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Friday, May 2, 2014

Writing an Education

Recently I received an email from a British lady, Lucy Crehan, who was enquiring about an article I had written regarding the Singapore education system more than 15 years ago. Over the years I have received several queries about my written work, and it has always been an interesting process engaging in this way with people around the world. This time it was different. Lucy wanted to meet up for coffee to discuss how things have changed over the last 15 years.

Lucy Crehan is an education consultant who is in the process of writing a book about top performing education systems such as Finland, Canada and Singapore, and how they compare with her home country, the United Kingdom. She has written a blog to chronicle the process, and her findings can be found here.

It was a good half-hour or so with Lucy, and while she asked me many questions about the evolving nature of education in Singapore, I also got an opportunity to find out more about her work both as an educator and a writer. She shared about the numerous people she had been talking to in her quest to identify the key aspects of educational systems that have performed well. We also talked about her writing journey and how she may have had lots of material for her book, but that she had so far not written a single page.

The nature of education has changed over the past few decades. There are now
more families homeschooling their children than in the 1980s and 1990s.
Writing has been an integral part of my life. From as far back as childhood I remember my mum taking me to the Pandan Reservoir where I would sit under a tree by the grassy green fields to write poetry. It was at the same place where I wrote my first story, which I recall was about a group of birds and their adventures. I would later diversify to writing plays, adapting some of them from historical Chinese drama serials on TV such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the rise of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor behind the Great Wall of China.

I received my first big break during National Service. While working in an administrative position, I read a recruitment notice advertising for the job of a broadcast journalist in the army radio station. I showed up for the interview, and surprised myself by getting the job. It was at the radio station where I met my editor and mentor, Mr Lee Kim Tian, who was a veteran journalist. 
My mentor Mr Lee (first on the left) and dear colleagues at my first radio job.
Looking back, I attribute most of my current writing and editing skills to my mentor, who helped me to hone my writing skills to the highest levels of proficiency. Mr Lee edited my work in the most conventional way possible. He would read each news script that I wrote, and subsequently correct the mistakes in red ink. I would then return to my computer to re-write the story, print it out, and then send it to the newsreaders to be read live over the air.

During the first few months or so, each script would be returned to me splashed in a sea of red. Demoralised, I would correct the script and hope that I would be able to see fewer red ink marks the next time. Mr Lee ensured that I knew what was wrong each time, often spending much time to explain key writing and editing concepts. It was he who also taught me to read aloud every word that I write, making sure that sentences flow smoothly. This is a habit that I practice even now; and I feel that I have become a better writer because of him. 

As the days went by, I noticed that the red ink marks got fewer and fewer. Then one day my script was returned without a single amendment to it. I excitedly ran in to the studio, and proudly sent in the script to be read over the air. 

It was only much later that Mr Lee revealed that he sometimes chose to omit some corrections not only to restore our "damaged" morale, but to also build up our confidence in writing. This was to help us perform to the best of our ability.
While graduation is the key goal of all students, not all are able to cope in the
competitive educational landscape. Proficiency in English is key in contributing
towards academic success.
As a Humanities educator in the Singapore system, I access numerous written scripts on a regular basis. While my main aim is not to assess the English competency level of my students, I find that language proficiency is the key towards academic success. That's because language serves as the medium to communicate one's ideas and arguments, which then forms the basis of academic learning.

Unfortunately, I have realised that students are not as proficient in writing today as compared to students from generations in the past. I can think of three reasons why this is so.

Firstly, the advent of the computer age has resulted in a heavier reliance on typing as the main way to express oneself, as opposed to writing with a pen and paper as was the case in the not so distant past. Most examinations still require the use of pen and paper assessments. Students therefore do not perform as well as they do not have the adequate practice required to get good grades.

Secondly, there has been a sudden influx of Internet lingo which seems to permeate written communications today. Terms such as "LOL" or "GG" are as common among the young people of today as the practice of drinking tea was to the British during the 18th and 19th Centuries. While individuals who are proficient in the language may be able to distinguish between informal slang and formal writing, many young people are unable to do so, and this contributes towards their overall deficiency in the language.

The third and in my opinion the most important factor, has been a dearth in the love of reading. My wife teaches tuition, and it is very sad when I hear that students as old as 12 still have not inculcated a love for reading. One curious story told was of the parent who had banned her daughter from reading and going to the park throughout her PSLE year. As an English teacher, my wife was very alarmed. The lack of reading not only has an inverse correlation with the English grades, but it will also lead to a more stressed student. My favourite educationalist Charlotte Mason shared that for her, reading is a habit that has to be inculcated since childhood. For reading fires the imagination and unlocks key dimensions in a child's mind.
The love of reading is one of the key indicators of
success in academic learning. 
I am so glad that both our children love to read. We acquired low-lying children's bookshelves and leave books lying around so that the kids would pick up the books and read on their own. We have also incorporated the reading aloud of books as a bedtime ritual. Our older son is currently hooked on the series of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, and he has now made it a habit to insist that a book be read every night. We recently had a breakthrough as I started reading the books to him in Chinese as well. 

When I wrote about the Singapore education system 15 years ago, I noted that education had a very strong association with social mobility. I believe this is still the case today. But I have since come to realise that education has to start from childhood. Parents have to be the primary educators to implement key pedagogies from an early age. For reading and writing form the building blocks of an education that will last for a lifetime.

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