Monday, May 23, 2016

Teach Less Learn More - Lessons Learnt Part 2

This is a follow-up post on Teach Less Learn More - Part 1.

Teach Less Learn More (TLLM) was touted as the frontier philosophy in Singapore's education system to make learning holistic, bringing learning from inside the classroom to hands-on experiences, learning by discovery and less rote memorizing. Unfortunately, the implementation left much to be desired. Today, after years of TLLM, we are still stuck in an epic education war, akin to the popular Animal Kaiser game, where no animals nor their masters actually win.

Perhaps we have to go back to the genesis of Singapore's education system to understand a bit more. Singapore's national education system started in the late 60s and early 70s. Back then, the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singapore's chief economic architect needed to solve urgent problems: illiteracy, lack of core math and science skills and the need to increase in productivity and efficiency of our workers working for Multinational corporations or MNCs setting up shop in our little red dot. So he created an education system to tackle these issues, focusing on the most efficient way to produce engineers and workers.

Dr Goh Keng Swee

Dr Goh Keng Swee was a super remarkable man. Yes, super remarkable. We owe Singapore's success as much to him as our late founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself. (Links to these posts attached to their names in the previous sentences.) This website has posts dedicated to our two most important Titans. The education system they created fifty years ago was best suited to solve the issues then. We focused on rote learning, skewed the importance of math and science and we made sure we produce engineers by the truckloads at the end of it. It worked perfectly. 

Alas, after half a century, we failed to reform the system for today's world. Today's issues are, by and large, created by still following an outdated model laid down by our founding fathers. We had some nominal education ministers, whom didn't restructure for modern times when they were in power. We introduced school rankings and a completely berserk implementation of TLLM. We crammed difficult concepts into our young minds thinking it's improvement. 

Yeah, Laplace Transformation at PSLE, anyone? Or perhaps psycho-analysis of Lolita at Primary 5?

Then we had Mr Heng Swee Keat who did a lot of wonderful things but he left the Ministry of Education way too early and now it's really unfortunate that he had a stroke. Our hearts to Mr Heng and his family, hope he can come back soon! 

For all the good things that Mr Heng has done, we need some strong follow-ups. In particular, here are three points worth discussing:

1. Love for Learning
2. Collaboration not Competition
3. Adaptability: Learn to Relearn

The tragedy of all the mis-steps in education over the years was that it killed the students' love for learning. By cramming more and more difficult concepts into young brains when they are not ready simply turned them off. Imagine throwing the baby into the deep end of the pool and then expecting the he becoming next Ang Peng Siong in eighteen years. That seemed to be the way our education system wanted to work.

Stop cramming difficult concepts into our young minds and start nurturing the students' love for learning. The world has changed. We do not need to churn out engineers and secretaries as fast as possible. We need multi-dimensional thinking, adaptability and teamwork. It is time our schools start to teach more of these.

It has been said so many times that it's like super cliche. But we have to say it here again. Learning is a life long process. One can never stop learning. It's the truth. Our education system has made learning so tough, it's not funny. If we kill the love for learning in our next generation, then how can they continue this life long process? 

It is not too late to revamp the system to one based on nurturing our students' love for learning. We should move away from tests, cramming difficult concepts, rote learning to make education really beneficial. Learning should be fun, entertaining, relevant, practical even for the daily lives of young students. It should also be impactful and inspiring. There is really not much relevance in solving for how many marble Ravi actually has, knowing that he has 245 more then Siti and John combined and John has yet another 69 marbles more than Siti and all of them has 941 marbles together. Whatever! How does this help a nine year old in his daily life?

The only reason why primary school students derive joy in solving as many as these problem sums is to be able to beat their classmates by solving more sums than them. This is a very sad revelation. It creates another big problem. It foster excessive competition. We are not saying competition is not good. Competition is obviously necessary. It is dictated by nature: survival of the fittest. But excessive competition which is what Singapore is all about has lasting damage. The real world is not about individualistic competition except in Olympic games. 

In most work environment, we work as a team. There is competition but that is based on company vs company like Google vs Apple, or even consortiums vs consortiums like European banks vs US banks. It is rarely about individual competition or even competition within the company. Companies that encourage the culture of intra-company competition usually fail. Within the team, or within the company, it is about collaboration, not about competition. Yet, the Singapore education has evolved into one where it is all about becoming #1. Or being amongst the top. Only the top quartile or decile wins. Beating the next guy to be one up. This is a loser's mentality.

More often than not, Singaporeans have the mentality that there can only be winners and losers. If you lose, that means I win. To go up, I must step on others' heads. I cannot lose even if I am giving money away. Must check whether the auntie selling tissue really lives in one room flat. This loser's mentality is very detrimental and most work environment collapses when such mentality dominates the culture. These losers think that the compensation pie is fixed. If I get a smaller slice means someone is getting a bigger slice. So they go all out the grab the slices. They are willing to backstab, hit below the belt, go under the table and do all sorts. This is loser's mentality at its worst.

It is not about competing who's winning and who's losing. It's collaboration.

In the winning culture, the winners know that the pie is not fixed. It is as big as they want to make it because the world is their oyster. They collaborate in the most ingenious ways to grow the pie. This is how the Facebooks and the Googles of the world is taking over the planet. Our education is not contributing to create more of these world dominating companies, nor educating the workforce to be able to adapt in these winning culture. 


The real world is about collaboration, not competition. There is no #1 spot, nor cut off scores, nor elbowing to be amongst the top. It is teamwork, thinking win-win, forging new routes to access the blue ocean and adapting along the way. 

For those in the workforce long enough would know there is really limitations in what one person could do. Humans work together since prehistoric times, to bring down mammoths, to build pyramids and today to create new markets. The pie is never fixed. Google, by putting the best brains in the world into one firm is trying to solve some of the world's biggest problems. Like creating self-driving cars so as to free us to do a lot more productive work while commuting and at the same time reducing accidents and traffic jams. This came about with collaboration, not competing who gets more fat bonuses from Google's advertising revenue via its search engine.

Google and the rest of the tech firms are at the forefront of game changing innovations. Alas, our schools are ill prepared for what's coming. Next post, we talk about adaptability: how to learn to relearn and the best skills to impart to our next generation!

All three parts are out!

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