The low standard of Singapore schools So a big brouhaha recently made news in the social media. A Swiss teacher doing a teaching internship in Singapore and comments afterwards about the low standard of Singapore schools. I can’t help but agree. But Singapore still continues rank well for maths and science proficiencies. Doesn’t that sound contradictory? No. A wise man (MrWangSaysSo) once wrote that, “Singapore produces so many excellent students because of its world-class tuition classes.” And I think that just about sums everything up. Singapore schools: why students seek tuition instead A student once famously lamented about the education experienced. The article reflects the feelings of many students. Who suffer through elitist Singapore schools hell-bent on keeping up the appearances to boost or maintain competitive enrollment. And in doing so completing ignoring their main priority of education. The schools introduce meaningless KPIs for school teachers, in order to keep up the appearances. Those teachers who want to get a leg up the career ladder spend much time working on the non-education responsibilities. Because this is how they get recognition from their school management or receive their performance bonuses. Not actual quality of teaching. When the attention divert away from education, student grades begin to suffer and they all seek out tuition en masse. As they start doing well in school again, the teachers get a false sense of achievement because the pass rates and A grades are something they can report. So it looks as if there is no problem with the system! Singapore schools: unnecessary school activities When the teachers start focusing on non-academic, they cascade down to the student level. Consequently, there is all sorts of activities that the students have to participate. Have you ever seen the numerous students in every single corner of the MRT stations, leading to and from asking for donations? Long time ago when the idea was first mooted, it likely had kind intentions. Getting the students out of the school spending time doing something good for the community. Unfortunately, it has become a time waster. Students have to attend such events. And when they do, they have absolutely no motivation nor understanding of the activity. Many spend their time laughing it off. I bet some of the rest don’t even have an inkling which organizations they are asking the donations for. Almost everyone is curling their brows and swearing at the unrelenting hot weather and their luck. Why not teach the students about principles of marketing? Challenge them to see what creative ways they can think of and execute to get donation money instead of relying on the old methods. Nobody is looking around when they walk anymore. Instead people are staring into their phones all the time. Shouldn’t the donation drive go digital instead? The world is rapidly moving along yet, our schools are not adequately training students for the future. Because once again actually developing the minds of our children is not incentivized. Keeping up with the appearance is. Singapore schools: teachers are disposable The appearance of a letter with the writer almost pleading the MOE to try to retain teachers (especially the good ones) in the public sector. This is so that they don’t end up in the tuition industry benefiting those who can afford the extra help. Whilst that is wistful thinking, let me offer a reason why MOE actually is happy for teachers to leave the service. So that vacancies create demand for young teacher-to-be hopefuls who will continue to enter the field and so that NIE has ‘business’. The latter is fully dependent on MOE because they are the gate keepers of teacher training. MOE itself is a big employer. Also, the population is aging in Singapore faster than new birth rates to replace the lost. This means that school going children are becoming a rarity. It also means less education budget (because the schools get spending money based on the student head counts – government schools at least). And there aren’t any replacements for teachers who leaves when the student population dwindles. So yes, more experienced and great teachers will continue to leave the service. It also means the tuition industry will get more competitive (which it is already). Tuition programs quality will further improve, making them even more indispensable to a good education a student receives outside of the formal education system. Welcome to Singapore Schools v2.0. Singapore schools: unhappy teachers I don’t have sympathy for MOE despite knowing the ministry have a lot on its plate. Because they force schools to keep up appearances so that the latter can be used as positive examples for the rest of the world. The first casualty of the whole appearance game unfortunately (and surprise) is the teachers. If the school teachers only have to focus on teaching with immediate effect, I bet you I will immediately lose my rice-bowl and the tuition industry will immediately turn belly up. School teachers are treated like shit. Want an example? Read this. Majority of them start out being bonded to MOE and the superiors know it. So they start tai chi’ing all kinds of scut work to them because they know there is nothing the fresh grad teachers can do about it. They can’t leave without completing the bond otherwise they have to pay back huge sums of money. Most can only soldier on accumulating bitter feelings. The rest just switch off when they are at work, looking forward to when they can pack up and leave for the day. I remember my ex-colleagues when I was in school. The more senior ones. Talking to them is like to talking to a cesspool of negative energy. Why are they this way? Because they were once young and were treated like shit. As years pass by the negative energy grows because they don’t have industrial value nor an exit strategy to try their hand on something else. With no where else to release this negative energy, they pass it on. To new fresh grad teachers and to the students. So students, who are right at the end of the pecking order will have to suffer through lifeless classes where their teachers read straight out of PowerPoint slides. Who are disinterested about the students who then become disinterested about studies. Will it ever change? Perhaps. When the MOE change their KPI to the gross happiness index of teachers instead. Unfortunately, the recent mandate to charge teachers a monthly fee for parking in school will make things worse. Singapore schools: bottomline So what can a student do in such scenario? I answer that question here.

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[How to] boost your performance at A levels So you want to boost your performance at A levels? I have a few tips for you, but before that let me tell you a little story. Back in my pre-university days, I swim for the Institute-Varsity-Polytechnic (IVP) games for my school. There is a compatriot who is a butterfly specialist. He swims really fast. Even faster than me when I wear fins. Fins are like these fish like shoes you wear. It makes the leg kicking more efficient and forces you to be in the correct form. Consequently, everyone swims faster in fins. And he beats me without wearing these go-faster things. Going into the competition, he was clocking fast times. In fact, fast enough for a podium finish. However during competition day, another team-mate mention that there’s a national swimmer in the midst. And this swim mate of mine I believe suffered a panic attack. I can still remember seeing blood draining from his face. He end up not being on the podium. In fact, he didn’t complete the race. A 50m race. No seasoned swimmers cannot complete 50m! This is the shortest distances we cover. And my point is that everyone goes into exams hoping to do well. Some students in fact achieve content mastery before the exams. Showing finesse and a great memory of content. But why is it that these students end up getting poor grades?! And so I ask you this question. Do you think subject mastery is the only ingredient to exam success? Even though it is an important element, it is not enough to guarantee good grades. But a big majority of students fixate a 100% of their time on content mastery only! First tip to help boost your performance at A levels Look at what you are eating prior to exams. Carbohydrate rich meals produce satiety as well as induces the feeling of contentment. Most unfortunately, it dims alertness and makes one lethargic. How well do you think one can perform in exams, in situations like this? I write about what one can do to avoid it here. Second tip to help boost your performance at A levels Turn anxiety into excitement instead. Anxiety is bad because it causes the body to go into the biological fight or flight response. The brain shuts down and you are not able to tap on the thinking and analysis part of your brain to tackle exam challenges. Instead, the brain focuses on built in reflexes. You start putting down words or ideas most familiar to you, i.e. cut, copy and paste. This unfortunately, is the bane to exam performance because questions are usually novel with a slight twist to ensure this method of cut, copy and pasting will not work. And many students end up making mistakes, resulting in a lost of grades. Cut out these mistakes and a student can see a typical jump of 1-2 grades at the very least. So what can you do? Follow this simple recommendation! It switches the brain out of the panic mode into something a bit more gathered even though still high energy level. Third tip to help boost your performance at A levels Create a checklist prior to the exams. This is one that involves a step-by-step guide that you you follow in exams. And the checklist should be a list of If this … then that … rules. It codifies what you need to do, in which kind of questions. This helps a student under pressure to still perform at high levels in exams until the brain returns into a more controlled mode. This takes the pressure off and you can ensure that you do not commit avoidable mistakes. This is the exact same strategy implemented by airlines for pilots in their bid to reduce mistakes when flying. Just look at the results. Today flying is safer than the journey to the airport! Unfortunately, coming up with a checklist is difficult. It requires that you survey the past questions and identify the most common mistakes and to analyze why the mistakes are made and what is the method to curtail it. If you can, approach your teachers in school to generate a checklist for you. I routinely do that for my students and get them to practice using the checklists. Bottomline I curate and incorporate all the exam strategies above into my classes and more. Join us!
Education of Seth Yee, the Singaporean child genius I read with interest a report of a Singaporean child genius, Seth Yee. Like how often do we hear that we have a child genius in our midst?! Especially in tiny Singapore! Lo and behold his parents begin looking for a school that can handle and further develop Seth Yee’s gift. And he is now in an Australian school. I am happy that he finds joy in education. His school is also pitching in, helping pique his interest. I am even more happy that Seth Yee is not going into the quagmire of what is the Singaporean education system. Because over the years I see so many students with light in the eyes burn out as they slough through the school years. Many have brilliant minds but their attention is spread so thin from unnecessary stress about Singaporean exams. Consequently, they start doubting their abilities and decide they are just going to settle for being normal. It takes some of them to leave the Singaporean education system to realize that they are awesome in many ways. Seth Yee, pursuing an overseas education I recount many students who venture into overseas universities as they can’t get into local universities. And many quickly end up on Dean’s list for outstanding contribution and academic performance. They also use the overseas platform to strive even higher up. I have some students who gained admissions into Oxford University working on their postgraduate degree or working at some renowned institutions. And I begin to see the light slowly reappear in their eyes when I catch-up with them about their dreams, and future aspirations. Should I follow the same path? I know some of you reading this may be students yourself. Or even parents thinking or planning your child’s future. And I can almost hear you asking this question how can you best help your child. And give them the best possible start in their subsequent work life. For most families sending the children overseas at Seth Yee’s age is not feasible. There are many reasons. There is not enough money for that. Or there’s family to look after. And both parents have careers that aren’t able to cross over to another country to go with the child, etc. These are all valid points and real concerns. Seth Yee, pursuing an overseas education: when I follow the same path? Even worse talking to local teachers won’t bring any insights. As most of them have not gone for any overseas education themselves. In my honest opinion, it is not a matter of whether to but when. If it is not possible in when the child is at a younger age. Then wait for the opportunity to arise later! B y perhaps staying in the Singaporean education system at least until A levels, Diploma, International Baccalaureate level. From then on, it is just the costs of overseas universities and living expenses. Seth Yee, pursuing an overseas education: let’s talk about costs The costs can be partly off set by seeking overseas scholarships widely available both locally and by foreign universities. Some countries/universities allow foreign students to work part time. This can build up their character as well as alleviate the pressure of expenses. In addition, this also brings a level of maturity having to juggle the rigors of academic, work and social life. In fact the environment may even be conducive for these students to be more entrepreneurial. Or take unconventional paths, giving them an edge over their counterparts should they one day return home to Singapore. Seth Yee, pursuing an overseas education: bottomline Up to then however, the parent will have to play an active role at home to counteract the negativity in the Singaporean schooling system. Such as actively planning their activities and development for example. As well as positive reinforcement of their brilliance frequently to counteract the negativity in school. Look for academic tutors who can challenge the students intellectually for them to remain interested in studies. I am quite fortunate to have occasional students in my midst like Seth Yee such as a RI boy who is in Sec 3 and currently working through the A level syllabus. And hopefully, after A levels they find a foreign university equipped to take the kid’s brilliance to the next level. And be the next Seth Yee. Or even more.
handphone use in classrooms and e-learning [my opinion] Now that the smart nation terminology is in vogue after the National Day Rally speech, the local broadsheets are going to hone in ad nauseum. In fact, MOE is already at it saying they are going to introduce an e-learning portal in 2018. Strecthing this a bit further, I want to talk about handphone use in classrooms. e-learning from the teachers perspective Pertaining to the e-learning initiative, let me decode what it means for students and parents. The people from the top say digitize and do it. Consequently, the bottom rung teachers on the ground scramble to make it happen abandoning the projects they are currently executing from the previous initiatives. They do so because the new objectives are now part of their KPI and so is their performance bonus and promotion. What does that mean to students? As some of my students allude to, it’s a terrible idea. These students come from a certain JC and who force their students to adopt 100% e-learning. In doing so, their teachers just push their students to a half-baked portal and dump the entire material to the students. And they assume students will be able to pick up themselves. Nary a thought that A levels in Singapore is exceedingly difficult. And that students at this stage need the most support and compassion in the trying times. Unfortunately, e-learning to most teachers is just digitizing lessons and not structuring it in such a way as to enhance learning. Technology creep into classrooms As such, this requires much attention to the details of implementation. Not thinking through the use of technology in the classroom has severe consequences. I was a technology evangelist in the classroom. However, over the years seeing how student profiles change, I begin to think otherwise. Haphazard adoption of technological tools just mean that students can now bring their handphone into the classrooms. And with that, all the distractions of the handphones. Handphone use in the classrooms: designing of addictive apps One of the key metrics of app startups is app engagement. The more engagement, the more data accumulates and the more valuable it becomes. Facebook for example is not a social media company, it is a data re-seller. As such, it is the responsibility of these companies to make their apps as addictive as well as sticky as possible. And it is working isn’t it? Unfortunately, as consumers of mobile apps, we begin to change biologically as well. Handphone use in the classrooms: the addicted brain One of the key ways to making the apps addictive is to have reminders that you need to open it up. So there is notifications. And the app notifies you for the smallest things. When you open up an app and clear away the notification, you get a quick bout of satisfaction. This is because the brain has just released a spurt of dopamine. The feel good hormone. Have you seen how we train dogs? We give them treats to reinforce a desired behavior. And dopamine is that treat. The most damning fact is that the more dopamine release, the more we want to do something and the vicious cycle begins. Overtime, the brain rewires such that it responds more to short interruptions and it makes it harder to concentrate on tasks that requires long and deep attention. Handphone use in the classrooms: counterproductive to learning Guess what, learning requires long and deep concentration. When the brain is exposed to new concepts, it takes a great effort as it tries to make sense of the concept. This involves getting different neurons to make connections via nerve impulses. I liken it to the brain wanting to get from A to B and it is trying to get there. If B is not reached, one has not learnt. Sometimes, this doesn’t occur so another route is used and over and over until one gets it (to B). This is why learning takes time. And this is the abject opposite behavior to the what handphone use in classrooms train. Consequently, students don’t do well in exams because of this biological shift. Handphone use in the classrooms: implementing airplane mode In the case of dieting, the best way to avoid processed addictive and unhealthy foods is to remove it from homes. To encourage optimal brain behavior for learning, handphones should either be removed or put in airplane mode. Of course when that occurs, the pressure is on for the educator because the need to innovate the hell out of how they deliver their content. To make it interesting, relevant enough to encourage the student to want to explore further. Handphone use in the classrooms: bottom-line Removing handphone use in the classrooms have been a difficult challenge. Because this is akin to ‘cold turkey’ effects the students feel. And it adds on to the educator’s challenge how they deliver their content to keep attention up. But once the students are weaned off the dependence of handphones in the classroom, they will become more effective learners. The better the learning experience, the better the outcome and the final exams.

More from byang

[How to] boost your performance at A levels So you want to boost your performance at A levels? I have a few tips for you, but before that let me tell you a little story. Back in my pre-university days, I swim for the Institute-Varsity-Polytechnic (IVP) games for my school. There is a compatriot who is a butterfly specialist. He swims really fast. Even faster than me when I wear fins. Fins are like these fish like shoes you wear. It makes the leg kicking more efficient and forces you to be in the correct form. Consequently, everyone swims faster in fins. And he beats me without wearing these go-faster things. Going into the competition, he was clocking fast times. In fact, fast enough for a podium finish. However during competition day, another team-mate mention that there’s a national swimmer in the midst. And this swim mate of mine I believe suffered a panic attack. I can still remember seeing blood draining from his face. He end up not being on the podium. In fact, he didn’t complete the race. A 50m race. No seasoned swimmers cannot complete 50m! This is the shortest distances we cover. And my point is that everyone goes into exams hoping to do well. Some students in fact achieve content mastery before the exams. Showing finesse and a great memory of content. But why is it that these students end up getting poor grades?! And so I ask you this question. Do you think subject mastery is the only ingredient to exam success? Even though it is an important element, it is not enough to guarantee good grades. But a big majority of students fixate a 100% of their time on content mastery only! First tip to help boost your performance at A levels Look at what you are eating prior to exams. Carbohydrate rich meals produce satiety as well as induces the feeling of contentment. Most unfortunately, it dims alertness and makes one lethargic. How well do you think one can perform in exams, in situations like this? I write about what one can do to avoid it here. Second tip to help boost your performance at A levels Turn anxiety into excitement instead. Anxiety is bad because it causes the body to go into the biological fight or flight response. The brain shuts down and you are not able to tap on the thinking and analysis part of your brain to tackle exam challenges. Instead, the brain focuses on built in reflexes. You start putting down words or ideas most familiar to you, i.e. cut, copy and paste. This unfortunately, is the bane to exam performance because questions are usually novel with a slight twist to ensure this method of cut, copy and pasting will not work. And many students end up making mistakes, resulting in a lost of grades. Cut out these mistakes and a student can see a typical jump of 1-2 grades at the very least. So what can you do? Follow this simple recommendation! It switches the brain out of the panic mode into something a bit more gathered even though still high energy level. Third tip to help boost your performance at A levels Create a checklist prior to the exams. This is one that involves a step-by-step guide that you you follow in exams. And the checklist should be a list of If this … then that … rules. It codifies what you need to do, in which kind of questions. This helps a student under pressure to still perform at high levels in exams until the brain returns into a more controlled mode. This takes the pressure off and you can ensure that you do not commit avoidable mistakes. This is the exact same strategy implemented by airlines for pilots in their bid to reduce mistakes when flying. Just look at the results. Today flying is safer than the journey to the airport! Unfortunately, coming up with a checklist is difficult. It requires that you survey the past questions and identify the most common mistakes and to analyze why the mistakes are made and what is the method to curtail it. If you can, approach your teachers in school to generate a checklist for you. I routinely do that for my students and get them to practice using the checklists. Bottomline I curate and incorporate all the exam strategies above into my classes and more. Join us!
Education of Seth Yee, the Singaporean child genius I read with interest a report of a Singaporean child genius, Seth Yee. Like how often do we hear that we have a child genius in our midst?! Especially in tiny Singapore! Lo and behold his parents begin looking for a school that can handle and further develop Seth Yee’s gift. And he is now in an Australian school. I am happy that he finds joy in education. His school is also pitching in, helping pique his interest. I am even more happy that Seth Yee is not going into the quagmire of what is the Singaporean education system. Because over the years I see so many students with light in the eyes burn out as they slough through the school years. Many have brilliant minds but their attention is spread so thin from unnecessary stress about Singaporean exams. Consequently, they start doubting their abilities and decide they are just going to settle for being normal. It takes some of them to leave the Singaporean education system to realize that they are awesome in many ways. Seth Yee, pursuing an overseas education I recount many students who venture into overseas universities as they can’t get into local universities. And many quickly end up on Dean’s list for outstanding contribution and academic performance. They also use the overseas platform to strive even higher up. I have some students who gained admissions into Oxford University working on their postgraduate degree or working at some renowned institutions. And I begin to see the light slowly reappear in their eyes when I catch-up with them about their dreams, and future aspirations. Should I follow the same path? I know some of you reading this may be students yourself. Or even parents thinking or planning your child’s future. And I can almost hear you asking this question how can you best help your child. And give them the best possible start in their subsequent work life. For most families sending the children overseas at Seth Yee’s age is not feasible. There are many reasons. There is not enough money for that. Or there’s family to look after. And both parents have careers that aren’t able to cross over to another country to go with the child, etc. These are all valid points and real concerns. Seth Yee, pursuing an overseas education: when I follow the same path? Even worse talking to local teachers won’t bring any insights. As most of them have not gone for any overseas education themselves. In my honest opinion, it is not a matter of whether to but when. If it is not possible in when the child is at a younger age. Then wait for the opportunity to arise later! B y perhaps staying in the Singaporean education system at least until A levels, Diploma, International Baccalaureate level. From then on, it is just the costs of overseas universities and living expenses. Seth Yee, pursuing an overseas education: let’s talk about costs The costs can be partly off set by seeking overseas scholarships widely available both locally and by foreign universities. Some countries/universities allow foreign students to work part time. This can build up their character as well as alleviate the pressure of expenses. In addition, this also brings a level of maturity having to juggle the rigors of academic, work and social life. In fact the environment may even be conducive for these students to be more entrepreneurial. Or take unconventional paths, giving them an edge over their counterparts should they one day return home to Singapore. Seth Yee, pursuing an overseas education: bottomline Up to then however, the parent will have to play an active role at home to counteract the negativity in the Singaporean schooling system. Such as actively planning their activities and development for example. As well as positive reinforcement of their brilliance frequently to counteract the negativity in school. Look for academic tutors who can challenge the students intellectually for them to remain interested in studies. I am quite fortunate to have occasional students in my midst like Seth Yee such as a RI boy who is in Sec 3 and currently working through the A level syllabus. And hopefully, after A levels they find a foreign university equipped to take the kid’s brilliance to the next level. And be the next Seth Yee. Or even more.
handphone use in classrooms and e-learning [my opinion] Now that the smart nation terminology is in vogue after the National Day Rally speech, the local broadsheets are going to hone in ad nauseum. In fact, MOE is already at it saying they are going to introduce an e-learning portal in 2018. Strecthing this a bit further, I want to talk about handphone use in classrooms. e-learning from the teachers perspective Pertaining to the e-learning initiative, let me decode what it means for students and parents. The people from the top say digitize and do it. Consequently, the bottom rung teachers on the ground scramble to make it happen abandoning the projects they are currently executing from the previous initiatives. They do so because the new objectives are now part of their KPI and so is their performance bonus and promotion. What does that mean to students? As some of my students allude to, it’s a terrible idea. These students come from a certain JC and who force their students to adopt 100% e-learning. In doing so, their teachers just push their students to a half-baked portal and dump the entire material to the students. And they assume students will be able to pick up themselves. Nary a thought that A levels in Singapore is exceedingly difficult. And that students at this stage need the most support and compassion in the trying times. Unfortunately, e-learning to most teachers is just digitizing lessons and not structuring it in such a way as to enhance learning. Technology creep into classrooms As such, this requires much attention to the details of implementation. Not thinking through the use of technology in the classroom has severe consequences. I was a technology evangelist in the classroom. However, over the years seeing how student profiles change, I begin to think otherwise. Haphazard adoption of technological tools just mean that students can now bring their handphone into the classrooms. And with that, all the distractions of the handphones. Handphone use in the classrooms: designing of addictive apps One of the key metrics of app startups is app engagement. The more engagement, the more data accumulates and the more valuable it becomes. Facebook for example is not a social media company, it is a data re-seller. As such, it is the responsibility of these companies to make their apps as addictive as well as sticky as possible. And it is working isn’t it? Unfortunately, as consumers of mobile apps, we begin to change biologically as well. Handphone use in the classrooms: the addicted brain One of the key ways to making the apps addictive is to have reminders that you need to open it up. So there is notifications. And the app notifies you for the smallest things. When you open up an app and clear away the notification, you get a quick bout of satisfaction. This is because the brain has just released a spurt of dopamine. The feel good hormone. Have you seen how we train dogs? We give them treats to reinforce a desired behavior. And dopamine is that treat. The most damning fact is that the more dopamine release, the more we want to do something and the vicious cycle begins. Overtime, the brain rewires such that it responds more to short interruptions and it makes it harder to concentrate on tasks that requires long and deep attention. Handphone use in the classrooms: counterproductive to learning Guess what, learning requires long and deep concentration. When the brain is exposed to new concepts, it takes a great effort as it tries to make sense of the concept. This involves getting different neurons to make connections via nerve impulses. I liken it to the brain wanting to get from A to B and it is trying to get there. If B is not reached, one has not learnt. Sometimes, this doesn’t occur so another route is used and over and over until one gets it (to B). This is why learning takes time. And this is the abject opposite behavior to the what handphone use in classrooms train. Consequently, students don’t do well in exams because of this biological shift. Handphone use in the classrooms: implementing airplane mode In the case of dieting, the best way to avoid processed addictive and unhealthy foods is to remove it from homes. To encourage optimal brain behavior for learning, handphones should either be removed or put in airplane mode. Of course when that occurs, the pressure is on for the educator because the need to innovate the hell out of how they deliver their content. To make it interesting, relevant enough to encourage the student to want to explore further. Handphone use in the classrooms: bottom-line Removing handphone use in the classrooms have been a difficult challenge. Because this is akin to ‘cold turkey’ effects the students feel. And it adds on to the educator’s challenge how they deliver their content to keep attention up. But once the students are weaned off the dependence of handphones in the classroom, they will become more effective learners. The better the learning experience, the better the outcome and the final exams.