Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Singaporean students being exam smart is NOT the problem

Per se, that is. I'll explain in a bit.

WARNING: Loooong post ahead.

Just yesterday, I was out to lunch with my boss, who has an only child in Primary 2 (that's second grade for my American readers). I had known that he has always been concerned with the stressful school environment in Singapore, hence I immediately understood where he was coming from when he broached the topic of how kids in school are being taught to be exam smart instead of actually being educated.

That got me thinking about the "problem" of how Singaporean students are schooled to be exam smart. According to conventional wisdom in Singapore, kids becoming exam smart is deemed a big problem, by parents, educators, employers and the (G)overnment. It is perceived as being inimical to creativity, genuine learning and performance. I put the word problem in "quotes" as after some pondering, I realized that being exam smart by itself is in fact, not something to be greatly concerned over. I see it is a symptom, not the cause, of a deeper, more subtle malaise.

To put things in perspective, let's look at it this way. It has been about 15 years since I left secondary school (7th through 10th grades), and even back then, the ubiquitous ten year series (TYS) was already in widespread use in schools. That implies that ten year series assessment books have been in use for well nigh on two decades, or even longer. And if there's any indicator of exam smartness being the educational zeitgeist, the pervasive use of TYS has got to be the premier indicator. 

If being exam smart really was such a huge problem, well, we have had that huge problem for twenty or so years now, and society hasn't yet fallen apart. After all, the people that formerly used TYS in schools (like myself) now constitute the bulk of the workforce.

Frankly, I found TYS to be useful when I was a student. It is by asking and answering questions that one learns to apply and understand concepts in less abstract contexts, leading to a fuller, deeper understanding of the material. So what if those questions happen to be old exam questions? And if studying TYS leads one to NOT venture "beyond the syllabus", why, what's wrong with that? I'll venture beyond the syllabus if and when I need to, as time and other committments permit. In the working world, it is uncommon for people to invest time and effort in learning things that are either not immediately relevant to their jobs, or not relevant for the foreseeable future. Certainly, companies want to use their training budgets as cost-effectively as possible.

And for those who criticize our students as being too exam smart and hence the cause of the dearth of entrepreneurs, inventors, thinkers and artists here in Singapore, that's a tall claim to prove. The lack of the above in Singapore today could be attributed to any number of antecedents, such as the tiny market, insular culture, lack of a risk-taking climate, and inhospitable arts scene, to name but a few.

So if I have labeled exam smartness as merely a symptom of a deeper malaise, what is that deeper malaise?

I believe that the malaise has to do with the entire attitude of the average Singaporean student (and in particular, their parents' attitude as well) towards education.

The attitude towards education in Singapore is that it is a hurdle to be crossed, an achievement to be marked by certificates, accolades and other trophies. Education is a means to an end - a high flying career (in particular to the exalted legal, medical and governmental professions), good remuneration and just all round success in life.

So Singaporean students and parents do what is required when a hurdle, nay, a challenge, is thrown down before them. A challenge that must be surmounted in order to attain the Singapore dream and reach the good life.

What do Singaporeans do? They enlist platoons of private tutors, assemble their materiel of TYS and study notes, and put mission critical status on academics and grades. And in fact, that's not enough. The same thinking that informs the heavy emphasis on academics is in truth, responsible for the voluminous student resumes we see today (at least at the "elite" level). We're talking about leadership positions in the CCAs (co-curricular activities, formerly known as extra-curricular activities), volunteering in charitable organizations, participating in school sports, and landing that position on the school debate team, or the science team, or Model UN, or whatever it is that students do today.

[I'll leave aside the thorny issue of students participating in activities that don't really draw their interest but look good on an academic transcript for some other day, if ever. Personally, I don't think it would be accurate to say that students do these things out of resume padding instead of interest. It is probably better just to take things at face value and give students the benefit of the doubt. In any case, it is an issue that concerns "elites" more so than regular Singaporeans.]

It is my considered opinion that this acquisitive, means-to-an-end attitude and approach towards education in Singapore schools that is damaging and dysfunctional.

If the goal is to ace the exams to earn stellar grades, then naturally Singaporeans mug and cram for their exams, seek out private tuition and studiously stick to learning only what is in the syllabus, sometimes verbatim. Exam smartness is the resulting symptom, but what is the resulting condition?

I think the most deficient quality of the Singapore student is the inability to learn independently, and this is the condition that we are actively breeding into our school-going population.

Being able to learn independently requires a number of skills, the most fundamental of which must be the ability to discriminate between what one should learn and what one can put aside, at least for the moment. Of course, independent learning also involves being able to source for information on one’s own, cultivating internal motivation and discipline, and knowing how to ask important and intelligent questions. 

And what are we doing in our educational system? The intense drive to achieve stellar grades practically requires private tuition for students, and what is tuition but spoonfeeding and a crutch in the bubble-like school environment that has no equivalent in the real world? If students are not allowed the opportunity to take more responsibility for their own learning, simply because of the frenzy surrounding attaining good grades, how will they learn to learn independently? Exams test for understanding of material in the syllabus, but they do not generally test for why the material is important and how it relates to other things in this complex world of ours. But in the madcap rush to ace exams, there is simply no time and no space for students to consider these things in the classroom setting, suitably facilitated by teachers. How then will students learn to discriminate amongst the things that they should learn in the future, and thereby cultivate a healthy lifelong attitude towards learning?

And make no mistake, learning independently will become increasingly more important in the future.

Why is that? Because even as the trend is towards greater degrees of specialization in a myriad number of fields, the trend is also moving towards broader knowledge of a diverse range of formerly unrelated fields. Various different fields are now blending together to create new industries and businesses at the intersections. Careers, professions, jobs … none of these are monolithic and they all will evolve over time, sometimes unrecognizably so. It is impossible and a contradiction in terms to provide education to everyone that is both broad and deep. The challenge of education in the coming years ahead, globally and not just in Singapore, is to equip students with the skills to learn independently, because there are just far too many things to learn in this complex world of ours to ever teach them all in a formal classroom setting. It is the skills associated with learning independently that will continue to stand students, workers and professionals in good stead throughout their careers.

First example: Fifteen years ago and earlier, it may have been okay to be a competent software engineer who writes code for a living. But today, one of the world's foremost technology companies, worth north of USD160 billion in market cap, has as its flagship product a free web service that is almost completely ad-driven. I am of course talking about Google. Even Microsoft's products come in a box (sooo last century). Not Google, or Facebook. Today, it isn't enough just to be a competent programmer. The best software engineers also have an understanding of how humans use technology, which naturally requires diverse knowledge and skill sets, and they combine that knowledge to create new products and services that could literally destroy the business models of existing companies. If you're an engineer whose skill set is limited to programming, well, you had better be a really good programmer (like world class), because just writing code isn't going to cut it in the future. Or you could follow your job when it makes its way to India, if you find that appealing.

Second example: The newspaper business today is slowly going out of business. Nobody in print today has a good idea of how to reinvent newspapers to deal with the challenge posed by the Internet. People pretty much prefer to get their news off the web these days, particularly if the newspapers are not credible (hint hint, Singapore). And ad revenue as a result is falling...and falling. If you are a journalist today, in particular a print journalist, you should ideally have a firm grasp of today's ubiquitous computing technologies and all the affordances it provides. This is almost certainly something today's journalists were not taught in journalism school. Why is it important for journalists to understand technology? Because Larry Kramer said so!, that's why. The nature of media itself is evolving, faster than even the news wire services and broadcasting corporations, much less the slow-mo dinosaur that is the newspaper business. Journalists today need to change with the times, and engaging with their readers through technology is absolutely essential. That is, if they intend to stay relevant. If you are a journalist today at a press conference or an media attendee at an important event, you had better be blogging live on-site and sending regular Twitter updates into the cloud, because if you have to wait until you're back at the newsroom to file your story, no one's going to read it because that's just so five minutes ago.

The book or the classroom course to help the journalist to deal with these technological and societal changes hasn't been written yet (the software engineer's situation is a little less dire). Frankly, even if it were, I'm not confident it would stay (or even be) relevant because the pace of change today is frantic. There is no other option but to learn continuously and independently from everything around oneself.

I'm skeptical that students today are being equipped to deal with these rapid changes. In my opinion, students in Singapore have not been socialized into taking more responsibility for their own learning, nor have they been taught the skills to do so.

To recap my entire long spiel, exam smartness is NOT the problem, it is but a symptom. The real problem lies in students being taught in an environment that fails to impart the skills of learning independently.


Ponder Stibbons said...

I'm not sure that you haven't set up a straw man here. I always thought the complaint was that Singaporeans are only exam smart and insufficiently [some other] smart (I've seen 'street' for the latter blank, among other things).

I always thought that people in the education system were well aware of the lack of independent learning among Singapore students, but that no one wants to take responsibility for the probable consequences of encouraging independent learning, many of which have the potential to undermine authoritarian culture.

mjuse said...

Perhaps I've overemphasized the exam smartness bit and less the assertion that Singaporeans are, as you put it, insufficiently less [some other] smart.

Still, I felt that it's been insufficiently articulated (and articulated well) what exactly Singaporean students are lacking in. And few have explicitly stated that being exam smart is merely the symptom of a larger condition. Here, I am using this post to put forward the idea that the ability to learn independently is the most crucial thing lacking. Others may however have a different opinion on what is deficient in students.

As for the idea that teaching independent learning is too ... radical for anyone to really engage with it, that's an interesting idea I had not considered.

I'm not sure I agree with you on that, but I think we can all safely say that the Government wants creativity (related to independent learning) only in small carefully controlled amounts, and only in the right areas (innovation, entrepreneurship etc.). Perhaps that is why our attempts to create an innovation based economy have been so half-assed. The Government has domesticated creativity in schools to a animal that can't survive in the wild.

Anonymous said...

Good article.

The recent debate about cutting PSLE mother tongue weightage is also reflecting the same root cause.

Singaporeans generally have the idealogy that, if you don't make something an important component of an exam, students will not learn that thing independently.