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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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More than grade expectations

Every time anything goes wrong, it’s de rigueur to blame the education system. My class of undergraduates, too, are prone to laying the blame on the system which has allowed them to get this far. And I would have thought they would be appreciative of how, rightly or wrongly, they were beneficiaries of the system.

Is this why some people are sniffing at the results of the PISA test on problem-solving? Singapore is No. 1 but not many people are cheering the accolade despite the best attempts of MSM to rah-rah Singapore’s pole position. The Prime Minister and Education minister have weighed in too, pointing out that the scores debunk the stereotype that the education system is based on rote-learning.

Still, many people are asking questions of PISA, including Western academics who decry the poor positions of the teens of the West. (Predictable, you say?) Even over here, people including me, wonder if those rose-tinted glasses are firmly on the nose of those who blow the trumpet.

So what’s the beef?

A lot is about the “so what’’? So what if our 15 years old are better at problem solving than other teens their age in the rest of the world? They can’t string a sentence together to save their lives, so detractors say. I agree somewhat. Articulation is not the best trait in our young people. I don’t mean “outspokenness’’ but simply being able to communicate their thoughts. They can probably do it on paper, after several revisions. But to get them to do so on their feet and you will see their tongues tied and, if loosened, tripping over what they want to say. The brain isn’t connected to the vocal cords. Sometimes I wonder if they even know what they want to say or if those words that emit from the mouth is merely taking up air space…

Is this a big deal? I know of several people with a language handicap who somehow manage to express their ideas clearly, even if not grammatically. I am full of admiration for them because at least, they KNOW what they want to say and will do their damnedest to express it. They are not shy. And because they do not have a vocabulary of big words, they use simple language effectively.

I have to add that this is a phenomenon I see in foreigners, including foreign students. When educated Singaporeans speak up, however, they speak in the language of  the press release or the academic thesis. That was my experience when undergraduates started writing for Breakfast Network, the poor ole’ site which has been shut down. It took a few months to get them out of their preachy, grandfatherly language and rid themselves of flabby words that contribute to nothing more than adding to length. I found that the less time I give them to ponder, the better and clearer  their written work. Nothing contributes more to clarity than stress!

Asked about this, fingers are pointed firmly at how they were taught. This is the generation which was not taught the rules of grammar. They say that their primary school teachers place a premium on the number of “big’’ words they use. So a test of vocabulary, I asked? Not really, they said. More a test of polysyllables that are descriptive in nature. They take this habit with them when they go higher up the education ladder and have to write “argumentatively’’.

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Also, there is a tendency to ask about “word count’’. This is normal in academia where teachers expect essays of a certain length.  Students write to fit 1,000 words or 8,000 words as directed. It becomes a numbers game where words become more important than content. It is hard for them to grapple with an instruction such as “give it what it’s worth in as short a space as possible’’. Numbers act as the end point for thoughts. That’s why the stuff they write is usually so florid. It should be florid because writing simple sounds stupid.

As someone who champions clear and simple communication, that kind of thinking is what is stupid.      

But the young people are not surprised that Singapore is No.1 at problem solving. Throw them a problem and they will get cracking. That’s what they are used to and good at.

PISA detractors note that the teenagers solve problems individually in front of a computer. So it is a very individual activity which requires no socialisation or brain-storming. It’s straight-line thinking. I wonder what would happen if the Singaporean students are asked to say HOW they solve the problem. Will they be able to articulate their solution? Or if they have to solve problems in a group or deal with a problem which has no solution.

Employers are quick to lament the poor presentation skills of Singaporeans. In the big world where they have to interact with others, they fall short because they cannot express themselves clearly and will not put themselves forward. One wag talks about cringing when the locals have to take global conference calls or meetings. Mangled tenses. Long pauses. Jumbled phrases. They are outshone by those less intelligent but more articulate than they are. Well, an empty barrel makes the most noise too.

I think it would take a patient employer to find out what gems are hidden in the silent bodies of their workers. Maybe our young people are better at connecting via email or Twitter or SMS – an individual activity which does not require anyone to stand in front of a crowd and argue or defend a point on the spot. They are so used to individual activity that they become socially awkward. Not good. Not good.

Our education system is cognizant of this. So classes are now more interactive and project or group work encouraged. I only ask that when we teach our young people to speak up, they also make sense…

Okay. Back to those PISA scores.

 Methinks we are being too hard on the education system which has, after all, built the world’s No. 1 problem solvers. It’s a great achievement. We shouldn’t expect international tests to examine all aspects of education to our satisfaction. It’s probably difficult enough to come up with a problem solving test that would be applicable across all nations. Just think. If Singapore was No. 40, we’d be kicking up a greater, bigger fuss.

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Our cynicism probably lies in the high expectations of what we expect of the education system which unfortunately cannot be one-size-fits-all. If our young people suddenly become vocal paragons, we’d probably have something bad to say about it as well. Perhaps we’ve also become blasé about reports of Singapore being No. 1 in this or that and can’t help but pour cold water over results because the reality the individuals among us face or see doesn’t fit the high scores.

We ask ourselves: Are we really that good?

Well, we’re definitely not perfect. But maybe sometimes we should admit that we’re good. Somewhat.



Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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