8 ways you can help your child cope with local education

Hello everyone. In my previous article on SG Daily, I talked about 8 things they were wrong with the Singapore education system. Now one of the reactions I got was, “Alex, you are too critical in that article because of lot of these problems are found in other countries as well, these are not unique to Singapore.” Fair enough, but two wrongs don’t make a right – the fact is, unless you’re fabulously wealthy and can afford to send your child abroad, you still have to contend with the limits and problems of the local education system. So what simple, practical steps can Singaporean parents take to improve the situation for their children then, who simply have to get an education in Singapore?

1. Helping them relate what they learn to the real world.

This may seem fairly obvious but all too often parents miss the obvious because they expect teachers to have done this vital step. All too often, Singaporean teachers get so obsessed with teaching the lesson they neglect to explain or demonstrate how what they are teaching has any relevance in the real world. Take mathematics for example: imagine if a student asks a question like, “I have a calculator on my phone, we have all kinds of computer programmes and apps to deal with complex calculations so they are not subject to human error – so why are we learning how to solve these equations then?” The teacher will probably say something like, “you need to learn how to do these to get good grades in your exam, so you can go to a prestigious university, get a useful degree then you can get a good job – don’t you want a bright future?” That is the standard answer you can expect in Singapore of course and whilst you may argue that it is useful advice in the context of Singapore, does it really answer the student’s question? No, actually, it doesn’t.

The kind of links that can be drawn between say a secondary school mathematics syllabus and a range of careers is not hard to demonstrate – but I’m afraid teachers who have spent their whole careers in a school environment are probably not in the best position to demonstrate this. With the example of mathematics, students are expected to use a standard formula and apply it to solve an problem. To arrive at the right answer, you need to have demonstrated that you understand how the formula has to be applied correctly. Now this is reflected in a variety of jobs, whereby your training can only equip you with a general formula to solve a problem, but you need to be able to think on your feet and adapt your knowledge to solve a variety of unforeseen circumstances and challenges. So the most useful lesson is in fact demonstrating an ability to solve complex problems based on an understanding of the relationship of the variants involved, rather than the actual calculations per se. On that basis, maths is a good training for nurturing our problem solving skills in the real world. That principle needs to be explained to the children, rather than simply telling them, “maths is so important for your university admission!”

Did you use Algebra today? No, neither did I.

2. Empowering children, helping them think long term

Children have a knack of thinking about the short term rather than the long term – you see, children are often excluded from any kind of important decision making even within the family. They barely get a say about where the family lives, where they go on holiday; parents probably pick the schools that the children go to, the poor kids probably have little chance of influencing what they get to eat for dinner! Parents always overrule their children because they think they know better and for good reason: the kids may want to eat fried chicken for dinner, but the parents will compromise and get them steamed or baked chicken as it is more healthy. Because children feel like they have no decision making power over the major issues in life, they turn instead to the little things in their lives they do have control over – so for example, a child may become obsessed with the new Pokemon Go game because he has full control over his virtual world in the game as opposed to the real world.

Parents can empower children by engaging them from an early age in discussions about their future career plans – what does the child wish to pursue as a career in the future? What does the child need to do in order to make his/her dreams come true? Once you have established a path to success for the child, what they are currently doing at school suddenly seems a lot more relevant to their dreams and ambition. So it is not longer try to score As at the exams to please one’s parents or outdo one’s classmates, but rather to fulfill a long-term goal of achieving one’s dream career. Now this may seem relatively straight forward of course, but you would be amazed how many parents simply think, “oh my child is too young/immature to think about such things” or “my children may change their mind in the future, so what’s the point of having this conversation now?” But you’re not committing to a career path by having these discussion – you’re empowering your children by making them think about such issues. Whether or not they actually go down that career path you discussed is not as important as giving them that sense of empowerment.

Can you empower your children?

3. Inspiring children to want to learn, rather than just making them study.

I have vivid memories of the excursions I took as a kid in Singapore, It was extremely exciting and fun to get on that bus to go explore something together with your classmates, it was the kind of experience that made children a lot keener to learn. I particularly remember a visit to a prawn farm in Kukup, Johor very clearly because I slipped and nearly fell into the sea! I laughed about it but my teacher nearly had a heart attack when that happened. Perhaps we take these experiences for granted as adults – when we are so busy working, all we want to do is get home and relax after work. But try for a moment remember what it was like as a child – does learning have to mean sitting down and learning stuff from a book? Why can’t learning be done through fun and interactive activities? This is exactly the reason why school children loved excursions, because it enabled them to learn in far more active manner when compared to sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher.

I took my nephew on one such excursion – we went to Snow City in Jurong and it was the first time he had ever encountered snow. My mother of course, freaked out when I suggested it as she was so paranoid that exposing my nephew to the -5 degrees cold would make him very ill; especially since it was about 33 degrees that day and my mother thought the sharp contrast would be too much for his system. “If he fall sick, then he cannot study, then he may even miss a day of school, liddat how can? Aiyoh. You go there just to play snow for an hour? For whatr? You want to give him a treat then just take him to eat his favourite ice cream can already lah!” But no, I stuck to my guns and I didn’t even have to play the part of the science teacher – the new experience made him ask me so many questions about snow and winter weather. I was so pleased to see how he was inspired by the experience to find out more information. Such experiences go more than teach the children some basic principles about science: they inspire children to learn.

Ah yes, the wonders of snow!

4. Cut off spoon feeding, even if it means a drop in grades

We have talked a lot about the over-reliance on tuition in Singapore – indeed, I have a very negative view of tuition. Yes there are some very good tuition teachers out there in Singapore, but I don’t believe in spoon-feeding children for a very simple reason. As working adults, we are often expected to figure stuff out for ourselves, learn quickly and find solutions. You can’t go running to your boss every time you have a problem; and who do bosses go running to if they have a problem then? Students should be given the time and space to do just that as part of their learning process. Of course, this may shock some parents when I suggest that students should be allowed to use their mathematics homework as a chance to ‘figure stuff out for themselves’ – Singaporean parents would be more than happy to pay for a good maths tuition teacher to help students understand how to solve the problems, but this creates a mindset whereby students keep asking for help the moment they are ever so slightly puzzled by a problem, rather than try to see if they can figure it out for themselves.

The fact is a child who has achieved a B grade in mathematics by figuring most of it all out for himself has probably a far better mastery of the subject than another child who achieved an A through spoon-feeding. Employers out there would much rather employ the former child as he would be far more adaptable in the work place and have much better problem solving skills. After all, no one would higher a worker just to do complex mathematics – we have computers to do that kind of calculations! Rather, we are hiring human beings capable of dealing with complex situations and solving complicated problems. So don’t be afraid of what may happen to your children’s grades if you cut off the tuition – that may be the greatest favour you are doing for your children when it comes to vastly improving their learning process.

Do grades mean more than actually understanding the subject?

5. Bring your child to work (if possible!)

Okay, I realize that this is not going to be possible for everyone, but if you can do this, then what are you waiting for? It is so important to make children realize that one day, they will have completed their formal education and the time will come when they have to find a job. Some people really struggle with this transition from being a student to being a working adult – the more information we can give our children about this transition, the better prepared they will be when the time comes. But don’t stop there – think about older siblings, cousins, aunties, uncles, neighbours and other family friends with interesting jobs: could they possibly bring your child to work as well to give your an insight into the working world? Such experiences will help guide children make crucial decisions about their future career paths. Some children are more lucky than others because their schools will organize some form of work experience programme for them – but why depend on the school to do this if you can try to organize it yourself?

6. Create a varied social environment for your child

It is vital that children learn to get along with people from different kinds of social backgrounds – all too often, children find themselves in the situation whereby they don’t have any friends from different religions, cultures, nationality and they only befriend those who have very similar social backgrounds. However, it is quite likely that at some stage in their adult lives, they will have to live or work alongside someone quite different from themselves – would they have the social skills to cope with that situation then? If you are lucky, your child may already have a range of classmates or neighbours to create this varied social environment – but if not, all you have to do is to enroll your child in something like a sports or music class outside school to ensure that your child gets to encounter people from a range of different backgrounds. This may not seem like a big deal to most parents, but it goes a long way to help your child develop soft skills to get along with all kinds of people. 

Is your child interacting with people from different backgrounds?

I remember how I have walked past a mosque so many times in Singapore but never stepped into one in the entire 21 years I had lived in Singapore – it was always my perception that non-Muslims were not expected to enter the mosques. It was only after I had traveled widely around Middle East and North Africa that I realized just how welcoming Muslims were and I have since visited many mosques in Singapore. I even asked my parents why they never took me to visit a mosque as a child in Singapore and they just gave me a quizzical look, “but we’re not Muslims, mosques are places of worship for the Muslims. Why would we want to disturb them, by going to their mosques? Would you go wandering into a school if you’re not a student or a teacher there? Of course not. We don’t want to cause any trouble, it is not right to impose on them by showing up uninvited, that’s why we don’t visit their mosques.” When I told my parents that I had visited many mosques around the world to learn about Islam, their reaction was quite extreme. “What? You’re not planning to convert, are you?” I tried explaining to them that it is possible to learn about Islam without wishing to convert, but they just didn’t get it.

7. Help identify and nurture an area of interest for your child

When your children ultimately completes formal education and gets a job, it ought to be something they have some interest in and even enjoy – rather than something they do out of a sense of duty or just for money. Every child will have a hobby, something they take great interest in and enjoy – is it possible to carve a career out of that? Maybe, but you don’t know till you explore that option thoroughly. This is not a straight forward process that will yield simple answers but let me give you an example. My nephew is obsessed with computer games (like so many boys his age), but there is a huge gap between playing computer games and making them – thus enrolling him a class to learn coding would be a good way to see if he is any good at it and can consider a career in this industry. Not all areas of interest will lead to a career path that you want to go down: I enjoy sushi immensely, I really like Japanese food. But would I want to work as a sushi chef in a Japanese restaurant? Actually no, I am quite happy to pay money for someone to cook good food for me as I don’t really enjoy making the sushi as much as eating it. Now if someone would pay me good money to do food reviews, then I would be far more interested in that!

I enjoy eating good food more than preparing it.

8. Don’t be obsessed about your child scoring perfect grades

Finally, if you child gets a C in a certain subject, don’t do the Singaporean thing and freak out. Now most Singaporean parents would probably do these two things, firstly they would scold the child for the bad grade. Then they would start asking their friends to recommend a good tuition teacher, so they can turn that C into an A. You can’t realistically expect your child to be good at everything and guess what? They don’t need to be good at everything – ultimately, when you get a job, you usually do that one thing you’re really good at and nothing else. So even if there are a few gaps in your knowledge, so what? Would it really matter if a nurse sucked at geography and didn’t know what the capital of Italy was, as long as she was really good at her job? Would it really matter if an architect didn’t know anything about classical music, as long as he can do his job really well? Think about the poor grades as an important indicator to show you what your child is good at and by process of elimination, what s/he is bad at – use this information to help plan sensible career paths for your children to explore.

There is a popular BBC TV programme called ‘University Challenge’ – it is like a general knowledge quiz where teams from different British universities compete against each other. The questions are notoriously difficult and can cover any topic under the sun: from geography to history to foreign languages to science to philosophy to popular culture to music to politics to mathematics. Now there was this one contestant Gail Trimble (from Corpus Christi College, Oxford) who took part in 2009 – she was dubbed the “Human Google” as she scored the majority of the points for her winning team, she answered so many questions on a huge range of subjects. Whilst her vast breadth of knowledge was fun to watch on a quiz show like ‘University Challenge’, today she really only draws upon a niche area of her knowledge as a senior faculty member in Classics at Trinity college, Oxford university. One has to make a distinction between the depth and breadth when it comes to accumulating knowledge in the name of education – so why are Singaporean children expected to be straight A students then, why must they excel at everything? Do they want to take part in ‘University Challenge’ one day?

So there you go, that’s 8 practical steps you can take to help your child mitigate the worst effects of the Singaporean system. To be fair, the problems in Singapore are caused by two separate factors: the rigidity of the system and the Asian mindset of Singaporean parents. Whilst we can do little about the system (apart from sending your child to study abroad), there is so much you can do as a parent to help your children’s education become a lot more useful as they prepare to make that transition to the working world one day. I’m sure you have plenty of thoughts on the issue – please leave a comment below and let’s chat about it. Many thanks for reading.

One Reply to “8 ways you can help your child cope with local education”

  1. Noticed an error at point 4, paragraph 2.

    “After all, no one would higher a worker just to do complex mathematics – we have computers to do that kind of calculations!”


    Good points and worth a share!

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