Friday, September 14, 2012

Heng Swee Keat talks about parents and kids

 Let's examine what Heng Swee Keat talks about parents and kids.
Helping parents help their kids learn
by Heng Swee Keat
Parents are a child's first teachers. Parents are our most important partners. Teachers cannot be surrogate parents. I hope parents value teachers as their partners, too.

Teachers are often anxious about dealing with demanding parents. I understand because I have met some myself.

I recently had a father who came to see me for help. He began his comments with a string of expletives about the teachers in his son's school. With such an attitude in front of me, I could only imagine how he would be like in meeting our teachers. I told him quite firmly that if he wanted us to help him, he must help himself. There is absolutely no reason and no excuse for bad behaviour.

More recently, we had a mother who filed a police report and went to the media, aggrieved that her son's S$60 haircut was ruined by his teacher. The simple fact is that the son was reminded, over and over again, to trim his hair; and when that failed, the school sent a letter to the parent.

The mother's response was that her son was dyslexic and therefore forgetful. Dyslexic people are not forgetful. As one writer put it in a media commentary, by raising such a hullabaloo, "the mother ... did herself and her son no favours".

If parents do not show graciousness to others and respect for rules, our young will not do so, either. Soon, discipline will be eroded, the tone in our schools will deteriorate, and the tone in our society, too. Good people will be deterred from joining teaching.

Once the ethos in a school is lost, it is hard to recover. It is already happening in many schools around the world. Who suffers? Our students, and future generations of students, who just want a good education. We must take a firm stand against unreasonable demands.


Thankfully, the vast majority of our parents are supportive partners.

But among them there is a broad range of parenting styles and a wide range of needs. I have come across many who are well-meaning, who love their children, but do not know what to do.

On the other hand, there are those who are much too involved, and push their children too hard. Ms Tan Beng Luan, a pre-school principal in Singapore, made similar observations in an article in Lianhe Zaobao a few months back.

She has been a pre-school principal for over 15 years, and observed that many pre-schoolers were more clumsy and fragile than before. Many parents, afraid that their kids would fall, stopped them from crawling and roaming around and used baby walkers instead.

In primary schools, many parents are seen carrying their children's school bags, and dropping them off right at the doorstep of the school.

Ms Tan also shared the story of how a father let his three-year-old daughter pick a place for dinner each night. He wanted her to learn about freedom of choice.

But one night, he could not accommodate her choice as he had to work. And she threw a big tantrum. When teaching her, he forgot that freedom to choose must come with respect for others.

Ms Tan noted that if we want to nurture students to become resilient, responsible and perseverant adults, we must reflect on how, as parents, we must allow them to pick themselves up when they fall and not to cry; to settle disputes among their fellow students on their own; and to learn to do things for themselves.

Let me add - this is not a uniquely Singaporean problem. Ms Madeline Levine has written a book about how some American parents are doing too much, depriving their children of a chance to grow up.


I have a lot of empathy for parents. Parenting is very challenging - all of us who are parents know that. It is a big and complex subject. Our expectations have gone up, we have less time, and our children are exposed to many more sources of influence.

But, ultimately, parents and educators share the same goal - to bring out the best in our children. So let us work together in partnership. The Ministry of Education (MOE) will be doing three things.

Firstly, a new Parents in Education (PiE) website will be launched today. We want to help parents help their children, and make learning something that the whole family can be involved in.

This website will include resources such as parenting tips, educational news and learning resources for parents. We will continue to get feedback from parents to improve on this and provide additional resources that would best serve their needs.

Secondly, we provide resources to enhance parent-school partnerships. Earlier this year, MOE introduced the Parent Support Group (PSG) Fund. In addition, 15 primary schools received the PiE fund initiated by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

We will provide our schools with a Partnerships Resource Pack to guide them in this effort. I thank parents, school leaders, teachers, and Community and Parents in Support of Schools (COMPASS) members for giving their inputs on the making of this resource pack.

When I met Ngee Ann Secondary's PSG, they were extremely pleased with the PSG funds. They excitedly told me about how they had used the funds to organise a range of activities.

What I am most impressed by is that many PSG members continue to be active in the school PSG even after their children have graduated. It is a way for them to work with other parents to create a rich and supportive network in the school connecting parents, teachers and students.

Thirdly, we believe that this conversation of supporting each other and informing each other on parenting tips is best done among parents. We have thus been expanding our engagement sessions with parents so that they can have a conversation with each other on what are some of their best practices.

Over the past year, our Senior Parliamentary Secretaries and COMPASS have also been engaging parents. One of these parent engagement sessions was led by Senior Parliamentary Secretary Hawazi Daipi. Parents responded very positively, learnt from each other and contributed some great ideas.


In the spirit of this partnership, let me now pull together the four inter-related attributes of a student-centric, values-driven education, to comment on the vexing issue of homework, examinations and stress.

One mother told me recently: "Mr Heng, there is not a mother in Singapore who is not stressed about her child's education." And indeed, some dads are, too.

I have spent the last year or so discussing this with educators, parents and students. It seems to me that the sources of stress are multiple. For some, it is excessive homework and CCAs. For others, it is extra assessment books, tuition and enrichment classes.

Just walk into any of our bookshops and you will see that one of the largest sections is that for assessment books. It is the same in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. For many, it is expectation and ambition to do one's best - especially at high-stakes examinations.

Comparison with others is also often a source of stress. One student told me that her parents first asked her why she had not gotten into a top school like her cousin. Then when she got 80 marks in a test, her parents asked her why her cousin in a better school got 85.

So she worked very hard and, when she got 85, her parents told her that her cousin had now gotten 90! She felt that she had done her best, but it was never good enough. Thankfully, she remained a very cheerful girl.

One father, who met me on a Saturday morning, told me that his daughter had to stay in school till 4pm on three days a week - two for extra lessons, one for CCA. As a result, he had little quality time with her. When I asked where his daughter was that Saturday morning, he said, rather apologetically, that he had sent her for an enrichment class.

Another complained to me that the school conducted extra lessons during the vacation. I checked and found that it was optional. But he replied: "So what? My son has to go otherwise he will lose out. It's best that MOE scraps the whole thing?"

So, while some parents know that extra lessons could take up too much time at the expense of time with the family, they still send their children for tuition and enrichment classes for fear that they may fall behind.


As we deliberate over this issue, it is also useful to learn from the experiences of other countries.

One country in East Asia cut curriculum, only to have to restore it a few years later and add more, when standards fell sharply.

Another expanded university places so that over 80 per cent of each cohort of students could go to universities. But it did not stop parents from sending children to cram schools so that they could cram well enough to enter one of the top three universities. Their education ministry now has inspectors to ensure tuition centres close by 10pm.

Another education system abolished their equivalent of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), yet concerned parents are now queuing up to have their three-year-olds do assessment tests for admission to high-end kindergartens.

I asked what they assessed, and they said they assessed language skills and motor skills. I heard of one child who could not perform because the test was held during his naptime, and his grandparents were distraught.

Any society which prizes achievements will run into issues like these. Our education system must have sufficient rigour and strength - it must not become soft. The key for us is not to reduce stress to zero, but to strike the right balance. There are no easy solutions, but we in MOE must reflect on what we can do, and do our best.


First, tackle the issue of homework. Last year, we asked schools to issue a homework guideline. We have considered if we should issue a standardised one, across all schools.

We decided that a one-size-fits-all guideline will not work. The demand of homework on each child is different. Given the same piece of homework, one child may take half-an-hour, and another child might take an hour or more.

However, schools can do better to coordinate the amount of homework given. Let me share the practice of Jing Shan Primary and Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary, and several other schools. They have a state-of-the-art supercomputer to help them to coordinate and schedule students' homework.

That way, teachers can coordinate when setting homework to make sure that students are not overloaded on a particular day or week. They also get students to update their individual student handbooks daily so parents know how much homework their children were given.

It also allows students to learn to schedule their homework over the week - an important life skill! These are good practices to manage and coordinate the overall amount of homework given to students, and schools should make this more visible to parents going forward.

I want to emphasise that schools should not be apologetic about giving homework. The studies on this are clear - homework reinforces learning and deepens understanding. But it does not follow that more homework is always better. As in many things in life, if we overdo this, it can be harmful. As a fraternity, let us aim to improve the quality of homework so that we can assess if students have learnt well, and the areas where we need to reinforce the learning. Homework serves as an important tool for learning and reinforcing learning.


Second, parents will want the best for their children. We cannot stop this. Nor should we. Even for students who are doing well, some will choose to have tuition even if it is not necessary, just to "make doubly sure" as we love to say. Again, this is not uniquely Singapore.

In China, one tuition agency had a unique tagline: "You may not be a genius, but you can be a father to a genius!" Now, which father would not want this? In Singapore, we have the opposite advertising.

MOE can do our part not to contribute to the need for tuition. Our schools and our examinations must not be run on the basis that students will have tuition. Some parents complain that our teachers tell the students to seek answers from their tuition teachers. If this is true, we must put a stop to it.

This is not to say that tuition and extra support are not useful for some students. I know many of our teachers sacrifice much personal time to coach students or run remedial and supplementary classes. Students who are weak can benefit from help. However, teachers cannot do everything, and community tuition schemes, like those run by Self-Help Groups, have been useful.

Tertiary students have also volunteered their time to help weaker students. In class, there is much value in stronger students helping weaker students, in the spirit of collaborative learning.

But excessive tuition is harmful. If students over-learn, they become bored in class. It also comes at the expense of CCA, which is an indispensable part of holistic development, and time for other pursuits like reading which broadens the mind, and spending time with friends and family.

When students have "personal coaches" for learning, and look for ready answers rather than struggle to understand, it undermines the spirit of perseverance and independence. When they start work, they cannot be running to someone for answers to difficult or unfamiliar issues.


Third, we must not set unrealistic standards for tests and examinations. Anecdotally, some parents have told me that their schools seek to send a message to "wake up" their students who are under-performing, and thus set a harder test or exam. We should not do this.

Assessment standards must be appropriate. Studies show that setting tests that are too hard often does not benefit students. It can discourage them and they may lose their interest in learning.

MOE will be studying how the level of difficulty of the assessments in our education system can be pitched appropriately and how we can provide better support to schools in setting questions.

There have also been many other suggestions. For example, one MP suggests that MOE should regulate the tuition industry, or our teachers should teach more, or that parents should not do so much.

Each of these supposed "solutions" place added expectations on overworked teachers to do more, or on parents to do things that they do not believe in.

MOE must do our part, but it is important for us not to just tackle the symptoms, and MOE will study this in more depth. This is a complex subject tied very much to our values and expectations as a society.

But as a first step, I think that it is very important for us to take a step back, to go to the crux of the issue and consider what really matters. I would like to suggest that to start the discussion, we need to ask: What are the attributes that will enable our children to succeed in life? What are our values and ideals as a society? How can our education system help us get there?

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