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Monday with the Editor: Give our young less stress at school

Hallo everyone

It's back to school today for some 500,000 students here in Singapore. A week of R&R has passed quickly. It's now time for that last stretch of the curriculum year culminating in the end-of-year examinations a month or two away.

So how did our young handle the stress last term? Well, one of my nephews took the easy way out - he claimed there wasn't any test or exam last term when his Chinese-educated mother nagged him to study. This got me curious so I did a little digging - I called up his primary school in Sengkang. I was told there wasn't any CA1 that term. Instead, the teachers would be setting class tests for their charges. 

I went back to my nephew with the news and asked when the class tests would be held. He feigned ignorance and asked whether I was talking about class revision worksheets. As usual, my wife went to his defence, telling me that perhaps he didn't understand what I meant when I used the terms "CA" and "tests".

Now that remark really riled me! Fancy a Primary 4 schoolboy in Singapore not knowing what CA or test meant, after going through repeated CAs and tests for the past four years and bringing home the report cards bearing their results. It was, I thought, a lame defence. My wife was merely helping her nephew out of a tough spot.

I think my nephew was taking an easy way out. He wanted no nagging from his mother so before the CA or test he would claim there weren't such things around the corner. And when he had sat for these things, he would just show the marks. His mother said he used this trick quite frequently.

Perhaps, I was ruthless when I confronted my nephew. My thinking is that of a 40-plus person and he is just ten years old. There appears to be a huge generation gap between us. I was brought up resigned to endless tests and exams in the 70s. I took these things in my stride and complained little. I wasn't the studious type but when the exams or tests were around the corner, I burnt the midnight oil - without being nagged.

It may be the stress at school from teachers and at home from his mother that is making my nephew behave thus. It's his way of handling stress. And I shouldn't chide him for this little trick of his. This may be his way of keeping sane in the rat race at school.

Grades have become all too important in Singapore and schools may have become pressure-cooker centres unwittingly. Some children may bask in such situations. Others may not know how to handle the stress. In their minds, they are still young and being young meant being free to play around. Hitting the books is the last thing in their minds. Then, there are those who do not have the grey matter to keep up with the rigorous learning programme.

It's obvious there's no one-fit-for-all solution. There will always be different mindsets challenging whatever proposals being put forward to address the problems at school. Just early this month, in the Forum page of The Straits Times, some parents were lauding the five-day week at school as a good move as it would let them and their children use the whole weekend for family-bonding activities. But, in the same newspaper, some students with different ideas wrote in. One requested for CCAs2 to be allowed to continue on Saturdays. Another asked for weekend homework not to be banned. 

And the debate continues in that newspaper today with two parents fighting back. The first appealed to schools to "reduce homework, and cut school demands and commitments to reasonable levels" and "incorporate CCAs into curriculum time". She said, "In my family, all of us get to sleep in late over the weekend. We have a leisurely breakfast and do other lazy family things. All of us, that is, except my elder boy who gets up at 6am even on Saturday, because of CCAs. With the recent implementation of the five-day week, we hope he will get to enjoy weekends with the rest of the family."

The second parent was also alarmed at the comments of the students who wrote in. He said, "We have really indoctrinated them with a sense that the current school curriculum must be fulfilled, despite the changes proposed by PM Lee." He continued, "Several years ago, an effort was made to reduce the school curriculum, but nothing happened. So long as the way we measure schools - key performance indicators (KPIs) - remains the same, not much will change. We need to change school KPIs in order to change."

Prime Minister Lee has said, "We've got to teach less to our students so that they will learn more. Grades are important don't forget to pass your exams but grades are not the only thing in life and there are other things in life which we want to learn in school."

Let's hope his all-important message will filter through the competing mindsets of teachers and administrators in our schools. Let them understand that a reduction in the school curriculum should not be seen as a signal to increase the number and complexity of tests to make up for the shortfall. 

Then, perhaps, my nephew will be weaned off his little trick.

Have a good week!

1 CA = Continual Assessment (term test)

2 CCA = Co-Curricular Activities

See also: Community Issues: Five-day week for schools

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13 September 2004