Sunday, June 22, 2008

Singapore needs tuition lessons

I am proud to say that I had tuition for the most parts of my schooling life, from when I was 9 to 17 years of age. However, I was only tutored for 2 subjects.

Being from an English-speaking home, Mandarin was (and still is) rather alien. Never mind my dad's occasional effort to engage us with conversations in Mandarin (even though it was never a natural language for him), my mother felt it was best I had Mandarin tuition.

The private Mandarin tutoring sessions probably started when I was in Primary Three. It was just practice practice and more practice. Comprehension and cloze passages, essays and oral/conversational skills. I got an A grade in Chinese for my PSLE.

The tuition lessons continued, with different tutors, because there would have always been suspicion and doubt whenever (a series of) grades seemed dismal. I had, on two occasions for both my 'O' Levels and 'A' Levels, requested my Chinese school teachers to stay back with me after lessons in school for me to ask questions and so on. A different level of difficulty required a different approach, and of course a different set of expectations, because all I wanted was to pass my Mandarin and not ace it.

On the occasions I did well, it was with the school teachers who stayed back after school with me. On the occasions I did not do well, I had private and group tuition sessions. I was very fortunate to have those Chinese school teachers (from Ang Mo Kio Secondary and Nanyang Junior College) who were actually more than happy to stay back after school with me to entertain my requests.

Having experienced having tuition, I have come to realise that having tuition lessons could be both useful or useless. Before I delve into that, I have yet to disclose my other subject for which I had tuition lessons.

It was English. It was my mother, again, who felt I had a poor command of English in Primary 4. And so, I had tuition, although with only 2 tutors. I learned more than just the English language.

The first tutor taught me in a way that made me inquisitive and ask a lot of questions, but the stint lasted only a year because grades are often and sadly the measure of a tutor.

The second tutor, who has taught and mentored me from Primary 5 to Secondary 4, was an elderly ex-principal/teacher who has perhaps tons of experience in education. Although very stern and disciplined, she probably single-handedly changed my life.

One-hour session, once a week, 50-60 dollars a month. I doubt anyone could beat that, but she was never in it for the money. I learned more than English, but also Geography, History, Literature and Social Studies, which was then an arbitrary subject. English was only just about doing comprehension passages and writing essays (which I had to do every week), but also about grammar. I can safely say it was her who has inspired my style of writing - the way in which I structure my clauses, position my prepositions, you get the picture.

What was also a defining moment in time was the day (first day) she told me to forget about writing stories for my essays, and forced me to write expository and argumentative essays. Thus, I had "training" for a good 6 years, writing essays every week and subjecting them to her criticisms and suggestions for improvement.

I could not say that it bore immediate fruit, although it culminated in an A2 grade for my 'O' Level English. She decided I was ready and felt she need not tutor me beyond secondary school. I only realised how her efforts and our sessions have paid off when I started writing in Junior College.

Even till today, after finishing my degree, I see the value in her tutoring/teaching/mentoring. When my thesis supervisor praised my writing style and (written) command of the English language (I cannot say that I speak the language well and fluently), I immediately think of the elderly woman who taught me for those 6 years.

Singapore is the "tuition nation". I see this as a combination and culmination of factors. There are expectations and the need to excel and achieve. There is also the fear, shame and stigma of being in a worse class, stream or school. There is the belief that education is the only ticket to success and happiness in life, and maybe rightly so, because society is structured in a way where the quality and property of education are primed, prioritised and incentivised. Formal education has become naturalised as the rites of passage for any and every Singaporean youth.

If having healthy and muscular bodies is the ultimate means to being socially accepted and incentivised, every one will be exercising and investing in muscle-gain and protein supplements. Now that having good grades is of a certain priority, we indulge in the belief that having tuition will be a means to helping us and our children to attaining "success".

Of course, it does not help that we are a society that is obsessively result-oriented. We are result-oriented because of the way in which society and the economy are structured. Unfortunately, we turn on one another with criticisms for being individualistic, kiasu and having lost sight on the "finer things in life".

We have become obsessed with the prestige that accompanies having good grades - good school, "better" friends and social environment, good scholarship, good professional opportunities, and of course, good relationship prospects (I may be pushing that a little bit too far). Who doesn't want that?

My question is: Why do we want it? Is our self-worth measured by how others see us? Why is our esteem intertwined with socio-economic structure? This structure has predefined the markers of success and happiness for us to the point if it told us wearing expensive hats was a marker of success and happiness, our aspirations and anxieties would revolve around it.

I believe the sole purpose of having tuition is so that one would eventually not require it. Many will point the finger at unreasonable parents who indulge in such beliefs and practices, who make the final decision as to whether their child would require tuition or not. I say society is the problem, not parents.

If our education system was not competitive, would there be a need to "up the ante"? Would there be a greater fear of failure?

There is another perspective here (less sociological one). Students themselves are not wanting to have accountability and responsibility for what they learn. I have heard of students complaining about how bad or poor a certain teacher is, or how useless a tutor is. They blame bad grades on these mentors. "I failed my science because my teacher isn't good enough!"

Society has a decent level of sociological imagination, and diagnoses this problem as poor parenting. Of course, being a patriarchal and Confucian society, it is almost natural to view the family as the seeds of socialisation. There is actually more beyond that, for we have to be equally critical of the larger socio-political and economic pressures that have come to shape the way the family socialises its children.

Back to the less sociological perspective, or rather psychologico-moral (a view technocrats and conservatives would often adopt, as other views will expose their abusive powers), children/students become the ones who are to be blamed. Even I on occasion believe this way. The lack of motivation and accountability for one's education is a problem. If there is a subject children should be tutored on, it should be on responsibility and accountability.

Countering this perspective with another socialisation (and pseudo-evolutionary) theory, it is believed that children have to be socialised into conformity, and the apparent lack of motivation and responsibility indicates an inadequate socialisation. In that sense, all babies and children have by default transcended the norms and institutional expectations that have so imprisoned the most of us. We label the children and teens who hold no accountability for their education as deviant and in need of help.

We are born outside the herd. But it is the warmth and protection of the herd that draws us back to it, so we conform and follow the rules of the herd.

Having tuition lessons is not conformity, but having good grades is. It is society and usually those in power, that decide what are the "subjects" for our "examination". In the Singaporean syllabus, the most important subject is "education", and not to mention "monetary and material success". Sports and the arts are just extra-curricular activities that hold no weightage. As one can see, our education system is a microcosm of the structure and ideology that run it.

We thus see having tuition lessons as a necessity. It has become an accessory that few have come to question its true purpose. Many believe having tuition lessons will translate to good grades. We are a society of flawed logic and methodology - believing in cause-and-effects. For example, more ERP gantries will lead to lesser traffic congestions, and a harsher penal code will reduce the rates of incarcerations, and not to mention, the more we pay a politician, the less corrupt he/she would be.

I would like to ask the question, "What is this like that?"

Why have society come to think this way? Why is this conventional knowledge, never mind a large subscriber base?

The whole "tuition nation" thing is just a symptom of modern Singaporean society, but we see it as an isolated phenomenon/problem. Our politicisation of it is limited, in focus, to the family. Society's (and ideology's) involvement is depoliticised and invisibilised.

Society has made it so that the acquisition and embodiment of labels have come to form an integral part of one's socio-economic stature and psychological well-being and esteem. We want the labels of "rich", "smart", "attractive", "success", "healthy", believing these to be absolute in property and definition. Rightly so, society has provided us with the means and tools to achieving these labels. The large-scale rejection of these means and tools often comes in the form of a revolution, but of course, there is too much at stake for the most of us, as our survival is based on these very means and tools.

In having the belief that tuition lessons are integral to one's development (and schooling success), we have become a mechanism of discipline ourselves. We effect a certain kind of behaviour, a certain kind of thinking/mindset, all aimed towards a specific and desired outcome. Our over-dependence on tuition lessons is not a problem on its own, but a manifestation of societal norms and expectations.

I believe we should seek help for any expectation we have. At the same time, we should at least try to regulate our expectations. I have seen children with tuition for all subjects, have 2 extra/co-curricular activities in school, have piano lessons and some other sporting lessons/courses outside school. It seems to be society and families are trying to engineer an all-rounded child.

As for tuition, I think we should have it so that we would need to have it. The purpose of tuition is to fill gaps, instill confidence and achieve realistic goals (within the current ability of the child). Tuition lessons do not singularly turn a child into a world-beater.

Moreover, most tuition lessons reproduce a top-down mode of communications between mentor and student. I believe they should be geared towards creating an interest in the student in asking questions and developing that passion and responsibility for learning. Tuition lessons should teach one how to fish, not only just give you the fish.

It is very sad that society has a monopoly on the definition of "deficiency". It tells you what you are missing, so you will seek help, e.g. tuition lessons. It seems like Singapore is in need of some tuition lesson herself. Snap!

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