Friday, September 27, 2013

I'm not calling the fire department

Pebbles is making himself comfortable on the giant cat tree. This is the absolute first time I've seen any of the cats up there voluntarily.

And where there is one cat, there will be another. Except Momo is content to scratch the hemp and leave it at that.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Eat, sleep, work, plan

The big planning pow-wow for this year has yielded a new direction for the industry to take: make learning relevant to the lives of the students. Take their interests -- whether in music; astronomy; robotics; theatre; or whatever -- and use their interests to make their lessons come alive for them.

Sounds good in theory, but I can imagine my kids moaning in disbelief. 'You want us to pass ace our exams AND develop an interest in something TOO?' It seems the kids can barely keep up with their meals and exercise and sleep already, what with the different subject demands of preparation, revision, practice, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum. Ask them what their interests are and they stare blankly back, wondering what the politically correct answer should be. Then hesitantly... sleep? Eat? Sigh. Those aren't interests, they're bodily functions.

The end-of-year exam and the build-up to it is taking every shred of energy from the kids so they have none left to develop a sense of self beyond believing they are mere cogs in a machine that will continue grinding them down until they have reached the end of their usefulness... and we don't want to contemplate what happens to them after that. Their objective is to delay that eventuality for as long as possible. Every step up the academic ladder, every promotion they receive indicates that they are still useful, and that's what they live for. To feel that they have to deserve to exist can be quite demoralizing in the long run.

And we wonder why they seem so dense and naive; colourless and listless; and quite unwilling to think for themselves. Life isn't learned through rote, which is what is taking up so much of the kids' time and energy, life is learned by living it which, if we look at their daily schedules, many of them are not. There also seems to be a lot of guilt when they do admit to having one interest or another; almost apologetic as if confessing to grand theft tempus when they feel they should be keeping nose to grindstone instead.

Frankly, I don't blame the kids. What we have is a systemic problem perpetuated by ever-increasing academic success rates which keeps kids and their parents, and us in the industry as well focused on improving year after year. Our system encourages the study-now-develop-interests-later approach to academic qualification, so now the industry bosses have decided based on public feedback that it's time to reflect once again on what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Well, we aren't supposed to be preparing the kids for the end-of-year exam. We are supposed to be preparing them for what comes AFTER the end-of-year exam. We're not supposed to be manufacturing cogs in a machine but people who have a sense of self-worth and who see the value in working together so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. We're not making kids study subjects to pass exams, we're teaching them to understand life's little mysteries by supporting that understanding with subject knowledge that guides them to figure out answers to their questions about life and how they perceive it.

The exams don't have to change, though. What does need to change is how we appreciate their functionality. Exam questions don't ask 'what do you know?' Why we spend so much time on endless meaningless content drills is because we automatically assume that regardless of the question, it's always about the 'what?' Exam questions really ask 'given your knowledge about such and such, what would you do with that knowledge given new condition and context?' So, exam questions are mostly about applying subject knowledge to life experience. And the kids sweat bullets to answer that question because they haven't got much life experience to go on.

The industry's new direction is hardly new. It is a reminder to compare our roadmap with the terrain again and check if our current course is taking us where we really want to go. For us in the JC system, there doesn't seem to be any specific directive for us to do anything right now, probably because it's too late for the next couple of cohorts. But if in the next few years we're expecting a breed of kids that have grown up in the new learning environment the bosses are envisioning, we'd better start moving in the same direction to align with everyone else at the right time.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The tuition hamster-wheel (or the tragedy of 'normal')

This tuition necessary-or-unnecessary debate ignores a key issue: we operate on a market economy. Whatever people want in large enough numbers, there is a provider -- for a price. The desire, in this case, is an academic qualification that appears to be getting increasingly difficult to obtain. The schools, apparently, aren't handing them out like they are supposed to. No, unlike Christmas candy, those coveted 'A' grades are only obtainable through hard work. After-school tuition has since arisen to reassure parents that their kids will get the A's that they need by making sure they don't have time to do anything else but work hard.

What a dilemma. Schools are incredibly stingy with their 'A' grades, but every kid wants them because every other kid -- it seems -- can get them. Parents don't understand when the schools tell them that tuition is not necessary. Likewise, schools don't understand when parents insist that it is. Why are schools so callous towards the plight of parents? Because the job of the school is to educate thousands of kids a year. Why are parents so intractable? Because they have to educate only one.

In the S'pore system, schools educate thousands of kids taking a national standardized exam every year. Given a number of students to qualify a year, they train, assess and apply Quality Control procedures for the benefit of their future employers. Statistics tell us that given a large enough sample, plotting particular data about it will yield a normal distribution curve. That is to say, there will be a small number of high results, followed by an ever widening number of mid-range results, tapering off with a relatively small number of low results. A variation in the shape of the distribution curve indicates an abnormality or irregularity in the data. If the data bunches low, there's a lot of soul searching to be done over procedures, methodology, and to some extent, input. But it becomes a bigger problem if the data bunches high. Standards too low? Test too easy? Cheating? Or more interestingly, are standards being surpassed on a large scale?

The increasing trend of after-school tuition may well be causing overall academic standards to rise. More kids, working hard, guided by competent tuition agencies, are likely to raise academic results at an increased level. For the tuition agencies, the target market is different. Tuition caters to parents who have that one kid to educate, promising an 'A' grade for that kid. Even if there is a group of kids that attends tuition classes, the agency works to bunch results at the high level. Anything less, and the agency can shut its doors forever.

Why can't schools do the same? Because schools provide mass education for the entire population. Schools must maintain a normal distribution result curve or they are no longer trusted as being able to provide the nation with quality education. To bunch low is clearly not meeting standards; but bunching high means that standards are too low to trust the school's ability to produce quality new employees.

So what happens when previous standards are being surpassed by more and more kids? Keep raising the standards until the distribution can become 'normal' again. So are our kids working too hard to meet current standards? Under normal circumstances, they don't have to. But to achieve the higher bands, they will have to. That too is normal. So the mass consumption of tuition services may be helping our kids become academically smarter cohort after cohort. But it is also raising the standards and expectations every succeeding cohort has to meet and exceed in order to be considered better-than-normal.

This is the tragedy of everybody doing their jobs well. We always have to do one better the next time. Nobody wants to be thought of as just 'normal'.