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 Today's issues are, by and large, created by still following an outdated model laid down by our founding fathers.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!

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Teach Less Learn More - Lessons Learnt Part 1

Despite this being an investment blog, education posts written in 2011 and there after had delivered one of the highest pageviews as a result of our obsessively competitive education system and the interest it generated. There had been various changes since then: it was announced that PSLE would move away from the three digit scoring system, schools would be more holistic building on the TLLM (a.k.a teach less learn more philosophy) implemented almost a decade ago amongst other changes. Hence it might be a good time to give an update here.

Let's recap a few topics:

1. Parents vs System
2. Teachers
3. Philosophy (new topic)

Parents vs System: this topic had been debated to the death, yes blame the kiasu parents. But the solution is not asking all the parents to stop being kiasu. That cannot be the case and as parents, the solution is also not about stopping tuition for our kids, as to try to stop condoning the system and to try to cut the financial umbilical cord to tuition centres. This seemed to be some parent's mentality. If I do my part to not support the tuition industry, then the system has to change. Sorry it doesn't work that way. Tell the ladies: try not wearing high heels to stop condoning heels which are bad for ladies' feet, bad for stability and bad for the wallet. It doesn't work. Not letting your kids go tuition when he needs it in this day and age just makes it a handicap, akin to purposely tying one arm behind in a boxing match.

Just to share another interesting revelation here. The education system in Singapore, in effect, is an epic battle between parents and their resourcefulness, it is not about the students, who's really smart and who's really good at math or science, or reciting poetry. As our young kids are made to learn more and more difficult concepts at younger and younger age, the key determining factor becomes how much resources the parents can put in the ensure their kids win. Unfortunately, it is much less about the kids' true capabilities.

Just take primary school math as an example: today an 8 year old Singaporean school kid is made to learn very difficult math concepts using fractions and algebra when their minds are not developed for these concepts. Just to elaborate, we have math problems requiring algebra to solve but the system refuses to introduce 'x's and 'y's and instead uses bars and pies to try to mask the difficulty. Needless to say, there is a very high degree of idiocy in giving such problems in the first place. I am sure we will get to 'x's and 'y's, perhaps differential equations and Laplace transformation for Primary 3 in a few years at the rate we keep introduce tough topics. 

Good luck parents of the future! Hence the solution to make these poor children "able to do" these problems involve rote learning and memorizing steps without them truly understand the concepts. This requires major investments into either tuition or parent's involvement (time and effort) or both,  to make sure the kids keep regurgitate the rote steps to solve these math problems.

This is so silly, agreed?

This is like a video game where the parents throw money, time, resources to train their kid i.e. the character so that they can go fight other computer characters and prove their worth. Of course, the kids at this age simply move like the computer characters, fully controlled by their parents. Some really good and smart kids soon realize the game and become motivated to fight on their own, but this is like A.I. achieving consciousness, ie the computer begins to think and move by itself and understands its own existence. Alas we are not there yet, most of our kids are simply moving from command to command, having not awakened. Hence we parents end up just training ourselves to be the gamemasters for our kids. This is the result of our f**ked up system.

Just to give the analogy a bit more meat, for some parents, the following game probably rings a bell. Animal Kaiser is a popular arcade video game where the player collects tonnes of cards in order to beat the opponent. These cards are of grave importance, some cards give the animal special powers, or even divine help, which is crucial during battles. Here, in the analogy, the parent is obviously the player, the kid is the animal character in the game that is going to fight all the other animals. And the tonnes of cards, which requires money, time and effort to collect represents the resources that parents pour into their kids to ensure they win this animalistic epic battle. 

Animal Kaiser & Our Education System

So yes, in Singapore we are all stuck in this big Animal Kaiser education war. Our kids are all animals, training hard, controlled by their gamemasters (a.k.a parents) in this meaningless fight. Does it help them when they go to real world? Does the special powers exist elsewhere outside the game? What are we trying to achieve here?

Things really have to change.

For things to change, it has to be changes made to the system. Change cannot be asking the parents to stop what they are doing. Just like we cannot ask all ladies to stop wearing heels. We must change the system. Yes things are finally moving but unfortunately the changes are moving too slowly. We saw the PSLE changes and what not, which might help, but perhaps most importantly, we have to upgrade our teachers.

Teachers are the most important players in the system.

In the previous posts we discussed that teachers used to be quite well paid some 20 to 30 years ago. I remember my teachers when I was a student were relatively well to do. During those days, their vocation was a profession, they were respected members of the society. Hence they also had the luxury to buy good properties during those days and benefited well from Singapore's property rise over the years.

Alas, today's school teachers are not having such good fortunes. Public school teaching has become a job that is not well paid, very taxing and yet thankless. Parents are ruthless, demanding and oblivious to the consequences of their actions when they condone their kids' wrongdoings in school. Teachers are unable to tackle unreasonable parents given the change in their social status. This is a sad problem.

It is said that the crux of a successful education system ultimately depends on the quality of the teachers. We have destroyed this. We turned teachers into commodities and hence are now suffering the consequences. Is it a wonder now that we have to resort to a billion dollar professional tuition industry to educate our kids?

For things to change, we need to attract talent back to the teaching profession. A big part of the answer lies in raising the salaries of teachers. Ironically, in Singapore, money talks loud and we have to pour money to solve this problem which created the issue of having parents to pour money in the first place. The answer is as follows:

If we doubled or tripled the salaries of teachers, subsequently tightening the requirements such that only the best graduates can be teachers, automatically, the society would recognize this to be a noble job, giving it the same recognition in due time. However this is also easier said than done, most countries had not succeeded except some Nordic countries where they dictated that teachers needed to be PhDs and are paid really well. Subsequently, they raise the education standards, really making sure no child is left behind.

The Nordic education system which extends to early childhood education is said to be the best in the world.

Of course, the ability to pour money to solve the problem ultimately depends on the government's coffers. If the government has no money, then how can they double or triple the salaries of teachers, who usually represent a huge number in the workforce? But Singapore government has money. We can definitely pull this off if we wanted to.

Next, we talk about our system's philosophy.

Meanwhile a happy Labour Day to all!

All three parts are out!