Even though I am a former education service officer with the Ministry of Education (Singapore) aka teacher, I find it most difficult to write about education in Singapore.
Why Talking About Education Is So Hard For Me
Perhaps, it is because I have an overwhelming number of thoughts and opinions and emotions related to the whole issue of education. To try and condense those into pithy posts takes Herculean effort which I don’t have stamina to muscle up.
Perhaps, in more ways than one, I have found myself grappling with my own hang-ups and hangovers from being a product, and participating in the production, of the local education system for a large part of my life.
And perhaps, because I know that ANY, yes, any and every post written on this sensitive topic is likely to draw attention – positive or otherwise. Attention that I am not too sure if I am able nor keen to handle.
However, I read a post about education off the Facebook feed of a fellow mom blogger which kickstarted this whole long spiel of mine about education as it is now in Singapore. I made so many long comments there that I think I ought not waste all that effort commenting. So ta-dah, like it or not, here’s my take on the education system in Singapore. Okay, not the WHOLE state of education. Just one aspect of it which is really, the corporatization of school management system in education, and its impact on students.
Unfortunately to get some sense out of what you’re about to read, you probably need to read this open letter to principals by a mom of 6, Mummy Wee.
So here’s my response to Mummy Wee’s letter.
The Onus Of The Matter Lies With…
I don’t think it’s so much the principals as much as a problem with the system – how it selects, ranks and subjects principals to a whole set of performance criteria which I honestly don’t believe serve the whole education vision that well. (And then, we must consider the entire eco-system within which the system of education operates in – governance, politics, finance, economy, society, culture, global pressures etc and etc.)
However, I concede that the senior principals are perhaps more motivated by a more sincere altruistic set of values than the younger generation of school leaders.
Mummy Wee wrote: You are not the head of a corporation. You are a leader, with the power to inspire and garner the energies of a legion of teachers under your wing. Who in turn have the power to influence and shape the lives of thousands of young people, who will go on to shape our country. Take good care of your teachers, even if it may mean a smaller bonus or less accolades for your school. Lead your teachers with integrity, courage and wisdom. After all, isn’t that what we are trying to teach our children?
BUT doesn’t dear Mummy Wee realise that the way the ministry runs its schools ARE very much corporate world-like?
The EPMS (Enhanced Performance Management System, I think it is. It’s a work review of sorts).
The various quality assurance awards like the SQC, ISO and all the whatever nots awards.
Our schools seem to have a WHOLE load of awards they garner, year in, year out.
What’s wrong with awards? Nothing much except I question just how much of a teacher’s time is spent on achieving these awards than on teaching.
Whatever They Say, Ranking Still Happens.
So as much as I will like to believe primary schools are not ranked, I cannot find myself believing in that because all education service officers in employment from principals to cluster superintendents to DDs (deputy directors) and Directors and all higher-ups are all ranked for their performance, are they not?
KPIs. Key Performance Indicators.
Evidences of achievement required to show KPIs are attained, no?
Else, how do we explain the calibration of annual performance bonuses?
By the way, if anyone wants to blog further about Principals and school leadership, I think reading Parker Palmer’s ‘Courage to Teach’ is a good place to start. In my rather distant past, in the early 2000s, this was THE buzz book amongst school leaders and the MOE HQ top brains. I greedily devoured every page, every idea noted in that book about education. I engaged in vigorous discourse with other more experienced educators. A decade later, I still find it ironic just how many of the things Mummy Wee and other parents have shared, echoed also by teachers themselves, have already been addressed.
And really, I don’t care what anyone says.
I only care what I see being done, and its effect on people.
What My Greatest Issues With The State of Education Are…
Well, I don’t hate the education system. I believe there are merits to be found. And I also believe that there are many passionate, though maybe somewhat wearied, educators still inside doing good for our kids and society. And to some crazy optimistic degree, I do think that we may be just at the cusp of seeing a positive reformation in our education because of an increased willingness of parents and authority to engage with each other.
I left the system because of the fundamental crisis I faced in the values system and the dissonance between what’s professed and practised.
And here are just two of my biggest bugbears with our great system:
1. The deficits of having a performance ranking system of teachers.
2. Another is the seemingly depressed state of students and people we have in Singapore, in spite of us having life good here.
Why I Dislike The Performance Ranking System
Palmer in his book denounced the relevance of having ranking systems for teachers and in education. Alas, soon after this buzz book was read and discussed (to death), tadah! An enhanced performance work review programme was rolled out. No prizes for guessing that it was an EVEN more rigorous (read: more obtuse, IMO) performance ranking, work performance assessment system.
But never mind what someone else says, I just rely on my empirical knowledge of what happens in the system. I do not like what I’ve seen and still see happening in schools. I see a lot of awards a school plasters on the banners outside its gates, and my danger radar just starts bleeping non-stop. Because, with all those awards usually come a lot more administrative work and narrow-focused skill honing work with the students. And all these just really make me wonder how much real holistic development of every individual could be achieved whilst meeting the syllabus demands. Is it strip-mining talent? Or true talent of every individual developed?
Because you know, education like what Palmer wrote in ‘Courage to Teach’ is a long-drawn process where the fruits cannot be so easily known to be good or bad till perhaps, 20 years after.
But performance-based teacher assessment cannot wait that long, can it?
Why Should Education Affect A Person’s Sense of Worth & Happiness Negatively ?
This leads me to my second issue with our education system – that breeding of an insecure people. Let me elaborate. I find that many of us who have gone through the system seem to find our security and identity in what WE can do/achieve, or in other words, our performance. In other words, many of us seem to need that external validation to find our self-worth.
We also seem to be more extrinsically motivated to do things, rather than thrive on an intrinsic motivational drive. Maybe it’s my age that makes me feel that the youths these days really lack initiative, and they are even less willing to take the extra mile. They’ll go only as far as what is necessary to ‘get the job done’ and ‘get the pay’.
In principle, it doesn’t look like this is a great issue.
But I find that in life, it makes a WORLD of difference to the sort of individuals and society we become.
I believe that this external validation which is prevalent in our education system affects the way our children develop their sense of identity and worth.
I find it ironic that education that should liberate and empower us to live life with the optimism of limitless possibilities and potential has seemed to produce the opposite effect. Recent research shows that almost as many as 1 in 5 children in Singapore suffer symptoms of depression (Woo et al, 2007).
In another study of over 600 children aged between 6-12 in Singapore, researchers found that 22% indicated that they harboured intentions to commit suicide or held suicidal tendencies (Liew et al, 2009).
The despair is what disturbs me most.
Depression and suicidal thoughts shouldn’t be something our children and youth should grapple with.
During PSLE week alone this year, I heard of two separate cases of attempted suicide by tweens.
Even in my early years as a primary school teacher, a decade or so ago, I’ve encountered pupils as young as 7 expressing thoughts like ‘ I want to die’. Another, a 10-year-old, wrote to me in her English journal that she felt ‘useless’. She said she felt ‘useless’ because ‘no matter how hard I study, I only get band 2 for English. I help to cook and clean the house and look after my younger sister, but I’m useless.’
I believe the depressed state and unhappiness in our children is a reflection of the adults in the society too.
The failure to meet standards set by a system seems to drive people – children and adults- to despair of themselves.
By some fluke last month, I chanced upon a blog post written by a lecturer at Singapore’s teacher training institute.
From reading his blog, and poking around the blogosphere, it seems that he’s a really successful educator and educationist. On his birthday, this successful man wrote a hard-hitting, and for me – a heartbreaking one, titled ‘Failure’. He sits on national committees for education, creativity and innovation, trains school leaders and has also won national awards. But in spite of his successes and credentials, Mr Teaching Fellow listed 16 ways he was a failure, on his birthday. (I’m not going to publicise his blog here because I pity this man for his own fear. See his F8 below.)
This is an excerpt of Mr Teaching Fellow’s birthday blog post to himself:
on my Bday, i think i am a failure …
F8. i exclaim that technology can transform the way digital natives learn and interact… but yet i kept editing and self-sensoring my own private thoughts for fear of backlash someday with my digital footprints;
F9. i tell others its important to help children know that its ok to be themselves … but yet i dont even dare to share the contents of this entry for fear i stumble i others;
F10. i give creative parenting talks to other parents … but yet i had to succumb using the cane to discipline my daughter;
F11. i long to carry my son the way i used to… but yet each morning he refuses even to say goodbye to daddy;
F12. i love my parents my deeply … but yet i do not have the courage to say “I love you”;
F14. i (used to) teach others the harm alcohol does to the liver as a bio teacher … but yet I drown my sorrows in wine;
F15. i lead worship in church … but yet my own relationship with God is…broken.
In short … i am a failure. F!
Isn’t that just heartbreaking to read?
It seems that I am not alone in that struggle to overcome the need for external validation.
And if a top educator who’s training teachers and principals can feel like this about himself, I really wonder how many more depressed and discouraged individuals we have in the system, and our society at large.
I’m not flogging these educators. I was one of those depressed, and depressed enough to be suicidal once before. And I’ve known teaching colleagues who have also broken down, and who had to also seek professional help.
I’m not saying that it’s all the fault of our education system. There is most definitely a lot more than education at play.
But I think for all its worth, our education system and the values it transmits through the way it’s been running does contribute significantly to how every child develops his sense of worth and identity.
So If You Were Education Minister, What Would You Change?
That was a question my friend, also an ex-teacher, threw at me last month.
I paused for one second before answering. And here is my answer: I don’t know.
Like I just said, it’s not just THE education ministry. It’s our entire society.
Our entire society and culture affects how we as a people respond to life.
If we are constantly made to feel we are just numbers or machines and our government focuses on numbers and KPIs, such dehumanisation of us as a people and individual will naturally lead to a state of ennui that trickles down to even the children. And that ennui leads to many other complex psychological state of fear, angst, hopelessness in self and life.
I believe the spiritual state of our country and countrymen’s souls ( nothing to do with the religious but the state of the fullness of our emotional and mental/psychological state) are at peril of being quenched of life.
I don’t know what I will do if I were the Minister of Education.
But I can tell you what I can do as Sarah.
Laugh at me if you want. Here’s my simple 4-step response to the problems I see in our society:
4. Be the change I want to see
This is my way of navigating life, and its many challenges. It’s about the constant need to find my centre and anchoring deep into the source of Faith, Hope and Love for me. Because I believe that Life IS a spiritual journey, and prayer can move mountains.
Now as as a parent, I am learning to reframe my battles. I believe I will not be able to fight the battle the way parents like Mummy Wee do. I’ve also come to the stage in my life where I don’t even want to engage in such battles much anymore because I feel they are often so arbitrary rather than activist. In many ways, I have also run out of words and energy to fight it the same way I did as a youthful, idealistic 20-something.
I have also chosen to take my children out of the usual school route due to a series of unfortunate, or fortunate, events that have led me to the epiphany that regardless of where they study, I have to bear sole responsibility for my children’s well-being. And if I have fundamental philosophical disagreements with the system, it would be terribly unethical of me to subject my children to those value systems and standards.
So for me, I am fighting my battle for the education and upbringing of children using another stratagem – that of play, unconventional educational choices for my children and through grassroots activism.
I am trying whatever i can to push for more creativity and playfulness in education and family life in my own capacity.
4. Be the change I want to see
This then brings me to the next reason why I seem to some people ‘having a lot of time on my hands’ in organizing events like my recent ‘Voyage of Dreams’.
To some my event, I like to call it my ‘campaign’, may seem just pointless and frivolous as this refrain can sometimes overwhelm:
This is Singapore! Grades, paper, results are what parents care about.
Play is a nice idea. But we have to be realistic.
I get this refrain from parents who detest the system but feel powerless to go against it.
I hear this refrain from the teachers, the professionals, who believe in play but feel powerless against the sytem and parents to do much.
I read this refrain between the lines of media reports about changes being mooted and introduced for our education system.
But for me, I choose to believe that promoting creativity and playful family bonding can help counteract the kiasuism , ridiculous overemphasis on academic achievements (stripmining children’s talents) rather than personal development of talents and strengths. Having a playful attitude can help give us all the strength of mind and spirit to see the best in the worst of situations.
Yes, I will not deny that I am cynical about empty promises and lofty platitudes being dished out ever so often here.
But being the idealist and optimist and activist, I want to still do something to effect positive change on this society I grew up in and still living in, where I am raising my children.
My Current Life Motto: To Be The Change I Want To See
I refuse to be defeated because things have always been like this.
I refuse to accept the status quo and I refuse to be told there is little point in trying to buck the trend.
And My Hope For You & Your Family
When the going gets tough, may we, the tough, get creative and courageous in declaring and defending what we believe.
Woo, B.S.C., Ng, T.P., Fung, D.S.S., Chan, Y.H., Lee Y.P., Koh, J.B.K & Cai, Y. (2007).Emotional and behavioural problems in Singaporean children based on parent, teacher and child reports. Singapore Medical Journal 48, 1100-1106.
Liew, A., Choon, G.L., Fung, D. (2009) “Suicidal Behaviour in Children and Adolescents – Prevalence and Risk Factors”, Singapore Institute of Mental Health