Education : the facts and the challenges, the new realities, contemporary parenting and non-traditional pedagogies.

Singapore’s educational system has generated a lot of press lately, sparked by the Education Minister’s advocacy for a a student-centric, values-driven education. An article in the 26 September 2011 issue of the Straits Times commented that the country’s education system has always tended to emphasise quantifiables over qualitative factors. Grades, ranking and streaming have dominated the landscape for a long time.

This is not news; in fact, it has been the cause of parental angst for decades.

That … the financial progress that Singapore has seen in the last few decades has also contributed to an unhealthy focus on materialism … on individual success (same article) implies that the expectations are daunting, the highest achievers are the most recognized, the competition is intense and it is often ruefully (but not overtly) acknowledged that goals are mostly articulated with an upper case C (as in cash, condo, credit cards, car or club).

This is not true just of Singapore

A universal, global reality is the prerequisite for that ‘competitive edge’ in every area of grown-up life. Private coaching, home tuitions, online tutors … it is a booming shadow business, replicating the classroom outside the classroom.

Children are privately coached in India before kindergarten admissions. Hagwons or private, after hours ‘cram schools’ have become the focus of government ire in South Korea, with President Lee Myung-bak declaring one-size-fits-all government-led uniform curriculums and an education system that is locked only onto the college-entrance examination are not acceptable.

Paul Tough in What if the Secret to Success is Failure (New York Times, 14 September 2011) writes that there are those who argue that the systems and methods now in place to raise and educate well-off kids in the United States are in fact devastating them.

Devastating them ?

Take a step back, admit the truth – our children are (largely) under the assault of rote and results, exams and assessments, ranks and ratings.

It’s a race, the rat race we all recognize and participate in. Few parents have the conviction (and the guts) to opt out, but interestingly, their numbers are growing.

An ardent – almost ferocious – advocate of the Waldorf Steiner system of education is Karthi, an ex-cognitive psychologist from Hewlett Packard, Singapore – an area that fuses engineering with design to make interactive experiences simple, elegant and meaningful. (Think Apple).

Karthi herself traversed the prescribed arc – academics, academics, academics : topping every class, counting every mark, the good university-degree in engineering-Masters in Design trajectory … and along the way, marriage, two lovely children, a job she loved in a country she loved.

Her elder son had early childhood developmental issues, which was persistently ‘labeled’ as this-that-or-the-other. Karthi discovered that both education and medicine found it convenient and acceptable to compartmentalize her child into prescriptive and defined boxes with labels that would define him for the rest of his growing and learning life. It took an intuitive pediatrician to identify the link between his digestive system and his growth, and a change in diet worked miracles.

The pediatrician suggested she explore Waldorf Steiner as an alternative to the ‘usual’ kindergartens; it led to the Kampung Senang and the Whole Child Nurture Centre with its Waldorf-inspired programs and curriculum.

Her son blossomed.

She moved him to a Waldorf kindergarten run by The Waldorf Steiner Education Association Singapore but when it came to primary school, she was stumped. There were no options; it was the ‘traditional’ school or home schooling or no schooling.

Karthi and family are leaving Singapore, giving up home, PR, infrastructure and terrific jobs and relocating to Hyderabad, India for the sake of a system of education which is not lopsided, which believes that a natural joy for and in learning is a pre-requisite for education and which most of all, favours the individuality of the child over logic, structure and analysis. (For the interested, the school is Sloka, mentioned in my earlier article Head, Hands, Heart).

… today’s world is getting faster and smaller in every aspect. It is important … to feel good about what we do. We are all unique and our needs and speeds are different. If we do not have the time to learn from our fellow humans I am not sure if we will be able to create a meaningful community around us.” – Karthi.

Vito Perrone Sr., a leading advocate for humanistic, regimentation-free public education in the US, once famously asked What if our children and young people learn to read and write but don’t like to and don’t? What if they don’t read the newspapers and magazines, or can’t find beauty in a poem or love story? What if they don’t go as adults to artistic events, don’t listen to a broad range of music, aren’t optimistic about the world and their place in it, don’t notice the trees and the sunset, are indifferent to older citizens, don’t participate in politics or community life? Should any of this worry us?

It should.

Clearly, in today’s world, nobody is equal and everybody is special. A pedagogy that recognizes this is one that acknowledges that academics will not suffice; the world and its children deserve a deeper understanding of the new realities that apply equally to individual and circumstance.

Educators worldwide are re-evaluating education, acknowledging the importance of Social Values (inclusion, tolerance, diversity), Moral Character (ethical values like fairness, generosity and integrity) and Performance Character (values like effort, diligence and perseverance).

The shortlist of qualities identified for the new world is zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity – in addition to academics.

Learning is hard

Angela Duckworth, assistant professor at Penn, sums it up: Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying – but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging . . . to help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

The Straits Times article may have the last word, for the moment, for Singapore.

Teaching true grit … will be much harder than improving academic excellence. It calls for a revolutionary approach and visionary educators who must be given some flexibility to implement their ideas … recalibrating the education system towards values requires a leap of faith and a willingness to fail. It remains to be seen if Singapore can rise up to this challenge.

Photographs googled off the Net –, and


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