Friday, February 03, 2012

More sacred cows

Hi Gary
You have very specific sacred cows you wish to see slain: the recruitment of high-calibre statespeople to justify high ministerial salaries; the continuing dominance of the old man (a very sacred cow, indeed) in our local political scene; the Confucian style(?) perpetuation of public dependance on the government; and the withholding of our CPF as State capital for our national reserves.

I guess you want to hear my thoughts on these specific issues, which I am happy to oblige. I believe in sharing ideas, but I'm not in this discussion to rehash old debates. My interest is in writing as a craft, taking this opportunity you are presenting me with to weave stories, not perpetuate ideologies. Having said that, let's address your concerns:

1) High ministerial salaries: when they first decided to pay themselves huge amounts of money, I did not feel any poorer. When they reduced their payscales after the recent round of reviews, I did not feel any richer. I work for what I have earned and I can sleep soundly at night. I don't worry about whether they can do the same.

2) The old man did talk to us like children. Why did we listen to him as if we were children? Because, I suppose, we respected him for what he and his party did before. He tried to talk to us like children again, this past election. We didn't listen, did we? Who's standing in the corner now?

3) Confucius' analogy was that the emperor was the father of the kingdom. Unfortunately, that idea stayed with us, Chinese. We don't understand that democracy knocked this political concept out of the ballpark. In the emperor's day, the responsibility for the entire kingdom rested on his shoulders because he had the mandate of heaven. He decided everything for his subjects, who were free from the responsibility of taking care of themselves. Democracy took the mandate of heaven from the sole decision-maker and replaced it with the mandate of the people, and hence the responsibility of looking out for ourselves and each other fell squarely on our, the people's, shoulders. We have an unfortunate hybrid system now. But if we still depend on an elected Government for the sun and the rain to grow our crops, don't be surprised if all we get is fertilizer.

We must concede that the government has delivered the goods in all the big things. That's not what rankles our electorate. Where it's screwing up, and what we rail at it about, is its poor handling of domestic issues. Foreign workers arriving in droves, rising housing and living costs, breakdown of social mores and graces... do we really need policy from on-high to settle these household and neighbourhood affairs, or can't we just take some initiative and fix them ourselves? If we don't identify and take action on the things we can act on, then some dumb policy is going to drop from the sky because someone has to make some kind of decision before things get out of hand.

We're not disallowed from growing up. We have remarkably free media that allow us to air political dissent and satire (and a lot of embarrassingly childish prattle) openly, to a potentially massive audience, even though what we say can be easily traced back to us. Ironically, it's the American government that is proposing SOPA and PIPA and shutting down Megaupload. We are no longer a 'police state' either. In fact, we complain more now that our boys in blue would neither step in and solve our personal and domestic disputes for us, nor work to punish those we feel have slighted us somehow. Looks to me like we are the ones not willing to grow up.

4) CPF: my CPF is tied up in the monthly installments I have to pay for my HDB flat. Why does it cost so much? Well, it would have been cheaper if earlier generations of homeowners had been grateful for cheap housing, but instead they saw it as a way to make a quick buck. Who's the real estate genius who invented COV? Here's the official value of my flat: V. Here's what I have to pay to own my flat: CO + V. Instant and cumulative inflation with every resale. Now if I have to sell my flat at V (extreme cooling measures), I'll go bankrupt. As long as I want a roof over my head, I'm never going to see my CPF, let alone get it back. Whose fault is that?

Oh, btw, before I mislead you any further, I'm not -- as you have apparently assumed -- a woman. ;)

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Sacred cows and OB markers

This is in response to Gary's stimulating comment in my previous entry. I have to create a new entry 'cos long-winded me wrote too much (as usual) and the comment box refused to accept it. So here goes:

Hi Gary
Sacred cows are figments of our imagination.They exist in both our minds and in the minds of our policy-makers. Slaughtering sacred cows is extremely difficult because although their time has come no one dares to wield the knife. Everyone is afraid of ghosts, of consequences. And since they've served us so well before, we're going to keep on preserving them because once they're gone, what would suffice to replace them?

The way forward is for everyone to realise that the term 'sacred cow' only describes a method that once resulted in success, hence the mistaken belief that it will continue to bring us success no matter what. Whoever told us to slaughter our sacred cows recognised that new times require new methods, but I believe we were just as guilty of holding on to them too tightly to want to see them go. The paper chase, the rat race, the 5'C's, the materialism and petty jealousies, they're all our own creation. They arose out of the opportunities that once gave us skilled jobs and commensurate prosperity, and the belief that we deserved what we earned because we worked hard for it. Nothing wrong there, but it made us selfish -- equating poverty with laziness or cannot-make-it-ness or otherwise not-one-of-us-ness. Meritocratic policy may have been the starting point, but our mindsets turned it into the monster that it is today.

So is it with our so-called 'OB' markers. What do we really have to do to be guilty of crossing an OB marker? You'd have to be a clear threat to civil society before anybody starts taking notice of you. Anyone who threatens not the leadership itself but society's trust in the legally elected leadership, or attempts to fragment our society to gain support for their cause can expect action to be taken against them. But for us normal, ordinary citizens who lead normal workaday lives, what could we possibly do so wrong that could result in detention or exile?

The electon 'threats'? The cajoling? They're just rhetoric, empty words from a parent to a rebellious child throwing a tantrum. We have to get away from this relationship as quickly as possible because it's toxic to both of us.

If our society is going to grow up, we have to stop defining our relationship with our Government as parent-child. While we persist with this view, it doesn't matter who makes up the ruling party. PAP or Opposition, we're simply replacing one parent for another, and we'll be just as dissatisfied and disillusioned with the outcome either way. As long as we expect the Government to do everything for us (which basically means let the good times roll) and not take responsibility for ourselves, for our own situations, in our own circumstances, and bloody well HELP one another in times of need, we're setting expectations that NO government could ever fulfil.

It is heartening to see that we are indeed growing up. We've reached our rebellious teenage years where we chafe at Authority and think that our almighty Parent is suppressing us and curtailing our pocket-money and personal freedoms. Believe me, the government wants us to grow up as quickly as possible and be less of a dependent (i.e., pest) and more of a working partner. The government's current drive is active citizenry, where we finally come out of our individual, darkened little bedrooms (with signs on the door that say "Private: Keep Out") and recognise that we have family huddling around the living room. That's our community. Whomever they are, how many there are, it is our job to look after one another, and not entirely the Government's.

So what do we need a government for? As far as possible, it provides the necessary but normally unprofitable public works for us to enjoy, maintains the integrity of our sovereignity within the global community, ensures that we can define a common identity for ourselves, upholds justice and public trust within our borders, maintains peace among our peoples, that sort of thing. These are the really big things that we can't do on our own, but we work with our elected representatives to bring about.

Governments deal with generalities, not specifics. Micromanagement is what a government is worst at. The faster we learn to wipe our butts for oursleves, the faster the government can get it's nose out of our business and get back to doing its real job, leaving us to lead our lives the way we want... together.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Driven the wrong way

Lack of drive in Singaporean students a worry

I'm not sure I agree that Singapore students lack 'drive'. Singaporean students are notorious 'muggers', burning the midnight oil with their study texts, tutorial sheets and homework assignments. So, no, Singapore students are driven enough. The problem is that in our society, everyone -- adults and school kids alike -- is negatively motivated.

What I mean is, we do what we do for the wrong reasons. We work to avoid negative consequences, rather than for positive feedback. Our society is motivated by fear and punishment, and the fear of punishment. Have you noticed that you work harder at classes taught by teachers you fear most? The ones with the loudest voices, sharpest tongues and most creative punishments are high on your priority list; while the ones who encourage you and try to understand your problems and issues, well, their tasks can be postponed to another day. 'cos they understand.

It's also true of the adult world. Our society is full of warnings that threaten fines for social infringements, our citizens call for summary dismissal when they perceive our civil servants and ministers have let them down somehow (flooding, train delays, and escaped terrorists come to mind), and our workforce keeps its nose to the grindstone fearing the next economic downturn resulting in another round of retrenchments. But when things go well, our citizenry thinks it is their due; hence no word of thanks, no gratitude expressed.

With this kind of attitude, who wants to work any harder? Who would risk his ricebowl trying anything new, that may or may not be an improvement over the old ways that have worked well enough before? Why step out of our comfort zones and face being ridiculed or pilloried when mistakes -- and there will be mistakes -- occur?

Our society believes in getting it right the first time, and since it was already done right once by someone else, let's just keep doing the same thing over and over again, 'cause then we can't go wrong. Yes, I'm looking at you with a baleful eye, so-called "Best Practices".

It would be well and good if Singapore somehow froze in a time capsule at about the period when Mr Goh Chok Tong once confidently declared "more good years", but it hasn't. We've moved on and our society, as has the globe around us, changed and keeps on changing. Singaporeans fear change because we once had it so good. And now, despite all our hard work, all the promises, we feel that doing things the way we used to do them will bring the good old days back.

Those days are well past us now. We need Singaporeans to recognize that we live in a new world. The old promises no longer hold true and we must look for new promises grounded in our new reality. We need to find the courage to sail the winds of change once again, and we need to rebuild a strong core of skilled sailors brave enough to tough out uncharted seas ahead. With that in mind, change must begin in our schools...

Your turn: how should schools change, and how will these changes be constructive in developing a local core workforce that is ready for tomorrow? Today.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The heretic

I shall horrify everyone in my profession by posting a link to an article that begins:

"Taking notes during class? Topic-focused study? A consistent learning environment? All are exactly opposite of the best strategies for learning."

Go on, brand me a heretic, but I stand by the quotation... especially with regard to the subject of GP. Yup, Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong.

Personal experience failing through high school reinforces my belief that our cherished methods of 'mugging' do not work, or maybe they don't work for everybody. It's not about being naturally lazy, but focused studying narrows the mind and compartmentalizes the learning.

I won't speak for other subjects, but for GP, there are clearly identifiable long-term lifeskill goals beyond the Cambridge exam at the end of the year. While Sundem gives the example of learning for tennis, it applies to GP as well.

Some colleagues of mine demand that the kids capture every word they speak as if every class was a dictation exercise. We all know teachers like that. In GP, the kids are learning to deal with myriad views in a multiciplicity of layers but taking notes of what-teacher-says confines the note-taker to one point of view as if only Teacher is spewing gospel truth. The note-taking mind is not the questioning mind, and kids need to question everything.

I don't agree with topic-based study either. Although I'm not coaching tennis, I do see that ultimately the kids are engaged in a singular activity with rules and boundaries that define it clearly: they are writers. They may be sitting for an exam, but it's an exam that examines written expression primarily, and only supported by loosely defined topical content.

As a tennis player practices a combination of serves, volleys, backhand smashes and the like, writers are also engaged in bringing many skills to bear on their writing task. The demands of such a complex task need lots of practice in a holistic work environment that engages all skills simultaneously. They have to access a milieu of information given as new material, process it together with their prior knowledge, choose a course of action, and systematically show how their minds have worked through the problem to arrive at the conclusion they are trying to convince us of. Their only means of communicating with us: writing -- hence they have to be trained as writers.

That means the kids, when faced with 12 essay question choices should be able to select any one and respond with confidence. Preparing for 'favourite' question topics and pre-selecting for the kids what topics they can and cannot write on puts them at a severe morale disadvantage even before they arrive at their exam venue. Instead of having open, questioning minds, they enter the exam hall with a narrow range of topics they are confident of and question only their own ability to rise to the challenge.

How are the kids supposed to gain content knowledge, then? It's not by setting topical limits on what is expected to 'come out' this year based on 'past year' trends. You'll have equivalent success reading tea leaves and a crystal ball. You have to set them loose where they can access information on current affairs at random, the way we adults read the newspapers. We don't absorb information topically in real life, so we shouldn't expect the kids to do so either.

The kids learn by making connections. Often their own connections may be wrong, but that is where we come in to guide them. A random selection of news articles invariably trace back to common themes, reinforced through discussion either in oral form within large or small groups or in written essays, shared blog entries, forum postings and wikis, among many other methods of communication available to us today. However, any suggestion of a GP 'textbook' will be an anathema to the subject. Kids, being kids, will take such a tome as the only thing they need to read, and cut themselves off from where the real learning is... in the wild.

If we want to ground the kids on a baseline, we should be grounding them with values, not topics. The test is ultimately about making decisions and standing by them. Regardless of topic, we expect the kids to make judgments based on upright principles based on common human decency. When kids have a handle on their personal yardsticks to tell right from wrong, and what is constructive from destructive; when kids can see what constitutes the 'greater good'; when kids can defend their positions from solid moral beliefs; then we will have done our jobs as GP tutors.

He shoots... he scores!

The kids don't understand the concept of a balanced argument. To them, it's a black and white world. Argue for one position, then flip over and argue for the other position, then arbitrarily pick their favourite position to conclude.

Kids, argumentative writing obeys the rules of soccer. Your team's goal is at the other end of the field. You score points when you score at that end. You lose points and enrage your supporters when you score goals at the end you are defending. There is no half-time switch over (in case any smart alec should raise that observation).

Always approach your argument with a single-minded purpose. Your audience needs to see the clash, the conflict and the eventual victory. True balance is in respecting the rules of engagement, and not in attacking both goalposts on the pitch.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Chasing happiness

Working on a Application Question exercise with the kids. That is, take two articles discussing a similar area of concern, extract relevant points from both from which to spin off a short essay in 20-25 minutes. It's a sort of hand-held practice for Term Paper research and writing. A US high-schooler should ace this test, no problem.

The two stimulus readings are abridged versions of the following:
Foley, Michael. "The Age of Absurdity". Chapter 1.
Cohen, Roger. "The Happynomics of life".

The question the kids had to respond to reads:
[Using the above two readings, blah, blah...] How much emphasis does your society place on the pursuit of happiness? Do you think this is beneficial?

[And, no, I didn't come up with the question, or select the articles either].

Often, the kids' responses show a huge misconception about the nature of the exercise. Without even looking at the question they simply tear into the two articles, looking for one to agree with and one to refute, using examples drawn from the kids' own local experiences.

But unless the question specifically asks for agreement with one author or another, there is no necessity for the kids to do so. And the exercise is meant for the kids to draw points from the articles to support their own observations of their local society expressed in an essay, not the other way around.

For a teaching guide, I came up with my own response to the question. I over-wrote (as usual) but under time pressure, the same as the kids would face under exam conditions. Caution: There is no standard author citation system, but the kids aren't expected to adhere to any due to time constraints -- a brief name-drop does the trick. I'm not entirely happy with it 'cos it turned into more of a rant than I intended; lots of loose ends too and an extremely forced conclusion due to timing-out. But it'll do to show the kids what they can do with focus and more importantly, an approach to the question with clear intent.

Guess what, kids? It's model essay time!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Intruder alert!

Gaaahhh! A creepy face at my window!

Dumb birdbrain is quite insistent on getting past the window pane and INTO MY ROOM!

Momo, the watchcat, scares off the intruder.

for attempted housebreaking
Jimmy McPigeon
Reward: 1 pigeon pie