Tuesday, March 20, 2007

On education: A Touchy subject for some!!

Hi friends,

Mdm Lam Mun Wai’s letter (Which school would students rather be in? 17 Mar 07) seems to have touched some raw nerves.

Steffen Toh Hai Chew (A different - positive - view of S'pore schools) and Kenneth Cheng Jing Wen (This student is happy to be in a local school) were moved to write with a stout defence of the status quo. But why?

Our education system good but…

No one would argue that our education system has not done well. After all, do not we hear of the Yanks using our Maths textbooks? Also do not our kids top many maths and science Olympiads? It is not a secret anymore that RJC has more successful applicants into Ivy League colleges than many very expensive and exclusive “prep” colleges stateside.

So, is Mdm Lam just talking nonsense? Does the end justify the means and hence, we should continue educating our kids the same way we ourselves were taught?

Although I personally feel that Mdm Lam was a tad generous in her praise of the International school system, (and conversely made some sweeping statements about local schools), there is much that she has written that holds true for some parents ( at least anecdotally).

Only anecdotal evidence?

How many times have I heard from my friends that their children have actually started to look forward to going to school after they transferred out of the local school system.

(NB: Some non-local schools that I am talking about include United World College/Overseas Family School/S’pore Amercan School (now famous for having educated MM Lee’s grandson)/ ACS ( International) etc).

Of course, if one is mean, one would claim that such positive comments from these parents are biased as they probably would not tell you that transferring the child was a move that they have regretted and that it was all an expensive mistake. Perhaps, just like a punter who only tells about the 4-D winnings and never ever mentioning how much he had lost on a regular basis over the years.

My personal gut feelings

I am in sympathy with Mdm Lam on many points and would recommend the following:

We should allow more individual expressions and not “worship” conformity. We should pay more attention to the process of learning more than just the accumulation of facts that students regurgitate in the examinations.

How many questions did you ask today?”

Teachers should welcome questioning students and not wish them away like pests.

I read somewhere that Jewish parents would ask their children ,” How many questions did you ask today?” in contrast to “ Did you get 100 marks today?” or “ Did you answer all your questions correctly today?”

And what’s wrong with loosening up? And why is it that with so many single-session schools that lessons still have to start at 7.30 am ?


Fatal attraction for TUITION?

Why do our parents spend millions ( at least) on tuition for the same subjects that our teachers are already paid (well) to teach? Extra classes should be for enrichment of the arts/music and other stuff that schools do not have time or resources for.

What say you?


Dr.Huang Shoou Chyuan

PS: I am posting this via email as my blogger is really and truly screwed-up. So some features ( like links etc) may not work. And… I can’t edit it once I post it!!

Lam Mun Wai (Mdm)’s letter that sparked this debate:

Which school would students rather be in?

LET me contrast the approaches taken by an international school and an autonomous school in Singapore.

Guess which school offers customer-service orientation to parents and students (teachers respect students and do not scream at them); later-starting school hours; curriculum that allows learning to take place (teach less, learn more); good and motivated teachers; small class sizes; no pressure on students/

staff to win accolades (the journey is more important than the destination); minimal homework and tests/

exams; hiphop dancing exercise for PE and, best of all, cellphone and laptop usage.

Students and parents are welcome to see the teachers and the principal himself whenever possible - no bureaucratic system to block access, even the security is friendly.

The typical Singapore school's philosophy is that 'children should be seen and not heard'. The moment they arrive in school, they have to sit down quietly in the hall to read. During recess, there is no time to play. They are not allowed to talk in class (too noisy). Small wonder many do not grow up articulate and find school to be, at best, a forgettable experience.

Shoes, socks and hair pose no big issues in the international school (don't sweat the small stuff). Students are free to show individualism (and do they look good). But not the stern Singapore school - it wants the students to look like factory-produced robots. I do not think this is the only way to instil discipline. I recall the time I had to go out late at night to buy white school shoes with laces for my child (velcro not allowed).

Education should reflect changes in the workplace and society - including cellphone usage. Everyone is using cellphones everywhere, except in our conservative schools. How do you expect students to learn to use their phones properly in public if they are not allowed to do so in school? Education is also about teaching them responsible use of the phone during lessons.

Ultimately, it boils down to mindset and how a school manages the students. It is time for the local schools to loosen up.

By the way, ask the international school students if they are happy and the answer is an affirmative 'Yes'. The students also do reasonably well academically, in case you wonder.

Lam Mun Wai (Mdm)

And two responses that I feel where “knee-jerky” and excessively “defensive”

March 20, 2007

A different - positive - view of S'pore schools

IN THE letter, 'Which school would students rather be in?' (ST, March 17), Mdm Lam Mun Wai made a comparison between an international school and an autonomous school in Singapore, and concluded that the former was superior to the typical Singapore school in every respect.

The picture that she paints of this international school is indeed very appealing.

Yet, as someone who has been on both the receiving and delivering end of this system, I find her observations to be overly negative and sweeping.

I offer my perspective of local schools instead: students are encouraged to talk in class, if they do so productively; they often play during recess; they express their individualism even while adhering to the dress code; and school, for many of them, is an unforgettable experience.

Also, should one judge the system that an international school has adopted against one that has to serve all Singapore schools?

It would make a lot more sense to compare the said international school with other international schools, or perhaps with Singaporean international schools abroad.

Having taught in a commercial school abroad, I have noted that there are fundamental differences in philosophy between the two.

They have different amounts and sources of funds, different priorities and cater to a different segment of the population. A customer-service orientation is practised, not as a matter of principle but out of necessity, as parents are paying a lot more to keep their children in school.

Singapore schools, even autonomous ones, need to fulfil national needs to a certain extent. Our education system and philosophy is the way it is today because a workforce that was skilled and efficient, if slightly programmed, was essential to our survival.

It is true that the workplace has evolved and education should also change to keep up, which is why changes and new initiatives have been introduced.

It is perhaps easy to be cynical about initiatives such as Teach Less, Learn More, but we have to start somewhere.

Schools have been given more autonomy, but it would be unfair and unrealistic, not to mention dangerous, to expect a revolution.

The subject of use of cellphones in the classroom will likely pit two equally passionate camps against each other.

In the meantime, we should allow schools the time to come to their own conclusions based on their own sets of criteria.

Steffen Toh Hai Chew

March 20, 2007

This student is happy to be in a local school

I REFER to the letter by Mdm Lam Mun Wai, 'Which school would students rather be in?' (ST, March 17). As a student in a local secondary school, I would like to correct some of the misperceptions the writer has about local schools.

She wrote that students and parents of international schools 'are welcome to see the teachers and the principal himself whenever possible - no bureaucratic system to block access, even the security is friendly'. It is no different in local schools. In fact, many principals are now encouraging students and parents to give them feedback about the school directly - something which I do constantly.

The writer also bristled at the stern rules and regulations in Singapore schools, while 'shoes, socks and hair pose no big issues in the international school'. I shudder to think what would have become of our schools if these stern regulations were non-existent. We certainly would not want to see students sporting outlandish hairdos or tinting their hair bright pink, would we?

The writer also questioned how students can learn to use their phones properly in public if they are not allowed to do so in school.

I beg to differ. If the use of mobile phones in schools is allowed, students would be too distracted to pay attention in class.

Moreover, there is no 'responsible use of the phone during lessons'. To use the phone during lessons already indicates a serious lack of respect for the teacher.

School rules shape students to become morally-upright, law-abiding and socially-responsible citizens.

And just in case the writer wonders, I am happy to be in a local school.

Kenneth Cheng Jing Wen


whybegay said...

These rebuttal replies to Mdm Lam are weak compared to my reply http://forum.mediacorp.com.sg/board/showthread.php?s=&threadid=41104

I believe Mdm Lam was refering to local primary schools, by the kind of problems she refered to.

fyi Dr Huang, if you have switched over to the new beta version of Blogger but have experienced problems, perhaps you should switch to using Firefox browser.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi Ybegay:
I don't know if Lam was referring to only Pri schools. The gaps in the school system are also prevalent in the higher classes ( perhaps more so).

Tried firefox plus many other tricks- still don't work


Teck Soon said...

What's wrong with pink hair or outlandish hairdos? Oh dear, it's the end of the world! They'll never learn anything like that! Bah...prude alert, prude alert!

nofearSingapore said...

Hi tecksoon:
The old school of thought ( pun intended) is that school is not meant to be fun! ha ha.
Any one who tries to exert any individualism will not be tolerated.
Girls' hair must be short ( but not so short that they look like boys) and the skirts long but not so long that it is a fashion statement!

And try not to ask "silly" questions cos the need to finish the syllabus is more important than understanding the material. Got it?
I guess we are still part of the old world!

Dr Oz bloke said...

My wife is currently a trainee teacher.

Teaching is not easy. Classroom management is already a problem itself not to mention actually teaching.

The problem for many teachers is what exactly does our education system value? What is first priority?

Personally I think it is still grades. They can say all they want, but if our civil service continues to reward the highest grade achievers then grades will always be the priority in our society. Other factors are but bonuses and will never replace or hold the same weight as grades.

So what's the best way to get a child to achieve the best possible grades? The Singapore education system.

But I am sure educators (the people who REALLY know their stuff, not the ex-navy admiral, finance industry expert turned educationist type of people) around the world know that education is not about grades. And there have been studies to show that good grades are extremely poor indicators for future success in life.

Frankly, our education system is to churn out workers for the economy. People who can contribute to the economy. People who can be hired by foreign companies who are wooed to set up businesses here.That's the real purpose. We don't want creative thinkers. We want people who are smart, capable of thinking on their feet to fix problems, BUT are loyal, obedient and don't cause trouble for the upper management. That's what Singapore and Singaporeans are known for. Safe, efficient, orderly.

Lester Thurow compared Singapore and Israel and put the question of how much chaos does Singapore want to allow now? Because we need some of that to get to the next level. Frankly I don't see that happening. Singapore is vulnerable and hence cannot stand any form of disorder.

But it also means certain aspects of our system will never change. The Education system is one such example.

Lastly....and I believe this will totally TOTALLY rebutt all arguments....but which employer in Singapore would EVER EVER discriminate against someone holding a degree from another First World English speaking country who is applying for a job?

Which employer? In fact, most of these people would be termed "FT" by nature of the fact they have had overseas experience vs the NUS or NTU or SMU graduate.

Instead of asking whether it is an advantage to be educated overseas, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we have ever seen any DISADVANTAGE in being educated overseas. I believe the answer is no.

I rest my case.

aliendoc said...

Speaking from personal experience, my kids definitely benefited from their transfer from a local to an international school. I know that many Singaporeans think that the local education system is wonderful, & admittedly it has its good points. However, producing a well-rounded, creative, well-spoken person is not one of them.

kitsura said...

The local education system is good? Then let me pose one question to those who think so: "How many nobel prize winners have Singapore produced?" None? Then its just too bad...

kitsura said...

Dr Huang>I believe I may know the source of your problems. Saw this message on the blogger beta page:
"To continue, you need to sign in to Blogger with your Google Account.

The new version of Blogger requires a Google Account to access your blog's features."

So maybe getting a Google account might solve your problems.

nofearSingapore said...

drozbloke-I believe that the present Minister Ed ( Tharman ) has the right ideas and if given time, some good will come out of it but the resistance to change comes from teachers (but not your wife) and PARENTS!! The mindset to getting full marks for everything from Pr 1 to JC 2 is sapping all our students energies and time. In the real world, most things are not judged subjectively and not objectively. It is about presenting/negotiating/convincing others to your logic etc etc.Soft skills/EQ etc
aliendoc- sometimes those who are blind just do not see ( or do not want to see) Like I commented on your blog- almost like the Stockholm syndrome. The hostages end up defending the kidnappers.

kitsura- It may seem a tall order but countries with equally small populations eg Danmark/NZ etc already have Nobel laureates or world class athletes ( real ones but the imported types)
about Blogger- I tried your suggestion already! did not work. I get into a loop.

$10 for anyone who rescues me from the Blogger problem that I am in! haha

Anonymous said...

Children going to most local schools end up speaking Singlish from their Singlish-speaking teachers, largely unable to speak standard English even if they try. At least children going to international schools excel in English.

The Uncharted Waters said...

I do not know much about the current education system now since I had left school for quite some time. But I shall give some anecdotal evidence on what I experience in local uni.

Very often, during both undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I saw my peers choosing modules and projects based on how easy to score rather than interest. I had friends who showed me a weird look on their faces when they saw me reading up on something that is not in the syllabus.

This is what happened when people are too engrossed in chasing their 'A's. They forgot, or simply ignored that, the purpose of education is to acquire knowledge, not the cert.

But how are we going to change this deep-rooted mindset of singaporeans? How are we going to tell the next generations to pursue their dreams, when everyone is travelling on the same conveyor belt and judged by the same yardstick?

kwayteowman said...

Dun understand why people are arguing also.

Some people do okay in our present system; some people don't do so well -- and do better under the International School System. Is that surprising though?

Isn't it abundantly clear that different people have different needs when it comes to learning and that no one education system is going to be the one PERFECT system for EVERYONE?

What people also seem to fail to see is that it's their own attitudes that are contributing to many of the "failures" in the existing system, e.g. streaming.

It's not only about changing the system, it's also about changing attitudes (on a nation-wide scale). How easy is that? :-)

Dr Oz bloke said...

Hi Kwayteowman,

As I have said. As long as the civil service continues to award scholarships to students who achieve academic excellence, the "mindset" message will continue to be sent out.

Let's face the facts. The REAL reason for Singapore's mindset being this way is because it is a small country with limited options and opportunities.

Frankly I do believe that Singapore's current education system is the right system for this country. But when you want to compare the system with the ones from other countries.....well I would say it pales in comparison.

If it were really that good even for Singaporeans in Singapore, then why is it we can have "foreign talent" who do just as well if not better in Singapore despite being schooled abroad?

I think Singapore's education system produces competent individuals. Not brilliant at the highest level, not creative at the highest levels, not outspoken at the highest levels but just good enough to be employed as workers. We won't be world beaters but we can certainly service the world.

nofearSingapore said...


Uncharted waters:thanks for coming by
My exact sentiments exactly. Even now, my adult colleagues give me a very puzzled look when I tell them I am attending a master’s course outside of Medicine. You get the impression that one only needs to study in order to get the paper and then after that you should only study if it helps you make more money or make you famous.
Life-long learning is just a slogan to be shouted out for fun.

The conveyor belt analogy is extremely appropriate

KTM: thanks for visiting
By your reasoning, there is no need to try to improve any system since any existing system is suitable for some bloke as it is.
So rote learning is great, as his memorizing stuff without understanding. So any system should remain as it is unless totally nobody benefits from it. Great logic.

Drozbloke: I agree that our system breeds and rewards those who just rise above “mediocrity” ( sorry can’t spell that word). Few parents ( and few teachers have the time to ) would encourage his child to go all the way with his talents/interests.


Dr Oz bloke said...

"Few parents ( and few teachers have the time to ) would encourage his child to go all the way with his talents/interests."

Agreed. Singaporeans are very pragmatic.

Think of it this way. There are many different kinds of talents/interests people have out there.

But what kind of talent/interests does our education system excel in encouraging ALL THE WAY?

If a kid is brilliant at math, is there a market for mathematicians in Singapore? Most likely this child would be encouraged to take up something math related but practical eg be an accountant.

If a kid is good at art. He will be told, being an artist has no future economically in Singapore.

If a kid is good in music ditto. In fact most of our talented young will go abroad, where they develop their skills in a society that encourages it because they appreciate it.

And then our ministers will ask why is it that they don't come back. Hello? Are they really that dense?

Can anyone name what kind of talent/interests our education system will encourage a kid ALL THE WAY?

whybegay said...

Dr Huang,

your blogger problems will all be solved if you reinstall your operating system or buy a new computer.

Or run an anti adware/spyware program.

Give me the $10.

nofearSingapore said...

drozbloke: We do not encourage pursuit of excellence except in the the number of A's.
We must look beyond thinking that the 100 marks is the be all and end all.
We should encourage our kids to excel in every sphere. ie Music/arts/rock music/ dancing/skateboarding etc.
Encourage them when they are trying to develop their unique identity. Not force them to be clones.

ybegay: nice try. You think so easy to prise away $10 from me. tried anti spyware/adware already.

I think it is just Google/blogger's conspiracy to make me sign up for something I have to pay for rather than the free service. haha


kwayteowman said...

Dr Oz bloke,

You're right in highlighting that there is a structural problem, but your example of scholarships is not a very good one. The KTM believes that 95% (80%?) of the people are not exactly aiming to win scholarships.

What is true however is that most people will want to go to poly/university and therein lies the issue: admission is based on academic results. But then, if we don't look at academic results, how else to allocate the places "fairly"? Unless someone can answer this question, it is not possible to avoid the emphasis on grades in school.

As for your point about world beaters, it's a matter of scale. Singapore has 4 million people. China has 1.2 billion.

Suppose we assume that Singaporeans are no smarter than say the PRC Chinese. So, it must be true that 600 million Chinese are smarter/more capable than half our people.

Since these fellas are better, not to mention cheaper, of course, they get imported.

Okay, here is where it might become philosophical -- some will perhaps claim that a good education system will make all our people better than the rest of the world. Do people buy this claim?

Dr Huang,

By your reasoning, there is no need to try to improve any system since any existing system is suitable for some bloke as it is .... So any system should remain as it is unless totally nobody benefits from it.

The KTM is baffled as to how you could have come to such a conclusion from what the KTM said. If this is the way you reason, then the reasoning is indeed flawed.

So rote learning is great, as his memorizing stuff without understanding.

When people criticize the system, they fail to see that there are actually some people who are able to go beyond rote learning and actually learn stuff in our education system. Why? Because we do have good teachers in the system.

Talk is cheap. While every people is claiming to be some expert on education, nobody seems to realize that the system is not the only factor. Execution is key. Even if someone comes out with the perfect system, how easy is it to replicate that across all the schools in Singapore?

On the other hand, it is quite clear that good teachers can work around the system and teach their students to think. So what does that tell us?

For the record, the KTM has not tried to imply that the system cannot or should not be improved. He is merely highlighting the structural difficulties that are involved.

The KTM fails to understand why are you so defensive.

nofearSingapore said...

I guess being defensive is becoming fasionable!
I think our education system has done well and I have great respect for my teachers.
BUT that doesn't mean that we should not try to look for ways to improve.
I think some who highlighted the gaps in our system actually sincerely feel that we can do better with some change in mindsets and attitudes.
I am glad that you did not imply that we cannot or should not improve.


Dr Oz bloke said...


You wrote : "As for your point about world beaters, it's a matter of scale. Singapore has 4 million people. China has 1.2 billion"


Which was my main point. That the Singapore education system serves Singapore well. But if you take the Singapore education system as a system by itself and compare it with the education system in other first world nations based on its merits overall (not specifically for the needs of Singapore) then many deficiencies show up.

I make this point because I believe that there is very little Singapore's education system can do to improve as long as Singapore as a country, economy and society remains largely the same. Education is just a means to an end. And so far the end for Singapore has always remained the same. Keep the economy strong via industries, commerce and trade sectors. The usual "talent" sectors eg sports, arts, music, literature will never get the same focus as they do in other countries.

Size matters.

If you are 1 in a million in China....there are 1,300 people just like you there. If you were in India, there would be 1,100 people just like you.

The top 25% of the population in China with the highest IQs.....is greater than the total population of North America.

So I do get your point regarding how FTs are imported from places like China simply because there are more LIKELY (by statistical chance) of having smarter people.

Nevertheless I would still contend that if Singaporean kids want to develop in certain fields or in a certain direction that is not available in Singapore, they should go abroad for Singapore is unlikely to accomodate them anyway.

Singapore's market is extremely small. There is virtually no market for certain fields.

Lam Mun Wai said...

I must speak up even though some of you may not agree with my "sweeping" statements. But given the space allowed I can only say so much. Do read my subsequent forum letters for a more complete picture. By the way I know what I am writing about because I work in the education sector. The school I am writing about is a secondary girls' school fyi. Of course the prinicpal is a very conservative lady who expects all the girls to be like her. I did say there are good teachers/principals who are able to motivate the students and achieve much in spite of the system constraints. But the others need to be less kiasu and allow kids to be kids, erstwhile to have fun while they are young.