Sunday, 23 September 2018

Life beyond grades

I applaud the parents who started the Life Beyond Grades movement. Their intention is noble and I do hope that it helps other parents to stress their children less. However, while I am sure I will hug and be assuring to my child regardless of his PSLE score next year, I think there is still a need to re-look at the PSLE. After all, the child does not only socialise with his parents. He interacts with the entire society.

I know I have dedicated many blog posts to address this issue. I feel very strongly about it. Many things have been done to transmit the message to children that grades do not define them. My son tells me that there was a talk in his school for that purpose. Students' class and level positions are no longer printed on report books. Yet, at the grand age of twelve, the child sits an exam where his achievement for that exam is made public. The secondary school that the child goes to and his stream will give a gauge of how well the child has done during the PSLE. This will not change with the new grading scheme. I have mentioned that I sincerely believe all schools have good infrastructure and capable scholars have been posted to less well-known schools to teach. However, there are about 55 (out of around 159) secondary schools where the cut-off point is 200 or less. I believe these are the schools with more N(A) and N(T) classes. When you put students who are academically less inclined together, do you think they can motivate one another to reach greater heights? Teenage is when a human being is very much influenced by peers and students spend many hours in school at the secondary level. Eventually, the PSLE score may not matter, but for four to five years, the child's life is partially shaped by his peers and his school. My younger brother, whom I think showed a lot of creativity and brilliance when he was a child - for sure more than me, surprised all of us by doing badly at the PSLE. He dropped out of school at secondary 2 and though there could have been many factors for that, one observation I made was that his friends were more interested in gaming than in studying.

Although there are programmes like the Applied Learning Programme that help students make sense of their learning in schools, much of the primary six year is dedicated to solving one word problem after another or mastering answering techniques for science. My nephew who is taking the PSLE in a few days' time has completed all the 2017 and 2018 preliminary exam papers he can get his hands on, and is persuading his mother to print the 2016 papers as well! If he has been getting more than 90 marks consistently in school exams, it probably means he already has a good grasp of what he needs to know. The time spent completing past-year papers could be more productively spent on acquiring new knowledge!

I also feel that the PSLE is stifling. Instead of solving real-world problems, students mule over how many pies were baked if the baker sold half of the pies in the morning and one quarter of the remaining pies in the afternoon. Wouldn't the baker have known how many pies he baked? Earlier this year, I met a group of students whom I had taught when they were in primary six. Some of them are in the polytechnic now and they were passionately showing me buildings they had designed or animations they had created. One of them remarked that he was finally studying something that mattered. Well, we do learn things that provide the foundation for future learning at primary and secondary school, but overdoing word problems and memorising elaborate words and phrases for composition writing may not be the best use of time. Also, I have met many dedicated teachers but how many of them are truly nurturing avid readers among their students? How many science teachers are helping students identify common bird calls or insects found in the school garden rather than mainly teaching answering techniques? Are we encouraging learners to be curious about the environment?

What bird is this? What does its call sound like?

On a related note, because of time constraints in the maths exam, most students do not have time to effect recommended problem solving techniques, which include checking of their answers. You immediately need to identify a strategy, use it and move on.

From the brave people who have posted their PSLE scores via the Life Beyond Grades movement, we saw a PhD candidate who scored 190 at the PSLE. At 12, that score meant she was around the 40th percentile of her cohort. When she earns her PhD in the near future, she will probably be among the most qualified of her cohort. We often hear of people with poor PSLE scores doing well later in life. My own magic number was 256 and I am not even earning the median income of Singaporeans. Why do we think that the PSLE has been sorting people effectively then?

I am doing research on critical thinking and I know that keeping an open mind is important. Thus, I tried to list the benefits of PSLE instead of immediately rejecting it. The PSLE aims to group students of similar ability together, and I hope the reason is to teach students at appropriate paces. However, apart from the top 20% or so, the other secondary schools will have students with a mix of abilities. Some may be excellent writers but be struggling with maths or vice versa. It seems like the top schools have the easier job since they only need to cater to those who did well in every subject.

Perhaps the PSLE also compels students to take their learning seriously. However, do we want students to study only when there are exams, or do we want students who learn because they enjoy it? Many students also forget the models they have drawn and most other crammed knowledge shortly after the exam.

The distinct purpose of the PSLE is to place students. It does give students a sense of how well they perform in that one exam. However, students will never know how they can improve as they do not get to see their papers. It is a very objective way of sorting people, but is the sorting necessary?

On the flipside, the PSLE causes learning to be stifled for at least one year, sorts students such that mainly those who perform well benefit, places students who are not academically inclined together such that they are unlikely to have peers to motivate them, publicly announces one's performance to the whole world and forces several parents to send their children to tuition or enrichment as these parents are unable to teach their children themselves (Some parents become their children's tutors). I have yet to meet a child (of the current generation) who performs well in every subject with no tuition or familial help. Does that imply that instruction in school is insufficient in order for a child to excel in the PSLE?

I have read of people who say that Singaporeans are whiners and we should just accept the PSLE and encourage our children to work hard for it. If accepting the status quo is the way to go, I am afraid we would not be enjoying the comfortable lives that many of us lead. We may still be using oil lamps instead of electric lights or manually-operated fans instead of air-conditioners.

Also, my qualm is not against assessments in general. Timely assessments are necessary as it gives students a sense of how much they have understood and which areas they can improve on. My concern is that the PSLE heavily influences who a student's peers may be during his most impressionable years and may prematurely give information to a child about his academic ability or lack thereof.

I have some suggestions:
- Make the curriculum for those who do not qualify for the express stream more attractive. There could be more options for students, like entrepreneurial skills or business management and so on. Perhaps these students need not stay in the secondary school system for five years.
- Change the names of the streams to academic, technological, technical etc. How can the existing normal stream be normal if two thirds of students qualify for the express stream?
- All schools should have students from different streams, rather than have elite IP schools.
-There could be advanced placement for certain subjects.
- Some NMPs have suggested including project work and other continual assessment in the PSLE score, rather than depend on the child's performance on one exam. I think this is possible, although the tasks should not be done at home for integrity's sake.
- Include solving of real-world problems in the assessment that elicit 21st century competencies - in particular critical and inventive thinking, while making use of sound principles that they have learnt.
-Increase the duration of tests so that students have time to think and employ problem-solving skills.

Hopefully, pedagogy will be less exam-oriented and students can be free to acquire knowledge not for exam purposes but for life. I also hope there can be more collaboration where students who are more academically inclined can help those are less academically inclined. This can help create a more caring society.

Here are some other posts on education in Singapore: Link to education posts

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Peace in the midst of trials

Being a PhD student has been truly humbling. I thank the Lord for giving me strength and perseverance as well as family and friends who have been encouraging.

Just two days ago, I was told that someone who mattered was unhappy with a report I wrote, as I did not include his suggestions in it. For the life of me, I can only remember one thing which he may be referring to - something which he mentioned about ten months ago - and I have included that in my presentation slides. It was not in the report as I followed the guideline strictly and that component was not in the guideline. I felt defeated as I had laboured over this important report and now there is a possibility that I may not even get a chance to present it. Thank God that I can go to Him with all my cares and worries and exchange them for the peace that surpasses all understanding. Lyndon also reminded me that God had opened the door for me to study so I should not give up so easily while my aunt said that failure provides opportunity for resilience to be demonstrated. How true!

I realised God has provided me with peace whenever I prayed. About a month ago, I had to submit five copies of the said report. I went to a photocopying shop to make the copies. When I collected the copies, I flipped through the pages and saw unsightly marks on some pages. I was appalled but did not say anything as the staff was attending to someone else. However, after I went home, I discovered that the diagrams were very blur and the words on the diagrams could not be made out. Apparently, the unsightly marks were not only on a few pages. Almost every page had a blemish. I blamed myself for not getting a receipt and for not checking every page when I was at the shop. I had paid $37 for the service! I even had a nightmare that night about how the poor printing sat badly with the reviewers and everyone was disappointed with my performance.

As my heart pounded from the dream, I prayed for God's peace, which I found. I visited the shop again and told the staff that the reports were very important and I could not submit them with the blemishes. The staff said that I could print my report from the printer instead if I paid an additional $10. I was so relieved! The printouts from the printer were very clear, even better than my originals. Praise God!

I have decided to be thick-skinned and teachable. No matter what the circumstance or outcome is, I will grit my teeth, learn from it and move on. I am also believing that if I lack wisdom, I can ask God and it will be granted to me. I have full confidence that goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. God bless you too. :)

My peace I give unto You
It's a peace that the world cannot give
It's a peace that the world cannot understand
Peace to know, peace to live

Friday, 21 September 2018

Fun outing to Sentosa and Vivocity

Dear Little An,

I totally enjoyed our outing to Sentosa and Vivocity. When I picked you up from Grandma's, I was surprised to see you in your lovely blue gown. Your reason for wearing it was that you remembered we were going to see the Disney Tsum Tsum lanterns, so you dressed up for the occasion. I was glad you were looking forward to it.

As it was too early for the lanterns to be lighted up, we made an impromptu decision to go to Sentosa where you took your first Luge ride! On the skylift, you were a little scared and you reminded me to hold onto my phone tightly lest I dropped it. You had fun on the Luge though and wanted to go on it again. We will be back someday. :)

We also took a long walk to see the Marvel sandcastles. The long walk did not bother you and you even said walking was good exercise. Hurrah to you! :) Anyhow, the sandcastles were skilfully constructed and our time was worth it. You posed gamely with the different characters and at the non-Marvel sculptures, you were interested in the nationalities of the sculptors. The beach scene was pretty too and we witnessed a brave soul bungee jumping. That is something I will never ever do.

As the sun was setting, we knew it was time to start our journey to Vivocity. You managed to capture the picturesque scene of the sun retiring for the day from the Sentosa Express. Papa said you took photos like he did.

Finally, we made it to the Tsum Tsum light up. You confidently struck poses at each photo spot and I think you truly looked like a princess! The Tsum Tsum tunnel was crowded with people but we still enjoyed identifying our favourite Disney characters. The broadcasting of Disney songs added to the joyous atmosphere and you broke spontaneously into dance. Hope you will serve God with dancing when you grow older. :)

While we were heading back to Sentosa, we saw the fireworks from the Crane Dance. That was a pleasant surprise. After the last burst of light, serenity was restored. Once again, you did not complain as we walked across the boardwalk. I loved your company, your energy and your incessant chatting.

Thank you for a lovely evening, my dear daughter.


Saturday, 11 August 2018

Internal Drive Theory

I read Dr Petunia Lee's book on internal drive theory and thought it was an interesting read. The author shares useful researched methods on how to motivate a child to want to study. I was attracted to it as she mentioned that her son was not born motivated but only became so with the techniques employed.

In this post, I record some of my learning points from the book. I must add that they are from my interpretation of the book's contents and may not be what the author is trying to put across. I am also writing these points from memory, so again, what I write has been influenced by my schema of the issue at hand. Here are the points:

1) Give structured choices

The author encourages parents to give structured choices to children. For instance, the child could be asked to choose whether he wants to do maths or science first. An example given by the author was of a girl who was already scoring well but her mother wanted her to be challenged further. Dr Lee showed two math books to the girl, one easy and one more challenging. She told the girl that she could choose to do either book, but if she chose the easy one, she would still need to do the challenging one later. If she chose the challenging one, she would only need to do that one book because it was senseless to do an easier book after accomplishing the more difficult one. The girl chose the challenging book, and went on to choose the more challenging options when she was offered choices subsequently. Because the girl was the one to choose, she would not feel that she had been coerced.

2) Ensure emotional connections

Parents should continually maintain positive connections with their children. On this point, I realise that I have been encouraging my children less and less as they grow older. I need to be more purposeful in saying encouraging words to them and to be patient.

3) Build healthy and positive self-concepts

I realise that our careless words shape our children's self concept. Little An knows that she is a good dancer because we keep telling her so and her former ballet teacher also gave encouraging feedback. J knows he is good in math and is very independent in acquiring new math knowledge partly because we constantly say he is good in math and his results reinforce that concept. Similarly, he has heard that he takes a much longer time to learn Chinese, so his view of his ability to learn Chinese is bleak. I could help him improve this self-concept by giving him small successes in Chinese and then highlighting that he has the ability to succeed.

4) Give immediate and effective feedback

I have learnt to give immediate feedback as an educator, but with my own children, I have been tardy. J has been asking me to mark the many exercises he did in a 6B math workbook and I have been procrastinating. I should be more proactive.

Dr Lee also devised comprehensive marking schemes for compositions to give her son more effective feedback and to help him focus on the elements of a good essay. For example, he was rewarded when he used interesting descriptive phrases. In the same way, marks were deducted when he made careless spelling or punctuation mistakes. The marking schemes can be found in her book.

5) Focus on study process and not grades

Focussing on process rather than grades has also been my philosophy. From the school assessments, parents can help their children identify what has gone wrong in their study process and help to improve the process rather than harp on the grade. Dr Lee realised that to do well in Chinese composition, one had to memorise good essays. She acquired exemplary essays from China and motivated her son to memorise them instead of staying disappointed with his grades.

There were other interesting points mentioned, like implementing physical movements between tedious tasks and to be on the lookout for desirable behaviour and magnify that. Read her book to find out more. :)

Friday, 10 August 2018

A Miracle

I hesitated to share this as it would exhibit my ignorance, but finally decided to write as it is a wonderful testimony of God's protection.

Last week, J's friend gave him some water crystals. His friend told him that the crystals would expand when placed in water and suggested that J stored them in his water bottle. He also said they were 99% water and were edible. True enough, the crystals expanded in water and they looked like jelly by the time J arrived home from school that day. He gave one to Little An and me to try. I was totally clueless to what they were and thought the balls resembled the lychee burst balls that we loved at Sogurt. I am ashamed to say that all of us consumed one ball each that day.

It was only when I heard J and another friend talking the next day that I realised the 'jelly' we had eaten were water babies and they were not supposed to be eaten! Upon searching the internet, Lyndon and I found that some children had gone for surgery to remove the expanded balls as their intestines were blocked! The balls could expand to more than 100 times their original size. I felt extremely horrible for my ignorance and was very worried for the children. We requested for the prayers of our friends.

We kept two of the 'jelly' balls in case we needed to show them to a doctor. The next day, I was curious to see how much the balls had expanded in the cup of water we had placed them in. To my amazement, the balls were tinier than I had ever seen them. They had shrunk instead of expanded! I told the children that God had shown us this miracle to assure us that the balls would not harm us. J exclaimed that this was the first miracle he had ever seen. Little An also understood as we were reading about how Gideon had asked God for two signs to confirm his calling. God is great! I am reminded to pray for God's protection on my loved one

The water crystals after two days in water

Thursday, 9 August 2018

This is my country

I have two patriotic children who would loudly croon National Day songs at home. This year, J also got to watch the NE show with his classmates and he excitedly gave us an account of the whole event when he came home. Since J was at the floating platform, the rest of the family decided to revel in the celebratory atmosphere at the Merlion on that same day. I admired the beautiful night scene before the fireworks started and joined the throngs of onlookers in ooh-ing and aah-ing when the bursts of light illuminated the already beautiful sky line of Singapore. We also had the opportunity to enjoy the Garden Festival one evening and I have been savouring my photos ever since. We do have a beautiful country.

As I pray for the countries which have experienced natural disasters and those which are oppressed, I thank God that our country is generally safe and there are many things about this island that we can be proud of. May the Lord continue to bless the nation's leaders with wisdom. May the people of Singapore be united and where there are disagreements, may we strive for peaceful resolution. May there always be peace and harmony.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Master your maths

When Poh Jie from Master Your Math (MYM) asked if there were opportunities to collaborate, I checked out his blog and found that he was offering O levels Additional Maths tuition. Not relevant to me, I thought. Yet this was a young educator who seemed eager to help students achieve their potential. He was not afraid to share the A level grades he obtained on his first attempt and how he later found an approach to studying which worked for him.

Thus, I asked Poh Jie if he could teach J how to learn Chinese with the study techniques he had acquired. I was impressed as Poh Jie did some research on learning Chinese to fulfil my request, even though that was not his specialty. It eventually did not work out as there were many factors to learning a language. However, Poh Jie conducted a one-hour coding session with J, who enjoyed himself. Poh Jie had thought Scratch would interest J, so he tried out some Scratch activities at home and introduced them to J during the session. He seemed to explain well and made the effort to make J feel comfortable.

Poh Jie teaches math via videos on Tuesdays in a series called Teaching Tuesdays. Click on the link for a sample. Visit his blog if you are looking for a math tutor.

Screenshot from MYM website

Disclaimer: I have only met Poh Jie once and can only vouch for his sincerity in imparting sound study techniques and his diligence in coming up with materials to help students.