Slow School

I've met Singaporean parents who were contemplating or had sent their children back to Singapore so that they would receive world class education. By world class, I meant the opportunity to expose their kids in robust teaching methods that rocketed some of our finest to top OECD rankings in mathematics and science. Even if ours kids are nowhere among the very, very few at the top, the rationale is that our kids will be able to strive further under such an environment than a more laid-back one. 

Going by the same logic as my logical Singaporean acquaintances, I should be moving back to Singapore if I want to get rich, since there are a lot of rich people there and the working environment is competitive. By that logic, I will end up richer than I am, somehow. Nonsensical. All of us knows that the world doesn't owe us a living. Living in a country full of rich people (studies revealed there will be 1 millionaire in 30 people in Singapore by 2020) does not entitle us wealth. Chances are I will be one of the 29 poor fucks who have none of the necessary attributes, acquirable or not, to be that 1 in 30. Who is to say that our kids will have the necessary attributes to do well academically in Singapore then? 

"Reach out for the skies." Remember? How about one of those popular quotes that people have used on me, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you'll land among the stars." I dislike dumb quotes and wish people will think it through before using one. Never mind it is harder to reach a star than the moon. Education, to me, is not about achieving goals. It must be all about learning to learn, gaining good values, habits and learning to practice them until it becomes second nature. 

The most important habit is lifelong learning. I realised the importance of this habit too late in life but I am trying my best to do catch up. I was one of the "return to teacher" brigade in Singapore. By that, I meant burning midnight oil, scoring decent marks in examinations. Don't even bet on applying what I learn to help myself in life. I would be lucky if I did not cleanly forget whatever I studied by the time I walked out from the examination hall. I found it amusing to reminisce an incident when one of my friends barked at me when I asked him for help in my revision, "Don't ask how this formula works! Just apply the fucking thing and you'll pass!"  I did and I did. Today I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. If I had pursued my studies in the same field, I would be a Civil Engineer today, designing and building the HDB flats you live in, the shopping centres you go after work with that same mindset. (Trust me, I've worked in the industry long enough to see engineers who worked like that)

How many of us are in the "return to teacher" brigade, a motto we actually used proudly without any remorse? Accordingly to my experiences in my schooling days, we were the majority. Have that traditional attitude changed among the Singaporean young today? I doubt so. Due to the results orientated system, that approach would be the line of least resistance to survival because it is the most feasible and logical one. Foreigners have so often commented that Singaporeans are stupid. They are only half right. We are a group with good brains but our education system has molded us to be 'do-ers' instead of 'thinkers'. That wasn't intended to be bad. The problem is that years of conditioning our minds to operate that way redefined our work ethics in the working world. During my working life in Singapore, this was what I saw. Work smart actually meant 'chao keng.' Delegation became 'shoot arrow', thus when one is being tasked, it meant the unfortunate one 'kena arrowed.' The #1 motto for every department in most work environment there is 'Always cover backside,' because once that is faithfully performed then it 'isn't my problem.' Remember the path of least resistance? That is how we operate and why we worship the lightning. Granted the cited are arguably ethics of workers with attitude problem, it is unlikely that a whole work culture is formed by the mentality of the minority. How is it not obvious enough that is correlated with the way we are educated?

I had the opportunity to sit down with M the other day. She just completed her Masters in Teaching (or something) after years of struggle. I have been following her program. It seemed intensive and very hands on. She was a teacher with the MOE years ago. There was no better person to get a qualified, objective view on education in both countries. What caught my interest was her explanation why the pace of teaching seems a lot slower in Australia. Some schools here practice informal streaming in class but not according to general total scores the way we do in Singapore, where the strong gets stronger and the weak gets weaker. Instead, these 'streamings' were done for down to any meaningful sub-division of skills not limited to only subjects but to personal skills as well. Pupils are rotated all the time according to their strengths and weaknesses so that every one has a chance to catch up. Under the 'no one gets left behind' mentality, kids are naturally encouraged to help one another and because classes are not officially streamed, it is less prone to the (perhaps subconscious) practice of assigning a better teacher to a better class in Singapore. We had teachers coming into our class (I was in a "bad" class), declaring, "This is a hopeless class, I will save my breath for 4B." We love to measure our best against the world. How about pitting our worst and see where we really stand?

A few years ago, I wrote a post I titled, "Learning to learn." To my amazement, I had not forgotten about it. It goes to show, once again, the importance of blogging. The message has not been since. To learn to learn is one of the most important thing I would like my kids to achieve from the education system here. One of the key factor to acquiring this habit is to have an interest during early learning. A child should learn out of curiosity, out of thirst to improve and empower. It should not be for putting the correct answers in exam papers to gain recognition from parents, teachers, peers and society. I have made the mistake and learnt from it thus I will not subject my child to the same.

It really does not matter if a kid learnt his or her algebra at age 4 or age 10, unless your toilet door at home is digitally locked with an algebraic equation that changes once every hour or something. Otherwise what is the real benefit of learning a lot, very early? To return to the teacher?