Meritocracy is the core principal guiding Singapore’s education system. From Primary school, students are banded in their early years according to learning ability, with the good and slower separated into different classes to cater to their various learning styles and speeds. The system makes perfect sense theoretically: You reap what you sow. If one puts in the effort and time into studies, you will get the good grades you need to advance. However, this system allows too many to fall through the cracks, cracks which appear due to the blunt tool of examinations used to measure this ‘merit’. Singapore’s use of a one-size-fits-all policy has unfortunately created a society of inequality and has, more than anything, failed our students almost completely.
In Singapore, the only tool by which ‘merit’ is measured is through major exams, in the form of PSLE, N levels, O levels and A levels. But not only is this an extremely narrow measure of merit, it’s importance has also lost its relevance in the world today. Singapore’s education system, despite years of complain and protest, is still by and large focused upon rote-learning, as opposed to creative thinking and problem solving. These are the real skills favoured by employers today, which students are not taught. It has become a common observation by local employers that the best graduates with top grades do not translate to the best employees. While able to do their job, they are unable to think outside-the-box and lack the initiative to solve problems outside their prescribed domain.
To me, a student within the system, I couldn’t agree more that I stop learning anything after awhile in school. When presented with a new topic, I am initially challenged by the new concepts taught and learn a new perspective. But that is not what the system cares about. The A level exams requires that not only do we understand this concept, but the majority of the time spent in schools and lessons are on memorising the content, and how to apply them in various scenarios. Over and over and over again. Until it becomes second nature. To me, this rote-learning is useless when the proliferation of Google search has made memorisation obsolete. If you think I’m just an idiot who doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe this guy will convince you.
Albert Einstein – “Never memorize something that you can look up.”
Under our system, anyone with access to an internet connection during a national exam can compete with our top scorers with ease. There is no point in forcing students to memorise concepts and content in this day and age when any dickhead with Google can do the same thing at 1% of the brainpower. These skills are simply not important anymore, not with the new technologies we have.
Students in this system become proficient in only using someone else’s theories, someone else’s ideas, someone else’s problem-solving method to cater to different situations. Not once, in my entire education in Singapore, have I been asked to come up with a completely new theory, or a new method to solve even the most simple problem. Even projects, which are actually a A level subject known as Project Work, which are meant for students to come up with ‘creative’ solutions, are bounded by rigid rubrics that demand students use precedents and existing measures and again, merely adapt them to suit the project’s target. The creativity of students are again severely limited by the unbending strictures of an uncompromising education system.
So our students graduate with a sense of irresponsibility. The responsibility to think of solutions, to think of new theories and methods of doing things elude us. We have been designed to search for the best method available, adapt, and reuse. Is it any wonder why our top jobs which require precisely these creative skills are taken up by foreigners?
Sure, we may beat them hands down in Maths and Sciences, but who cares? Proficiency in these fields only get you so far without creativity to channel your brilliance through to new discoveries. Science has always been driven by thinking of new methods of doing stuff, not doing the same thing again and again until you’re the best at it. It’s known as innovation.
And what happens to people not suited to such a method of rote-learning? They are simply left behind to be caught by a safety net of ‘less intensive’ or ‘more technical-based’ programmes exists to ensure those that fail do not become bums. These programmes start from Primary school, where students are banded at Primary 3 (about 9 years old) into Higher Mother Tongue classes and those who don’t take them, and continue to higher education where Normal Academic and Normal Technical streams in Secondary schools cater to these students, with the Institute for Technical Education(ITE) bringing up the rear. Again, this sounds excellent in theory: “We have a comprehensive programme to ensure inclusiveness blah blah blah…”
But ask yourself, who the hell wants to go to these programmes? Given the choice, everyone wants to do well, or at least average. Nobody wants to be dirt bottom, to be harshly judged at. Firstly, don’t even pretend you don’t judge people the moment they say “I’m Normal Tech” or “I’m from ITE”. We all do it. We can’t help it. It has become ingrained in us that these people are second-rate and are where they are because
1. They are lazy and don’t study.
2. They are gangsters and don’t study.
3.They are less intellectually capable.
It’s got to be one of these three right? After all, if the majority of society can get through the system, and these people can’t, there must be something wrong with them, right?
The fact is that no matter what your ‘ learning style or speed’ is, we all sit for the same exams. This one-size-fit-all policy thus obviously benefits the privileged few in the GEP or ‘smarter’ classes, who are given much more opportunities to learn and improve, as compared to the average joes. And thus, when it comes down to the national exams, it is no suprise these students do better, surely because they work harder, but also because of the uneven training grounds we have for our students.
We have to recognise that our education system is flawed and skewed towards the more well-to-do, and to those who show potential early on. The poor and late-bloomers are disadvantaged from the start. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Today.
Click to enlarge (That’s what she said)
The Bald Truth
80% believe tuition helps children do better in schools, but only 4% in lowest monthly household bracket do so. The fact is that our education system can no longer cope with the syllabus it draws up for itself. It has packed so much into our syllabus that there is not enough time for teachers to adequately teach each and every student sufficiently, and this shortfall in teaching is picked up by the increasingly lucrative private tuition business. To me, the mere fact that this sector is growing is an indication that parents are losing faith in the ability of schools to secure good results for students, and it’s a worrying symptom because tuition is not cheap. This instantly disadvantages poor students who can’t afford tuition, which half the respondent in Today’s study pay more than $500 a month for.
Late bloomers are also disadvantaged by the banding of students so early in their education. Slower students are banded together, and for all the rhetoric about catering to learning styles, we all know that’s bullshit. Kids feed on each other’s examples. If a class is filled with lazy kids, you can bet your late-blooming child, no matter how intelligent or initially hardworking, will be sucked into this vortex. And this starts a cycle that determines the fate of our students.
If you are placed into an poor class, you get a poor work attitude and thus get poor results, that bring you to a poor school, in a poor stream, where your attitude continues to be poor… Sure, there are exceptions to this cycle, but don’t you think it takes a hell lot of exceptional effort and character for one to transcend this overwhelming peer pressure to do well? For those that did it, I salute you. Respect max seriously.
But what this actually does, is it discounts a lot of capable students who just didn’t bloom early. And by sieving them out so early, the education system has doomed them to a life of mediocrity.
The opposite is true for our early geniuses, of course, a fact recognised by all parents, which is why they’ve been pushing their children even harder at an earlier age, as seen from how the article shows that 30% of parents feel that tuition should start in pre-school.
Do you remember when you were in pre-school? I played Pokemon, used my Digivice, watched cartoons in the morning, and played in my estate playground in the afternoon. Now, they study, learn to count to 100, addition, subtraction etc. by the time they’re 6. Those who step into Primary school the first day not knowing all these are instantly behind.
What have we become? In our drive to make sure our children don’t fall behind others and become second or third-rate in society, to make sure our children never have to suffer the indignity of being caught by our education’s safety nets, we take away the joys of childhood, and tell our toddlers to start competing with future peers they haven’t even met yet. All for an arbitrary certificate.
The Ultimate Fact of our Education System
The ultimate fact is that, our examinations, our certificates that we fight so hard for, are NOT a good measure of merit. It really isn’t. If we strip down everything else about it, all the certificate says is that “You have excelled in rote-learning”.
The countless hours you have spent doing community work, even outside school-demanded CIP hours, are secondary, the lives you have touched in school are superfluous, and all the non-academic activities you have ever done in school is discounted. And is excellence in rote-learning a really good measure of merit?
How about the creative problem solvers? The philosophical thinkers amidst us? Their abilities are perhaps admired by peers, but in the end, these people who could have contributed so much are left to flounder in the system. All because of the system’s ridiculously narrow definition of merit.
I think it’s high time the government recognises that the fact that our education system has won numerous accolades and commendations from USA, UK alike means nothing. We have cultivated a nation of overly-competitive, childhood-deprived students who have not learned anything, and we have to start cultivating the real skills of creative problem solving using unique methods, not other people’s.
It’s time the government recognises that it’s one-size-fit-all method of measuring merit is failing our students. The fact that most of us make it out of the education system okay does not mean it is good. It is time we recognise that merit can be measured in so many more ways than it is done so far. It is time we abolish arbitrary banding programs in schools, especially at young ages, that simply let so many fall through the cracks when they could have risen to the top. It’s time to recognise that there are those in our society who are not doing well under this academic system because it is not suited for them, not because they’re stupid or lazy.
It is time to slow down, and recognise that more is not better. Let our children play. I’m 18, I recognise my time to play is over. But I’m speaking for my future children, and that too of my peers. I don’t think any of us want our children to go through the same stress that we do.
Most of all, it is time to change. Because parents won’t stop competing, students won’t stop mugging and cramming useless information into their heads, teachers won’t start encouraging creativity unless it starts from the top. Policy-makers have to wake up to reality and stop patting themselves on the back and recognise that their are fundamental problems in the system. We can’t change the players without changing the game.
As a wise guy once said, “Knowledge is not Wisdom”. I’ll take a stab in the dark here, but I think most will pick wisdom. And unfortunately, that is not what we learn in schools.
Don’t ignore this call, it is really time to rethink education in Singapore.