It’s not me who is “kan cheong”

This post has been published as a letter in Today, 10 Oct, under the headline “To educate is not to hothouse“.

In May this year, I was so outraged by the steep difficulty in a primary school exam paper that my wife showed me, I wrote my first letter to Today about the unrealistic standards in our education system. It was followed by a flurry of letters by other parents, and by National Day, this had become a national conversation of sorts.

I was glad to know that I was not the only one who thought that the system has become distorted.

In the past few weeks, I have been equally cheered and perturbed by the many discussions around the PSLE. There have been extreme calls to dissolve the PSLE, which the Prime Minister has wisely cautioned against.

Academic exams serve a simple purpose – they reinforce learning of concepts and they test a person’s ability to perform under pressure. There is no gauge of the learning achieved without an objective evaluation.

Exams also force a person to consider – what are the consequences of not doing well? The decisions that we make before each major trial, often determines the path our lives will take.

The problem with the PSLE, is that it makes people so focused on a moderated aggregate score, that our children no longer have a chance to dream about what they want to be, what they want to aspire to. For many today, their only distinct memory of primary school life is filled with endless homework, tuition lessons and stress.

It is obvious (perhaps not to the Ministry of Education) that our children are over-burdened with the curriculum’s sheer volume and difficulty. Parents with degrees struggle to solve key PSLE mathematics questions. Accomplished writers wonder what is with the convoluted English that our children are forced to memorize. Why do we still have Speak Good English campaigns if our education system is so stellar?

It would be fodder for a comedy if it weren’t a sad reality.

I wouldn’t know how the Ministry is dealing with the massive amount of feedback to date.

All I hope the policymakers will do is to remember why our children go to school in the first place – to receive an education, and not to undergo hothousing with things they can scarcely understand at their tender age.

The simplest way to resolve the differing expectations and standards between schools is to standardize all primary school exams. Other letter writers have raised this idea as well and it is worth considering.

What if most of the kids do well, some educators may protest. How do we differentiate the good performers from the mediocre?

To that, I say: Why should we penalize our children for meeting the clear learning standards laid down for them?

Take the national Class 3 driving test for example – as long as students don’t get immediate failures or breach 18 demerit points, they are allowed to immediately drive on the road any car they can afford.

But today, the school curriculum is not clear at all. I see children tested on topics that aren’t in the textbook. I see tough questions designed to only demoralize young minds, not build them up for greater things. I look into my son’s eyes and despair when I see his struggle to understand why this education system is so brutal on him and his friends.

The Prime Minister has told us parents not to be “kan cheong” and let our kids have their childhood.

I’m trying my best, sir, but the current system of unrealistic and unbalanced standards is the one that contradicts everything you and I desire for our next generation.