Monday, August 02, 2010

Singapore stresses education

...or does education stress Singapore?

This week Sing Poly asks if our education system is too stressful for our kids. They made a video poll featuring the views of their respondents and included a skit about how kids prepare for their tests. Yep, sure enough, the respondents agree that stress levels are too high for kids while the skit features a zombie ploughing through piles of textbooks that reinforce his zombie state in a vicious cycle.

I admit that the stresses are high here, but I doubt the system has as much to do with it as the methodology by which we attempt to survive the system as we perceive it. By way of analogy, the system is like an active volcano that we have chosen to settle beside because of its fabulously fertile soil conditions. But the stress comes because we attempt to appease our irrational, implacable, unpredictable Volcano God by throwing our young people into it. As far as I know young people, they do not appreciate being sacrificed, but what can they do, right? The volcano is more real than their sad, non-existent lives.

If we're to reduce the stress, it's a lot more realistic to fix how we cope with our neighbour, the Volcano, rather than fix the volcano itself. For one thing, it's never going away and for another, we haven't got the resources BP has to fit a cap over it.

We are still using the study methods that our more scholarly ancestors once used. Actually, only one method: sit down with our textbooks and 'mug', a process that transforms pigment-based information into synapse-activated information. Our parents believe in it because it worked for them, our teachers believe in it because it worked for them too. However, today there is so much mediated information available that is constantly morphing, updating, expiring, renewing that our old methods of acquiring information for personal storage can neither cope with the quantity of it all nor keep up with its rate of change. Even the activity of acquiring information for permanent storage may have become irrelevant anyway, since very little of it can be said to be permanent beyond certain basic fundamentals.

If our tried-and-tested study methodology cannot help us, then it has to go. It's premises were selfish and competitive anyway, accumulating information for oneself to be used only in a specific circumstance -- answering exam questions; useless for anything else. In order to deal with the kind of information flow that we have today, we need a study method that eschews competition in favour of collaboration. Information can no longer be a miserly hoarded commodity but managed like a living currency used for buying, selling, exchanging or otherwise transacting more information, always trading upwards.

Without the urge to hoard, we can rid ourselves of compartmentalization. Rather than being separated out of our normal daily experience as 'study' or 'prep' time, our curriculum can become a normal part of our daily conversation and interaction in which we use every opportunity to learn (and share!) something new.

How is this supposed to reduce exam stress? If curriculum can become currency, if content can become conversation, we will see exam questions as just another opportunity to start a discussion thread, a normal part of our daily existence (despite the difference in the medium of expression), and not some alien inevitability that exists to test our survival skills from time to time.

In other words, kids, parents, teachers, I appreciate the dedication you put into studies, but you're doing it wrong. Epic FAIL.

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