where recommended books from the library will be wheeled to the canteen during recess time. Students are encouraged to read during recess time.

It is good that the school is supporting this nation wide initiative to encourage students to read. But does the school really expect the kids to be reading during recess time? I know my kids won’t because they will be too busy gobbling down their food so that they can have time to play in the field.

My boys love to read and to be read to. My 6 year old started reading not too long ago. My elder boy is an avid reader and he told me that he had to hide his story book under his desk during lessons so that the teacher won’t find out. I suspect he rushes through his work most of the time so that he gets to read his book. I realised I might have a reading problem but I guess it’s a happy problem.

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Reading is an important skill for learning and a foundation for higher learning for any subjects, not just Maths and Science. It opens up a world of knowledge and imagination. Children should read not just textbooks or worksheets. They should read for pleasure and to gain knowledge in whatever topics that interest them.

One has to agree that in Singapore, a child is at the losing end if he doesn’t know how to read by the time he enters Primary school. How can he follow instructions on worksheets and solve maths problem sums when he can’t read? It is ironic that despite being such an important skill for learning, reading hasn’t been made part of the school curriculum or made compulsory in school.

Children who are lucky enough to have adults to read to them and are exposed to a wide variety of books since young will naturally pick up reading when they are about 6-7 years old. For those who are not so lucky, they most likely struggle with school work when they enter Primary school.

There are students in my boys’ class who have to depend on financial aid to buy food during recess time. These children do not have the luxury of owning books and having their parents read to them. Without a conducive environment at home, they need help from school to learn to read, gain proficiency in reading and hopefully inculcate a reading habit.

My boys’ school has a 10 minutes of reading time every morning before assembly, ie. if the kids arrive in school early enough. The kids get to go to the library with the class sometimes once a month, but mostly none. During recess, they are not encouraged to go to the library because the school is worried that they might disturb other classes which are having lessons. (recess time are staggered for different levels) The library is closed after school because they don’t have enough librarians to man the library. This means that students don’t have the option of going to the library while waiting for CCAs or other supplementary lessons to commence.

All these seem legitimate reasons for the school library to be grossly under utilized. I shan’t say that this is the case for all schools and I think ultimately it all boils down to the school’s ethos, whether the school believes that learning goes beyond getting good grades. It might not seem worthwhile to put in that kind of effort and resources for something that doesn’t contribute directly to the schools’ ranking and KPIs.

While I am glad that the MOE is making considerable change to the education system to encourage students to focus on their own learning instead of competing with their peers, I am skeptical that this will reduce the over-emphasis on academic results. I also have doubts that it will encourage students to focus on their own learning. Schools and students will continue to focus on what will help them get good results and consequently their choice of schools.

Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers ~ Harry S. Truman

In today’s world, knowledge is power. Learning shouldn’t stop after graduation day. Yet, I know many of us stop reading once we leave school. A local survey has shown that only 44 per cent of Singaporeans read one or more literary books in the past year. My anecdotal experience overseas tell me that many first world countries (e.g. France) have a much stronger reading culture than us.

If there is only one thing that MOE can do or fix, I think it is to strongly encourage a habit of reading in our students. I think MOE can do much to create a culture of reading among our young Singaporeans.

Allocate period to reading. Allow the students to read anything. Discuss what was read. Expand the quality and accessibility of the school libraries. Celebrate those that read and not frown on them as indulging in useless pursuits.

Doubtlessly, there is much to learn beyond books but books and the written word continue to be one of the most important sources of learning. There is so much knowledge captured in the written word and that’s what separates civilisation and primitive societies.

Nobody knows what the future holds. But we can prepare our children for the unpredictable future by equipping them with the ability to learn by themselves, to be avid readers and independent learners.

It might be too simplistic, but reading could help that child in my boy’s class who doesn’t have enough money to buy lunch in school and bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

A book a week makes 52 a year. If we only get a little smarter after every book, we will be a whole lot smarter after a year. Extrapolate the results. To me, that’s what lifelong learning is all about.

 
 

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Singapore Outward Bound School

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A couple of weeks ago, we were invited by the friendly people of National Youth Council to the open house of Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) located at Pulau Ubin.

We have been to Pulau Ubin many times but this was our first time stepping foot onto the premises of OBS. This idyllic island is our favourite weekend getaway. Its gentle wilderness and natural beauty always has something to make everyone happy.

Last year, we were invited to the same event but missed it because we thought we could reach the place via Changi Point Jetty Terminal, the usual place where we board the bumboats. We ended up cycling round the island, coming really close but was stopped by barricades that went around the premises of the school. We missed the event but managed to explore a different part of the island.

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We later found out that OBS can only be reached via the Punggol Point Jetty Terminal, which was like an exclusive jetty terminal built for Outward Board Singapore. The ferry which took us across was much larger than the bumboats at Changi Point and it brought us right to the doorstep of the school. The sight that welcomed us was like a huge holiday resort tucked away from the bustling city life.

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We met our instructor for the day, a fine young man who had graduated with a degree in Computer Science but soon realised that a desk bound job was not quite meant for him. He quit his job in the corporate world and became an instructor with OBS. It’s been 7 years now and apart from not having to put on office wear when he goes to work, he loves interacting, coaching and leading the youths. He loves the great outdoor and he obviously loves what he is doing now. Despite having to take a hefty pay cut in the beginning, he is now happily married with his own home. His story is an inspiring one that involves knowing what he wants in life and having the courage to pursue it.

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During the open house, we were introduced to orienteering where we learned basic map reading and navigation skills . We had an orienteering race where we ran around the campus, tapping our handheld devices at the various checkpoints. My husband and I decided to go as a team and my 12 year old was set on beating us in the race. We made some mistakes in the beginning and ended up having to back track to the starting point thus wasting some time and energy. It was a fun activity which combines both physical and mental challenges as concentration and alertness were required to read the map and make decisions on the go.

Shown below is “The Tripod”, where we tried our hand at crossing various nerve wracking obstacles while suspended in mid air. This has to be the highlight of the program.

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As a student, I was never in any adventure club. I grew up playing girly stuff and I have never broken a bone. I wasn’t the adventurous type and I was never good at pushing my limits. The first time I tried to cross a wooden plank 3 metres off the ground during school orientation, my legs turned to jelly and I had to be brought down soaked in cold sweat, shivering. I concluded that I had acrophobia, the fear of heights.

So you can imagine how terrifying it was for me to attempt these obstacles. It was like revisiting an old monster, fear.

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Above is a ladder bridge suspended in mid air. It swayed at every movement you made (even when you were trembling or breathing hard). You could either go with the swing and make your way across FAST (like what my boy did) or take every step slowly, exerting every ounce of core muscle you have to try to minimize the swinging. I did just that with both hands holding onto the rope, as if for dear life, wobbling my way across. I think I made some of the audience including the belayers sweat. The intense exhilaration of victory, of beating the fear monster upon taking the final step towards the other end of the bridge was indescribable.

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The boys went on to try out various obstacles set around the Tripod. My 12 year old was pretty nimble at balancing his way across the various obstacles despite being his first time trying something as exciting as these. These activities helped to build confidence, balance and also teamwork because you have to trust the belayer to hold you should you lose your footing.

Apart from seeing their mom scared shitless, this scrabble game we played at the end of the event more or less summed up their experience.

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We were really excited about MOE’s recent announcement that soon all Secondary 3 students will get a chance to go on a 5 day camp at OBS as part of our new National Outdoor Adventure Education Masterplan. Unfortunately, this will only be launched in 2020 which means my elder boy will miss it. It is a pity that not all students will get a chance to experience what OBS has to offer.

I think this is definitely a right step forward for Singapore. What our children will go through in OBS is not that different from what they will go through in life. Facing an obstacle at OBS is like facing an obstacle in real life where they will find themselves out of their comfort zones. They will have two choices. They can overcome their fear of the unknown and the new, learn to trust and work with people on their team, and muster the courage to cross that ladder bridge. Or they can turn around and quit.

Yes, the PSLE is important. But it is no more relevant to succeeding in life than the skills you can learn at OBS. Bravo to MOE for championing this cause.

 
 

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Will Changes In PSLE T-Score Changes Anything ?

There has been much anxiety over MOE’s announcement that the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will be replaced with wider scoring bands from 2021. The change hopes to reduce the over-emphasis on academic results and encourage students to focus on their own learning rather than competing to do better than their peers. The Direct Scheme Admission (DSA) will also be reviewed to realign it with its original intent, ie to recognise achievements and talents in other areas such as arts and sports instead of general academic ability.

Concerned parents now wonder how they should change their strategies to tackle the high-stakes PSLE examinations in order to secure places for kids in highly sought after secondary schools. Should they start grooming their kids at 3 years old to become the next Tiger Wood or should they continue to throw in money into the billion dollar tuition industry.

Let’s take a look at whether MOE’s past policies had been successful in achieving its desired outcome of changing behaviours.

In 2005, MOE implemented its Teach Less Learn More (TLLM) initiative to shift focus from quantity to quality, and from efficiency to choice in learning with the objective for educators to teach better, engage students and prepare them for life, rather than to teach for tests and examinations.

Ex-Education Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat in 2015 said that

Since the introduction of the “teach less, learn more” policy in 2005, up to 20 per cent of content has been reduced from syllabuses implemented across the primary, secondary and pre-university levels. There has also been a shift away from rote learning, as policymakers respond to concerns over the amount of content being taught in the schools and the cramming that students do before examinations.

So how has TLLM affected our children?

My elder boy is sitting for PSLE this year and his younger brother will be affected by the new PSLE banding system in 2021. He started Primary 1 this year and came home everyday with more homework than his elder brother did 5 years ago. I had to write to the teacher to find out whether it was a case where he couldn’t finish his work in class or has the syllabus been changed and the workload increased. The teacher assured me that he was coping well.

If teaching less means reducing the content in textbooks, then yes. My sons’ school no longer uses textbooks for English and Science. They plunge straight into doing worksheets. During Parent Teacher Meeting (PTM) the explanation given was that the focus now is on application of concepts.

Aren’t new concepts grasped through reading? Have their Science textbooks become irrelevant? If so, why are they still in the booklist? It appears to me that the school no longer value and encourage reading. It is easier to just teach students to answer questions because if you go through enough worksheets, you can probably score well for exams.

Is that how we teach less and learn more? Is that the desired outcome that MOE hopes to achieve or somewhere along the line, execution has failed.

Pasi Sahlberg, in his book,Finnish Lessons, What can the world learn from Educational change in Finland? wrote that the Teach Less Learn More and Test Less Learn More in the Finnish education system is a paradox. He wrote,

The Finnish experience challenges the typical logic of educational development that tries to fix lower-than-expected student performance by increasing the length of education and duration of teaching.

There appears to be very little correlation between intended instruction hours in public education and resulting student performance, as assessed by PISA study.

Finnish teachers on average teach about 4 lessons daily, which work out to be 3 hours of teaching daily (as compared to 5 hours in American schools). This leave them time to plan, learn and reflect on teaching with other teachers..

Finnish educators don’t believe that doing more homework necessarily leads to better learning especially if pupils are working on routine and intellectually unchallenging drills, as school homework assignments unfortunately often are.

It has been a decade since MOE implemented TLLM and now we are a nation of anxious parents, stressed out kids with a billion dollar tuition industry. So will scrapping PSLE T-score reduce the over-emphasis on academic results and encourage students to focus on their own learning rather than competing to do better than their peers.

To these changes, my 12 year old responded matter-of-factly that parents will still be as kiasu (competitive), students will still be as stressed out and teachers will still drill them with more worksheets. There will still be Continual Assessment (CA), Semestral Assessment (SA) and PSLE, everyone will still be studying to score well for tests and examinations. Every year, students in his school are grouped into different classes according to test and exam scores.

He has gone through the last 6 years without tuition or enrichment classes except for Chinese. He started Chinese tuition last year when he was half way through Primary 5 after missing the subject for a whole year when we were living overseas. Apart from completing his homework from school, he spends most of his free time reading and doing the things he like, not worksheets or assessment books. Even so, it was painfully clear that good scores for tests and exams are important because it determines which class he goes to and they are told often enough in school which are the best class and which are the best students. Getting good grades and doing well for PSLE is a mindset that is not just ingrained in parents and students but educators. It is what drives everyone’s behavior and creates the race-to-the-top mentality.

Ability-driven education is believed to be a key feature behind Singapore’s success in education. Students are segregated based on perceived ability or achievement. Since the 1970s we have had streaming but later replaced by subject banding that we are still using today. We have Gifted Education Programs (GEP) where different curriculum and teaching methods are used for exceptionally bright students. Our system requires students to be frequently tested so that they can be grouped and sorted according to their abilities. Tests, exams and assessments form the backbone of our education system.

But what is wrong with assessment and testing?

There are 2 main types of assessments, Formative assessment and Summative assessment.

Formative assessment, is a range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment. It typically involves qualitative feedback (rather than scores) for both student and teacher that focuses on the details of content and performance.

Summative assessment refers to the assessment of participants where the focus is on the outcome of a program. This contrasts with formative assessment which summarizes the participants’ development at a particular time.

I believe what we have in Singapore are summative assessments. PSLE takes place at the end of Primary school. It assess what has been learned and how well it was learned. Grades are given and students are sorted based on their grades into different secondary schools.

In his book, Pasi Sahlberg wrote,

Testing itself is not a bad thing. Problems arise when they become higher in stakes and include sanctions to teachers or schools as a consequence of poor performance.
Teachers tend to redesign their teaching according to these tests, give higher priority to those subjects that are tested, and adjust teaching methods to drilling and memorizing information rather than understanding knowledge.

Appropriate testing helps identify areas needing improvement but high-stakes standardized examination, such as PSLE, prevent real learning and has led our teachers to focus their attention on helping students do well for test, at the expense of developing every student’s full potential.

Our ability-driven education system is achieved through tracking, sorting, streaming, or ability grouping. Initially touted as a way of tailoring instruction to the diverse needs of students, research has shown that tracking has instead limited the more beneficial opportunities to high-track students and denying these benefits to lower-tracked students. It has widened the achievement gap between the high and low achievers over the years and led to inequitable educational outcomes.

The Finnish education system has abolished streaming in the mid-a980s and made learning expectations the same for all students. This meant that all pupils, regardless of their abilities or interests, studied in the same classes. PISA survey showed that Finland had the smallest performance variations between schools in reading, mathematics, and sciences ie. smallest achievement gap between low and high achievers.

Our education system based on meritocracy has worked for us for the last 50 years. It has created a gap between the high achievers and the low achievers and a widened income gap. The wealthier families can now give their children an edge through tuition and enrichment, leading to exams such as the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) no longer being ‘the level playing field’ that they once were. And this will perpetuate in a system which focuses on standardized tests and high-stakes examinations.

Our ex-Education Minister Mr Heng said that it will take some time for parents to change the mindset that certain school will help their child to succeed later. And current Education Minister Mr Ng noted that ‘there is a deeply ingrained mindset that the PSLE is a very high-stakes exam. Many perceive that a child’s PSLE T-score at the age of 12 determines his or her success and pathway in life.’

A good culture does not happen by chance. Neither will mindsets change over time.

Yes we need a mindset change, both parents and educators. More importantly we need policymakers to create structures and policies to enable the parents and educators to think and do things differently. We need them to create a system that can help to bridge the social gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Meanwhile, it is not impossible but it takes iron will and courage for parents to move away from the herd mentality, to opt out from the race and give their children the space and time to find their true passion and the kind of childhood they deserve.

 

Here are some thoughts on education and parenting by some mother bloggers
Lyn Lee’s The Singapore ‘Education Condition’
Michelle Choy’s No More T-Score. No what?
June Yong’s Parenting from a place of enough
 
 

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