Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Blog Post That Wasn't

The following blog post was written in Singapore and not posted for fear of my job. It was a cowardly act that I've had trouble coming to grips with. At any rate, here it is, as it was originally written.

“Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules? Mark it zero!” Walter, from ‘The Big Lebowski” shouts to Smokey when his toe slips the line in a league bowling game. Being unhinged, he then produces a firearm to ensure his marking.

* * *

It has, a third of the year in, dawned on me that the school I teach at isn’t a school. It has nothing, really, scholastic about it. It is, instead, a two-year test-prep course. Anyone who has done test prep knows the difference between them and real classes. I took one for the SAT. They are no-nonsense affairs, which either teach test-taking skills or drill content. In Singapore the model is to drill content.

We’re going to spend three quarters of the year doing content, and fully a quarter of the year working on revision. From an efficiency standpoint I initially balked – if you are going to focus on content then students should at least be able to deliver it less than a year later without needing a massive revision.

Not that content, anywhere, is useful. Some content is nice, of course, for cultural literacy purposes. I suppose there are some things you just need to know. But very few children relish the experience of rote and anything that can be gained as such should be put online anyway. There’s no need for the classroom anymore if you want just the facts – they’re out there for your own consumption with an availability never dreamed of before.

For a while, in my post-secondary studies, I thought that home schooling was the answer to the content problem. This was perhaps prompted by my dad’s semi-sarcastic quip that if I wanted to just read books and learn a bit about everything he’d gladly invest in an encyclopedia rather than have me go to an expensive private college. But I shortly moved away from the home school approach. It can be a great experience (I’ve met some wonderful home schooled folks), but it can also leave students poorly adjusted (I’ve also met some of these) and can be problematic for teaching skills, which is what I began to be interested in.

* * *

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge, the normally subdued thirtieth President of the United States, who concludes that humanity must therefore ‘press on’. In light of the Great Depression this advice is either noble or lacking in empathy.

* * *

While I continued my BA/MAT degree in teaching I looked towards what the ideal setting would be, and how would we know it is ideal. Increasingly I was concerned, during those Bush years, with anti-intellectualism and rampant ignorance. These developments are catastrophic issues for a democratic citizenry; and we can see how common sense and even perceptions of reality can evade an otherwise healthy mind for lack of an education. Well, not an education, precisely, but a certain set of skills. Knowing stuff isn’t any sort of civic guarantee.

Every year someone decides it would be fun to expose hypocrisy and give home-born Americans the U.S. citizenship test, and wouldn’t you know it, look at those awful scores. Clearly Americans aren’t American enough – that or the types of questions asked are arbitrary and useless. Both interpretations are common. Their relevance to being a good citizen is a separate issue, but regarding the utility of knowing answers to the following questions:

“Who elects the President of the United States?”
“Can the Constitution be changed?”
“What are the duties of Congress?”

(the answers to which are “some shady ‘electoral college’ process few understand”, “yes” and “to amuse and anger the citizens of the United States”) I think it’s safe to say these are all quite useful. As much as it may irk me that people may not know, the following, however, are of dubious practical value:

“What color are the stars of our flag?”
“Who said ‘Give me liberty or give me death?’”
“Why did the pilgrims come to America?”

(the answers to which are “blue”, “George Washington” and “to plant flower gardens after April rains”) I think it’s safe to say you could go your whole life not knowing the answers and still be adequately intelligent, and civilly responsible.

So what skills do we need to focus on, I wondered, to ensure we get the right stuff at the end of the line?

* * *

“The Finns are as surprised as much as anyone else that they have recently emerged as the new rock stars of global education. It surprises them because they do as little measuring and testing as they can get away with. They just don't believe it does much good. They did, however, decide to participate in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And to put it in a way that would make the noncompetitive Finns cringe, they kicked major butt. The Finns have participated in the global survey four times and have usually placed among the top three finishers in reading, math and science.
In the latest PISA survey, in 2009, Finland placed second in science literacy, third in mathematics and second in reading. The U.S. came in 15th in reading, close to the OECD average, which is where most of the U.S.'s results fell.

Finland's only real rivals are the Asian education powerhouses South Korea and Singapore, whose drill-heavy teaching methods often recall those of the old Soviet-bloc Olympic-medal programs. Indeed, a recent manifesto by Chinese-American mother Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, chides American parents for shrinking from the pitiless discipline she argues is necessary to turn out great students. Her book has led many to wonder whether the cure is worse than the disease.

Which is why delegations from the U.S. and the rest of the world are trooping to Helsinki, where world-class results are achieved to the strains of a reindeer lullaby. "In Asia, it's about long hours — long hours in school, long hours after school. In Finland, the school day is shorter than it is in the U.S. It's a more appealing model," says Andreas Schleicher, who directs the PISA program at the OECD.

There's less homework too. "An hour a day is good enough to be a successful student," says Katja Tuori, who is in charge of student counseling at Kallahti Comprehensive, which educates kids up to age 16. "These kids have a life."”

Exceprt by Eva Persson for Time Magazine, April 11th, 2011.

* * *

Charters are how the U.S. has decided to handle poor test results and a bloated, ineffective education system. There’s virtually nothing about the standard ‘P.S. 136’ model that is appealing, or working. Drop-out rates are too high. Teacher turnover leaves students without guidance, and adults without careers. Incentives and rewards are misguided, and oversight is unreliable. Scores attest to our failure, as does the nightly news.

My first job was in a charter school in Reno. It was designated as the first ‘high achieving’ charter in the county. Charters come in two varieties, most basically: those for scholarly academics and those for the kids who need lots of help. Neither of these groups does well in the factory-style public schools, which by design teach to the median.

Having taught previously in one of those rare successful public schools in Vermont I went to Reno assuming my students would be of the scholarly variety. Upon arrival those who were designated as my top students were, instead, the equivalent to the ‘lower-average’ level I’d taught in VT. Why was this?

After a few months of digging the reasons became clear: the problems were legal. Nevada is ranked 50th in education, and some rather damning laws are going to keep it that way until overturned. These include:

1. Any student, regardless of abilities, was allowed to attend this Charter. We could counsel them to pick another school, but we couldn’t turn them away.

2. We could not fail students for academic purposes. So once a student was in we had no choice but to keep them, unless they had accrued non-academic offenses.

This led, not surprisingly, to kids getting in, eager to do so since it was a safe school and bullying wasn’t tolerated, and then failing their classes. Only a fraction of the seniors graduated the year I taught there. They’d been moved on, and moved on, but were credit deficient.

The issue becomes whether charters, experimental in nature and handicapped by No Child Left Behind and a variety of the whims of state lawmakers, are really going to succeed. But if they do, that still leaves the question of what to do about everyone else? How do we ensure that the majority of American students get a decent education?

* * *

Performance Significantly Lower in Math

Title of a 2009 press release CREDO at Stanford (formatting preserved as in original)

* * *

I’d been lucky to get a job at all for the 2009/2010 school year. In California and Nevada the ‘09 unemployment rate for teachers was over 12%, with fully fourteen states having a rate of 10% or higher. My contract was to stand-in for a year-long medical leave, and so at the end I packed up and headed back to my hometown of the Bay Area.

Meanwhile I was applying for a job in Singapore, whose school year wouldn’t start until January 2011. Once I knew I had the job I had the fall semester to figure out. Living with one’s parents is easier on the pocketbook than living alone, but I still had student loans to pay, and I wanted to get rid of those as fast as possible. So, too, did I want to avoid a résumé gap.

Since transportation was an issue (I didn’t own a car) subbing was out. Instead I went with a private tutoring gig, working with a middle schooler whose parents were both doctors. At times I felt a kinship with their maids, cook, and gardeners. All in all it was a fairly pleasant experience. My pupil advanced and eventually met her grade level expectations.

While tutoring, of course, I was preparing for my teaching career in Singapore, familiarizing myself with the minutiae of their political system, education system, and culture. I was to teach ‘O’ level secondary students, a class on Ancient Asian Civilizations. This was part of the reason I was going to Singapore was to learn about and teach Asian history. The other was to learn why they did so well, from the inside.

As the weeks drew nearer and nearer I frantically waited for the placement announcement, which would be given only just before flying out. With about a week to go, bags packed, I was informed that I would not be teaching at a secondary school at all, but a Junior College.

Being thrown for a loop my initial inquiries confirmed that there was no mistake, and the placement would stay. This required a whole new approach – these students were older, had taken and passed their ‘O’ levels, the classes were different. Three months of educational research down the drain – the books I’d read, the time spent learning about these cultures and civilizations. In the long run I’m sure it will prove useful, but for the immediate teaching necessity I needed to get my new JC (Junior College) act together, and quick.

* * *

“There is no doubt that, compared to many of their regional neighbours, Singaporeans enjoy a high standard of living.

But critics say there is a price to be paid. People are expected to conform.

It is as if there is an unspoken but clearly understood deal between citizen and state: the system will look after you, as long as you do not question it.

That system has largely been designed by Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, and managed by the People's Action Party, the PAP, which has been in power since independence in 1965.

Lee Kuan Yew has formally handed over the premiership to his son, Lee Hsien Loong, but retains the title of "minister mentor".

The government declined the BBC's request for an interview. But Abner Koh was willing to talk. He is a member of the youth wing of the PAP. Over Chinese tea at a riverside restaurant, he made the case for strong leadership and clear rules.

"We have to bear in mind that Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-religious society," he said. "Certain forms of restriction are definitely necessary to ensure harmonious living amongst the different communities in Singapore.

But other young Singaporeans are beginning to question the status quo.

Seelan Palay is a blogger, film-maker and political activist. He has just started serving a 12-day prison sentence for unlawful assembly. But speaking before he began his sentence, he said he had no regrets.

"I think life in Singapore would be much better if people started speaking up and standing up for what they believe in," he said.

But doesn't the prospect of a jail term deter you, I asked? "No, it does not," Mr Palay replied without hesitation. "Many others have gone to prison for what they believe in before me. Some of them have been detained without trial for 20 years, 30 years.

"I'm only going to do a 12-day sentence. And I have 10 other open cases which I may also have to go to prison for, so I'd better get used to it."

Mr Palay is a staunch supporter of Alan Shadrake, even going so far as to post the author's bail. Mr Shadrake's case has now been adjourned to allow his defence more time to prepare.

The charges could possibly be dropped if he acceded to the prosecution's request for an apology. But there seems little chance of that.

"I didn't do this to chicken out and say sorry and grovel to them like most Singaporeans have to do, to live a normal life," he told me as he left the High Court.

And somehow it no longer feels like this is just Alan Shadrake's fight. He has become a proxy for Singapore's own internal battles.”

Excerpt by Rachel Harvey for BBC World News, August 4th, 2010, regarding the publication by Shadrake of a book that was critical of the Singaporean judiciary and notorious death penalty practices.

* * *

A slightly ominous email graced my inbox a few weeks into the year at my Junior College. I was preparing for my classes before students arrived. It was from a school outsider whom I had solicited for advice:

“Based on experience teaching the A Level syllabus for many years, the amount of content to be covered is very heavy and very often, teachers cannot finish covering the content of the syllabus with sufficient time to spare for revision. Hence, teaching beyond the syllabus is a luxury we can ill afford. While we wish to inculcate the love for History as a subject and an appreciation of international history as a broad sweep, the reality is not the case because at the end of the day, students have to master the content of the syllabus well and thoroughly and there is simply insufficient time to even cover the basics adequately.”

The issue had been that I’d discovered that these students were going to spend two years on the last fifty years. The course, International History 1945-2000, was so drawn out that I was wondering how on earth to fill the time, and I figured the syllabus was a minimum requirement, as usually the case in the U.S. The message continued:
“Our students have problems dealing with the syllabus content. You would need to understand the reality of the situation and the students you are dealing with. They are not all good with English and thinking skills. Many of them take a long while to grapple with the complexities of historical events covered in the syllabus. That alone takes a long time. Also, they are not good with writing history essays. In the A Level examinations, they are expected to write 3 history essays and 1 source-based essay in 3 hours which works out to about 45 mins per essay. For them to do well in the A Levels, they need to master these skills well and to apply their content effectively. They have problems understanding their content in the first place.”

Of course, one of the main reasons I came to Singapore was because classes are taught in English. I had assumed that by 17 students would have a decent grasp of the language, having been taught in it for so many years in every discipline. Yet on the ground I was told repeatedly that English language difficulties would plague me. Considering I was working with the top students in the country, who’d done quite well on exams to even be eligible for our school, this was disconcerting.

Singapore was fifth, globally, in reading, according to the PISA results (which students take just before coming to JC). Red flags were presenting themselves in my mind. How had they done so well, if they were, as teachers and administrators were warning me, not particularly savvy students?
“Next, Singapore's education system is exams-driven. Schools similarly are exams-driven and results-oriented. As such, students are similarly results-oriented. Hence, A-Level history is very assessment-driven and with the limited curriculum time we have, the students must be prepared to do well in the examinations. Hence, what you intend to do has to contribute to that objective.

“As for covering the broad expanse of international history, that will only happen in the new syllabus in 2012. As for this batch of JC1s that you will teach, they will still take the current old syllabus. Hence, I don't think you should be moving away from the old syllabus as don't forget, the JC1 students will be sitting for the A Level examinations in 2012 with the old syllabus.”

Well, that helped answer my question. This was a test-driven society, and so the test was going to be paramount (and don’t you forget it). The results are vastly important in test-loving Singapore. Unlike in the States, my GPA actually determines my pay bracket here, along with my degree and experience. The assumption is if you were an A+ student you’ll be an A+ teacher. This has not, in my experience, been the case.
“While History is probably taught differently in the US and the demands are different, you will need to appreciate and accept the different demands of the A Levels and the expectations of students, parents and schools in Singapore. We don't teach alone.”

This, I’ve found, is very true. Teachers work together to ensure that grading is equitable, for example. That way the teachers are on the same page, and no one gets the reputation of being ‘soft’ or ‘hard’. The drawback is that decisions are all by committee, and autonomy is non-existent, which is a shame, for me, since I like having a fair bit of autonomy.

Since I was posted at a JC and not a secondary school I did not get my own classroom, but like the rest of the cohort, was presented with a cubicle. The working atmosphere was relaxed – people texted, checked Facebook, and many had pillows on their desks for napping. Most people stayed until evening, grading, tutoring, and planning.

Planning for courses is also by committee, in theory. In my experience it is by seniority and tradition. I had no say in the syllabus, and almost none in my lecture slides, none in the lecture notes or what questions to cover in tutorials, nor which assignment to give. Someone else had already decided, for example, what essay I was going to assign, and when. Rather than autonomy I was feeling the pressure of being an automaton.

The other issue was that I was underutilized. Having equal amounts of teaching experience with my two co-teachers I chafed with being treated as incompetent and untrustworthy, on the basis of having different ideas and values. Other staff was brought in, unexpectedly, and I was relegated to a measly sole lecture and two tutorials per week. It was clear I was not going to be trusted with anything important. Having only three contact hours per week means that you have to fill time for the other 37 hours of the week, especially if you don’t have to plan your own lessons.

To counter this I began to get involved with a small group of students, getting them prepared for comedy improvisation. To my knowledge I am the first person in the country to teach comedy improv. Due to the censorship problems Singaporean comedians have a hard time of it. The constitution grants free speech, subject to “such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence.”

This makes it hard to speak out, since the ruling party since 1965 has determined what public morality is. Sex, politics, race, religion – the staples of comedy – are out of bounds.

* * *

“The life of this philosopher is a remarkable instance of talent and perseverance misapplied. In the search of his chimera nothing could daunt him. Repeated disappointment never diminished his hopes; and from the age of fourteen to that of eighty-five he was incessantly employed among the drugs and furnaces of his laboratory, wasting his life with the view of prolonging it, and reducing himself to beggary in the hopes of growing rich.”

“He was born in London in the year 1527, and very early manifested a love for study. At the age of fifteen he was sent to Cambridge, and delighted so much in his books, that he passed regularly eighteen hours every day among them. Of the other six, he devoted four to sleep and two for refreshment. Such intense application did not injure his health, and could not fail to make him one of the first scholars of his time. Unfortunately, however, he quitted the mathematics and the pursuits of true philosophy, to indulge in the unprofitable reveries of the occult sciences.”

From Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” these excerpts are from the biographies about the alchemists Bernard of Treves and John Dee.

* * *

As classes progressed my determinations to set right the Singaporean education system from the inside were again and again defied. I was told, explicitly, that my purpose was to learn from them, rather that to make suggestions. This arrogance of their superior system was repugnant since, as they’d warned me, their students were abysmal failures.

Singaporean students can’t think. They have no creative or critical powers, and their analytical prowess lags far behind. Students, at the age of seventeen and eighteen, cannot produce coherent ideas. The fear sometimes encountered in the U.S. of advancing a wrong answer is, instead, multiplied to a terror. They do not answer or do assignments, for this fear of failure, and fail because of it. The email had been right: there’s not a chance that students will have time to spare. Causal relationships are unfathomable to them. Concepts which would have been mastered in elementary elude these adult pupils.

They can neither speak nor write. Their writing is abysmally incoherent jumbles of synonyms and bizarre statements. In reference to Stalin’s Berlin blockade:

“This act is rather bold, as Stalin did not consult the US and the Great Britain, showing great disregard which spiked unhappiness within them, especially for the US.”

Whatever that means.

So I have come to conclude that the students here aren’t any good at all. They can’t think. Forget test results and test-taking skills: they can’t express themselves or form original ideas. The latter is especially worrisome. Over half of the first essays I marked were blatantly plagiarized. Word for word, from obvious sources which we had given them, they struggled to string together their paragraphs. I had warned against this, and marking it accordingly was, to my surprise, reprimanded:

“While there are concerns with ‘plagiarism’, we need to think about what is our definition of it. I agree with [name] and we should all be aware that we do not penalise students for content taken from the lecture notes. This is not a university where it's the students' job to write original research essays. The aim in this institution is to learn content and analysis for application at the 'A' levels. Therefore, we will adhere to this understanding and we do not award zero for supposed ‘plagiarism’, as already reflected in the standardized scripts.”

I have yet to hear an argument for the benefits of plagiarism, but, as it was, I was not allowed to mark papers with a zero for plagiarizing their ideas. By copying out the lecture notes students would be awarded normal scores. It was total academic nonsense.

Now, full circle, I have arrived at my original understanding. The Singapore education system is inherently non-academic. That is, it does not desire nor provide, those skills which other countries may value, focusing instead on international rankings. Critical thought, expression, creativity: these are actively avoided. It doesn’t matter if you plagiarize or can’t do basic mental tasks that we might expect from ten year olds – they are only here to take a very long prep course for the next round of life-determining exams.

There are no arts. The Arts Department consists of History, Geography, and Economics. Extra-curricular activities are only engaged in for the chance for trophies. None exist which are non-competitive. The only point of schooling is to get a good job – almost no degrees are offered in non-business careers at the university level. Many times I’ve been told that the whole system is designed to meet Singapore’s economic needs.

Singaporeans, generally, have a very defensive view of their economy. Having a high standard of living and being generally well-ranked, they see the trade-off of civil society as an acceptable loss, including free speech and education. An MP publicly stated that Singaporeans shouldn’t dwell on their free speech score this year – ranked proximate to Iraq and Somalia – but should focus on their economic gains. Their Prime Minister is the highest paid politician in the world, and bonuses were recently given to the cabinet.

But even the economic success is a prime example of double-speak. Free market capitalism is very restricted in obvious areas: communications, for example. Temasek Holdings, which controls most of the country’s telecommunications, media, technology, and much more, is controlled by CEO Ho Ching: the wife of the Prime Minister. It is owned outright by the Ministry of Finance.

Nepotism it is and remains. It makes the following all the more unseemly, taken from AFP, March 24th, 2010:

“The New York Times Company has agreed to pay 160,000 Singapore dollars (114,000 US) in damages to Singapore's leaders over an article about political dynasties, the leaders' lawyer said Thursday.

The newspaper's global edition, the International Herald Tribune (IHT), had printed an apology Wednesday over the article.

It said the piece may have implied that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of the city state's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, did not get his job on merit.”

So why on earth would anyone expect, in such a corrupt, non-democratic (according to the World Freedom Index) society that critical-thinking would be valued? It’s all about the test, and unless this year’s election brings some surprises, will continue to be for the foreseeable future. I began thinking I should have gone to Finland.

* * *

“The mission of the Singapore Education Service is to provide our children with a balanced and well-rounded education, develop them to their full potential, and nurture them into good citizens, conscious of their responsibilities to family, society and country.”

“Our vision for meeting the challenges of the future can be summed up as Thinking Schools, Learning Nation - a vision for Singapore to become a nation of thinking and committed citizens capable of contributing towards Singapore’s continued growth and prosperity. Our education system seeks to help our students to become creative thinkers, life-long learners and leaders of change.”

The mission statement and vision of the Ministry of Education

* * *

Wednesday afternoon my five comedians and I would make fun of each other. It was at first daunting to them to take the piss out of a teacher. I knew I was making progress when one of them, doing a scene with me, kicked a soccer ball into my groin and began beating me on the ground.

The students roared with laughter as my face contorted and my assaulter replied pitilessly to my entreaties. Schadenfreude, I suppose.

Later, as the father of a precocious physics genius I got an ovation for being able to make jokes about quantum theory. (“Let’s play Schrödinger’s box! You’ll be the cat.”)

I had been told that improvisation would be very hard to teach. Most students, I was warned, were too frightened of making a mistake, and not bold enough. Instead I vetted over fifty eager applicants, taking the crème a la crème to perform. Singaporean students were fine with comedy improv – they took to it voraciously, and were genuinely funny. They had just never been given the opportunity or medium through which to express their talents.

2011 will mark the first election since the ‘Web 2.0’ revolution. Even the rag newspapers, like the Straits Times, a mouthpiece for the regime’s politics, have their online forums full of disparaging remarks. When the Deputy Prime Minister said Singaporeans should be wary of the opposition and “scrutinise” their ideals the three highest ranking comments were:

“A shining example of word twisting & fear mongering” followed by four bullets of information, singular to Singapore, of why the regime was not achieving, ending with “one should first explain and put his house in order before embarking to find faults in others”

“That's very strange for Wong to ask people to 'drill down to the details' when they don't expect it of himself or his party. Remember the Mas Selamat 'incident' and the Temasek and GIC huge billion $ loss of our national reserves or the toxic investment debacle or the failure of LHL to absent himself for weeks post Selamat's escape? Now, where are the drilling down and the details?
One can only be as credible as one's own example. Do not expect from others when you refused to expect of yourself. “


“scrutinise mas selamat escape.”

Minister Wong was responsible for the bungling of the Mas Selemat escape – when Singapore’s resident terrorist escaped custody – twice – and was handed over by Indonesian and Malaysian authorities.

This sort of opposition speak is new. Pre-internet censorship works much better than post-internet censorship. Indeed the bureaucratic and often nonsensical Media Development Authority, which controls and censors the media, has almost no presence online. For students who were ten when YouTube and Facebook became global, and who have had email since they were in primary, it will be interesting to see how, now that they’re 18, the famed Singaporean conservatism in the mandatory elections. It has the regime plenty scared, though, and they are trying to stack the cards in their favor before the election by all means short of outright rigging by redistricting opposition strongholds, for example.

Working with my comedians I have mixed feelings. They are witty, liberal, and rebellious. But in the classroom I know they don’t have the skills we’d desire for a democratic society. Paternalism has left them stunted, and weak. My hope is that by encouraging what had not been done before – such as having students make fun of taboos – they will develop the skills that their schooling does not provide. I’m starting small, but hopefully my persistence will become infectious and have consequences later.

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