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Happy learning!

By Tan Ying Zhen

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"May your school grades improve!"

Every Chinese New Year (which Singapore celebrates this year from 28 Jan. to 11 Feb.), this is one of the most commonly heard wishes for students in Singapore. As married couples hand out red packets (similar to otoshidama) to their school-age family members, they often say "学业进步!" 学业 means school grades, 进步 and means improvement.

As in many Asian countries, parents in Singapore place a huge emphasis on grades, and from a young age. Many toddlers are sent to "brain improvement" courses, even if they can barely understand what the instructors are saying. Older kids take lessons in language enrichment, speech and drama.

Some parents prefer to let their kids have more free time. But those kids may be the odd ones out in class. A friend told me how her daughter begged to go to tuition because all her classmates were going to an extra class of some sort, and she felt left out. Another friend fumed at how her son's teacher advised her to send the child for maths enrichment, because all his classmates were learning in-depth stuff outside of school, and he might fall behind.

"Doesn't this create a vicious circle?" she asked. "Everyone gets stressed out because everyone else is learning more difficult work, and the teachers end up raising the bar."

I wonder if this is one of the reasons why Singaporean kids do well in international tests. A global benchmarking study released in November showed that Singaporean students are apparently the world's best in mathematics and science. Our Primary 4 pupils (usually 9- and 10-year-olds) and Secondary 2 students (13- and 14-year-olds) topped both subjects in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, an achievement test widely recognised by policymakers and educators worldwide.

The results were widely discussed in the media. Some people asked why Singapore couldn't produce top entrepreneurs or thinkers despite these excellent results. Others said that doing well in a test did not mean we had other crucial qualities such as innovation and grit.

Whatever the test results may mean, perhaps what's more important is what we want for our children. Do we want to measure their worth through academic grades? Or are we willing to step back and think about what is truly essential for a child? Of course it's important to try our best in what we do, but if our grades fall behind despite trying our best, does it mean we've failed?

So as I give out red packets to my nieces, nephews and cousins this Chinese New Year, I'm not going to say "学业进步!" Instead, I'll say, "开心学习!" ("Happy learning!") and "笑口常开!" ("Keep smiling!").

ハッピー・ラーニング!

シンガポールでは旧正月に「成績が上がりますように!」と言ってお年玉を渡す。幼い頃から塾に通う子が多く、学力試験の結果は世界トップクラスだが、過度な成績重視に筆者は疑問を感じている。

The Japan Times ST: February 10, 2017

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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2017年11月24日号    試読・購読   デジタル版
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