Joseph Schooling

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Our hearts swelled with pride as we watched Joseph Schooling explode in the pool to win Singapore’s first Olympic gold. We could faintly hear cheering in the distance as Schooling punched the water on realising that he has beat his childhood idol and created a new Olympic record. As the Singapore flag was raised in Rio and our familiar Majulah Singapura was played, we could feel the celebratory mood all round Singapore. Yet, soon, we also heard murmurings that Schooling should just stay in the US because Singapore did little to contribute to this historic moment.

Did Schooling win because of the Singapore system or in spite of it? He had to pack his bag and go to boarding school and university in the US in order to get the training he needed. If his family was not well off, could he have gone on this path? In fact, his parents had to go to extraordinary lengths to fight the Singapore system to get a long term deferment for National Service. Some arguments could also be made that the Singapore system supported his quest for Olympic gold. Would Schooling have been successful if he was born somewhere else? Did Singapore not provide the environment for him to at least start his journey towards Olympic gold?

The fact remains that his parents went to extraordinary lengths to support Schooling. From getting him the best coach, deferment of his NS, uprooting him from the local school and sending him overseas. They did not limit themselves to what the country had to offer. They took things in their own hands and made things happen.

But, which olympic champion was not made through extraordinary actions, effort and a path less well trodden, both by the individual and his support structure? If we agree that champions are only made through extraordinary action and effort, then the question thus is how can we repeat this feat as a nation? Should we not facilitate the individuals and parents in making this extraordinary effort? Should we not make our system extraordinary to groom our future olympians. We can reduce the burden on the parents when they decide to take the path less travelled.

We have invested heavily in sports infrastructure and to try to encourage sports. We built a new Sports Hub, opened the Singapore Sports School, blew a fortune to host the Youth Olympics, etc. This was a good start. But it is time to move on and take the next step.

The Schooling family had enough fortitude to decide that swimming was a viable career path for Joseph. They had enough courage to go forth and do something totally different. Singapore has benefitted tremendously from their courage. What can Singapore do to create the conditions for our sporting talents to consider sports as a viable career path? We are indeed small and I am not sure how, but surely we can innovate and find a way?

While I am glad that our government is now showering attention on our newly minted Olympic gold medalist, I wish they could do more for athletes who wanted to try. I wish they not just show love to those who bring home medals. Perhaps it’s idealistic. But I wish our government is like the type of parent I strive to be. To bring out the best in our sons and daughters. To believe even if they can’t see (yet). Nurturing and supportive. Not mercenary and calculative.

There is a difference between our table tennis team bringing home medals and Joseph Schooling winning last week. The former probably stirred up more controversy than support from fellow Singaporeans.

We can identify with Joseph Schooling, a true blue Singaporean who was born and bred here. In fact his Eurasian heritage most aptly represent Singapore’s multiracialism. His success story is an inspiration to fellow Singaporeans. His parents probably went through the same anxiety when it came to choosing Primary school and Schooling taking his PSLE. They believed and were courageous enough to take the path less travelled. Schooling’s story was part of the Singapore story. His experience was part of the Singapore experience.

For a young multi-cultural and multi-racial nation that is becoming increasingly polarized along socio-economic and political lines, nation building is no mean task. For me, sports can be an integral part of nation building and that is why we should invest in sports and stop buying mercenaries to play for Singapore. It’s not just about winning. It’s how we get there, as a country, as a nation.

What do we really have to unite us? Singlish? National Service? The national anthem? A national dress? Food? Every time I meet someone from another country, I would be amazed at how proud they are of their history, traditions, culture, and things that make them unique. I tried many a times to find something uniquely Singaporean.

In recent times, I began to find anchors to the Singaporean experience that transcended all racial, religious, and social boundaries. One such anchor was the passing of our founding prime minister LKY. The memory of that week long mourning still brings back goosebumps. It reminded me of our unique experience and journey to the First World. I began to understand that what really makes us Singaporean is the unique Singaporean experience. Our own little histories, stories, idiosyncrasies, and traditions no matter how small and silly they may look.

In that 50.39 seconds that Joseph Schooling took to win the 100m butterfly, he didn’t just give us our first olympic gold medal, he made Singapore stronger as a nation as we rallied and cheered him on, regardless of race, language or religion.

There is no KPI for nation building. There is no direct economic return for nation building. It is not quantifiable or measurable. But it is the glue that bonds us together as a nation and do amazing things.

To the Schoolings, congratulations to your amazing win and thank you for making us stronger and prouder as a nation, as a Singaporean.

 
 
Here’s what Joseph’s 50.39s taught this mother

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My Birthday Wish

So I celebrated my birthday a couple of weeks ago. I had to pause and think when asked how many candles to put on my birthday cake. Was it 43 or 44? My Mom would tell you it’s 45 because she goes by some weird Chinese calculation. It’s strange how hitting the 40 was like reaching a huge milestone and then you stop counting after that.

I had spent a rather eventful birthday this year, riding along the Green Corridor with my husband, almost ran over a snake, broke a bike chain and got caught in the rain.

IMG_2156 2 My husband and I used to have conversation about growing old.

We are well aware that our face will be wrinkled and our butt will soon grow saggy. We will probably suffer from bone mass lost and start to shrivel and the amount of hair we grow probably can’t keep up with the amount of hair we lose.

We can’t stop the natural process of aging but we both agree that we can at best try to age gracefully. Not by botox or anything that requires one to go under the knife (that would have been too painful!) but by leading an active lifestyle. Having 2 energetic boys kind of makes it easier for us to stick to that because heading outdoors, trying new things and sweating it out is so far the best way for the family to bond.

Looking back, there are quite a number of sports that I only picked up after I became a mother. The motivation was perhaps to impress my boys and to a certain extent to show them that ‘if Mom can do it, so can you!’

When we first bought a swaveboard, I was the mother seen fumbling with the new toy with the boys in the evening. I have to admit that it was quite embarrassing as I worried about being labelled as the ‘mother who refuses to admit she’s old’ (a direct translation from Chinese)

A couple of months ago, we tried rock climbing and I had to show them that Mom can climb even though she gets wobbly knees when the distance grows between her feet and the ground. Apart from discovering that fingers and toes are good for grabbing/hanging on for dear lives, I learned that the harness is a pretty wonderful invention which acts like a comfortable seat for coming down a 3 storey high wall. All it takes is a little faith that all will be well and the courage to take the plunge. It took me some time to master that though.

During the school holidays, the kids followed their dad to try out mountain biking. They tried out some new trails but it remained one of those activities that they do with their Dad because Mom’s bike (and heart) wasn’t quite built for jumping over rocks, zipping down steep slopes and negotiating sharp turns.

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Unlike 3 years ago when I first went for a bike race, I can now confidently mount the bike saddle even if my feet couldn’t quite reach the ground and I can brake and dismount without collapsing into a pile. It was something that comes with practice and I didn’t master that until not too long ago.

Last week, the kids were joking about how I will totally freak out if I were to try out mountain biking (and they actually enjoy seeing me freak out!).

Driven by curiosity and to see what my 6 years old could do that I couldn’t, I decided to join them. They taught me a few tricks like lowering the saddle, lifting my butt off the saddle and sliding as far back as I can so that I won’t go flying over the handlebars while going down the slopes.

Then came the real thing. They thought it was safer for their Dad to lead me while my elder boy led his little brother.

It was a short trail in the forest. There were sharp turns and steep slopes. The terrain was dotted with tree roots and sometimes rocks that were too big for me to traverse. Occasionally I had to come to a complete halt to push my bike. What a mountain biker would usually complete in 15 minutes took me more than half an hour to finish. I had to focus intently on the trails to see where I was heading and anticipate the next turn. My hands were soaked in sweat, my heart was racing, it was thrilling. Many times, the boys had to stop to check on me. The half hour ride in the forest felt like an hour on my usual route. It was strenuous yet exhilarating.

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It was one of the most fun thing we did this school holiday and for some reasons, the boys were especially happy. I wish they were happy for me, that their Mom had tried something new. But knowing them, it was more likely that they were happy because they had fun seeing how clumsy I looked on the slopes! It’s not everyday that they get to beat Mom at doing something though I have to admit that it’s becoming more and more common these days.

So this birthday, it hasn’t been clearer what I should wish for. I wish that I will never feel too old to try out new things, go on adventures, climb mountains and go places with my boys.

Age is just a number and it should stay that way.
 
 

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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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