I asked myself this while spring cleaning the other day.
I had this big pile of study notes. Notes from about ten years ago. As I ripped those notes up and binned them, I couldn’t help scanning through them.
Balance of payments?
Positive and negative externalities?
The stuff I was trying so hard to learn back then seem like a world away from my life now. To think that I used to worry and stress over these! A lot of my notes were in the form of colourful mind maps, with little cartoon characters and comics. I made my notes as visual and fun as possible so that I could learn better.
After every national exam, some students had gatherings where they burned heaps of study notes. No need for all that content any more, time to scatter them into the wind!
I never took part in any of those gatherings. Somehow, I hung on to a bunch of notes for about ten years, and only got rid of them this month.
Stress and the Singapore education system
Growing up in Singapore, and doing most of my education there, I was stressed.
So many of us were.
About the national exams. Getting into good universities. Balancing school work with co-curricular activities. Etc.
Somehow, I managed to have a life, while keeping up with the demands of school. I didn’t have terrible grades, but I was no straight A scholar either. Pretty average, really.
One time, I asked my Ma, what was the point of studying so hard and doing well in the exams? Especially since a large chunk of what I learned is useless to me now.
She said that the point was to get to the next stage of the education journey. Work hard in primary school, pass the primary school national exams, and get into a good secondary school. Repeat for subsequent stages, up until graduation.
But couldn’t I have progressed from one stage to another, without so much blood, sweat, and tears shed along the way?
Studying and school did not have to be so stressful
I realised this when I went to university. I did four years of university overseas. Three and a half years in Australia, and a half year student exchange in the United Kingdom.
Outside Singapore, I flourished for the first time.
I went from being an average student to appearing on the Dean’s list almost every semester. In the end, I graduated with a First Class Honours in International Relations. All that without studying too hard!
Sure, we had assignments and exams in university. But the overall atmosphere was more laid back, so we chilled out a lot too. I had time to travel around, explore hobbies, watch anime, hang around with friends, and all that fun stuff. I also truly enjoyed the subjects I studied.
“You guys who went overseas to study always come back looking happy and relaxed”, my high school form teacher told me when I visited her. “On the other hand, my ex-students who went to local universities tell me they feel stressed there.”
Skills trump content
Today, no one will ever ask me when was the Treaty of Westphalia signed.
Or name the top three factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Or explain the Spiral of Silence theory.
90% of the content I worked so hard to remember and regurgitate for the exams is useless to me today.
Useless, but I wouldn’t say I wasted my life learning all that. Over the years, random bits of information, from the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns to gentrification to how oxbow lakes form, amalgamated to form a substantial general knowledge.
I can say that I know quite a bit about the world around me. But I can’t say that this knowledge helped me a lot in my day to day life, or helped me chart my future.
The skills I picked up over the years, on the other hand, proved far more useful. My four-year Bachelor of Arts honed my skills in research, long form writing, developing and presenting my own point of view, critical thinking, and working independently. As a marketer at a startup, all these are invaluable skills to have.
The real problem with education in Singapore
An obsession with goals and outcomes.
Everyone wants to get into “good” schools and get “good” jobs upon graduation. In a high income inequality country like Singapore, there is intense pressure to achieve a lot and get ahead.
Students worry about being “good” enough. Parents wring their hands over the competition and try to give their kids as much advantage as possible. Teachers face pressure to produce results and teach to the tests. The tuition industry is worth more than S$1 billion annually.
Sure, there has been some major policy changes that aim to shift the focus away from grades and exams. Lots of talk about fostering holistic development. Giving students the freedom to discover themselves. Multiple pathways to success.
I do not think that students today are less stressed than back when I was a student.
In fact, students today face stress on multiple fronts, not just achieving academic excellence. The bars to getting into “good” schools and “good” jobs right after graduation are higher. Students are now expected to do several of these if they want to stand out
- Demonstrate leadership and project management skills
- Do community or social work
- Be active in sports, arts, or any co-curricular activity. Bonus points for representing Singapore at regional or international competitions
- Have international experiences
- Do internships
Education in this country is as goal-oriented as ever. It’s just that the criteria for getting into “good” schools and “good” jobs have diversified.
Don’t forget to enjoy the journey of life
Can’t a student lie low and do their own things, at their own pace, and not be such … high achievers?
When I was in university, I picked all the subjects I wanted to study and enjoyed learning everything. I was not actively involved in co-curricular activities, but I explored various interests. I did one internship and that was good enough for me. No pressure to achieve so much. I left university without a stellar curriculum vitae or portfolio, but enriched as a human being.
Goals are important, sure. But I don’t want to live and die by them. I want to enjoy my growth, because a lot of magic and beauty happens along the way. I can’t miss any of that.
I sure am glad I am no longer a student studying in Singapore.