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Monday with the Editor: Competition from China whiz kids in our schools

Lately, there has been talk of China whiz kids - studying in our schools - posing a threat to our own students. Is it an empty threat - one void of merits?
I have taught our students in secondary schools in the past few years. Whether they be in the Express, Normal Academic (NA) or Normal Technical (NT) streams, I have taught them all, and have seen enough of them to know what makes them tick.
I have also had the opportunity to teach kids from China, keen on settling into local primary schools here. Over a period of six months, I had a chance to teach English and Mathematics to these chaps, aged from ten to sixteen years old, in a local private school. And it was certainly an eye-opening experience for me.
Of the sixty or so China students I had come into contact with in the school, only two did not show keenness in absorbing knowledge. These two boys were typical of the many boys found in our NA and NT streams - they were in the classroom because their parents wanted them to be there, but in their own minds, learning was a chore.
The rest of the China students I found to be eager to absorb knowledge. Though some of them did not know common words such as cat or dog, they did not let their journey into uncharted territory daunt them. They all came into the classroom armed with electronic Chinese-English dictionaries which could even voice English words keyed into them. And they all listened intently as I explained the rudiments of the English language to them.
I admit that the two or three months they spent in the private school did little to help them gain a good grasp of the English language. Tried as I did, I could not get the majority to construct correctly basic sentences in composition assignments given them in the time they were there. But, they picked up enough skills to be able to pass tests having Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQ). And they learnt fast, especially with the aid of these electronic gadgets.
When it came to Mathematics, these China students pleasantly surprised me - I could say without a doubt that most of them would qualify as whiz kids in the subject, for they are nothing short of being brilliant in Mathematics. This is the area where our local students will face intense competition from the China students. I hesitate as I say this, but, I have to admit that I think these most of these China students will surpass our own students in Mathematics, given enough practice in handling the translation of the English text in the questions set.
An article in The Straits Times of 13 Feb 2005 quoted Mr Wang Yongli, the education counsellor at the Chinese Embassy, as saying that about 30,000 China nationals were studying in government and private schools here in 2004, compared with 25,000 in 2003. It went on to say that one-third of them are in polytechnics and universities, 10,000 in primary and secondary schools and the rest in private and commercial schools.
Rather than worry about the influx of talent that could threaten their children's future, our Singaporean parents should see these China whiz kids as a necessity for local schools, for our own students, having outdone their own kind at school over the past decades and not having worthwhile competition to spur them on to greater heights, can now count on these brilliant China kids to pace them into greater excellence.
It's a win-win situation for everyone. If our best local students can outdo themselves, we can certainly breathe easily in the knowledge that they can overcome whatever odds that may fall into their paths in future.
So parents who are worried about top places going to foreign students and Singapore losing face and having a reputation for producing mediocre students should put their fears behind them.


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21 February 2005