Is education making your child stupid?

In Singapore : YES 

Edmund Landau in Foundations Of Analysis says “Please forget whatever you’ve been studying at school; for you have not learned it.”

 That is the sum total of the sorry state of education in Singapore. As Bill Clinton have had for a second term re-election, the authorities here are telling us “It’s the economy stupid”.  In Clinton’s case it was a campaign slogan. Over here in Singapore it guides an entire education policy. Well stupid does as stupid says.

Someone from the MIT once spoke to BBC saying that the advent of the personal computer was the fatal blow to the advancement of the digital revolution. Strange as it may sound, to a lot of compu-geeks out there – the PC put the blinders on the advancement of the digital revolution because it forces us to think of computing to be something with a monitor, keyboard and a CPU. And everything else about the digital revolution proceeds from this cliche. Before the discovery of Nuclear energy, everyone thought that energy production was a zero sum game because the oil supply is limited and solar power could hardly run a remote controlled car. The advancement in nuclear science has indicated that energy need not come from obvious sources. Suddenly the supply is unlimited – the only problem would be containment and ethical use.

In sunny Singapore here, education means you have to follow the national curriculum and its usually excusively about acedemic skills and only the way the authorities want it. My son, when he was enrolled in a montessori school for his preschool education, he learned 2 essential skills besides the academic ones – Character and motor skills. Character thought him civil, domestic and moral responsibility while motor skills thought him self-confidence, self-sufficiency, independence and the art of social interdependence. They didn’t have exams and he had a particular interest in math. He was so good he could take a look at a sum and mentally arrive at the answer.

Then came the day when he was enrolled in a public school. Third day through primary one and the first question he asked me was – “pa why we never play at school?” Apparently he spent 6 hours in the classroom with a half hour recess time in between. Even the physical education teacher “hijacked” the measly half hour time slot for play and exercise by getting the kids to do area cleaning around the school.

There is no moral education and education in religious knowledge disappeared in the darkness. But then again the administration is secular – how do you define morality in secular terms? But that’s a story for another blog.

I walk around the neighbourhood and find tattooed girls in their early teens with cigarrette in their hands and students publically smooching in uniform during school hours. Young girls increasingly looking like prostitutes and boys looking like pimps.

My question is why the emphasis on acedemics and absolutely nothing about character and morals?

The system here is very much exam based and and education basically means just consumption of tried and tested knowledge. We don’t have a culture in creating knowledge we just engage in mindless consumption of which. That is why our children can top the scores of almost any exam in the world. We have the best computer programmers, the most efficient bankers and the most articulate lawyers but we don’t have the Bill Gates, the Warren Buffets, the Thomas Edisons or even the Piccassos. Why? Because the process of creativity and enterprise cannot truely be there when people are shackled with rules and guidelines and predetermined right ways and wrong ways”.

Needless to say that my son’s math scores gradually slid. I found that there are several reasons to this :

1) He cannot understand the explanations of the math teacher

2) The pressure to score A’s both at home (parents) and in school (peer rivalry) made him hate school and education altogether

3) There is very little time allocated for discovery because experiments are closely controlled and there is always a “right” answer and a “wrong” one

4)  Very little room for creativity because the syllabus must be absolutely followed

The folly of this all is that the failure of the authorities to realise that the education is an end in itself. It does not need any qualification in economic terms (or any other terms for that matter). The primary goal of education should be for the attainmentof knowledge. We can force our children to study, but we can’t force them to think. With a education policy centred on economy we end up manufacturing widgets from an “education” factory. Such a policy on education varies very little from indoctrination and would be fatal for our children’s need to be inculcated with a passion for knowledge. With all the hoo-haa about the need for innovation and creativity this policy will be like a fly in the ointment of education. It’s all lip-service with no substance in the centre.

Despite the changes introduced recently with great fanfare to make the system more responsive and relevant to current realities the changes are largely cosmetic because the fundamental structure is still there. It needs a massive overhaul. Period.

We need to move beyond the cliches

Here’s a little story that speaks my mind : (taken from

The following piece by Alexander Calandra appeared
first in The Saturday Review (December 21, 1968, p 60)
I have discovered it in a collection
More Random Walks in Science
by R. L. Weber, The Institute of Physics, 1982.

Some time ago I received a call from a colleague who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would if the system were not set up against the student. The instructor and the student agreed to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

I went to my colleague’s office and read the examination question: ‘Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.’

The student had answered: ‘Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.’

I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit, since he had answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade for the student in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this. I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed, but I was surprised that the student did.

I gave the student six minutes to answer the question, with the warning that his answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said no. He had many answers to the problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him, and asked him to please go on. In the next minute he dashed off his answer which read:

‘Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula S = at2/2, calculate the height of the building.’

At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and I gave the student almost full credit.

On leaving my colleague’s office, I recalled that the student had said he had other answers to the problem so I asked him what they were. ‘Oh, yes’ said the student. ‘There are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building.’

‘Fine’ I said. ‘And the others?’

‘Yes’ said the student. ‘There is a very basic measurement method that you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give the height of the building in barometer units. A very direct method.

‘Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of ‘g’ at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of ‘g’, the height of the building can, in principle, be calculated.

‘Finally,’ he concluded ‘there are many other ways of solving the problem. Probably the best’ he said ‘is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: “Mr Superintendent, here I have a fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.”‘

At this point, I asked the student if he really did not know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think, to use the ‘scientific method’, and to explore the deep inner logic of the subject in a pedantic way, as is often done in the new mathematics, rather than teaching him the structure of the subject. With this in mind, he decided to revive scholasticism as an academic lark to challenge the Sputnik-panicked classrooms of America.


5 Responses to “Is education making your child stupid?”

  1. theonlinecitizen Says:

    Hi DR,

    I think many Singaporeans will agree with you. By the way, we’ve highlighted your post on our blog –


  2. phew! Says:

    A much more in-depth look at our present education system where the cause is clearly highlighted:

  3. The Truth Says:

    I blogged on this some time ago…

    Yes, i do believe that in Singapore, education is a dumbing-down. And it’s a power game too – if you will read the history textbooks, who’s the God we should be praying to?

    Even for me now, sometimes it’s still really difficult to think out of the box and stuff, or like to reflect – i’m working on it now but you can see the dumbing-down effect. It’s everywhere. People always believe that by cramming and not understanding you will get the results. They don’t learn anything from that. It’s the interest and discipline which comes from interest which keeps people going.

    Of course, maybe that’s what the Gahmen wants…it’s a great excuse to keep bringing foreign talent in because they can think out of the box whereas we’re too fixed in our mindsets! Theoretically it becomes our fault again. But look at the larger picture – who’s problem is it now?

  4. iqbaldinho Says:

    theonline citizen : Thanks for the highlight

    Phew : thanks for the link. Gopalan really reflected my sentiments

    The Truth : reality really bites in Singapore. To see the amount of stress my kid goes through in Pri 3 is really defeating. Besides the kid’s education the economic realities are also getting the better of me. The carrot is getting farther the stick is getting longer and nowadays it also beats a lot harder…sigh.

    Thanks alot guys.

    I’m really surprised that we all had so much in common. But What can I say – I can express only so much or else the Gahmen may be offended

  5. The Truth Says:

    yeah, we’re all careful posters here. Don’t worry – there’s always someone there. All the best!

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