Go with a smile!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Limits of Singapore's Education System

This post is a response to another opinion piece on the PSLE. I agree with this other post that the PSLE should not be abolished, but I'm a little appalled at his uncritical assessment of the Singaporean education system. I think it is generally a good thing that Singapore has one of the best education systems in the world. But I don't think that we really have what it takes yet to shine at the very top of the academic structure.

I've been to good schools (including RI), and I've attended very good universities which have produced several Nobel prize winners (gee, does that mean that some of you can guess what Snowy Hill is? I hope not!). I personally know around 10 international Olympiad medal winners even though I’m not one, so you can say I’ve seen a few really smart people up close. (By the way, Nobel Prizes are given out for only 5 academic fields, so you probably have to include other prizes like the Fields medal and the Turing award). I don't really think that Singapore will produce any Nobel prize winners for the next 50 years.

The biggest problem with meritocracy is not that some people are pushed ahead of others. It is not that it produces an unequal society. The biggest problem with meritocracy is that we are all pretending that those people who succeed in life will also be those people who succeed wildly in school. This is not the case at all. Often there is not a match between the two. Success in school will ensure that a person is diligent, hardworking, and rigorous with knowledge. But it can also cripple him. People who do well in school, at least at the PSLE level, are good at being parrots. But schoolwork at PSLE level is an environment where people give you constant feedback about whether or not you’re doing well. Compare this with, say the 4 papers that Einstein wrote in 1905, which forever gave him lasting fame. His ideas were attacked for years before they were accepted as truth. Einstein never got a Nobel prize for his most important idea – special relativity, because it was so crazy at that time that the Nobel committee never dared to give it to him. This is what real achievement is like. It is controversial, bold, and really, it’s not for committees to judge how great a scientist you are. Only history can be the real judge.

You might also want to see this famous story of John Gurdon who just received the Nobel prize in Medicine. He was told by his Eton teacher that he shouldn’t pursue science as a career.

We’ll produce a lot of good students, I don’t doubt that. But the best and the greatest of the scientists are daring and crazy people, and I don’t think that the Singapore produces enough daring and crazy people. The best scientists are slightly disrespectful of authority (which is logical since the best science comes from overturning older and less accurate scientific knowledge).

The best PSLE student in my cohort – I don’t know what’s happened to her. She didn’t feature among the top “O” or “A” level students. So you see – the best PSLE grades don’t even predict what’s going to happen at the “O” or “A” levels.

The types of great students that Singapore produce would have a very specific type of ability that allows them to do very well in school, and they may grow into adulthood having an exaggerated faith in that ability, and what are they going to do when they fail for the first time afterwards? I don’t really know if they’d be creative enough to find a way out of that.

You said that “The most effective teaching method must be one in which you group students of the same calibre together.” That is not true. People are trying to figure out how the Finnish education system became so successful without doing that.

In fact I also question the wisdom of grouping students of the best caliber together. Even in the gifted program the difference between the best students and the worst students was so great that we still had to teach the best students separately. (Or rather the best students just took up maths club / science club / whatever as their ECA) I was thinking, OK we still got to do that. So what the hell do we need streaming for? Might as well have a system where the teachers just teach the best students, and the best students teach the rest of the students. Since the only way the best students can become better is when they kenna shoot left right and centre by questions from all directions.

Then the idea where grouping students together based on their aggregate PSLE results is also a dubious idea. The people in the gifted program were a mishmash of people who were really good at language but pretty average in maths and science, and others who were pretty good at maths but really lousy in Chinese. Naturally, that really defeats the purpose of streaming, because it means that in any one subject, there’s going to be so much variability in ability that it’s not as though the teachers teach the ones who can learn the fastest. I think they realised that and from what I understand, they’re paying more attention to the needs of people who are naturally specialized. (I’m not saying this because I was the sort of person who is good at only one subject – I’m not. I’m saying this because this is what I’ve seen myself.)

There are some things that Singapore schools do a very bad job of teaching, and those are usually the things that can’t be tested. Yes, American high schools can be a very mean place, and there are cliques everywhere, and it is a nasty social environment. But it also produces a lot of very charismatic people. The threat of getting beaten up in a playground just ends up as a very rigorous training ground for good social skills, good survival skills. I’m not very sure that Singaporeans have that. And to be sure, I think that a lot of other Asian countries also have the same problem.

The other things that really great students face – I’ve seen a lot of really good students really suffer when they go to NS and turn into really lousy soldiers. So we all know that being great at your studies doesn’t necessarily translate into all other things in life.

Bottom line is, OK, I think that we still have a pretty good system and I agree with you that the PSLE should not be abolished. But I am not such an uncritical admirer as you are when it comes to our relentless focus on grades. Grades are not everything, and therefore the way that we teach our youngsters is quite incomplete. Therefore we should maybe relax the emphasis on grades a little because if we worked our students over as though grades were the single most important thing in life, they wouldn’t have the time or the energy to learn the other things in life that are worth learning, and they’re going to grow up crippled. Trust me on this.

Your statement that there are no back doors into RI is false. The gifted program was a back door. During my time, if you were in the gifted program in primary school, you got into RI even though you didn’t meet the cut off that express students needed to meet. Of course, you can still be expelled from the gifted program later on, but that’s another issue. The big problem with streaming in Singapore (and I don’t know whether they’ve changed this) is that there’s not enough leeway to reverse the streaming decisions that were made earlier in life. It’s really hard to get out from Poly to the uni. In contrast, in a place like California, there are 3 levels of public universities, and people can transfer from the 3rd tier to the top tier within the span of 4 years. And the top tier means places like Berkeley and UCLA.

You said that people in RI are an accurate cross section of Singaporean society. I was in RI and that was not true. Not during my time anyway.

If you think that getting into elite colleges via back doors is really such a bad thing, consider this: Franklin Roosevelt is in the almost unanimous opinion of historians one of the greatest US presidents. He went to Harvard, yes. But how? Through the back door. His grades were shit. That is something you might want to consider. (But of course the fact that dubya was a legacy admission into Yale is also something to consider. His father, I think, got into Yale fair and square – or at least he probably would have, and he was a better president)

What I object to is that our sterling academic achievements in the academics at the grade school level have not translated to bigger and better things. It’s actually pretty dismal when you consider what South Korea and Finland has achieved. One of them has Samsung. And more recently, PSY. The other has Nokia. And Linux. Maybe this is not an indictment of the education system. Maybe the problem is that we are managed by idiots. I think we are managed by idiots. And USA, in spite of really lousy grade school results, has managed to produce a Microsoft , a Google and an Apple. (And may I remind you that all three of these great organisations were all founded by DROPOUTS. This is not a coincidence.) Yes, they were really bright dropouts who excelled at grade school. (I’m talking about Gates, Jobs, Brin and Page). Yes, they all entered very selective universities and then dropped out of them. But the point here is that all of them have recognized that there are more important things in life than academics. I don't want to crow about our education system until I can see for myself that it has produced people who have actually achieved great things.

Yes, we have tried to pour millions of dollars into biotech research. But a lot of the world class talent we attracted 5 years ago are going elsewhere, probably because they realised that we still don't have the culture to do great research. We haven't spent the 30 odd years it takes to build up that culture. Mind you, I'm not complaining because after one of those big name foreign talents left, a personal friend of mine, who is a local talent, took over and I'm really pleased for him.

I don't want to totally knock Singapore. We also do underestimate ourselves in certain ways. We have pretty good songwriters, although nobody seems to realise this fact. Singaporeans wrote half of Jacky Cheung's greatest album, "Wen Bie". And we have produced sterling albums from bands like Humpback Oak. But we are too busy putting ourselves down to realise that.

What we have managed to do is to build world class infrastructure. Which is not nothing, but UAE can produce world class airlines and world class airports as well as we do. It is not the same as producing world class innovation and research. Will our education system manage that? I’m not totally sure.


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