Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC on the Motion “Education for our future”
Every school is a good school and this is a phrase we are very familiar with by now. Perhaps soon, we will also have to say that every Early Childhood Development Centre is a good Early Childhood Development Centre.
Parents are now not just worried about which primary school their child goes to but also which Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC) their child goes to.
The rat race has now begun way before our primary schools. We now have kindergarten assessment books, tuition for pre-school children and even homework for nursery kids.
I have to be honest to say that this worries me. My wife and I found ourselves in this rat race as we searched for an ECDC to send our daughter Ella to.
The reality is that there is a wide variety of ECDCs. We tried a few, visiting them, letting Ella try it out for a day to see if she liked it and I joined Ella during her trials. In some of the ECDCs I saw first-hand how much things have changed.
Stressed out kids?
As Madam Siti Zubaidah said in a news article “In the past, it was all play and just learning the ABCs in kindergarten. But now, by K1, you need to learn how to count and read, to be on a par with everyone else”.
And Madam Siti is not alone. A survey found that 4 in 10 families in Singapore send their pre-school children to tuition. The most common reason for tuition – cited by more than half of the parents with children under seven – was to keep up with others.
Sir, there is much debate about how stressed our students are and how they suffer from high levels of anxiety. According to a survey, 66 per cent of students across all OECD countries said they were worried about poor grades at school, but among Singapore students, it was 86 per cent.
In a post by ex-MOE policy officer, Yann Wong, in June this year, he also mentioned about how performance anxiety, shame, and a need for validation through grades are problems that plague our students and our education system.
Sir, I sincerely hope that this stress, this anxiety doesn’t start when our children are 3 years old, in nursery.
The early childhood years should really be about play. As O. Fred Donaldson had said “Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn”.
The early years are the most formative in a child’s development, character and future. Scientific research tells us that children have objective developmental stages.
Below the age of seven, especially, they need large amounts of time for free play. This develops personal and social awareness, gross and fine motor skills, and a foundation for learning.
It is more important to directly encounter the things in the world that words and numbers can describe, than to recite those words and numbers in an academic way.
Earlier is not better when it comes to academic learning as well. A New Zealand study looked at children who read at 5 versus those who read at 7 – they had no difference in reading outcomes at age 15.
In the German system, young children focus on social and personal awareness, only learning to read and write at age 7. This nation is also a major engineering and economic powerhouse of the world.
An education for our future needs to look at solutions that are both holistic and inclusive for our children, parents and educators.
One way to do this is to shift early education away from a linear academic emphasis, to a more rounded emphasis on holistic growth.
There are many factors involved here but as around two-thirds of the early childhood education industry will be controlled by the government by 2023 and with the establishment of the National Institute of Early Childhood Development, the government can play an important role here.
De-emphasise academic content
First, we can strengthen and lead the move towards de-emphasising academic content for early childhood education.
The present emphasis on academics means that children play less, and they are also outdoors less. Studies in this area show that a lack of play will increase the odds of depression, anxiety and other disorders.
We also need to help shift the current tuition mindset for pre-school children. As Dr Nirmala Karuppiah, an early childhood and special education lecturer at the National Institute of Education, stated in a news article, “As tuition is about sitting at a table doing pencil and paper activities as well as rote learning and acquiring academic skills, it could actually cause more harm than good for some children. For example, it goes against the way young children grow, develop and learn, which is through play and interacting with real objects, people and events in their environment”.
Emphasise play and exploration
Following on this point is second, we need to promote more play and exploration in pre-schools and also lower primary.
In the early years, children learn mainly through active exploration of the environment. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Play is the highest form of research”.
In fact, our current “Nurturing Early Learners” curriculum already recognises that children are naturally curious and does outline a framework that encourages learning through play.
However, I’m not sure whether this is followed by all ECDCs. From what I’ve seen and what other parents have shared online and with me, play is not a strong focus in some ECDCs.
We also need to look into how we can provide our early childhood educators with enough time and flexibility to allow for creative exploration and play.
Put care at the forefront of education
Third, we need to put care even more at the forefront to cater to the individual needs of each child.
The need for young children to form responsive relationships cannot be overstated. Our policies and early learning framework should support the ability of educators and caregivers to be sensitive and responsive to a young child’s needs.
To support caregivers and educators, it is vital that student to teacher ratio remains small, so that each child receives the attention he or she needs.
To prevent disruptive relationships between caregivers and children in their care, it is also important to reduce the rate of turnover in these positions. Attractive salaries, incentives and supervision should be put in place for educators of young children.
When children feel cared for in stable and supportive relationships, stress naturally goes away, and learning takes care of itself.
In fact, shifting our priority to care over academic outcomes is key in helping children thrive and reach their full potential.
Cater to the emotional health of students
Fourth, the future of our education requires us to cater to the emotional health of students more comprehensively.
I am heartened to see that schools remain vigilant in preventing further suicides by children. However, that is not adequate. We want children to thrive and not simply survive.
A survey by Chapter Zero, a social enterprise working with parents, caregivers and educators in Singapore, showed that the top two qualities parents hoped to see for their child were “healthy relationships with others” and “strong emotional health”.
Approximately half the parents interviewed were concerned that the educational system did not support students to develop these qualities.
70 per cent of parents raised a need for more emphasis on social-emotional learning in pre-schools and primary schools, particularly on mindfulness, empathy and conflict management.
While there are existing frameworks on SEL, some surveys show that more can and should be done to meet the emotional needs of students.
Studies have shown that there is correlation between the level of pro-social behavior that a student showed in kindergarten and their education and job prospects, criminal activity, likelihood of substance abuse, and mental health in adulthood.
Other studies likewise indicate that feeling socially connected as a child is more strongly associated with happiness in adulthood than academic achievement is.
Review performance-based ranking for teachers
Lastly, I propose a need to review the performance-based ranking for teachers.
MOE’s Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS) was instituted in 2005 and reviewed in 2014. It provides a competency-based performance management system, which serves to appraise teachers’ efforts for the year.
The EPMS’s Teaching Competency Model, among other indicators, assesses a teacher’s ability to “cultivate knowledge”.
In an interview on Incentives in education,American psychologist Barry Schwartz said, “If you start giving teachers bonuses if their students exceed some score on these standardized tests, teachers will find a way to teach to the test. Test scores will go up, but education won’t.”
Teachers join teaching to make a difference to the lives of our youths. And yet the reality of the pressure from competition created by our performance-based ranking and reward system can skew teachers’ choices. We want teachers who teach for the love of teaching, not teachers who teach for tests.
Perhaps, there should also be a de-emphasis of ranking and rewarding of teachers based on the rankings. Ranking teachers pit them against each other, and may incentivize some teachers to do what is visible or measurable (like teach to the test). Educators are pitted against each other, which could also reduce the incentive for some to share resources and ideas, or work together.
Sir, an education for our future cannot just be about academic pursuit, about grades and about students who suffer from high levels of anxiety.
And this definitely cannot be the case for our pre-school children.
In the words of Fred Rogers “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
Sir, I support the motion.