So I opened up the papers for the first time in a long time, and I saw something on the front page that reminded me of a lot of frustration I experienced when I was growing up as a student in Singapores education system. (Naturally, I just had to write about it.)
DPM says we need to create real spaces so that our kids can build character and develop original thinking. Hes right about the context in which such qualities develop, but hes wrong to insinuate that we have to create them, as if they dont already exist.
Let me share a few stories that have stayed with me forever, which I believe will illustrate the point Im making.
1: Two students was photographed supposedly making out on a bus. (They say they werent. I dont know. Personally, I think its none of my business.) The STOMP article is here. The school took disciplinary action against them. I believe that they were suspended and stripped of their positions in the student council. The entire school was brought into the school hall for the public hanging that followed.
I still remember how uncomfortable the atmosphere was, like something out of a dystopian novel. Everyone was quiet. The body language of the teachers and the administration was troubling. The Principal gave a foreboding and sickeningly moralistic lecture. One-way. I cant remember the details, but I remember being very, very angry, and a little bit scared. I felt stifled. Moral authority is something you earn, not something you impose on others by abusing your position. I felt somewhat violated.
One of my friends raised his hand to ask a question- the only guy in the hall who did- and the Vice-Principal brought him aside to talk to him about it in private. (I asked him about it later. I believed he questioned the rationale behind shaming the couple in public. I think he was told that it was all public information anyway- which is a cop-out answer, because that changes nothing. The institution did it to assert power. Thats what institutions do.)
There you had it- a real space, right in front of us. A real opportunity for engagement. It didnt have to be created, it was RIGHT THERE. An issue that was on everybodys minds, that everybody was talking about. But what happened? The school put everything on lockdown. Our Principal claimed to have all the answers. She knew what needed to be done in such a situation. She had sole moral authority, she knew what was right, we didnt, and so we had to be educated about it. Real space was abolished from school that day. Nobody was allowed to have any original thoughts. Nobody was allowed to develop character.
2: I was in JC1 in 2007, and I was a student council member at the time. The student council typically plays the lead role in organizing the Orientation for the new batch of students. Back in 2007, JC still had 2 intakes- PAE, or First Three Months, and then JAE. In 2008, the PAE was going to be shortened- and I believe it was done away with altogether in 2009. PAE Orientation was typically a much crazier affair- its still the beginning of the year, and the seniors havent started studying heavily yet, and theres just a fun atmosphere.
The Student Council was informed that the Orientation was going to have to be simple, minimalist, spartan and essentially, boring as hell. We were not consulted, our opinion didnt count for anything. The administration presented arguments which I considered weak- typical utilitarian stuff, meeting KPIs. Saving money. Saving time. Dont think so much. Dont put in so much effort. We dont care how much this means to you or how much effort you want to put in to create a meaningful experience.
I am so angry just thinking about this! A school should support student initiatives okay?! A school is not a business, you cant justify cauterizing peoples brains and hearts to save a few dollars. (Actually, its stupid to do that, even in business.) The one time you get a large proportion of people excited about something, you shut them down? Please, please tell me how youre going to break down passion into KPI. We crush the caterpillars then wonder why there are no butterflies. We werent given the opportunity to dissent, to voice our views. No. Real space was abolished from school that day. Nobody was allowed to have any original thoughts. Nobody was allowed to develop character.
(My counter-argument? People perform better for their O levels than for their prelims. As a result, academically weaker JCs get stronger students during JAE, who then go on to better schools with their improved grades.
Orientation is an opportunity for the school to make a pitch to these students that they ought to stay. The atmosphere is amazing, its something youll want to be a part of! Dont take the risk of a school you dont know, bring your better skills and talents and grades to a school that loves you.
If we do that, and we retain a larger group of strong students, well see better aggregate grades, too! But fuck me, right, for talking about love in the context of an institution? Cant measure that, no KPIs for love.)
3. We had an awesome valedictorian who wrote a real space speech. It was censored. She was successful despite of the system, not because of it- yet it wanted to hold her up as an example of its success, while silencing her from speaking the truth.
The answer is not less focus on exams. The answer is more focus on real life. Its not so simple a matter of spend less time here, spend more time there. No. We need an complete shift of priorities. When a real world situation arises, teachers should have the choice to suspend the syllabus and teach kids about life.
Look, you want real space- real space is ALL AROUND YOU. We live in real space, damn it! Think about what is implied- if real space needs to be CREATED for students, it means that SCHOOL IS NOT REAL.
As I am writing this, I am shaking, and I am seething, and I am reminded of all the emotions I experienced when I was a frustrated Junior College student. I remember feeling trapped in what I perceived to be massive institutionalized hypocrisy. Ask around and youll hear the stories. RGS once brought in a former lesbian who was cured to give a talk. I remember reading on Kirsten Hans blog about girls (I think in St. Margarets) who were labelled sinners and forced to read the bible.
The real world is all around us. We have to have the bloody guts to allow our students to participate in it, or otherwise apathy is a rational coping mechanism. Why should you care about anything, why should you get excited about anything, if its never going to amount to anything? Singaporeans have been conditioned to be apathetic; we werent born this way.
The world is bloody real, okay? Heartbreak is real. Pain is real. Hypocrisy is real. Lying is real. Bullshit is real. Its institutions that create and sustain artificiality. You want original thinking from students, ask them some real bloody questions that actually matter, and actually give a damn about their input. You want to build character, get kids involved in decision-making- you cant build character if you dont make decisions.
Wanna hear more stories? My girlfriend is a primary school teacher. Shes told me some stories. Let me tell you more stories.
4: A student was selling stationery and stickers to other students in the school bus. An unhappy parent confronts a teacher and suggests that the school ought to stop it, because children are spending their recess money!
Why is that the schools problem? Why should we quash the girls enterprising spirit? That girl could be Singapores future Steve Jobs, you know! If your child has blossomed into a mindless consumer drone at the age of 10, then you have to worry about your child, not the mini-entrepreneur on the bus! NEWSFLASH: The whole world is out to get you to spend your recess money on stupid shit you dont need.
School should be a part of the solution- not by getting rid of the girl selling stickers, but by teaching kids to think for themselves, to manage themselves and their finances properly.
5: A girls hairclip went missing. She said she left it in class. Another girl appeared to have one that was seemingly identical, and there was a conflict. My girlfriend sent them out and helped them to figure it out amongst themselves. She explained to them how it would be unfair for her to give it to one of them or the other, because neither had any evidence. They eventually reached a solution of some sort.
She recounted the story in the staffroom, where every other teacher she asked told her they would have just confiscated the hairclip. Everyone!
Why? Its the simpler solution to the problem! Use your authority as a teacher to banish the problem from existence! Why bother teaching children how to manage real-world conflict? Thats not on the syllabus. Dont waste valuable lesson time. Grades are important. Thats only for real space period, which is after Maths period, I think. But oh wait, were going to end up borrowing real space period for exam preparation
I know I have been snarky, angry and upset in writing this, and it shows. Ive decided to leave it in for authenticitys sake, and because I like to swear from time to time, and you might as well get used to it.
But please, think about it. Thats all I ask. Just think about it. If youre a parent, think about it. If youre a student, think about it. If youre a teacher, HOD or Principal, please, PLEASE think about it.