I was going to talk about a show I was looking forward to in the future, but I felt that your question about the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) press release on the effects of tuition on mainstream education in Singapore needed more prompt attention, so I’ve pushed back my post in order to address it.
I had a very tough time in school. Even today, I find it extremely difficult to think or talk about my school years without succumbing to a combination of anger and melancholy. So, I will try my best to keep this rant relevant, instead of rubbing my PTSD in everyone’s faces.
Despite living in Sydney for the last thirteen years, I’ve kept tabs on educational policy in Singapore. I know that the MOE policy changes have included an overhaul of the Mother Tongue Language program and lasting changes to the reserve system for Primary School postings. I have been given to understand that the Prime Minister himself has given a speech addressing his hopes for education reform in Singapore. I like to think that students in Singaporean schools today are having a better time than I did.
However, while I’m aware that my experiences are somewhat outdated due to the thirteen year lapse, I feel that my experiences with schooling and tuition are still relevant.
The MOE’s claim that the Singaporean education system is run on the basis that tuition is unnecessary is laughable to me, because I do not recall a single Singaporean school year in which I didn’t require some form of tuition.
Most years, I could barely scrape by with just Mandarin tuition, but there were some years where I would be shuttling back and forth between no less than three separate tuition centres in order to catch up on work for Mathematics, Science and, in one fateful year, Literature in English.
This isn’t to say that I am lazy or stupid. I did manage to get through the Australian Higher School Certificate (HSC) without the need for tuition in subjects that I didn’t have any prior foundation in. I hesitate to say that my teachers in Singapore were lazy or unmotivated either – they may very well have been overworked, what with the class size in my time being 40-45 students strong and having to deal with Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs) on top of that. There is a lot of very current talk about how teachers are overworked and how individual school policies may not necessarily line up with the MOE’s.
However, I’d like to talk about one of the many reasons why tuition was necessary for me – The Vicious Cycle of Homework Failure, a topic which I have written about briefly on my anime review blog, Becky’s Moonviewing.
Traditional school punishment as modelled by Sailor Moon
Let me explain this concept. Say you’re a student in school and you did not do your homework or did not bring your homework to school. In my day, the teacher would (understandably) get quite angry and would punish you, usually by subjecting you to some form of humiliation, which included such acts as:
- Being forced to stand on a chair in front of the classroom while pulling your ears
- Told to stand outside for the remainder of the class
- Being forced stand outside on a chair for the remainder of the class while pulling your ears
- Having your books thrown into the school pond
The Vicious Cycle of Homework Failure
This means that you are either not actually present in the classroom to learn from the teacher or are too angry/ashamed to learn.
If you happen to be good in the subject that you are punished for, you will usually be able to make up for lost time by asking your classmates or your parents to explain the lesson to you.
However, if you are bad at the subject you are punished for, you end up unable to do the homework for the missed class and are punished for it the next day… and the next… and the next until you end up spending more time outside the classroom than inside of it. A good teacher will notice this problem right away and nip it in the bud by spending one on one time with you or getting you into a remedial class that will help you get up to speed.
To be fair, the MOE’s statement does point this out, but in all my time in Singapore, I can only name one teacher who was passionate enough about teaching to try helping me during school hours. She was a Primary School teacher. Most of the other teachers that I’ve had were either too overworked or too inexperienced to address my difficulties. Additionally, the teacher shortage in Singapore meant that many of my Secondary School teachers were inexperienced recent graduates – newbies still learning on the job.
The result? I ended up having to learn basic concepts outside of school, even for subjects that I was purportedly good at simply because I didn’t have teachers who were capable of accommodating students with learning difficulties.
The thing is, it’s not enough that students are capable of passing classes; any person can pass a class simply by blindly memorising whole essays, notes or equations. Children need to have comprehension of the vital concepts of the subjects taught. My tuition teachers taught me to understand concepts whilst my school teachers simply gave us information to regurgitate at the examination level.
Tuition isn’t all good, though. I spent so much time between school and tuition that I had very high stress levels. Between school, tuition and CCAs, I didn’t really have a lot of time to play and be a kid. This has had lasting effects on my adult lifestyle. Even today, I still find it difficult to relax and I have days when I’m simply just terrified of leaving my house because I don’t know what to do once I’m outside. Tuition has strong socioeconomic impacts as well, which The Hexacoto writes about in his blog.
On the flip side, the Australian school I went to had smaller class sizes (10-12 students per class) and longer class times (1.5 to 2 hours per class). Extra Curricular Activities are encouraged, but the bulk of them are run by non-school organisations and, outside of an official school choir or band, are not part of a teacher’s workload. This give teachers more time to focus on teaching and also allows them the time to focus on students who are struggling to reach their full potential. I have to admit that individual interest is also a factor in my doing well during the HSC without the need for tuition.
Upon entry to the Australian school, I was encouraged to pick my own subjects so long as I did a minimum of 12 credits worth of studies and that I chose at least one form of English and one form of Mathematics from a level anywhere between “general” and “double credits”. A student can, therefore, adjust their workload to match their own interests and needs, without having to first “prove” themselves capable in a series of examinations. It is my belief that a student who is interested in a particular subject will most certainly put in the effort required to excel in that class. Heck, I picked Advanced Japanese as one of my elective subjects despite barely even understanding the alphabet and still managed to do reasonably well in that class simply because I was interested in it.
On the flipside, however, Juvenile delinquency is pretty big in Australia, but that’s another post for another time.
The MOE says that they will be providing comprehensive levelling-up programs for struggling students and that they will be committed to attracting and developing teachers. I sincerely hope that they are successful in this endeavour because honestly, I’d like to see a future for children in Singapore where tuition isn’t necessary and children get time to be children. Unfortunately, given the way our culture and education is built right now, I don’t really see that happening anytime soon.