PSLE – Pressurising Sorting and Labelling Exercise?

The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is something that almost every single student in Singapore has to go through. It is a rite of passage. A process that generates much angst, gnashing of teeth and beating of chest.

For many children and their parents, today marks the end of the gruelling PSLE process. They would have gotten their results in the morning. Some would have felt ecstatic for getting the results they hope to get. Some would have felt anguish for missing their own goals. Some would have cried sweet tears of joy, some would have cried bitter tears of despair. Some would have danced with elation. Some would have slouched with disappointment.

I am not going to say that PSLE is not important. It is. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t understand how education in Singapore works. PSLE is an important milestone that marks the end of a significant part of a child’s formal education in Singapore. It indicates, to a significant extent, the level of literacy, numeracy and scientific understanding that a child has attained. All these are important indicators.

Also, for the vast majority of Singaporean students and parents, PSLE is important because it is a sorting mechanism. It determines, to a large extent, where the student will go for the next stage of their education. For many students and parents, this is why PSLE causes so much stress. Many students and parents see getting into certain secondary schools as the single path to success. Get into that particular school and your life is set. Conversely, fail to get into that school and your life is doomed.

And that’s why I think the PSLE can also mean the Pressurising Sorting and Labelling Exercise. Do well in the PSLE and you get sorted to a “good” school and will forevermore be labelled as an elite of society. Don’t do well in PSLE and you get sorted to a “normal” school and you are labelled as a commoner. Or worse, do badly in the PSLE and get sorted into a “lousy” school and you are labelled a peon.

Many parents in Singapore clearly think this way. And it is understandable why. It’s the result of a culture that has been formed over many decades. There are many reasons why we have developed this culture. I am sure much ink has been spilled trying to analyse why we have this (over-)emphasis on examination results and which schools students attend.

And now the government is trying to change that. It is trying to convince parents that every school in Singapore is a good school. The government is also trying to convince parents that there are more than one path to success. In fact, the government seems to be trying to convince people that there should be more than one definition of success.

I don’t think the government is successful yet. I think there is still a long long way to go before the majority of Singaporeans defines success in terms that do not include material wealth and social standing. But I hope we get there. I hope that we will eventually have broadened definitions of success.

If there is a Singaporean who has started a company that has extended its reach globally and made lots of money, let’s celebrate that success. If a Singaporean has become a great doctor, let’s celebrate that success. If a Singaporean has become a great artist with many world-renowned pieces, let’s celebrate that success. If a Singaporean has become a top athlete, wining medals at international meets, let’s celebrate that success. If a Singaporean has become a world-class scientist and done some groundbreaking research culminating in a Nobel Prize, let’s celebrate that success.

But let’s also celebrate the success of those who give their all for their passion even if they come no where close to achieving glorious achievements. Let’s celebrate the success of the Singaporean artist who may never be famous in his lifetime, but keeps on trying and keeps on creating Art anyway. Let’s celebrate the success of the Singaporean entrepreneur who keeps on trying despite numerous setbacks and bankruptcies. Let’s celebrate the success of the Singaporean sportsman who keeps on training even though he knows he will never get a shot at the Olympics. Let’s celebrate the success of the Singaporean scientist who plods on at incremental research, knowing that his work won’t get him the Nobel but will build the foundation for others to get theirs.

Let’s also celebrate the success of the Singaporean who quietly helps out with disadvantaged communities in Singapore and also outside of Singapore. Let’s also celebrate the success of the Singaporean who leads a simple peaceful, happy life, helping out his neighbours, raising children who grow up to be responsible and active citizens.

If we are able to broaden our definitions of success to include the above, then perhaps the PSLE will no longer be the dreaded Pressurising Sorting and Labelling Exercise.

To help us get there, I hope that PSLE can take on another meaning – Passionately Supporting Lifelong Education. No matter our definition of success, Singapore, as a nation, can thrive only if we, as a people, keep on learning, keep on educating ourselves, keep on improving ourselves.

I would also venture to suggest that lifelong education consists of four parts. Yes, you guessed it. PSLE. Personal, Skills, Learning and Experiences.

Any meaningful lifelong education should help all individuals develop on a personal level. It should continually build their character, develop their personality, nurture in them a strong moral compass based on certain societally acceptable values. It should continually give the person  opportunities to become a better person, a person who is better able to handle adversity,  more willing to contribute to the wider society, able to manage stress better, etc.

On a personal level, lifelong education should help us develop into people who not only criticises, but do so constructively. It should help develop into people who does not only complain, but also contributes to solving the problem. It should help us develop into more compassionate people, who passionately solve the problems of society. It should help us be more forgiving and more inclusive.

A meaningful lifelong education should continually allow the person to deepen his skills. DPM Tharman in a recent speech highlighted the importance of this in light of the structural changes in the global economy. He said:

“… it’s also a world of opportunities. And for a small country like Singapore, there’s no lack of opportunity even in a world of somewhat weaker growth, a world with troubles that keep recurring. Opportunities that will come to innovative cities, to individuals with deep skills and to teams that bring people with the right skills together…

Up and down the ladder, across all types of jobs, whether you’re helping out in elderly care, in the local community, or a driver working with technology in domestic logistics so that one person does the job that four people did previously, whether you’re in finance where you have to get used to disruptive technologies that will take over a whole set of routine functions that were previously done by people: Everywhere, we have to equip people with the skills that enable them to work in a technology-enriched world, so that we preserve jobs and so that jobs get better…

… we’re going to invest in every individual throughout life. It’s not just what happens in the first 12 or 16 years of your education. It’s throughout life. And we have to reduce our focus on the grades you get early in life, and increase our focus on investing, in developing everyone’s abilities and skills through life.”

DPM Tharman exhorts us to aspire towards a culture of “taking pride in (deep) mastery (of skills) and getting respect from customers and the public because you’re the master of what you’re doing.”

But skills alone isn’t enough. We need to keep on learning. We need to retain that childlike awe and wonder of the world around us. We need to keep that insatiable curiousity about things. We need to be continually driven to find out more about different things by attending classes, by questioning, by reading, by talking to people, by exploring, by tinkering, by experimenting.

Lastly, I believe that a meaningful lifelong education should be based on diverse experiences. And DPM Tharman certainly agrees with me:

“No one knows for sure how we get creative people. But there’s one thing that there is some consensus on, and backed by science, which is that diverse experiences help, particularly as you grow up. Diverse experiences and interaction with people from diverse backgrounds, that helps. And that means everything you do on the sports field, in the dance hall, in debate, in outdoor adventure. And even when you’re just daydreaming. There’s something that studies of the human brain over the last decade tell us.

They’ve got these high-resolution brain-imaging experiments that show how your brain works when you’re doing different activities. And the brain process that’s working when you’re engaged in creative activity, when your brain is going beyond existing boundaries, is the same brain process that lights up when your mind wanders and meanders.

We’ve got to let children have enough time to flex that part of their mind as well when they are young. And give them many more, diverse experiences.”

I don’t think that only children should be exposed to diverse experiences. I think, as part of lifelong education, we should continually allow ourselves to have diverse experiences, and let our minds wander and meander.

We are very far away from this sort of lifelong education that has this form of PSLE (Personal, Skills, Learning and Experiences). I hope we get there soon. Would be nice if we get there in my lifetime. In the mean time, let’s take small steps toward that goal. Let’s collectively decide to make PSLE less of a Pressurising Sorting and Labelling Exercise. Let’s do more to Passionately Support Lifelong Education built on Personal, Skills, Learning and Experiences!

[Featured image from SGAG]

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