Singapore kids go for so many classes… but are they actually being educated?

There’s this clip of a CNA show about the life of a 12 year-old girl in Singapore, Amelia. She goes for 15 hours of extra classes a week outside of school. That translates to 5 hours of creative writing, 4 hours of arts classes, 4 hours of math tuition, and 2 hours of Chinese tuition.

For goodness sake. She’s only 12!

Apparently one of the reasons Amelia has so many classes is because of PSLE. It seems that everyone she talks to tells her that PSLE is a “big exam”. To make things worse, apparently her teachers have told Amelia that “this year is going to be one of the second hardest PSLE ever.” *cue scary music*

That is of course bullshit.

It doesn’t make sense to compare the difficulty of the PSLE across different years. Why? Because of how the T-Score is calculated for each subject:PSLE t-scoreX is the actual score the student got for the subject, Y is the average score of the entire cohort of student who took the exam that year and Z is what’s known as standard deviation. Standard deviation (SD) is a measure of the spread of score. How is it calculated? Take this example:

If the average score of 3000 pupils who sat for Science Test is 50 marks and the SD is 5, it means that 2/3 of the 3000 pupils have scored 5 marks around the average, which means 2000 of the students scored from 45 to 55 marks.

If the average score of the same 3000 pupils who sat for Mathematics Test is 50 marks and the SD is now 10, it means that 2/3 of the 3000 pupils have scored 10 marks around the average, which means 2000 students scored from 40 to 60 marks.

So if most students found the paper to be very hard, then it’s likely that the average would be quite low and the SD would be quite small. For example, if the paper was very difficult and the average was 40 and the SD is only 5 (i.e. most people found it to be equally difficult). And your kid found the paper difficult, but less so than others and got 60. That would normally be considered quite a terrible score. But wait! Throw the numbers into the formula, and you will realise that your kid’s t-score is a whooping 90!

So even if your found the paper to be difficult, so long as your child did better than other people, your kid’s T-score would still be quite high!

The average score and SD for each PSLE varies. Therefore to say that one year’s PSLE is going to be “harder” than another is completely meaningless. It’s like the story of the two hunters who got lost in the jungle and ran into a tiger. The wiser hunter, upon seeing the tiger started to run. The dumber hunter shouted: “Hey! It’s no use! You can’t outrun a tiger!” The wiser hunter, without slowing down, shouted back: “I don’t have to outrun the tiger. I just have to outrun YOU!”

The PSLE is the tiger. You don’t have to outrun it. The other students are the other hunters. You just have to run faster than them. So whoever told Amelia that this year’s PSLE is going to be the second hardest ever is telling a complete lie. It’s probably the teacher being super kiasu and trying to push the poor girl to work harder so that she can out do other students.

Why? Is it because if their students do well in PSLE, it reflects better on them? Conversely, if their students don’t do well in PSLE, they are deemed as bad/lousy teachers? Perhaps. And that’s what’s so sad about Singapore’s education system. Especially at the primary level. Say what you will. At the end of the day, it’s still working up towards that big standardised nationalised examination.

Sure. That system will change by 2021. No more t-score. New scoring system will have scoring bands like the O- and A-levels. Scoring won’t be relative to peers. How will students be admitted to secondary schools? Don’t know. Will that relieve the pressure off students, parents and teachers? Don’t know. Most likely… not.

And if we were to take Amelia as an example. The pressure sounds… crushing. She said:

“You’re talking about 12 year-olds, so very young, who are going to take an exam. And if they fail, they’re going to come out crying. And if they did really bad, what do you think they’re parents would say? It will be worse!”

Wow. So all the classes, all the “education” in Singapore seems to be built on a culture of fear – the fear of failure! Under such a culture, are our kids actually learning anything? Other than that failure is something to be avoided AT ALL COSTS? Are our kids developing a love of learning? Or is our education system teaching our kids that the purpose of learning is to get good grades, rather than to acquire knowledge and discover new things? Or worse, is our education system turning them off learning?

These have serious implications on the future of Singapore. If we were to believe all the rhetoric that the government has been spewing these few months, the future of Singapore depends on us being more innovative, more entrepreneurial, building our economy on a strong foundation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). But from all accounts, you can’t be entrepreneurial and innovative without embracing failure.

Hear what Peter Vesterbacka, the creator of Angry Bird had to say about creativity and entrepreneurship:

Does our education system encourage that? NO! Not at all! We are so focussed on getting the right answers that we lose the love for learning, the joy of discovery, the exhilaration of succeeding after numerous failures. Are we then surprised that even though we do so well in all those international tests (PIRLS, TIMMS, PISA), we haven’t really produced anything that is internationally noteworthy? Compared to Finland, which has given us MySQL, LINUX, and Angry Birds. Oh. And Finland has four Nobel Prize Laureates. One for the Nobel Peace Prize, one for Literature, one for medicine, and one for Chemistry.

To be fair to MOE, they aren’t the only ones to blame. Parents are to blame too. We have all collectively created an environment where everything we do must have a clear, definite, measurable purpose. And often the measure is material wealth. But learning doesn’t really work like that. Some times you learn for no other reasons because you love to learn.

That’s how discovery works too. Hear what Duke University biologist Sheila Patek has to say about discovery-based research:

To paraphrase her: New knowledge sought for its own sake, not to do well in examinations, not to make money, is fruitful enough.

I hope that parents and our government will come to realise this soon. The future of our nation depends on it.


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