Not so Middle School

Righty, so the Cycle of Homework Failure, is one that I am familiar with. In my experience, the failure was not so much to do with being outside the classroom during lesson time and missing out on what the teacher was saying, but being inside the classroom during lesson time and missing out on what the teacher was saying.

Early on, this was not because I was dreaming or sleeping during class hours, but because the teachers had to choose the speed and level at which they were teaching concepts in class, and they quite often chose to aim ‘in the middle’. This usually meant that while three-quarters of the class were able to cope with the lesson, a quarter of the class would struggle to keep up. Eventually, students like myself would all be so far behind the others in understanding the subject, that we would stop paying attention in class.

Although I did not understand my lessons, I am blessed with a pretty good memory and was able to manage to escape tuition in most subjects just by regurgitating reams of information during exam time. Obviously, this meant that my foundation in core concepts was weak.



When I was in Primary 6, our parents moved to the United States for a whole year, which meant that I missed taking the dreaded Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). It would have been the first nationwide standardised test I would have taken at that point.

Of course, I was very excited at the prospect of escaping the exam. The PSLE aggregate at the time was used to stream students into different learning levels. The levels are fixed and work only in one direction – if you are weak, you go down a level. That is all.

My understanding at the time was that the future would be decided at the age of 11. How stressful is that?

When we got to America, I spent a year in 7th grade at a local middle school, located in Montogomery County. This is the grade equivalent of Secondary One.

Although I did not have the same learning background as most of the students there, I was able to keep up with the curriculum and pretty soon, I was getting straight As. This was entirely on my own effort, with no tuition or help from parents. This gave me a sense of achievement which I had never yet experienced in my life, and increased my self-motivation and drive for learning independently.

Now, there is no streaming process for public schools in America. Students automatically attend the school which is assigned to their home address. This means that the school has to teach a broad spectrum of students with different learning levels.

Certain classes (such as Math or English) were split into normal, top, and accelerated levels, each with its own curriculum, and the teachers would recommend that students level-up according to their abilities.

The normal curriculum was all one needed in order to progress to high school and later, to college or university. Top and Accelerated-level students would be able to have their high-school work count as college credits should they chose to enter tertiary education. This did not mean that they would graduate from college early – instead, this would give them more flexibility in choosing elective classes at the college level.

There was also support available in regular classes for academically-challenged students with mild learning problems (eg. a teaching assistant would be on hand in the classroom for a specific student), as well as separate functional life skills classes specifically for students with very severe learning difficulties who did not participate in the normal curriculum.

All students were required to take certain compulsory classes (Math, English, Science, World Studies and Physical Education) as well as a two elective classes which could be a second language class, music, or art.

Our class schedule was such: School hours were from 7:55am to 2:40pm. We had seven class periods, each lasting about 45 minutes (excluding lunch and a ‘home’ period where we were allowed to meet with our teachers to get extra help if required). The daily class schedule was fixed, and class sizes were between 30 to 35 students.

This meant that our teachers for each subject would meet us everyday and have plenty of time to cover the curriculum. During class time, there was not only time to attend to the needs of the weakest students in class, but also the opportunity to encourage the strongest students in independent study for extra credits. The teachers that I had were active in class and interacted with students more closely.

Now, granted my experience in an American middle school is nearly 20 years old, but a quick glance at the school website tells me that the daily school schedule is basically the same.

In Singapore, the MOE has guidelines on formal curriculum hours at both primary and secondary level. Our school hours are around 5-6 hours a day including recess time and each lesson period is around 30-40 minutes long. Additionally, our average class sizes are nearly a third larger. Our teachers are instructed to abide by the rule of ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ which limits teachers to five class periods a week per subject.

This means that teachers in Singapore have less time to teach a greater number of students. It is no wonder that weaker students eventually fall behind and are quickly overwhelmed by the Cycle of Homework Failure. The only way to escape this would be for students to attend remedial classes (which would be on the teacher’s personal time and is not factored into the school schedule) or receive private tuition.

You would think that our teachers have plenty of time to spare, since the number of hours they actually spend in the classroom appears to be reduced. In actual fact, our teachers have a ridiculous workload compared to teachers in the UK, Australia and the US – but that’s another story for another post.

Additionally, our Singapore curriculum is more demanding than in other countries, such that I don’t believe it is possible for a regular student to achieve good grades on their own without remedial help, private paid tuition or assistance from other students.  (Assistance from other students is, by the way, how I managed to get past my A levels.)

At a recent keynote speech the MOE work-plan seminar, Mr Heng Swee Kiat (our Minister of Education) recently announced that the scoring system for PSLE will be changed from an aggregate ‘T-score’, to a broader grade system. Additionally, there will be greater flexibility in secondary school subject offerings and allow students to customise their learning. I’m not sure how these changes are going to be implemented and if this will make any real difference to our education system, but at least the thought is there.


2 thoughts on “Not so Middle School

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