Crippling Learning With Unrealistic Standards

I was reading a past-year Primary Three mathematics exam paper this evening – with all its ridiculous problem sums – when I decided to write this long-overdue letter and send it to the newspaper forums in Singapore. I also posted it on my Facebook page. The Chinese translation comes courtesy of a good friend.

The Today newspaper published it here, and Lianhe Zaobao published it here. Thank you to the editors who deemed it fit to be published, and to the many parents and readers who shared it across social media. The Straits Times rejected the article as it wanted exclusivity on the piece and it found out Today had published it.

The primary school education system in Singapore has been the point of much debate among educators and parents for a long time now.

As a product of the system in the 1980s, and now a father of two children in Primary One and Three, I fear that the system has become one of irrelevant and unrealistic standards. And I come from the perspective of being someone who has excelled within the old system, yet have always questioned the relevancy of the content we were taught in real-world settings.

Sadly, the situation has only gotten worse.

Let’s take primary school mathematics as an example – why are students being asked to solve questions of higher level logic at such a young age? Does it make them more creative in problem-solving? Does it help them when they are faced with heuristic problems that even adults don’t have to deal with in the workplace? No, it only leads to more rote-learning of – ironically – heuristic methods. The vast selection of assessment books and tuition centers that teach heuristics is testimony to this claim.

Another observation is that school teachers sometimes do not have the opportunity to reinforce the basics of simple arithmetic, and are forced to make their students do sums that are more useful in weeding out mathematical geniuses than genuinely impart knowledge. Within the cramped periods of each school day, it is simply impossible for teachers to cover all the bases in today’s punishing curriculum.

It’s no longer a matter of excelling in class, but to simply pass Mathematics today, it is mandatory to have tuition to fill the gaps that school teachers sometimes struggle to fill. If so many students require tuition, then it means our education system has failed in its basic goal of imparting the correct skill sets.

My wife, a university honours graduate, gave up her job to coach the children at home, but is herself exasperated at the standards required of students today. I have yet to observe any beneficial efforts of pushing children so hard at the primary school level apart from high stress levels and sapping of intellectual curiosity.

Apart from removing the joy in learning, another side effect of today’s education system is that my children hardly have time to enjoy childhood. They have less time to play outdoors, to read their favorite books (which is a great way to improve one’s English), to explore new hobbies or simply to learn about the world around them. All because they have so much homework to do.

I could go on about the other subjects, but the scenarios are the same. The schools are not teaching less, nor are the students learning more.

Ian Tan Yong Hoe


And here’s the Chinese translation as done by a great friend. This goes to Zaobao.





就 拿小学数学作例子。为什么学生们必须在年幼时就学习解答更高年级的逻辑习题?这是否真能协助他们以创意思维克服人生障碍?让小学生面对这些成年人在工作 上都无需接触的启发式问题,是否真对学生们有帮助?矛盾的是,这只会导致小学生用死记硬背来学习启发式演算法。课外教材泛滥,补习中心如雨后春笋冒出,足 以证明这一点。







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Ian Tan

Ian Tan worked in the media industry for a decade, living the life of journalism, photography and technology. He now works in the IT industry, permanently plugged into his Surface Pro 3 and Facebook.

5 thoughts on “Crippling Learning With Unrealistic Standards”

  1. Many thanks for voicing out on behalf of many parents and kids! Really hope primary school exam standard be lowered. It’s creating a lot of stress to teachers, parents and kids.

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