When Education is not Education
In a recent interview, I criticized the misperception that somehow Americans are less interested in the education than their Asian counterparts. American parents have been said to be not as devoted to their children’s education as Asian parents, so have been American teachers, and the American public. In the interview, I said, I believe barring some exceptions, all parents, Asian and American and African and European, are all interested in their children’s education because all we are genetically programmed to want the best for all off-springs. After all, they are our own genes. Teachers too care about their students and want them to learn, regardless of where they are, except for a few lazy and complacent ones. It would be rare to find teachers who don’t want to give their students a good education.
The difference lies in the definition of education. In some countries, education is defined as “schooling” while in some other the definition of education is much broader. That is why you see the different behaviors in different countries. For example, the documentary film 2 million minutes suggests that the Indians and Chinese high school students focus more on education than their American peers. A recent article in the Miami Herald also says that:
When school officials from across the world come here to learn why Singapore’s students score so well on international science and math tests, it doesn’t take them long to discover the secret — a national obsession with education.
But as a blog post commenting on the Singapore Ministry of Education’s recent recommendations for the future of primary education in Singapore suggests, “education is not education in Singapore but just a huge examination preparation exercise, namely, the high stakes examination system.”
This observation is similar what I have said in my book about education in China: The Chinese do not really focus more on education than Americans. They simply focus more on schooling, on performing well in school related tasks, or more precisely on doing well on tests. Americans seem to have a broader definition of education, although some have been working hard recently to narrow that definition to preparation for tests in a few subjects.
And below is an email from a Singaporean mother commenting her children’s education experience in Singapore to a friend of hers, when asked about the topic (published with permission):
I dont really keep tab of the development of the education system here. But from what I know and see from the kids’ syllabus and homework, it’s hell of a pressure cooker (Pl mind my language :-) ) I always get very agitated when this subject arises. Too much is being squeezed into the school syllabus to be completed within the term and I just find that the average kids do not get to have a good grasp and understanding of one topic before the teachers rush on to another and then another….
For an average kid, the depth of knowledge and appreciation of a topic is not evident, I find. A lot of reinforcement work is expected of parents and home tutors to keep the kids going if they want to do moderately well. Henceforth, tons and tons of homework and schoolwork are being forced upon the poor kids. When “kiasu-ism” results, academic pressure to perform is inevitable.
I heard that they revised the ranking system to a banding system. Schools are no longer publicly ranked individually but in bands or groups according to academic performance. Though there’s no public individual ranking of schools, minimum entry aggregate scores of schools are still being published, so in this respect, we kind of know which are the good/leading schools and which are not. Is that ranking in a way??? Maybe… So when there’s still some form of ranking, I think academic pressure to perform is bound to be there. Frankly, I really haven’t seen any visible reduction in academic pressure to perform yet. On the contrary, the pressure is but mounting.
Nevertheless, the government does try to encourage a holistic approach to education by placing emphasis on the arts, sports, creativity, innovation etc and moving away from examining Pri 1 and 2 kids on academic performance.
My New York cousin recently brought her daughter Jenny(name changed per the author’s request) back here to visit and when Jenny saw Lisa’s (author’s daughter, name changed) work, she freaked out and warned her mum not to even think of sending her back here to study. The kids exchanged their views on schools and aspirations and Jenny commented that she still preferred the US’ culture and system. Though she couldn’t solve some of Lisa’s work even when she was 2 grades higher than Lisa, I personally find her very vocal and confident, knew exactly what she wanted to pursue in her studies and life, and was extremely independent and mature. Whilst our kids appeared kind of like “nerds” who could probably solve slightly more difficult mathematics questions but could not hold up to a conversation… Sad to admit… sigh…