About School

The first few weeks of school has just gone by. My 6 year old has officially joined his elder brother in the big boy school. It dawned on me that very soon my little baby would lose his chubby cheeks and potbelly, and his cutesy little feet would balloon into a size 10 like his elder brother’s. I felt the need to smother him with hugs and kisses because very soon, my little baby wouldn’t be so little anymore.

His K2 graduation photo now sits in our living room. He looks handsome in his graduation robe proudly holding his graduation scroll.

However I wasn’t really ecstatic about his year end concert. Seeing him march on stage in his graduation robe with his head held high with his scroll in hand brought a mixed sense of pride and a tinge of sadness. This seemed to mark the end of childhood innocence and the start of grueling years of formal schooling. Yet, I know the choice is mine, whether to jump on the bandwagon.

This year, we paid 60 bucks to watch him on stage dancing to the beat of some funky pop songs from the billboard charts. It was cool but I didn’t get overly excited. The teachers and children had spent the last few weeks of school preparing, practicing the songs , dance moves and speeches. The usual lessons came to a halt and they spent hours practicing and rehearsing.

On the day of the performance, the kids were asked to put on makeup so that they would look ‘better’ on stage. Of course the boys protested indignantly that ‘Boys don’t wear makeup!’.

I would have very much enjoyed a simpler concert, a song or something they had learned in school during the past year. There needn’t be fanciful costumes or props or a grand concert hall but perhaps that wouldn’t be good enough? These days, it’s not uncommon to see schools lavish on year end concerts and I am beginning to wonder over the motivation behind these.

There may be many different views on the purpose of education. Scholars, teachers, and policy makers are still trying to reach a consensus. Some joked that one might have better luck asking ‘What is the meaning of life’.

If the role of schools is indeed to train our children to become lifelong learners who are able to love, work, and act as responsible members of the community, then I wonder how a lavish graduation concert would fit in.

The teachers were visibly stressed out preparing for the big day. It was definitely not easy to get a bunch of preschoolers to cooperate and put up a performance of this scale. I could imagine how unnerving it must had been for the teachers, especially when the audience is made up of demanding monster parents.

Fast forward a couple of months later. My 6 year old is adapting well to his new school. There was no first day of school jitters and no crying. Unlike child birth, the second kid was definitely easier than the first. I am quite sure having an elder brother in the same school made a difference. For a start, he already knew some of his brother’s friends even before joining the school.

And how did we prepare him for Primary 1?

No, we didn’t cram him with worksheets or tuition classes or send him for a crash course in reading. We did make sure he knows his dollar and cents so that he could tackle his adventure in the school canteen. He was so excited on his first day of school because he got to order his own food and handle real money like a big boy.

On the first day, his buddy, a girl from Primary 2, asked him why he doesn’t buy any sweet drinks. He probably gave her a list of reasons why sweet drinks were not good for you. I still couldn’t fathom why the school doesn’t sell mineral water.

On the second day, he was too short to see beyond the first rack of food and couldn’t order any side dishes to add to his rice. If not for the parent volunteers at the canteen, he would have probably ended up eating plain white rice with a few leaves of lettuce. That happened to many of the kids. They were too flustered and it didn’t help that the canteen vendors weren’t very thoughtful in displaying the food they were selling.

On the third day, he was short changed by the canteen vendor. He was too slow to figure out how much change to get back for his bowl of noodle that cost 80 cents. But now he knows better, that it’s okay to ask for your change even if you can’t figure out the exact amount; that adults are not always right and sometime they can be forgetful.

It was a pity that the school field was closed again for construction. His elder brother who is in Primary 6 this year had gotten quite used to it. The field was out of bounds half the time he was there. As a result, the chaos at the canteen during recess time was only to be expected. When the children are deprived of the space to expend their energy (after sitting in the classroom for long stretch of time), trying to maintain order is insane and inane. Thankfully so far, the boys have been able to keep themselves occupied without getting into trouble and I have yet to receive any complaints from their teachers.

Though I am far from satisfied with how things are being run in the school, I realised that school is probably the best place for the boys to get a glimpse of real life.

Managing their expectations, taking things in their stride, dealing with adversity, finding their own solutions for their own problems, learning to be positive and focus on the brighter side of life. These are life skills that even some adults struggle with.

While the school is far from perfect, I think it has provided them the environment to pick up valuable life skills at a young age. So maybe it is not because of the school system, but in spite of the school system that our children will learn to succeed.



On Learning A Second Language

In Singapore, every child going to a public school studies English as a first language.
At the same time, he is required to learn a second language.
This was and remains a national policy, something started by our first Prime Minister almost 50 years ago.

In the beginning, the language policies were controversial and politically explosive.
The Malays and the Tamils feared marginalisation by the Chinese majority.
The Chinese pushed for pre-eminence of Chinese base education.
Mr Lee stayed the course and pushed for English as the first language in all public schools.
The rationale was that English as the language of commerce and the sciences would enable Singaporeans to connect with the international community.
It was a question of survival for an island state with no natural resources.
The value of learning the mother tongue according to Mr Lee was to maintain ethnic identity and traditional values.

Today, the situation has turned.

50 years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that parents today would face so much angst over learning of the mother tongue.
English is now the most commonly spoken language on the island.
Even most of the illiterate aunties and uncles know a splattering of Singlish, or the local style of colloquial English.
Most children today I know don’t want to learn their mother tongue.

Learning our mother tongues can be really hard work, especially where Chinese is concerned.
Thousands of unique characters. Thousands of idioms made up of any number of combinations of unrelated characters.
There is only one way. You memorize and then regurgitate during the exams, then you kind of forget everything.
And looking at current Primary school curriculums, I know that learning Chinese has only gotten harder.

My K2 boy brought home his very first tingxie (Chinese Spelling) list.
Frankly, I was appalled because I was expecting 上,下, 左, 右.
But I guess those were too simple.
They would hardly prepare the kids for the demands of Primary school.

Do we really have to do this?
Do we have to make it so painful?
Do we have to test students on Chinese like all the other subjects?

Unlike English, Maths and Science which lay the foundation for higher level learning, you almost don’t have to read a single Chinese book or document after A’level or O’level unless you are taking Chinese as a subject in University.

If you stick to the original motivation for learning Chinese, add another motivation of learning Chinese for opening the windows of opportunities in China.
Or to be able to communicate with the older generation who can’t speak English.
Or with the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from China.

Do we really need to set such high standards for Chinese for our schools where all subjects are taught in English.
Shouldn’t we be spending more time cultivating the children’s interest in the Chinese culture, the history, and the stories?

In discussing Chinese language education, Lee Kuan Yew writes :
‘The greatest value in the teaching and learning of Chinese is in the transmission of the norms
of social or moral behaviour. . . .
It would be a tragedy if we were to miss this and concentrate on second language proficiency nearly equal to the first language’

And it makes me wonder … Are we still teaching and learning our “mother tongues” for the purpose of protecting ethnic identity, a sense of “rootedness” and cultural values or has it became another avenue for standardized testing so that we could separate the wheat from the chaff?


My Take On PSLE

I look with keen interest on the announcements of the PSLE results and the flurry of activities and posts in its aftermath.  It is not easy to disregard the PSLE score. If you know a parent whose child has just received his PSLE results, you know that most likely he is some state of emotional turmoil.

So what is the purpose and meaning of PSLE and all the heartburn it causes?

Consider this question from a Primary 4 exam :
Explain why the shadow appear in front of the person?
photo 2 (50)-001
I went around asking 5 working adults and they all gave me the above answer.
The answer the teacher is looking for is, because the sun is behind her and she is blocking the path of the light.

Here’s another question: Why did the water level rise?
photo 1 (49)-002
If your answer is, the ball has volume, then wrong.
The answer that the teacher is looking for is, because the ball occupies space.
So is there anything that occupies space but does not has a volume?!

Suggest a reason for the water in the glass tube to move in the direction indicated
If your answer is, the plant takes in the water. Wrong.
The answer the teacher is looking for is, the roots of the plant sucked up the water.  
Ok, then why not the cuticles on the roots of the plant.
Oh, it has not been taught in school yet.

The students were given an open ended question but expect a specific answer that was given in the textbook.

Meeting with school’s Science HOD was enlightening. In her words, they were preparing the child for PSLE. They were training the child to give the type of answer the PSLE examiners want.

In other words, train the child to regurgitate from the text books, to deliver the model answer.

The school system does not reward initiative to learn outside the school curriculum. It discourages logical or analytical thinking. For subjects like Chinese, some teachers actively encourage memorising idioms and model essays, and offer strategies to adapt these essays to the exam question. In other words, our kids are being trained to be exam smart.

So what is the purpose of putting our children through school? I thought it was to learn?

PSLE is about standardised testing for the average mortal on the average road, like what this mom blogger wrote. Its purpose is to reward those who have good memory and are willing to put in enormous amount of sheer hard work required to ace the exam. After all, providing the model answer to an open ended question takes some hard work.

Is there a better way? Probably not. Does it mean much if your child didn’t do well for PSLE? Probably not either, if I go by the explanation that the Science HOD has offered. It probably means that your child sucked at memorising and regurgitating the textbooks.  Does it mean that your kid is really smart if he aced the PSLE? Could be.But chances are that he is exam smart and knows the PSLE system like the back of his hand.

And that is my point. PSLE results are meaningless when taken out of context. Primary school and PSLE is not about learning neither is it about thinking. The form has changed but the substance has not. It is about rote learning. It was like that 30 years ago, and it continues to be the same.

If your child is a late bloomer or not willing to put in as much hard work, he is probably ok anyway. You just have to accept that he will not be competing for that nice government scholarship or he may not go to university the “usual” way, if at all. Because in a system that is going to continue testing him on his ability to reproduce the model answer, good memory and hard work wins.

Your child would probably be better off enjoying his childhood, playing, learning or just day dreaming. You just have to accept that his path will be different, possibly more exciting and fulfilling. After all, what would a university education buy them nowadays? Hope of a better future? Or a working class life doing something that they don’t enjoy and struggling to make ends meet?