ST Aug 18, 2008
Let Kids Learn At Own Pace
PARENTS who complain that the education system here is stressful for their children should look at other Asian countries where it can be worse.
In South Korea, there is a school where students can snatch only a few hours of rest each day, are not allowed to make friends or keep items like magazines in their bags.
It is like a prison, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday night.
'We are not like that. We have some stress but we should manage it, we should take it in our stride,' he said.
He referred to the South Korean school when highlighting to parents that some stress in school was inevitable.
But he reminded parents that they should also let their children grow and learn at their own pace.
He noted that parents push their children further by sending them for extra enrichment lessons.
And during examination, they would ply their children with chicken essence.
Singapore's competitive school system has been named as a culprit by couples who choose to have no or few children.
But, Mr Lee said: 'I think some pressure is inevitable. It is part of Singapore's competitive spirit.
'Other East Asian societies are even more ruthlessly competitive.'
I like the general theme of PM Lee’s speech, but I think he still missed the point. Frankly I do not care whether our schools are more or less stressful than those in Korea, or Japan, or anywhere else.
Here’s the more important question. After all that stress, what do our students actually get out of it?
In my own school days, I spent many hours memorizing the structure and details of the Periodic Table in chemistry. From Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I memorized large chunks of verse, word for word, line by line, because that was the way to score an A1 for Literature. In mathematics, I learned to do complex calculations involving an imaginary number called “i”.
None of the above knowledge is relevant to my life now. After junior college, I’ve never had any reason to look at the Periodic Table again. Macbeth was enjoyable, but it would have been much more enjoyable if I didn’t have to spend dozens of hours committing it to memory. And as a matter of fact, the last time I used an imaginary number was during the very last maths exam of my life – nowhere else, since then.
Most of the substantive formal content we learn in school ultimately has no relevance to the rest of our lives. This isn’t such a bad thing, if in school we just had to walk through the substantive content, gain some understanding, grasp the key principles and move on. We never really know what we might need to know, later in life (I might have become a chemist, an actor or an imaginary mathematician), but if we do understand the key principles, we'll be able to figure our way through.
Unfortunately, I think that our education system still heavily emphasises regurgitation over real understanding. Our schools still require tremendous volumes of rote learning. This is where most of the stress arises. In the typical Singapore school, we do not merely miss the wood for the trees. Instead, for the sake of our exams, we desperately memorise the bark, the twigs, the useless fallen dead leaves - and we will be punished for failing to do so.
Our students suffer great, continual stress, as they strive to master things that will have absolutely no relevance to the rest of their lives.