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Five Lessons from Teaching In Singapore

Recently, we posted a piece on the effect that testing has on Chinese education and parenting. Today's author, Maya Thiagarajan, an English teacher at an international school in Singapore, similarly looks at these issues in her book, "Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age." Here are some of the lessons she learned. 

By guest author Maya Thiagarajan

Until 2010, I believed certain ideas to be universal educational truths, and I followed them religiously:

  • Truth #1: Kids of all ages have a short attention span, so educators need to divide their lessons into short, engaging, and fun segments that will keep kids engaged.
  • Truth #2: Learning should always be fun. As a teacher, you've got to make it fun. If kids are not engaged, it's the teacher's fault.
  • Truth #3: Good teachers are always "the guide on the side." No good teacher should be "a sage on the stage."
  • Truth #4: Making kids memorize stuff is not just unnecessary in the age of Google, it's downright bad pedagogy. Twenty-first century learning is not about "knowing" information, it's about analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and creating.
  • Truth #5: Class participation is all about talking in class discussions and group activities. All kids must learn to share their ideas verbally, offer their opinions verbally, and ensure that their voices get heard. 

And then, in 2010, I moved to Singapore.

On this tiny, high-performing Asian island, I found my educational world turned upside-down. I began teaching at an international school, where the vast majority of my students were Asian (both East Asian and South Asian). I also became increasingly interested in the much talked about Singapore local system, known for its sky-high PISA scores. Through my interactions with Asian parents and educators in Singapore, I began to realize that many of my "educational truths" were not "universal truths" at all. If anything, they were cultural constructs, and here in Singapore, they just didn't apply.

In fact, I was so interested by the differences in East-West approaches to education and parenting, that I began to formally interview educators, policymakers, and parents in Singapore, and I ended up writing a book titled "Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age." Despite the title, the book is as much about education as it is about parenting, and its thesis is that both East and West have tremendous strengths, and global parents and educators can blend the best of both approaches to raise successful kids.

So here are five lessons I've learned from Singapore:

Lesson #1: Educators don't need to accommodate short attention spans; we need to train kids to extend their attention spans.
Many of the Singaporean educators I spoke with, particularly elementary school teachers, described the benefits of making young kids complete long and demanding academic tasks. Kids spend hours learning how to write thousands of complex Chinese characters. From grade two onward, they take exams that last for 90 minutes in each of their four major subjects. Yes, that's right: seven year olds can sit down and concentrate on math for an hour and a half.

When I expressed surprise (or shock and horror, to be more precise) over this, parents and educators agreed that Singaporean kids experience significant educational stress because of the exam system, but none of them seemed to think that it was asking too much to make a young child sit down and focus on a single task for an hour and a half. "These tests and activities help train our children to shut out distractions, focus their minds, and concentrate," said one teacher. Said a parent, "It is important to teach our children to focus for extended periods of time. That's a very important skill."

Lesson #2: Educators don't need to worry so much about making learning "fun"; we need to make learning meaningful, engaging, rigorous, and satisfying.
In Singapore, parents and educators seem much less concerned with entertaining kids and making learning fun. In fact, the word "fun" seems to suggest a game or a party, and education on this island is certainly no game or party. It's serious business. 

But that doesn't mean that kids don't like learning. 

What I've realized is that many students find serious academic work very satisfying, and as educators, we shouldn't be hesitant to engage our students in challenging work and demand excellence from them. One Chinese teacher at my school told me that the Western emphasis on "fun" is one of the biggest differences between East and West. She added, "We Asians aren't so interested in constantly having fun. Our kids learn to like serious studying and learning. They don't want or expect everything to be a game or a party."

Lesson #3: Don't mock "the sage on the stage." The elder does have an important role to play, and despite technology, that role is still important.
With phrases like "sage on the stage," American educational rhetoric literally ridicules the idea that a teacher has wisdom to offer young kids. In every way, the rhetoric exhorts teachers to stay on the sidelines and play only a facilitating role while empowering kids to take the lead. 

While I think that playing the role of a guide or a facilitator certainly has its place in a 21st century classroom, I've also started to think deeply about the Singaporean belief that the elder not only has wisdom to offer the child, but also has a responsibility to be front and center in the child's life.

When I read American rhetoric exhorting teachers and parents to empower children by giving them more choices and greater freedom (and in the process, less explicit guidance), I can't help but wonder whether it makes sense to marginalize the role of the elder. When we let machines and peer culture teach our children, aren't we devaluing our own wisdom and expertise? Aren't we abdicating a central responsibility that the elders in communities around the world have performed for millennia? Don't children benefit from some explicit guidance? And shouldn't there be times when we are "the sages on the stage"? 

Lesson #4:  Despite Google and 21st century progress, kids still need to know stuff, and memorization is still an important part of education.
In Singapore, and perhaps across Asia, many parents and teachers still harbor a deep reverence for the power of human memory. In her book on "The Cultural Foundations of Learning," education professor Jin Li describes memorization as "repeated learning," and argues that this process helps Chinese students to gain "a deep impression" of the material. In his defense of a "knowledge rich" curriculum, the former Singaporean education minister Heng Swee Keat said, "If creativity is about connecting the dots, you need to have solid dots in the first place, or you will have nothing to connect." Kids here memorize a lot of information, and they know a lot. Perhaps the emphasis on memorization in Singapore is excessive and comes with opportunity costs, but it has certainly challenged my paradigms.

Lesson #5: Class participation isn't just about talking; it's also about listening.
At the end of my first semester of teaching, I gave an East-Asian student in my class a low score for class participation. In every way possible, this kid was a model student: she worked very hard, she did all her homework, her essays were fantastic, and she was always polite and well-behaved. Yet, she was quiet and reserved in class discussions. As a result, I gave her an "insufficient" for class participation.


She came to see me later with tears in her eyes.  I said, "But you don't speak up in our class discussions." She looked at me confused. She then explained to me that in her old school, class participation involved being prepared for class and listening very carefully to what the teacher said. Class participation involved listening, not talking.

In Singapore, and across East Asia, kids are taught to listen, and listening seems to be valued more than talking. I still expect my students to speak up and share their ideas in class discussions, but I now do two things differently: I explain what I mean by participation more specifically, and I also value listening a whole lot more. Our kids need to learn to listen to each other and to adults. And when we assume that participation is all about talking, we devalue listening unfairly. 

Now, the Singaporean approach to education is not perfect by any means. It has its own slew of issues, and parents and educators on the island engage in heated debates about the exam system, the degree of pressure, the tracking systems, and the need for more creativity. But, the fact of the matter is that Singapore does a lot of stuff very, very well. Parents and educators from around the world can learn from each other, and by blending the best of Eastern and Western approaches, we can all raise successful global kids.

Connect with Maya and Heather on Twitter. 

Image courtesy of Heather Singmaster.

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