From A First Time PSLE Mom

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PSLE, a national examination that every Singaporean kid needs to take at 12 years old. Whether you are formally schooled or homeschooled, it’s almost certain that you can’t run away from it. 

So my husband and I have agreed to take a more hands off approach when it comes to our kids’ school work. The elder one is pretty much on his own when it comes to his school work. The younger one who is in Primary 1 still needs nagging before he settles down to do his work everyday. These days, he knows that it is his job to ask if he doesn’t understand and if he doesn’t finish his work, he will have to answer to his teachers.

We want them to be accountable for their own schooling and we want them to understand that knowing their school work is their responsibility. There isn’t really any special arrangement to prepare them for tests or examinations, the only work they do on a daily basis is homework brought back from school.  The teachers have put in a lot of effort to prepare them for PSLE. They started supplementary classes since P4 and now in P6, worksheets and past years papers are regular drills. Because of  that, life at home could remain pretty much the same even during this period. The boys spend most of their time doing their own things, mostly school unrelated.

It’s my first time being a PSLE mum and even though we try to keep things at home as usual, I have to admit that the stress is real.  It’s coming from parents, teachers, friends, colleagues and even the social media. I have found that the best way to deal with the stress is, shut them out. But if you can’t, the next best way is, go get a good workout! And yes, I think it is the adults who need to destress because when the adults feel stressed, it would most likely cascade down to the kids!

So why is PSLE so stressful? Why do kids kill themselves over PSLE? 

Our general belief is that PSLE is an important milestone in life and this is reinforced by what we see around us. It gets you into the elite schools. A disproportionate number of scholarship winners and top achievers come from these schools. Anybody who seem to be somebody in Singapore come from these elite schools – ministers, top civil servants, etc. Many of us having not been able to get into these top schools, would want the best opportunities for our children. That, we believe, is probably one of the best and most important things that we can do for our children. We do not want to compete against the law of statistics. Getting to one of the elite schools will probably give your children the best chance to succeed in life.

So the question is whether our children can succeed in life without making it to one of these elite schools? Are they condemned to a life of mediocrity if they don’t? What is the positive correlation between success in life and good PSLE results? Does PSLE results have a positive correlation with success in life?

And we can’t answer these questions without first understanding our underlying assumptions about success in life. What is succeeding in life? Should we define it against a list of material possessions and the monthly pay check? 

We should also re-examine our underlying assumption that what has worked over the last two generations will continue to work in the future. My generation grew up in a rapidly developing Singapore. We were told to study hard, do well in school, go to university, and get a good job. If you landed a job in a MNC, you have got it made. Yet, many of these dreams were shattered when the MNCs relocated to lower cost countries. What do we know about the future of our country? Of our economy, of our children? Should we continue to shape our children into the moulds that worked generations ago?

Empirical evidence also casts doubts about the importance of going to an elite school. There are people who are top in their fields who do not come from these elite schools. There are also many that go to these elite schools that do not do well in life. 

In the larger scheme of things, the PSLE is an exam for getting our children into the secondary school. That’s about it. It does not guarantee happiness or success in life. It may even be totally irrelevant. It is ridiculous to think that our children’s fates are sealed over this 4 day event. Having a child who thinks that life is not worth living over PSLE result is the saddest things in life. Our children deserve more than that and we should let them find their own way in this ever changing world.

 
 

8

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.

 
 

4

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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