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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How To Keep Our Children Safe

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Sometime ago, I was asked to write an article for a parenting magazine on how to keep our children safe in today’s world.

I was hesitant, because through the years, I have come to realise that being safe can mean very different things for different people / parents.

What is meant by safe? What do we want our children to be safe from? From hurting themselves? From other people? How safe do we want our children to be? Is avoiding risk the same as managing risk? Will avoiding risk make them less ready for the real world?

I think these questions alone are worth a couple of essays.

I remember how my ex-neighbour held back her child when she came over to my place and saw my toddler playing with a frying pan and spatula. The ones I used for cooking, the real stuff made of metal, no less.

No, we didn’t child proof our kitchen, in fact my toddler often hangs around in the kitchen when I cooked. He had a cabinet of his own with all his cooking tools so that he could cook along with me. The old frying pan and spatula were some of those tools.

When we first became parents and lived in our apartment on the 10th floor, my parents strongly urged us to install window grilles. We have since moved multiple times, staying at various high rise buildings, but we never installed window grilles for our home.

In the last 10 years, we have relocated our home for like half a dozen times? Both local and overseas and my boys grew up tinkering with real tools helping their Dad fixed up furnitures. When my elder boy was about 3, we bought him a craft hammer from Jo-Ann. He loved it so much and carried it everywhere he goes. He knew how to use it and he learned about things that would break and those that could withstand hammering. Needless to say, we got disapproving looks from strangers and even friends who thought it was too dangerous for a preschooler to be walking around with a hammer.

No, I am not a risk taker. When it comes to the physical aspects of raising my child, I often fall into the overprotective side. In fact I come from a family where falling down is not ok and safety has to come first and children are often too young to try anything ‘dangerous’.Because of that, letting my kids do dangerous things creates natural anxiety inside of me. But thankfully, I am married to a husband who believes that it’s never too early to start teaching our children how to manage the dangers in life. And we have come a long way since the day we hiked up Schilthorn and Eiger Trail.

Recently, my neighbour found out that I allowed my boys to play with fire. She was appalled. I struggled with whether to tell her that her son has been splurging on fire crackers and sparklers at the minimart near our place and has kept them in a ‘secret’ place so that she wouldn’t find out. She would probably ban her kid from coming over to my place if she found out about the blow dart my boys made using PVC pipe.

It’s often easier to lock away dangerous tools than to let our kids experiment under our supervision. Some of us will start very early with great caution and some risk. Others will wait until the risk has diminished and they have more confidence in their children.

I find it fascinating to watch a normally active and restless kid settle down, focus intently with a tool held in hand, determine to accomplish a given task. It’s amazing how kids given freedom learn their own limits, develop a sense of safety and respect for “dangerous” tools, objects and learn to trust their intuition and instincts.

‘Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet’ noted Helen Keller. Children need to find ways to cope with difficult situations; they need to learn that they can. Building character and emotional resiliency is a lot like developing a healthy immune system. We know that our children need to be exposed to a variety of bugs and viruses in life. Not only is it impossible to avoid, but this exposure is necessary in order to build up their own protective immunological front.

The skills that we need to be successful in the world aren’t entirely learned in a classroom. The most valuable lessons are learned through experiences both good and bad. Unfortunately, fear is also a normal part of the parenting experience.

When should we let go? How do we know they are ready to do it on their own? Should we stick around to watch them?

On top of our own fears, we sometime have to deal with judgement of other parents. ‘What! you let your kids play with fire?!’ The implied judgement in statements such as this is that I am an irresponsible or negligent parent.

Our parenting instincts can work for or against us. On one hand, only through our instincts will we ever know whether they are ready or not. On the other hand, our parenting instincts, in their rawest forms will prevent us from putting our children in a position where they could possibly get hurt.

If we think we have done our part to spend time with our children, to supervise them and teach them the skills to keep them safe, we should trust our instinct, take a deep breath, let go, watch them try, strive and grow.

 

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Lesson From My Mother-In-Law’s Steamed Fish

The kids are back in school after the 4 day weekend break. Everyone went back to their normal routine on the 3rd day of Lunar New Year. I thought it was a pretty short break considering that on some years, school only starts on the 5th day of the new year.

We had our reunion dinner with my husband side of the family where my 78 years old mother-in-law took days to prepare the reunion dinner. Every year, both she and my father-in-law would make multiple trips to the market to stock up on groceries and fresh produce and she would spend her day, cleaning and arranging everything meticulously.

Age is catching up with her and with the renovation of their place this year, she only had less than a week to prepare everything. Still, she managed to cook up an impressive spread.

I remember those years where she would prepare Ngor Hiang and Ah Zha to gift to all her children and close relatives. Her Nyonya dumplings were unmatched and she cooked the best steamed fish.

One would have thought that steaming fish should be a no brainer. Just let the boiling water do the job, no? At least that was what I thought.

And that was exactly what she did too. She had a wok of boiling water and the ingredients she used were nothing unusual. It was almost like, her secret to cooking perfect steamed fish was … No Secret. But somehow her steamed fish always tasted better.

It was a mystery.

It took me a long while but I think I finally figured out the 2 main ingredients for her tasty steamed fish cooked to perfection,  meticulousness and precise timing.

The process starts from choosing the freshest fish and cleaning the fish. From clearing the stomach to rubbing it down with salt, rinsing and dripping it dry. Then depending on the size of the fish, the time it takes for the fish to stay over a wok of boiling water has to be just right. A few minutes too early, the fish would be half cooked and a few minutes too late you might end up with the fish being too tough thus destroying the freshness of the fish.

I realized that like learning any new skill, to gain expertise, one needs to practise, practise, practise. And the quality of practice is just as important as the quantity.

Simple practice isn’t enough to rapidly gain skills. Mere repetition of an activity won’t lead to improved performance. But instead, understanding what needs to be improved and the areas that can address these deficiencies need to be constantly worked at. My mother-in-law took years to figure out the different timing needed to steam different fish depending on the weight and size.

Greatness requires dedication and sacrifice, period. Being good at something requires a fair amount, being great requires a huge amount. If you want to be great at what you do, then much dedication and sacrifice is required.

Geoff Colvin called it deliberate practice and he believes it is this that separates world class performers from everybody else.  I agree with him and I believe that deliberate practice can be used by anyone, not just world class performers but anyone who wish to better themselves and be really good at what they are doing. You can be a football player, a swimmer, a pilot, an admin clerk, a painter, a parent, a homemaker, and in this case, it is what separates my mother-in-law’s steamed fish from everybody else’s.

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So deliberate practice we shall have and may we be better every year than the year before.
Here’s to a great monkey year filled with happiness, good health and prosperity!

Huat ah!

xxxx

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