Friday, August 06, 2010

Face the wall

Took Q-tip to the beach, given today's half-day. At some point, I chose a picnic table to sit at and watch the sea. As I sat there, I thought of MM's recent suggestion that we should do away with the retirement age. There I was, with time on my hands, doing something pleasurable, and if I were to retire when my time comes I could theoretically do this all day, every day for the rest of my life. Or do all the other things we wish we had time for but are unable to because of our work schedules.

I didn't find the prospect appealing, however. Maybe if I hated my job I'd feel different but I don't. Maybe if I had a job that I slaved away at for a pittance I'd feel different, by my job pays decently enough to live comfortably as long as I don't suddenly crave a luxurious, ostentatious lifestyle. Like MM, I also dread the time when I have to stop work after which "I'll just shrivel up, face the wall and just that".

Yes, MM's quite clearly presenting a false dilemma. But it's the social contact I will miss the most from the working environment. Work gives me a reason to be around people. Apart from work, I don't offer much reason for people to be around me.

Earned privilege

Interesting that in the general meeting with P, he mentioned how past college Principals ran their campuses with less emphasis on extrinsically enforced discipline so that the environment would be more akin to that of the university and away from the secondary school. These days we feel the need to lay down the law as the kids seem to be either lacking in direction or the ability to discipline themselves.

Times have changed. Comparing senior high students of the past with those of the present, the big difference was that "in my time (cough... cough... hack... hack...!)" my contemporaries were proud to be college students. When they wore their uniform, they wore it with dignity because so few others were privileged to wear the crest, those colours. They represented the best and brightest of their cohort, on the cusp of a very privileged level of education that would put them in a social strata above the general population. That meant living up to a higher calling, meeting standards of decorum and courtesy befitting of the upper-class they were destined for. Principals of the past didn't have to worry about behavioural micro-management because the intrinsic motivation to self-manage was already strong in their students.

What has changed since then is the loss of pride in being a college student. No longer a privilege to be studying in a JC, it's now a basic expectation for every secondary school student. The kids here feel that there is nothing special about being here. There is no sense of accomplishment or achievement but rather a perception that it's just a normal part of all the rights and privileges they feel are entitled to them. They're not really here because there is a burning desire in each one to be here; they're here because everyone else is here. A college education is nothing to aspire towards -- it's become common, average and taken for granted.

If junior colleges have discipline problems, the root cause is the loss of earned privilege. At the risk of sounding elitist, we've let the riff-raff invade our campuses and infect us with their common mediocrity. Be that as it may, since they're already here it's up to us to run our campuses not as survival boot camp which further reinforces the competitive dog-eat-dog slave mentality that our current kids have, but rather show them how to live up to the higher standards they are being called to. We teach them to raise their eyes, not drop their chins. We really don't want to become a secondary school. That would be a huge and probably irrevocable step backwards.

Cocktail party with parents

Back from a cocktail party with the kids' parents. The kind in which we're supposed to tell them that judging from their mid-year grades, their kids aren't doing well in this or that subject and with the finals in 90+ days we need to work together and help them do something about it.

But with the parents we're seeing tonight, this kind of kick-'em-in-the-a** advice applies only to a tiny minority of our young charges. These parents tell us that their kids are already working hard, they study, do their homework, revision, so why isn't it translating into better grades? Quite sad, and frustrating to be in that kind of situation for a student, isn't it? All that hard work not paying off?

For this bunch of kids we had to advise them on stress management. They need rest, exercise, and a good night's sleep. They need to learn how to handle their pressure and personal expectations. The parents we talked to were nice, agreeing with us that their kids were too anxious, lacking the confidence they need to handle their exams without panic. And at the same time, not slack off. It's a delicate balancing game: breathe, breathe...

Well, here's another hat we gotta learn to wear. This one's a little less straightforward than the old Drill Sergeant one. Guess we'll just have to keep the latter only for special occasions from now on.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Hair-raising tale

Over the past weekend, a number of us staff independently got haircuts. The two most severe crops belonged to Wayne and me. Upon questioning, Wayne -- in jest -- claimed his crop was to honour Hair for Hope; to which I replied in all seriousness that my cause was Hope for Hair. True story.

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.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Raining on my parade

Poor Q-tip has the worst luck. We had plans to visit the Marina Barrage, someplace new and dog-friendly to go for walkies. But her stupid owner chose to go to work on Saturday when it was gloriously dry and sunny, and today it just raining cats and dogs.

*remains grouchy the rest of the day