The root issues of our education system

Hard truths screenshot

This post has been edited and published in Today, 26 Mar 2013, under the headline “Hard truths of our education system”. Screenshot above.

Recently, a young mother asked me how one should prepare their children for the tough problem sums found in primary school mathematics.

Her father, a successful businessman, chimed in: “Why do parents have to go for classes to learn how to teach their children? That’s the teacher’s job! The job of parents is to go out and earn money to feed the family!”

The Education Minister recently expounded on the myriad of issues surrounding education during the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament. He mentioned a need to go back to basics, and it couldn’t be truer.

However, going back to basics requires an honest assessment of what’s truly broken, instead of asking parents to manage their expectations and to strive for school-work-life balance.

The situation isn’t as complex as the Ministry believes, because the many issues raised all lead back to a few root causes that are not being given enough emphasis by policymakers.

Roles need to be clear

Let’s ignore the unreasonable demands from “kiasu” parents and be explicitly clear about the roles we play : Parents are not teachers. Teachers are not supermen. Tutors are meant to help weak students, not raise the benchmark of top students to silly levels.

While parents should be considered “partners in education”, it is alarming when the time students spend in school is deemed insufficient for them to master the curriculum, hence the need for parents and tuition teachers to be constantly coaching them late into the night.

If you ask why everyone has to play an educator’s role today, it’s really because of the unrealistic curriculum.

Teach less, learn less, grow more.

The primary school curriculum is a topic that the Education Ministry has yet to publicly acknowledge as a a critical problem, despite much public outcry for reform. While the Ministry wants to encourage creativity, it is impossible when children are drowned with a huge range of topics.

The question educators need to ask themselves is – “How much does a child really need to learn to be a well-rounded individual?”

The Minister recently said that parents should not compare our curriculum today with that of the past. So how is it that we had less topics to study in the 1980s and 1990s, and that had no adverse effect on our lives today? Many of us have adapted to today’s technologies and business landscape without a hiccup.

Meanwhile, I see today’s kids lacking sleep because they simply cannot catch up with the sheer volume of things they have to remember. They learn more, but remember little.

Teachers keep saying “teach less, learn more” and some end up leaving the bulk of the teaching to parents and tutors. Perhaps let’s change it to “teach less, learn less, grow more”.

Also, if we truly believe in meritocracy, then any hardworking child armed with an MOE-approved textbook should be able to excel at the school exam without needing tuition or a stack of assessments books with questions of exceptional difficulty.

Celebrate achievements, not diminish them

While we need to reduce the sheer volume of tested topics, we also need to stop barking up the wrong trees in the same spirit of meritocracy.

The recent move to stop publishing the names of PSLE top scorers may do more harm than good in the long run.

Whether education is a “marathon” or a “sprint”, we should celebrate those who are able to excel, without letting schools obsess with the school ranking exercise.

Ask yourself, which athlete pushes himself to the maximum only to have his achievements disappear in a sea of political correctness? Who wants to take the marathon seriously then?

We desperately need to give more breathing space to the average student, but we should not diminish the achievements of the truly gifted or those who have overcome the odds to do their best.

Let’s speak English well. Please.

MPs recently debated about the falling popularity of literature, but nobody ever mentioned that students may actually fear the subject because of their poor grasp of the English language.

Yes, our top students do well in global tests and in Ivy League universities, but let’s also recognize that the average standard of English communication in Singapore leaves much to be desired.

Many young graduates are unable to switch out of Singlish into proper English at will, and good grammar is often lacking at the workplace.

The root causes are the continued emphasis on bilingualism and the poor understanding of how to teach English in our schools. For English exams, the key tenets of fluency, brevity and impact have been replaced by flowery words and much hubris. Children memorize colorful phrases to insert into every possible sentence.

The result is that many citizens don’t speak English or their mother tongue well, and that is a national tragedy.

If we are serious about improving the education system, then let’s not shy away from tackling the hard truths of our situation today.

5 Replies to “The root issues of our education system”

  1. Agree with you there is a huge problem with our education system. In their overzealous desire to breed talents, MOE has gone overboard with the KPIs it loads onto the schools. From what many of us are seeing, kids from primarty to polys are being very overloaded with lessons, schoolwork, projects with unbelievable deadlines and CCA on top of everything. Students at several schools are tried and stressed out and not getting enough rest and sleep. A faculty head even told me the schools know there is a flaw in the system but MOE is not listening. And now MOE is revamping pre-school system to level up and ensure kids are learning across all the schools. I worry for these kids. Hope the little ones will not be overly stretched at this young tender age by kiasuism and unnessary KPIs imposed by the system.

  2. I think there are two fundamental problems with our education system. Firstly, there is the problem of quantity versus quality in the school curriculum. Is too much knowledge and information being rammed down students’ throats? Is it necessary? Does it match the actual cognitive development of a child? I get the sense that students are not given time to reflect and explore deeply the various topics covered in the subjects taught. Secondly, the problem of curriculum not matching the exam system. Take Literature for example. Can one truly come up with incisive essays in 3 hours? I would prefer a longer period of time stretching over a few days for thorough research than a hurried piece of work with regurgitated but irrelevant quotes thrown in.

  3. Thank you for this post. I had come across a lot of NTU Graduates who speaks & writes bad English. I really feel bad for many well-deserving locals who should be in the University instead of these half-baked people. I wonder why NTU let these people study there in the first place.

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